EPIDEMIC PROPORTIONS

Posted in Rants on December 10th, 2012 by Ed

I couldn't comment on the career arc of Tom Cruise even if I wanted to – which is to say, even if doing so would not be an insipid waste of time – because as a rule I do not pay to see his movies. It is a personal boycott. Yes, I've seen bits of A Few Good Men because it is on cable basic every Saturday afternoon (apparently by law) and my dad took me to see Top Gun when I was six. In practice, however, Mr. Cruise's relentless public anti-psychiatry campaigning has earned him a place on my personal shitlist. I realize that he does not care. But like the anti-vaccine pinheads toiling away at the University of Google, this position does not merely make Mr. Cruise wrong. It also makes him dangerous. There are real people with real mental illnesses who are able to function thanks to the intervention of pharmaceuticals and psychiatry, and many more people who could benefit from doing so.

I mention this not to beat Mr. Cruise and his fellow cultists like the sad pinata of pseudoscience that they are. The point is that while I am many questionable things, I am not anti-psychiatry or -medicine. Re-read that sentence – multiple times if necessary – before you rush to the comments.

This must be good, right?

As a young faculty member there is both great value and great risk in listening to the Elders of academia. Much of their wisdom is invaluable; much of their complaining represents an unwillingness to change and/or a generational gap they are incapable of bridging. So it was with great hesitation that I engaged several older colleagues – not at my current university – bemoaning the over-medication and general over-diagnosing of the modern crop of undergraduates. The more they talked about it, the more I felt that there was a kernel of truth in it. Even the eight short years I have been teaching have been an eye-opening experience in this regard.

On the one hand this is an argument that should be treated with skepticism. An older person saying "We didn't have no 'ADHD' back in my day!" is foolish on the level of listening to old WWII veterans talking about how they didn't have PTSD back then. Of course they had it, they just didn't have a name for it. The treatment was alcohol, self-administered. Lots of problems exist long before medicine figures out how to diagnose and categorize them – postpartum depression, concussions, autism, and so on.

Once we reject that argument on its face and accept that the whole gamut of things we accommodate in the field of education – learning disabilities, developmental disorders, anxiety/depression, ADHD/ADD, and so on – are real, the question becomes more complex. We stop asking whether these things are real and start wondering how it is that suddenly every student in the educational system has them.

That is hyperbole, of course. But every year a larger percentage of the students I deal with, as is the case with other faculty as well, have various learning disabilities assigned to them. Often the student does not even have any idea what his or her disability is supposed to be; they know only that ever since they were in kindergarten, their parents and school administrators have been telling them that they are learning disabled. In the past ten years, conservative measurements show that the diagnosis of learning disabilities under the IDEA legislation has increased 40%.

Estimates vary widely, but something on the order of 15 to 20 percent of college undergraduates today are diagnosed with ADHD, and more than half (!!!) are taking Adderall or Ritalin without prescriptions either for fun or as a study aid. In graduate school and in my career I've met numerous academics who had legitimate addictions to these medications, and to a person they all stated that getting them legally from a doctor is as easy as walking into the office and saying "I have trouble focusing sometimes." Thirty seconds later they left with a prescription for amphetamines. (Check out this panel op-ed discussion of ADHD/prescription issues in education from the NY Times for more).

Of course you already know some of these statistics, just like you know that antidepressants, anxiety drugs, painkillers, and every other kind of medication on the planet is wildly over-prescribed in this country. But sometimes I stand in class and wonder that when we consider the recreational drug users (not a rarity in college, of course) with the students given pharmaceuticals by a doctor, are there any students left who aren't chemically altered by the time they get to me?

To hear the older faculty argue that back in the day, none of these things existed and somehow students managed to get through college anyway is misleading at best. Of course there were students with undiagnosed issues who never even made it to college or who failed because they couldn't study, couldn't focus, or couldn't do what was asked of them without some kind of necessary assistance. Despite that, I must admit that I wonder about the ratio of legitimate diagnoses to actual diagnoses in the student population. Doctors (especially the kind that gravitate to campus "health centers" and whatnot) will give pretty much anyone Adderall these days, but how many of those same students actually have ADHD? How many 18 year olds with diagnosed learning disabilities are simply reacting to the system (and Mom & Dad) telling them for the past ten years that they are disabled?

I have no answers to any of these questions. It's merely a set of observations. Despite all of these medical conditions being quite real and quite legitimate, I do not necessarily think my older colleagues insane quack-medicine theorists for questioning the rapid and substantial increase in the number of students so labeled in recent years. Those of you who have school- or college-aged children (or who are college-aged) are of particular interest to me here; what is your take on this? Is it the new moral panic – Druuuugs! Everyone's on druuuuuugs! Think of the childrennnn! – or is this a question we should spend any time thinking about?

NPF: FEAR OF FLYING

Posted in No Politics Friday on December 7th, 2012 by Ed

I've been doing a lot of flying lately and it never fails to amaze me how uneventful flying within the continental U.S. is these days. Considering that we put our bodies in a metal tube and accelerate them to several hundred miles per hour before landing them with great precision in a different area code, it's remarkable that the modern airliner, airport, and airline pilot have turned this into a procedure one can easily sleep through. I almost feel cheated on occasion, after a particularly tranquil flight. What the hell, airline – I was supposed to feel the thrill of a near-death experience!

Maybe I should take a flight into the lovely Caribbean island of Saba. Not a great place to overshoot the runway, guys.

Or maybe you like the sensation of praying that you've picked up sufficient airspeed before plunging off the side of a mountain at Tenzing-Hillary Airport in Nepal (at 9500 feet). Or you could land there, realizing that one end of the runway is a giant mountain. So it's like landing on an aircraft carrier, but without the option of a go-around.

Perhaps flying an airborne obstacle course (including a last second 50-degree turn) to land in the bottom of a steep valley is more your thing – Tegucigalpa, Honduras might be a neat destination for you. If you have a spare set of clean undergarments handy, try watching the cockpit view of landing at this death trap. Read about what's involved in the landing here.

Maybe that's all too exotic and you want the simple pleasure of hair-raising crosswinds at a major airport. Try Hong Kong's Kai Tak Airport for the unique experience of landing sideways.

If you're anything like me, these videos will help you appreciate your next 1:25 into Newark just a little bit more.

REWIND

Posted in Quick Hits on December 6th, 2012 by Ed

The election already seems like a distant memory, and thankfully so. The flow of media postmortems has slowed to a trickle. Within that once-mighty flow, however, I missed a shining diamond in the Washington PostCharles Krauthammer's take on what the GOP needs to change to be successful going forward. Here's a hint: nothing. It doesn't need to change anything. Well just one thing, I guess:

For the party in general, however, the problem is hardly structural. It requires but a single policy change: Border fence plus amnesty. Yes, amnesty. Use the word.

That takes care of the Hispanic vote! Problem solved. Electoral success guaranteed.

Republicans lost the election not because they advanced a bad argument but because they advanced a good argument not well enough. Romney ran a solid campaign, but he is by nature a Northeastern moderate.

Spoken like a man who is wrong about everything. He's also pretty excited about the next generation of GOP celebrities:

Behind him, the party has an extraordinarily strong bench. In Congress — Paul Ryan, Marco Rubio, Kelly Ayotte, (the incoming) Ted Cruz and others. And the governors — Bobby Jindal, Scott Walker, Nikki Haley, plus former governor Jeb Bush and the soon-retiring Mitch Daniels.

It's not merely strong; it's extraordinarily strong.

I didn't even have the heart to give this the full FJM, as it's 4 weeks old and monumentally stupid. Read it all yourself if you dare, and Republicans, take comfort in this 70 year old white guy's prognostication. Everything's fine.

YOU KNOW, NO BIG DEAL

Posted in Rants on December 5th, 2012 by Ed

Over the weekend I heard an interview with the author of what we can only assume will be one of dozens of books written now and in the near future about the killing of Osama bin Laden. One (throwaway) comment the author made was so stunning that I immediately set out to verify it when I arrived at home.

A little background. The CIA claims that it first discovered the bin Laden house in Abbottabad in 2010 through a combination of satellite images – the house stood out as newly built, very large, and "obviously custom-built to hide someone of significance" – and by following a known al-Qaeda courier to the location. Over the next year the CIA used undercover agents stationed in a safe house in Abbottabad to conduct surveillance on the compound. The author being interviewed described the results of their efforts – and I found this verified in the Washington Post – as follows:

Despite what officials described as an extraordinarily concentrated collection effort leading up to the operation, no U.S. spy agency was ever able to capture a photograph of bin Laden at the compound before the raid or a recording of the voice of the mysterious male figure whose family occupied the structure’s top two floors. Indeed, current and former U.S. intelligence officials said bin Laden employed remarkable discipline in his efforts to evade detection.

Seems innocent enough, right?

Except it means that Barack Obama essentially put his entire political life on the line here by ordering the raid (and rejecting Clinton-like options such as cruise missile attacks) without anyone being able to state with certainty that bin Laden was actually there. No one had seen him. No one had heard him. No one snapped a picture. Sure, the circumstantial evidence suggested that he was living there. But they didn't know. Obama might be criticized for making a foolish rush to judgment based on limited information. I'm more inclined to look at it as a "balls of steel" moment that no one – least of all Republicans – gave him any credit for.

Imagine this scenario: a bunch of CIA/military operatives invade a foreign country unannounced. They assault this compound. Things don't go quite as well as planned. American soldiers are killed. A helicopter crashes. Civilians are killed by a stray explosion. And bin Laden isn't there. It turns out that the house was hiding some run-of-the-mill opium dealer or Russian mobster. The raid combines huge losses with zero gains. Can you imagine the public reaction? The FOX News reaction? The House GOP's reaction? Obama would have been hung in effigy and I'm certain someone would have suggested hanging him in the flesh as well. It would have made Jimmy Carter and "Desert One" look like a rousing success in comparison.

That's not what happened, of course. Bin Laden was there, no American casualties were reported, and the mission went, despite the loss of one helicopter, without a hitch for the most part. It was a much bigger risk than anyone depicted it at the time, and since then the Obama people have done next to nothing to play up the "This was actually a pretty big goddamn risk, if you must know" angle. No aircraft carrier / flight suit parades. Just a hint of gloating. Had a Republican made the same decision under the same circumstances the media would be soiling themselves in awe and Congress would be preparing to chisel him into Mount Rushmore. But it wasn't a Republican; it was the brown guy who really isn't American to begin with.

Anyone who says that Obama didn't take a risk, didn't make a bold decision, or didn't really do anything of note ("Why give him credit? All he did was give the order!") exists in a fantasy world. It puzzled me in the immediate aftermath how the argument that Obama deserved no credit could be plausible…I mean, it makes sense only inasmuch as the right wing wouldn't have blamed Obama had the mission failed, i.e.,it made no sense at all. Whatever your opinion about the value of the objective or the moral implications of de facto assassination missions, it is undeniable that Obama put his entire presidency on the line there – and he did so with much less information than most of us realized at the time. Despite the great lengths our military and intelligence agencies go to creating an image of omnipotence, they basically gave the White House a photo of a house and a hearty, "Yeah we're pretty sure he's in there." And then the President approved the highest risk, most dangerous option presented to him for dealing with bin Laden.

That deserves a slow clap. I have to say, this actually bumped Obama up a little in my estimation – not because he "killed Osama, wooo!" but because he took an enormous risk to achieve something he promised the nation he would try to do and he didn't even get much credit for it. Nor did he harp on the details, on the magnitude of the risk, to harangue the media and public into applauding louder for what he had done. He ran out on the tightrope with no safety net beneath him; if this operation went bad it would have gone really, irretrievably bad. He did it anyway, and yet the two George Bushes are the presidents that supposedly approached foreign policy with a steely-eyed resolve that liberal pussies could never understand.

THE LARGER TRUTH

Posted in Rants on December 3rd, 2012 by Ed

There are precious few good things to say about being raised Catholic, but if nothing else I'm glad I was not raised in one of the religions that believe ancient religious texts to be literally true. To have to believe – and to be repeatedly taught by parents and authority figures – that the Bible is a true, historically accurate document would, I imagine, leave one with a skewed sense of the line separating fact and fiction. I distinctly recall being about four years old, hearing the story of Noah's Ark, and thinking, "No fuckin' way, man. How big was this boat? How'd they get every animal on the other continents? What did they eat?" And when a story has enough obvious holes in it that small children roll their eyes, its literal truth is going to be a tough sell.

The good thing is, when I pointed out that the story makes no sense my dad explained to me the concept of allegory. While the tale might not be exactly what happened, it captures the essence of some historical event and teaches us a lesson worth learning. Ah. OK. Then it made more sense. Had the conversation gone in another direction ("No, little Eddie, this IS exactly what happened, and you are not to question it") I'd be a very different person right now, I think.

In Catholic schools I always found the clergy to be refreshingly candid about key events in the Bible being historically dubious and essentially fables. Catholics won't budge an inch on dogma, but they won't try to tell you that, for example, the Biblical accounts of the nativity (Jesus's birth) stand up to scrutiny. At this time of year you're probably seeing numerous plastic, glowing depictions of little J-Money in a manger, being visited by wise men and whatnot. Have you ever really thought about how nonsensical that story is? Leave aside the virgin birth part, even, and the story is still holier than the boxer shorts I no longer have to throw out now that my wife left me.

1. Why would Joseph and Mary return to Bethlehem for a census? What kind of census would make everyone in the Roman Empire pack up and go back to their place of birth, even though they no longer live there?

2. The Gospels offer two different but equally ridiculous explanations of how Jesus is a descendant of King David through his father, despite the fact that Jesus is not actually related to Joseph by blood.

3. How did the Magi/Kings/Wise Men/whatever show up at precisely the right moment on their journey of hundreds of miles "following a star"?

4. Why December 25? Our calendar didn't even exist yet.

The answers are quite simple. He was ham-handedly "related" to David and born in Bethlehem because – surprise, surprise – the prophecies stated that the Messiah would be related to David and born in Bethlehem. The Wise Men is just a narrative flourish, and December 25th was chosen to coincide with the winter solstice (Dec. 21/22, but Christmas day drifted over time due to changes in the Julian and Gregorian calendars).

This does not bother most Christians; they are comfortable admitting that the details of the story – the facts – are not relevant; the larger truth represented by the story is what counts. If telling this little Nativity fable is or was useful in convincing people of that truth (Jesus is the son of God and the Messiah), then so be it. The facts are subservient to the message.

This mindset is quite common and it's one of the major reasons that we talk over and past one another about so many topics these days, especially regarding politics. Half of us say, "Wait a minute, these numbers don't add up" and we can't wrap our mind around the fact that the other half of us don't care whether or not they do. Who cares if the numbers add up, the underlying belief is still valid. This struck me repeatedly throughout the campaign, especially with Romney. What the candidate says, and how frequently his statements contradict themselves and change, is not really important. What matters is the ideology he represents. Tell the proles whatever will satisfy them; it's OK to lie, exaggerate, or embellish to convince them of the greater ideological truth. If some funny math, half-true examples, and fabricated anecdotes help people believe that tax cuts stimulate the economy, then all the better. So what if the details don't add up as long as the message gets across.

This is just a theory on my part, but it goes a long way toward explaining why people are able to hold strong political beliefs and be unfazed when you point out that their facts are all wrong. Facts aren't important when you're in the business of converting the heathens to the word of the Lord.