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Archive for the 'Science' Category

Friday, August 29th, 2014

H. H. Shugart on Comprehending the Earth

Foundations of the Earth, H. H. Shugart

“Are we creating the intellectual environment for creative, synthetic, and revolutionary researchers that can push us across the old boundaries into new paradigms? … Sadly, the politicization and the businessification of science may be taking the intellectual and creative environment in the opposite direction.”—H. H. Shugart

Fittingly enough, we conclude our week-long focus on H. H. Shugart’s Foundations of the Earth: Global Ecological Change and the Book of Job with an excerpt from the book’s conclusion “Comprehending the Earth”:

We live in a time of great need to understand our planet. We have the challenge of comprehending Earth as we simultaneously change the Earth. Are we creating the intellectual environment for creative, synthetic, and revolutionary researchers that can push us across the old boundaries into new paradigms? It is a not a question of letting scientists do what scientists do. It is a question for us all. Sadly, the politicization and the businessification of science may be taking the intellectual and creative environment in the opposite direction.

The tools at our disposal for the challenges in Earth-system science would be the envy of the environmental researchers who have come before us. We have satellite systems capable of remarkable measure­ments, along with a repository of innovative new systems on the shelf. Products of several of these are shown as illustrations in this text. However, the satellite constellation of the U.S. space agency, NASA, is falling into a state of disrepair. Some of this lost capability is being replaced by the orbiting instruments developed by other nations or by international and even commercial consortia. But overall, there is a loss of capability at this critical time. The conversion from satellite data provided free to researchers of any nation by NASA to a more nationally oriented, pay-as-you-go system may have a negative effect on creative, small-budget exploratory research.

(more…)

Thursday, August 28th, 2014

Can We Change the Weather? H. H. Shugart on the Peril and Promise of Geoengineering

H. H. Shugart, Foundations of the Earth

One of the issues H. H. Shugart explores in Foundations of the Earth: Global Ecological Change and the Book of Job is whether and to what extent should humankind should see itself as “masters of nature”.

In the chapter, “Making Weather and Influencing Climate,” Shugart looks at geoengineering, one of the ultimate examples of humans trying to master nature. He examines both the possible benefits, such as remedying global warming, and the possible dangers. Here is the conclusion to that chapter:

It is no surprise that the power to control the weather is a principal dimension of divine omnipotence. Does the sensitivity of simulations of the Earth’s climate to inadvertent human changes in the atmosphere and the planet’s surface imply that geoengineering could be effective to manifest planetary-scale changes? In other words, if we can change the climate by accident, just think what we could do if we really put our minds to it. The stakes to control the weather have always been high.

Certainly, control of weather has both tactical and strategic war-fighting implications. Choosing to fight battles under favorable condi­tions has been an aspect of warfare since time immemorial. Predict­ing these conditions is intrinsic to modern warfare. Modifying the environment to favor one military opponent over another has been deployed in the past but is currently under international injunction through treaties.

If to intensify storms, blizzards, hurricanes, and hail is the ultimate weapon, then to moderate these same calamities is the ultimate magna­nimity. Breaking or causing droughts could control the fates of regions and cultures. Simply being able to produce rain at critical times during the growth and maturation process of crop plants could determine eco­nomic success or failure of agriculture at a myriad of scales. Issues asso­ciated with the geoengineering of the Earth have parallels with these issues. One problem is to know when and how geoengineering might favor one people or one nation over another. This was a persistent con­cern with respect to the USSR’s climate modification plans. The melt­ing of the Arctic Sea was one of the preferred Soviet schemes. The possibility of this event worsening climate elsewhere in the Northern Hemisphere was a worrisome consequence of this action. Ironically, at the time of writing there is a decline in Arctic Sea ice attributed to a general warming of the Arctic.

(more…)

Wednesday, August 27th, 2014

H. H Shugart, author of Foundations of the Earth, takes the “Page 99 Test”

Foundations of the Earth, H. H. ShugartEarlier this summer, H. H. Shugart, author of Foundations of the Earth: Global Ecological Change and the Book of Job took the Page 99 Test. Taken from a Ford Maddox Ford quote, the Page 99 Test asks authors to explain how page 99 of their book reveals larger themes and ideas that shape the entire work.

Here is an excerpt from Shugart’s response:

Page 99 of Foundations of the Earth: Global Ecological Change and The Book of Job is the penultimate page of Chapter 4, “Freeing the Onager: Feral and Introduced Animals.” Foundations of the Earth poses global environmental problems in the context of a set of biblical questions, the Whirlwind Speech, found in Job: 38-40. The Joban questions initiate chapter discussions on such topics as, “Where did the solar system come from? How were animals domesticated? How do changes in the greenhouse gases in the atmosphere imply global warming? How do climate and its change alter the world’s vegetation and vice versa?” Foundations of the Earth intends to demonstrate the intrinsic connectedness of the Earth’s systems, their dynamic change and their interactions with humans using these divine questions as a framework to provide additional connectedness. The book emphasizes environmental synthesis at large scales—regional to global scales in space; century to millennia to even longer scales in time. The mutual interactions among different Earth systems provide a unity to the text, so does the framework provided by the extraordinary questions from Job.

(more…)

Wednesday, August 27th, 2014

What Constitutes Compelling Evidence, and for Whom? — B. Alan Wallace

B. Alan WallaceThe following post is by B. Alan Wallace, most recently the author of Meditations of a Buddhist Skeptic: A Manifesto for the Mind Sciences and Contemplative Practice and Mind in the Balance: Meditation in Science, Buddhism, and Christianity. For more, you can also read our recent interview with B. Alan Wallace:

“Exceptional claims require exceptional evidence” is presented as the heart of the scientific method, and a model for critical thinking, rational thought and skepticism everywhere. But it begs the questions, what constitutes an exceptional claim versus an ordinary claim, and who determines this distinction? When it comes to the relation between the body and mind, one might assume that contemporary scientists and philosophers have the authority to determine the difference between exceptional and ordinary claims. But that assumption is problematic for two reasons: (1) scientific and philosophical views vary widely in today’s society, and (2) contemporary Euro-centric views are not the indisputable arbiters of truth for humanity as a whole.

While the reductionist views of atheist, or materialist, scientists and philosophers dominate scientific discourse and the popular media, they by no means represent a consensus view within the two communities, let alone all educated people. According to a poll published in the Scientific American in 1914, 40% of scientists stated that they believed in God. A poll with the same set of questions was again conducted in 1997, also reported in the Scientific American, and it indicated that 40% of scientists still believe in God. So no one view—either materialist or non-materialist—can be said to represent the scientific community as a whole. Likewise, according to a survey done by the philosopher David Chalmers, 11% of contemporary philosophers are non-materialist, so they represent a significant minority. But more important is his finding that there was nothing of importance the “philosophical community” at large agrees upon. So when it comes to the mind-body problem, there is no consensus about what constitutes an exception versus an ordinary claim.

The same is true of hypotheses regarding unresolved issues in quantum mechanics, particularly the so-called “measurement problem.” As I write in Meditations of a Buddhist Skeptic, “In his recent book entitled Quantum, science writer Manjit Kumar cites a poll about the interpretation of quantum mechanics, taken among physicists at a conference in 1999. Of the ninety respondents, only four said they accepted the standard interpretation taught in every undergraduate physics course in the world, thirty favored the ‘many-worlds interpretation’ formulated by the Princeton theoretician Hugh Everett III (1930–82), while fifty replied, ‘none of the above or undecided.’ The real implications of quantum physics seem to be hidden in a cloud of uncertainty.”

(more…)

Tuesday, August 26th, 2014

Interview with H. H. Shugart, author of Foundations of the Earth

“Science is not likely to produce an ethical basis for proper conduct in cases in which strangers in distant locations are damaged by an individual’s actions involving spending resources, extirpating species, or polluting air and ocean. Help in these matters hopefully can and will come from wise religious thinkers.”—H. H. Shugart

Foundations of the Earth, H. H. ShugartThe following is an interview with H. H. Shugart, author of Foundations of the Earth: Global Ecological Change and the Book of Job:

Question: Science and religion are often seen as antagonistic and while you are not interested in “reconciling” the two, you have brought them together in Foundations of the Earth. How can science learn from the Book of Job, and religion more generally, in its approach to understanding some of the issues you consider in your book?

H. H.Shugart: Perhaps it’s best to answer from the specific case to the more general. The Whirlwind Questions in Job 38 to 41 begin with God’s challenge, “Then the Lord answered Job out of the whirlwind: ‘Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge? Gird up your loins like a man, I will question you, and you shall declare to me.’” Many of following questions, asked by God to a man, are remarkably current—How did the cosmos form? Where did the oceans come from? What happens to the light that falls upon the Earth? What controls the boundary between ocean and land? What are the consequences of the changes we made to the land through domesticated animals (and eventually machines)? … Today, these whirlwind questions are compelled by scientific observations that we are changing our planet through our actions. It is rewarding to think that some of the questions that I see as immediately important as a scientist have such deep antiquity. They reach back two and one-half millennia to the Babylonian captivity of the people of Judea and likely even deeper in time.

Religion, particularly ethics, occupies a domain that extends from knowledge of how the planet functions to the essential human issue, “If our actions are altering Earth with potential risk to the survival of our species, how can we stop ourselves?” Science is not likely to produce an ethical basis for proper conduct in cases in which strangers in distant locations are damaged by an individual’s actions involving spending resources, extirpating species, or polluting air and ocean. Help in these matters hopefully can and will come from wise religious thinkers.

Q: How can a religious understanding of the “foundations of the earth,” and the environment be deepened by the scientific approach?

HHS: The Rabbi Shlomo Itzhaki or “Rashi” (France 1040-1105) distinguished what a biblical text “says” from what it “means” in his Talmudic commentaries. Rashi was a remarkable scholar and his medieval biblical insights transcend history to be read, considered and studied today. His exemplary search for meaning and the consequently deeper appreciation of religious texts is central in many religious studies. I hope that Foundations of the Earth can provide a more profound appreciation of just how powerful the questions from the whirlwind really are from a scientific viewpoint. These questions are not merely clever riddles or tricky puzzles. They challenge us to appreciate Earth from multiple scales ranging from the greatness of the Oceans to the details of migrations of tiny birds. The whirlwind questions identify complete knowledge of Earth systems as the provenance of the Divine. One can pursue these questions but never completely understand them at their fullest depth. Such pursuit of always deepening questions also is the procedural manifesto of the scientific approach.

Q: How do both the “Whirlwind Speech” and recent environmental thinking move us away from seeing humans as masters of nature and more toward understanding humans as in nature?

HHS: The Whirlwind questions and recent thinking about the environment share the view that we lack and need better knowledge of the Earth and its systems. The wisdom to use this knowledge to understand our role in nature is a common thread in both.

From the environmental point-of-view, our modern stewardship of the Earth would seem a substantial disaster. Species are being lost at alarming rates. Local-scale environmental problems involving pollution, erosion and ecosystem misuse are legion. Global systems, such as the oceans and the atmosphere, due to our profligate use of the planet’s resources, are displaying measurable change with potentially dark consequences. If we are the masters who manage the Earth, we aren’t doing a bang-up job of it.

In the Whirlwind Speech, God’s questions are edgy with comments to Job of, “ … —surely you know!”; “Declare, if you know all this,”; “Have you commanded the morning since your days began, …” etc. It is pointed out that it rains in the desert were there are no people to benefit from the water. Through the text, animals laugh at people, ignore them, or conduct their lives independent of people’s actions. The Behemoth, a gigantic semiaquatic creature, is the “first of the great acts of God” and created before man. The Leviathan is a great fire-spitting sea-dragon that thoroughly intimidates humankind. In toto, the interrogation from the whirlwind substantially deflates the notion that the world was created for the mastery of humans.

(more…)

Monday, August 25th, 2014

An Interview with B. Alan Wallace

“Buddhism … proposes experiments in consciousness through the rigorous practices of meditation that enable the first-person investigation of the mind and its role in nature to fully complement the third-person methods of modern science.”—B. Alan Wallace
B. Alan WallaceThe following is an interview with B. Alan Wallace, most recently the author of Meditations of a Buddhist Skeptic: A Manifesto for the Mind Sciences and Contemplative Practice and Mind in the Balance: Meditation in Science, Buddhism, and Christianity. Both books are now available in paperback:

Question: You write that the mind has been artificially excluded from the natural world and that you, following the radically empirical lead of William James, are seeking to return it to the world of nature, where it belongs. How did this exclusion of the mind and first-persona experience come about?

B. Alan Wallace: Since the origins of experimental psychology 135 years ago, many scientists and philosophers have sought to explain the relation between subjective experience and the correlated objective processes in the brain. This has been called the “hard problem of consciousness,” and despite all the advances made in the cognitive sciences, this issue remains a mystery. The underlying issue is the “closure principle,” which has dominated the natural sciences since the mid-19th century, and which asserts that there are no nonphysical influences in nature. This immediately implies that the mind—including our perceptions, intentions, thoughts, and emotions—must either be physical (contrary to all empirical evidence) or it must exert no consequences in human life or the universe at large, which is contrary to common sense. Many materialists argue that mental processes are identical to or are nothing more than functions of their neural correlates, while others dogmatically propose that consciousness and all kinds of subjective experiences don’t really exist at all! Although many materialistic theories of the mind-body relationship have been proposed, none of them lend themselves to scientific verification or repudiation, so they are merely hypotheses or speculations, not scientific theories. And they are certainly not scientifically established facts, despite the fact that the scientific and popular media commonly equate the mind and brain, without any compelling reasoning or empirical evidence.

Q: Does this reductionist approach to the mind and consciousness have ramifications for other branches of the natural science?

BAW: A core problem that has remained unresolved over the past 90 years is the so-called “measurement problem” in quantum mechanics, which has to do with the relationship between the weird qualities the quantum realm, in which physical entities exist only in relation to their being measured, and the world of classical physics, in which the objective world appears to exist independently of all measurements. Before a quantum measurement takes place, that which is about to be measured exists only as a probability wave function. But once the measurement occurs, the wave function appears to collapse, and a physical system exists in a definite state. But what constitutes a “measurement”? Does this require a conscious observer, or can it take place objectively? In short, the problem remains unsolved, and there is little evidence that any real progress is being made.

While many scientists and philosophers regard these two problems as being unrelated, in my last three academic books I argue that they are profoundly related and that a solution for one implies a solution for the other. I have addressed these entangled problems in Hidden Dimensions: The Unification of Physics and Consciousness, Mind in the Balance: Meditation in Science, Buddhism, and Christianity, and Meditations of a Buddhist Skeptic: A Manifesto for the Mind Sciences and Contemplative Practice. In these works I have argued that the root of both problems lies in a dogmatic allegiance to the metaphysical beliefs of mechanistic materialism, rooted in the antiquated physics of the 19th century, and in the failure on the part of the scientific community to devise and implement sophisticated methods for observing and exploring the mind and multiple dimensions of consciousness from a first-person perspective.

(more…)

Monday, August 25th, 2014

Book Giveaway! Foundations of the Earth: Global Ecological Change and the Book of Job

Foundations of the Earth: Global Ecological Change and the Book of Job

“In this engaging and illuminating primer on environmental science, world ecosystems scholar Shugart… demonstrates that science knows a lot about the questions God asked Job, questions pertaining to the birth of the universe, the taming of wild beasts, the course of the stars and heavenly bodies… and more.” — Library Journal

This week our featured book is Foundations of the Earth: Global Ecological Change and the Book of Job, by H. H. Shugart

In addition to featuring the book and the author on the blog, we will also be posting about the book on twitter, and facebook.

We are also offering a FREE copy of Foundations of the Earth: Global Ecological Change and the Book of Job to a lucky winner. To enter the contest please e-mail pl2164@columbia.edu and include your name and address. The winner will be selected Friday, August 29 at 1:00 pm.

H. H. Shugart, W. W. Corcoran Chair in Environmental Sciences at the University of Virginia, calls attention to the rich resonance between the Earth’s natural history and the workings of religious feeling, the wisdom of biblical scripture, and the arguments of Bible ethicists. Shugart offers a universal framework for recognizing and confronting the global challenges humans now face: the relationship between human technology and large-scale environmental degradation, the effect of invasive species on the integrity of ecosystems, the role of humans in generating wide biotic extinctions, and the future of our oceans and tides.

Read the introduction to Foundations of the Earth: Global Ecological Change and the Book of Job:

Friday, July 25th, 2014

“The mind–body dualism has long overstayed its visit” — Concluding Thoughts from Shadow Medicine

“The mind–body dualism has long overstayed its visit. Western science needs to advance beyond the cur­rent reductionist model to some blending of the subjective and social aspects of healing.”—John S. Haller Jr.

Shadow Medicine, John S. Haller Jr.We conclude our week-long feature on Shadow Medicine: The Placebo in Conventional and Alternative Therapies with an excerpt, fittingly enough, from the concluding chapter. In “Reassessment,” Haller examines some of the challenges confronting alternative medicine as it tries to gain greater legitimacy as well as the need to integrate our understanding of what both alternative and conventional medicine offer:

With approximately 80 percent of the world’s population, including half the US population, using some form of [contemporary and alternative medicine] (CAM), the scientific community can no longer view these thera­pies as simply a fringe interest among consumers. However, because CAM therapies diverge sharply from reductionist science, the nature of their evidence and the subjective manner of their production create substantive problems for evidence-based medical knowledge. This suggests a remark­able similarity between CAM therapies and numerous nonspecific theo­ries and practices such as psychotherapy that, although difficult to explain in terms of their modus operandi, have proven beneficial to patients. The current tension between conventional therapies and unconventional ther­apies represents a collision of epistemologies. For the former, disease cau­sation constitutes the ideal form of evidence; for the latter, outcomes are of equal or greater importance. In our postmodern world, multifactorial causation has become more accepted as doctors and medical researchers adopt a more integrative role for unconventional therapies—a road that neither is straight nor accompanied by clear markers.

As the usage of homeopathy, acupuncture, herbals, chiropractic, and other CAM modalities amply demonstrate, their poor performance in clinical trials have caused little or no diminution in their popularity. They remain robust in their claims and ever anxious to expand their therapeu­tic applications. Even with increased consumer interest, however, only a small number of CAM therapies are expected to achieve legitimacy along­side conventional medicine. Unlike biomedicine, which is constantly jus­tifying its existence through replication and evidence-based research, most CAM modalities have yet to prove their efficacy or replicability, standing firmly on a static set of principles and practices that appear to “work,” albeit only marginally better than the placebo. To date, only a few have been able to build a scientific explanation for their efficacy. And for those that have achieved this status, the outcome has not always been to their benefit. The fact that the management of chronic disease constitutes 78 percent of medical expenditures in the United States explains why con­ventional medicine has been so aggressive in fighting CAM and, where possible, co-opting its more effective therapies.

(more…)

Thursday, July 24th, 2014

Conventional vs Alternative Medicine — An Excerpt from Shadow Medicine by John Haller

“In addressing the standoff between the dueling protagonists of conventional and unconventional medicine, the placebo has served as both mediator and judge….” —John S. Haller Jr.

We continue our week-long feature on Shadow Medicine: The Placebo in Conventional and Alternative Therapies by John S. Haller Jr. by presenting an excerpt from the book . In the introduction, Haller examines the debate between proponents of conventional and alternative medicine and the role in which the placebo plays in challenging both positions.

Wednesday, July 23rd, 2014

An Interview with John Haller, author of Shadow Medicine

“The question at hand is not only whether conventional and unconventional therapies can stand on their own self-authenticating authority, but whether it is possible to modify the context of these two opposing camps into something both can benefit from sharing. To date, there is no hard-wired connection, but the bridge between them is nowhere as long, nor is the chasm beneath them as deep as it once appeared.”—John S. Haller Jr.

John Haller, Shadow MedicineThe following is an interview with John S. Haller Jr, author of Shadow Medicine: The Placebo in Conventional and Alternative Therapies. For more on the book, read John Haller’s essay The Medical Challenge:

Q: In Shadow Medicine, you use the term conventional medicine. What do you mean by that?

John Haller Jr.: Conventional (or reductionist) medicine identifies statistical baselines against which to measure its therapies, looking to physiological, pathological, biochemical, and molecular processes derived from physical matter and to treatment based on the calculus of probabilities. That is to say, conventional medicine draws its authority from the clinical trials and laws embedded in the natural sciences. At its best, conventional medicine encourages a healthy skepticism and urges various forms of sampling, followed by repeated experimentation to reaffirm a hypothesis. Its identity is thus based on the unambiguous application of normative science whose laws interpret the body as a materialistic system that can be reduced and analyzed according to its component parts.

Q: You seem to suggest, however, that conventional medicine has limits? How so?

JH: While conventional medicine continues to provide the most credible information for justifying a clinical judgment, its ultimate value remains uncertain because much of what happens in a clinical trial fails to capture the myriad of variables that affect the physician/patient encounter. For this and other reasons, the clinical trial remains an imperfect tool.

Calibrating the outcome of a medical procedure or the efficacy of a pharmacologic treatment defies certitude insofar as the organic side of medicine tends to be infused with psychotherapeutic interventions—some intended and, others, hidden. This suggests that conventional medicine has overestimated the value of the clinical trial in resolving the challenges presented in medicine and that more creative efforts are needed that compare “whole treatments.”

Q: How does conventional medicine contrast from complementary and alternative medicine?

JH: Today’s complementary and alternative healers focus their attention on forces or energies that, although undetectable by the tools of science, are thought to be real. Such phrases as “paradigm change,” “probability waves,” “string theory,” “chaos theory,” “new physics,” “ectoplasm,” “chakras,” and “spirit-release therapy” are used to anoint beliefs wholly distinct from empirically-based laboratory science. Challenging the discrete boundaries between objectivity and subjectivity by including consciousness in the reframing of reality, today’s unconventional healers insist that “life forces” can be transmitted or channeled into the patient to mediate physical, mental, or emotional needs. This secularized notion of body, mind, and spirit forms the basis of homeopathy, psychic healing, crystal healing, reiki, light therapy, acupuncture, qigong, aromatherapy, distant healing, transcendental meditation, therapeutic touch, and other paranormal healing systems.

(more…)

Tuesday, July 22nd, 2014

The Medical Challenge — A Post by John S. Haller Jr.

Shadow Medicine, John S. Haller Jr.The following post is by John S. Haller Jr., author of Shadow Medicine: The Placebo in Conventional and Alternative Therapies:

“The placebo has undermined the positivist model of biomedicine by interjecting subjectivity, uncertainty, and ambiguity into the clinical encounter. It suggests that a specific disease or illness does not exist apart from the manner in which the society conceptualizes it and addresses it.”—John S. Haller Jr.

Conventional medicine is founded on the belief that the body is the outcome of material forces. Given this assumption, it looks to physiological, pathological, biochemical, and molecular processes derived from physical matter to diagnose and treat disease. Its basic tool is the randomized clinical trial, guided by the fact that its active pharmaceutical substances “work” (even when the patient is unaware of their administration) and that their effects can be demonstrated, measured, and replicated. As authority figures, conventional physicians not only project a certain level of scientific legitimacy but purport to have legal authority, political privilege, and cultural acceptance—entitlements that also come with obligations that include standardized training, accreditation, licensing, and regulation.

While the randomized clinical trial provides the most credible information for justifying a specific treatment, its ultimate value remains uncertain because much of what happens in a trial fails to capture the myriad of independent and/or related variables that affect the physician/patient encounter. For all its hype, the randomized clinical trial remains an imperfect tool. Although it informs individual clinical expertise, it does not (and should not) replace it. Conventional medicine has overestimated the value of its clinical trial and more creative methods are needed that compare “whole treatments” rather than just the normative components which biomedicine is most acquainted.

In contrast to conventional medicine, complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) defines health in psychological and spiritual terms and emphasizes patient individualization and self-healing. It is founded on a philosophy of organism known as “vitalism” which explains life not by the laws of physics and chemistry but by a principle, force, or spirit-like power that comes from beyond the material world to animate organic matter. Consisting of a mixture of religion, mysticism, cosmic energy, disbelief in Western reductionism, and an increased fascination with Eastern philosophies, CAM encourages a more metaphysical encounter with the world, one that questions the basic assumptions about the nature of reality. In this new setting the patient’s experience becomes intensely personal and compares strikingly to certain types of spiritual awakening. In its intuitive approach to healing, the goal of the healer is to assist the individual in finding harmony with nature.

(more…)

Monday, July 21st, 2014

Book Giveaway! Win a Free Copy of Shadow Medicine, by John Haller

The Collapse of Western Civilization

This week our featured book is Shadow Medicine: The Placebo in Conventional and Alternative Therapies, by John S. Haller Jr.

In addition to features on our blog, we will also be posting about the book on twitter, and facebook.

We are also offering a FREE copy of Shadow Medicine to a lucky winner. To enter the contest please e-mail pl2164@columbia.edu and include your name and address. The winner will be selected Friday, July 25 at 1:00 pm.

“This provocative book is aimed at challenging the research community, and the questions it raises are important for patients and doctors alike.” — Publishers Weekly

Read the introduction to Shadow Medicine:

Friday, July 11th, 2014

Bangladesh, New York, and Florida after the Great Collapse of 2093

We conclude our week-long feature on The Collapse of Western Civilization: A View from the Future by Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway with three maps from 2393 that illustrate the ravages of climate change on Bangladesh, New York, and Florida. The commentary comes from a twenty-fourth century historian looking back at how twenty-first century leaders failed to react to the growing threats to the environment:

The Collapse of Western Civlization
Bangladesh Among North Americans, Bangladesh—one of the poorest nations of the world—served as an ideological battleground. Self-described “Climate Hawks” used it to levy moral demands for greenhouse gas reductions so that it would not suf­fer inundation, while so-called “Climate Realists” insisted that only economic growth powered by cheap fossil fuels would make Bangladeshis wealthy enough to save themselves. In reality, “unfettered economic growth” made a handful of Bangladeshis wealthy enough to flee. The poor were left to the floods.

The Collapse of Western Civilization, New York City
New York City in the twenty-fourth century Once the financial capital of the world, New York began in the early twenty-first century to attempt to defend its elabo­rate and expensive infrastructure against the sea. But that infrastructure had been designed and built with an expectation of constant seas and was not easily adapted to continuous, rapid rise. Like the Netherlands, New York City gradually lost its struggle. Ultimately, it proved less expensive to retreat to higher ground, abandoning centuries’ worth of capital investments.

(more…)

Thursday, July 10th, 2014

Naomi Oreskes on Why We Should Trust Scientists

In the following TED Talk, Naomi Oreskes, coauthor (with Erik M. Conway) of The Collapse of Western Civilization: A View from the Future, discusses why we should trust scientists.

From the TED description:

Many of the world’s biggest problems require asking questions of scientists — but why should we believe what they say? Historian of science Naomi Oreskes thinks deeply about our relationship to belief and draws out three problems with common attitudes toward scientific inquiry — and gives her own reasoning for why we ought to trust science.

Wednesday, July 9th, 2014

Erik M. Conway on The Role of Neoliberalism in Climate Change

“Market fundamentalism allows us to continue believing that we’re not responsible for climate change or its impacts.”—Erik M. Conway

Erik M. Conway, The Decline of Western CivilizationThe following post is by Erik M. Conway, the coauthor (with Naomi Oreskes) of The Collapse of Western Civilization: A View from the Future

One of the important intellectual underpinnings of the American refusal to undertake significant efforts to mitigate climate change has been the economic doctrine of neoliberalism. The term is rather amorphous, and means different things to different people. Naomi Oreskes and myself use it in the sense of what George Soros called market fundamentalism. Market fundamentalists believe in the perfection of economic markets as they currently exist, and that only markets “free” of government interference can protect individual liberty.

There are many things wrong with market fundamentalism, but the aspect of it that’s preventing us from dealing with climate change effectively is that markets as they currently exist don’t account for the cost of pollution. It’s free to dump carbon dioxide and methane and many other things into the atmosphere. In other words, we use the atmosphere as an open sewer, and don’t charge anyone for dumping stuff into it. In economic terms, pollution is an “externality,” a thing that exists outside the market system.

Market fundamentalists like to speak of the “magic of the market place.” Somehow, they think, markets will magically fix these externalities. But markets can’t fix problems that are external to those markets, no matter how hard we wish they would. That sums up the problem. Market fundamentalism is a form of magical thinking. And unfortunately, otherwise reasonable people routinely engage in this sort of magical thinking.

The good news is that, at least in principle, it’s fairly easy to fix this externality. In the 1970s, economists interested in reforming environmental regulation away from what they called “command and control” restrictions towards more market-friendly policies revived an old idea, the idea of pollution pricing. Emissions trading, what we now refer to as “cap and trade,” was one way to establish a price on pollution. Pollution taxes are another (economists often call this kind of tax “Pigovian,” after their inventor, Arthur Pigou). Both are simply ways of extending the market system to cover air and water pollution as well.

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Tuesday, July 8th, 2014

Interview with Naomi Oreskes, author of The Collapse of Western Civilization

Interview Naomi OreskesThe following is an interview with Naomi Oreskes, coauthor of, with Erik M. Conway, The Collapse of Western Civilization: A View from the Future:

Question: In The Collapse of Western Civilization you approach climate change as a fictionalized future historian of science. How does science fiction in this form provide a new way to look at climate change?

Naomi Oreskes: Scientists keep talking about disruptive climate change as something in the future, but the reality is that it is already underway. The post hoc voice (ironically) gives us a powerful way to talk about the present. It also allows us to convey what is at stake, not just for polar bears, or people in Bangladesh, but for us—our safety, our security, our way of life, even our national identity.

Q: You and Erik are both historians of science, how does an historical perspective help citizens and policymakers better understand the issues surrounding climate change?

Oreskes: In contrast to scientists, historians reject reductionist approaches. Viewing climate change as historians, we are able to consider not just the scientific dimensions, but also the political, the cultural, and the ideological aspects.

Q: What is the relationship between our current market-based economy and climate change? Is it the problem or can it offer a solution?

Oreskes: Both. A major point of the story is that the climate change was a market failure, but one that could have been fixed had people not been gripped by magical thinking.

Q: What are the threats to democracy and personal freedom posed by climate change and its effects?

Oreskes: Disruptive climate change threatens democracy—threatens democratic institutions—and personal freedom, because natural disasters require massive governmental responses, and invite the federal government to usurp local and individual authority.

Q: Recently, we’ve seen movements on college campuses to divest from fossil fuels gaining momentum. Do you think this will likely have an impact on climate change and the politics surrounding it?

Oreskes: Absolutely. It’s having an impact already.

Q: Finally, do you think climate change will be a prominent issue in the 2016 presidential campaign?

Oreskes: We’re historians. We don’t predict the future. At least, not unless it’s in fiction.

Monday, July 7th, 2014

Book Giveaway! The Collapse of Western Civilization, by Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway

The Collapse of Western Civilization

This week our featured book is The Collapse of Western Civilization: A View from the Future, by Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway.

In addition to features on our blog, we will also be posting about the book on twitter, and facebook.

We are also offering a FREE copy of The Collapse of Western Civilization to a lucky winner. To enter the contest please e-mail pl2164@columbia.edu and include your name and address. The winner will be selected Friday, July 11 at 1:00 pm.

“A chilling view of what our history could be. Ignore it and it becomes more likely. Read this book, heed its warning, and perhaps we can avoid its dire predictions.” — Timothy Wirth, vice chairman, United Nations Foundation, and former U.S. Senator and Member, U.S. House of Representatives

Read the introduction and the first chapter, “The Coming of the Penumbral Age”:

Friday, June 27th, 2014

Interview with Alfredo Morabia, author of Enigmas of Health and Disease

Enigmas of Health and DiseaseThe following is an interview with Alfredo Morabia, author of Enigmas of Health and Disease: How Epidemiology Helps Unravel Scientific Mysteries. You can also read Morabia’s blog post Michelle Obama and Epidemiology: An Inspiring Example

Question Your book offers a fascinating and frequently surprising history of epidemiology. How does our understanding of this history help us confront contemporary issues relating to medicine and public health?

Alfredo Morabia: If I have to isolate one key lesson of this historical voyage, it is that society’s success in confronting health issues depends on its ability to use epidemiology to identify medical and public health interventions that work. This was the great discovery of the 17th century, and it finally stopped and reversed the inexorable and millenary progression of the great epidemic diseases.

Q: As you looked back at the history, were there particular events or moments that you found particularly surprising and perhaps changed the way you think about epidemiology?

AM: I had always associated the history of epidemiology mostly with the history of public health but this is not true. The history of epidemiology belongs just as much to the history of clinical medicine. Group comparisons were used to assess the efficacy of treatments by clinical doctors throughout the 350 years of existence of epidemiology.

Q: Your book stresses the importance of group comparisons. Why is this so central to epidemiology?

AM: Comparison is the basic tool of science. In epidemiology, by comparing groups of people we can learn whether a specific drug works, whether an exposure is beneficial or deleterious, or whether a screening test can prolong life. Groups are predictable and comparable; individuals are not.

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Thursday, June 26th, 2014

Announcing Three Goodreads Giveaways!

We are happy to announce that we are hosting not one, not two, but THREE book giveaways on Goodreads over the next couple weeks! For those looking to learn more about Einstein, we are giving away Jeffrey Bennett’s intuitive introduction to Einstein’s ideas, What Is Relativity?. Interested in the sociology of atheism in the United States? Atheists in America, edited by Melanie E. Brewster, is the book for you! If your interests run more towards history of capitalism and finance, you should check out The World’s First Stock Exchange, Lodewijk Petram’s account of the 17th century development of Amsterdam as a dominant financial center. Look below for details on entering!

What Is Relativity?: An Intuitive Introduction to Einstein’s Ideas, and Why They Matter
Jeffrey Bennett

Goodreads Book Giveaway

What Is Relativity? by Jeffrey Bennett

What Is Relativity?

by Jeffrey Bennett

Giveaway ends July 07, 2014.

See the giveaway details
at Goodreads.

Enter to win

Atheists in America
Edited by Melanie E. Brewster

Goodreads Book Giveaway

Atheists in America by Melanie E. Brewster

Atheists in America

by Melanie E. Brewster

Giveaway ends July 07, 2014.

See the giveaway details
at Goodreads.

Enter to win

The World’s First Stock Exchange
Lodewijk Petram

Goodreads Book Giveaway

The World's First Stock Exchange by Lodewijk Petram

The World’s First Stock Exchange

by Lodewijk Petram

Giveaway ends July 07, 2014.

See the giveaway details
at Goodreads.

Enter to win

Thursday, June 26th, 2014

Michelle Obama and Epidemiology: An Inspiring Example

“American children can learn from someone like Michelle Obama, who decides on the basis of scientific evidence, not on mere speculation.”—Alfredo Morabia

Enigmas of Health and DiseaseThe following post is by Alfredo Morabia, author of Enigmas of Health and Disease: How Epidemiology Helps Unravel Scientific Mysteries

In her May 28th New York Times op-ed, The Campaign for Junk Food, Michelle Obama offers a lesson to Congress and an inspiring example to American children. She explains that before she began advising on policy to reduce child obesity, she first looked to “what works”.

“What works!” because, as Michelle Obama writes, “when we rely on sound science, we can actually begin to turn the tide on childhood obesity.”

Today, Michelle Obama can stand in front of children who may ask her about the importance of fruits and vegetables, less salt, etc. for a healthy diet. She can explain that kids from schools in which lunch menus have slashed sugar, salt, and fat are healthier compared to kids from schools which keep offering junk food; that kids from neighborhoods without nearby grocery stores have poorer eating habits compared to kids from areas with fresh-food retailers; that kids who go to child care centers offering healthier food and more physical activity acquire healthier habits compared to kids who don’t. She can also state that after reducing access to junk food, there is less obesity compared to the situation before the launching of the Let’s Move initiative. It worked!

Now contrast the example of Michelle Obama’s to that of Congressmen fighting the changes she is promoting in the school lunch program. These Congressmen want to see more white potatoes, less fruits and vegetables, more sodium, fewer grains on the menu, and consider pizza sauce a vegetable. How would these Congressmen respond to children asking them: “How do you know that your initiatives will not hurt our health?” The reality is that they cannot answer the question because there is no evidence supporting these decisions. They can only say that they believe otherwise, and claim their right to do so.

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