Author: Adam Kolber


Updated–Hoax by Princeton University Student

A few days ago, I read in the Daily Princetonian that a group of students associated with the conservative Anscombe Society and a faculty member were sent threatening emails. A subsequent story reported that one of the threatened students was viciously attacked:

Details of the incident have not been confirmed by Princeton Township Police or the University Medical Center at Princeton, but Nava said in an interview Friday evening that he was walking from a borrowed car to the house of a boy he is mentoring when he was stopped by a man dressed in black and wearing a ski cap. According to Nava, the man said that someone was hurt and asked for his help. A second assailant, who was waiting around the corner, grabbed Nava from behind. Together, the two men checked him against a wall and repeatedly hit his head against the bricks.

According to the story here, however, the whole thing was faked by the alleged victim, including the initial threatening emails. And, it seems, the student might have done something like this before while a high school student at Groton. However you slice it, something very, very unfortunate has happened.

UPDATE: A commenter asks why I’ve posted about this:

Short answer: Information distribution.

Longer answer: As the alleged threatening events were happening, a number of bloggers complained that the university would have handled this differently if it consisted of offensive speech directed at liberal students rather than conservatives. In fact, part of the reason the university’s reaction may have seemed muted was that it was still confirming the truth of the underlying events. So, this is likely a case where (1) perceived academic bias wasn’t and (2) university crisis management seems to have done a good job in a post-Duke Lacrosse world.


Law Review Footnotes

In a recent post, Frank Pasquale notes that there is little variation in the kinds of hyperlinks one can create on the internet. I have made a similar complaint but for a much older technology: the law review footnote.

An important complexity in writing for law reviews is that, typically, one-third of the writing consists of footnote text. But, who knows whether people actually read the footnotes and how consistently they do so? Some people say that everything important should be in the text. Perhaps. But lots of people seem to use footnotes to provide information or to limit claims in ways that seem rather important. Furthermore, this more important material seems to pop up out of the blue among a sea of string cites that one might not otherwise plod through. Moreover, not knowing how one’s piece will be read makes it hard to know how to write it. Legal scholarship is a “Choose Your Own Adventure” Story.

We could have more descriptive footnotes (some underlined, double underlined, circled, etc.) that could differentiate between footnotes intended to merely provide a source and footnotes intended to explain or limit something in the text. Not that I recommend it, but we could even have the dreaded “red flag” footnote that Frank mentions to indicate that a piece is being cited for its errors. It would be like a “but see” citation, only quicker and easier to discover. Yikes, imagine what controversy those citation counts would create!


“Beyond Belief” Videos

Earlier, I posted about this year’s Beyond Belief: Enlightenment 2.0 conference at the Salk Institute in La Jolla. The event touched on a wide variety of issues related to science, faith, and reason. Videos from that event are now available here.

For those following the Richard Dawkins thread from last week, why monogamously limit yourself to this year’s videos when you can also see last year’s, including Dawkins himself? See here (he spoke during session 7, but you may have to find a way to fast forward a bit).


Got Placenta?

According to this MSNBC article, some people claim that a woman can reduce postpartum blues by eating her own placenta.

Placentophagy, as it’s called, grabbed headlines this summer after a judge ordered a Las Vegas hospital to give a new mom her uterine lining, which the woman planned to dry, grind up and ingest. She . . . had heard that ingesting the placenta was a natural way to ward off the baby blues — those overwhelmed, weepy feelings that 80 percent of moms develop after giving birth.

New moms who swear by the benefits of consuming their placenta point out that it’s a common practice among mammals — and after all, women are mammals, too. But no studies have examined health benefits of human placentophagy, says Dr. Diana Dell, an assistant professor in ob-gyn and psychology at Duke University.

“There’s certainly no data,” Dell says. “And, truthfully, the only place there may be data is in veterinary journals.”

And from the Las Vegas Sun in July 2007 describing the referenced case:

The hospital had refused to give the uterine lining to Swanson following the April 12 Caesarian birth of her daughter, with officials calling it contaminated biohazardous waste. The organ is currently frozen.

The judge ordered the hospital not to destroy the placenta and ordered that it be turned over to Swanson within two weeks.

I suppose you could do a double-blind experiment to test all this, assuming you’re testing it in capsule form. It would be trickier if, following a comment referenced in the MSNBC article, you cook the placenta into a lasagne recipe.


It’s Time to End the Writers’ Strike

When I posted about The Daily Show writers’ strike video nearly a month ago, one commenter said that he was “seriously jonesing for the Daily Show.” By now, he must be having cold sweats. What I find most interesting about the radio silence of The Daily Show (and of late night talk shows) is that many people depend on these shows to keep up with current events. Consider Thomas Friedman’s column yesterday that was presented as though it were written by the Iranian Ministry of Intelligence. Here’s an excerpt:

For instance, CNN’s nightly business report is hosted by a man named “Dobbs.” Real journalists come on his show and present transparently propagandistic stories about immigration and trade and then he fulminates about them, much the way our ayatollahs used to do about “Satanic Americans” on late-night Iranian TV. So viewers have no real idea what’s happening in the U.S. economy.

Meanwhile, at 11 p.m., something called “The Daily Show,” which appears on Comedy Central, has fake journalists presenting what turns out to be the real news.

(Of course, the irony here is that Friedman himself is adopting the fake news format to make a real news point.) I don’t watch enough Lou Dobbs to comment, but I do watch enough of “The Daily Show” to know that the writers’ strike must be having political ramifications. Some politicians are getting a free pass that they wouldn’t get with Stewart and Colbert on the air. It’s time to end the writers’ strike. Or the terrorists win.

It looks like there’s some progress in labor talks, so stay tuned. And, now, here it is, your moment of zen.


Close Encounters with People Apt to Believe in Close Encounters

winthecrowd.jpgIn my first post here as a guest blogger, I mentioned a New York Times op-ed that quite straightforwardly accepted the existence of ghosts. As my guest blogging stint draws to a close, I thought I’d relay my own “Close Encounter with People Apt to Believe in Close Encounters”.

A few weeks ago, I saw a performance of sleight-of-hand and mentalism by Steve Cohen, “The Millionaire’s Magician.” Magicians fall on a spectrum from those like Uri Geller, who purport to have genuine psychic powers, to those like Penn & Teller, who make quite clear that they are performing illusions (and sometimes even reveal their methods). Cohen fell into the middle of this spectrum. Before moving into a mind-reading portion of the program, he would say something like, “Now, you’ve seen me do some sleight-of-hand. But what you will see next is very mysterious and powerful.” As he acknowledges in his book, Cohen tries to create the illusion that he has mystical powers without actually saying so. Perhaps, it’s classic magician misdirection. Perhaps, it’s beneficent deception. Or, perhaps, it just pulls the wool over some people’s eyes.

After the show, I was in an elevator with some other spectators. We all expressed agreement that it was a fine show and a very entertaining evening. One spectator seemed particularly impressed. I asked her if she thought that Cohen had real magic powers or was just creating the illusion that he did. She said she believed he had real magic powers. Zoinks! Now have I restored your confidence in the jury system?


Pain Assessment and the Law

Nature News reports on a study that found a correlation between certain brain wave measurements and pain intensity. The not-yet-published study will add to a growing body of neuroscience research that correlates the experience of physical pain with objective findings in brain images and other diagnostic media. This particular study was highly invasive, but a great deal of research involves non-invasive brain imaging. For example, a group of German researchers have reported finding tiny structural changes in the brain associated with chronic back pain using a technology called diffusion tensor imaging.

New pain assessment tools have tremendous potential to improve court and administrative proceedings that relate to personal injury and disability. Right now, juries are frequently called upon to assess damages for pain, even though many people exaggerate symptoms; some claims are entirely malingered. On the other hand, people can also have quite genuine claims for which they have little objective proof. And people with certain mental or motor difficulties may be incapable of telling us about the pain from which they nevertheless suffer. Juries and administrative law judges sometimes have little more to go on than hocus pocus. While we’re a long way from having technologies ready for the courtroom, it’s only a matter of time before courts are confronted with new neurotechnologies purporting to demonstrate the presence, absence, or intensity of pain symptoms.

I discuss these issues in more detail here and will present on these and other issues tomorrow at the University of Pennsylvania’s Neuroethics Talk Series.


Not Necessarily The Daily Show

Has the writers’ strike caused you to miss your fix of new episodes of The Daily Show? Here, a bunch of Daily Show writers (and others) do what they do best. (Don’t miss the shout out to a former classmate of mine, writer Rob Kutner). Feel free to identify Daily Show motifs/cliches in the comments. (Hat Tip: BoingBoing)


More on the Neuropolitics Op-Ed

I recently posted here about an op-ed in Sunday’s NYT that purported to understand thought processes in swing voters by scanning their brains. Yesterday, the NYT published a letter from a group of neuroscientists responding to the op-ed. There’s also been quite a bit of activity in the blogosphere on the topic: here are some links and here is my commentary on the NYT letter to the editor.


Cat in the Hand Versus Birds in the Bush

Yesterday’s New York Times had an interesting story about James M. Stevenson, on trial for killing a cat that was apparently stalking endangered birds. If convicted, Stevenson faces up to two years in prison and a $10,000 fine. Stevenson was indicted under a statute that, at the time of the incident, prohibited killing a cat “belonging to another.” The prosecutor argued “that the cat had a name, Mama Cat, and that though the cat lived under a toll bridge, she was fed and cared for by a toll collector, John Newland.” So, there appears to be a question about whether this animal belonged to the toll collector. Two comments:

(1) I suspect I’m not alone in thinking that whether this man spends up to two years in jail or receives no punishment at all should not turn on whether or not this cat belonged to someone. And, in fact, the law was subsequently changed to eliminate the belongs-to-another requirement.

(2) I wonder if Stevenson might have a choice-of-evils defense if the cat was just about to kill endangered birds at the time Stevenson fired. We don’t ordinarily think of cat-on-bird-violence as itself animal cruelty, probably because animal cruelty statutes tend to focus less on animal pain and more on the risks created to other humans by people who are cruel to animals. Nevertheless, it’s interesting to imagine a legal regime that empowers us to intervene in ordinary predatory conflicts among non-human animals. So, here’s an easier case: If one member of endangered species Y was about to kill several members of endangered species Y, I imagine that one might have a choice-of-evils defense when killing the former. (Is this the case?) Matters might get more complicated, I suspect, when the predator and prey species differ (ie. how do we value the life of one member of endangered species X compared to the lives of one or more members of endangered species Y?)