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Monthly Archives: January 2012

‘Disgust is so hot right now’

An interesting piece in the New York Times, looking at the growing amount of academic interest in the emotion of disgust:

Disgust is having its moment in the light as researchers find that it does more than cause that sick feeling in the stomach. It protects human beings from disease and parasites, and affects almost every aspect of human relations, from romance to politics.In several new books and a steady stream of research papers, scientists are exploring the evolution of disgust and its role in attitudes toward food, sexuality and other people.

Paul Rozin, a psychologist who is an emeritus professor at the University of Pennsylvania and a pioneer of modern disgust research, began researching it with a few collaborators in the 1980s, when disgust was far from the mainstream. “It was always the other emotion,” he said. “Now it’s hot.”

The article goes on:

The research may have practical benefits, including clues to obsessive compulsive disorder, some aspects of which — like excessive hand washing — look like disgust gone wild. Conversely, some researchers are trying to inspire more disgust at dirt and germs to promote hand washing and improve public health. Dr. Valerie Curtis, a self-described ‘disgustologist’ from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, is involved in efforts in Africa, India and England to explore what she calls “the power of trying to gross people out.” One slogan that appeared to be effective in England in getting people to wash their hands before leaving a bathroom was “Don’t bring the toilet with you.”

Disgust was not completely ignored in the past. Charles Darwin tackled the subject in “The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals.” He described the face of disgust, documented by Guillaume-Benjamin Duchenne in his classic study of facial expressions in 1862, as if one were expelling some horrible-tasting substance from the mouth. “I never saw disgust more plainly expressed,” Darwin wrote, “than on the face of one of my infants at five months, when, for the first time, some cold water, and again a month afterwards, when a piece of ripe cherry was put into his mouth.” His book did not contain an image of the infant, but fortunately YouTube has numerous videos of babies tasting lemons.

Let’s see some of that lemon-eating fun (no babies were harmed in the course of these experiments)…

Skepticism versus the marching band of materialism

Rupert Sheldrake‘s new book, The Science Delusion, has been getting an unusual amount of media attention. I say unusual because Sheldrake typically operates somewhat at the margins of mainstream science, researching such phenomena as telepathy or the idea of ‘morpho-genetic fields’.

Mainstream scientists usually steer clear of such topics, even if they are interested in them, because they’re worried about being ridiculed and harming their career. And also science has, over the last 300 years, situated itself against spirituality, vitalism, mentalism or psychic phenomena. Anything outside the materialist paradigm today is condemned as woo-woo, bunkum, bullshit etc.
The aggressive fight against anyone skeptical of materialism is bad news for science, because it means scientists are afraid to consider anything outside the box, for fear of public attack.
Sheldrake’s book argues precisely that we need to challenge the dogma of materialism and consider the data that doesn’t fit it, such as telepathy. He’s spent several years attempting to amass empirical data on telepathic events, exploring for example whether dogs know when their owners are coming home (the evidence suggests they do).
Isn’t that an interesting research topic? It suggests, firstly, that dogs have some sort of consciousness; secondly, that there is a relation or connection between human and animal consciousness; and thirdly, if there are links of consciousness between persons, those links are dependent on emotional bonds – so one of the functions of emotional bonds, perhaps, is to enable messages to travel between loved ones at distances. I’m not saying the evidence is unanswerable – but it’s definitely an area worth exploring as we try to work out what consciousness is, what it does, and whether it is confined to our bodies.
Nonetheless, working on the taboo area of parapsychology has got Sheldrake labeled a crank by mainstream science. Look, for example, at this incredibly sniffy post about Sheldrake on the New Scientist blog, which dismisses a re-issue of another of his books, without even reading it. The blogger expresses embarrassment that the New Scientist favourably reviewed an earlier edition of Sheldrake’s book, ten years ago, and says ‘attitudes have hardened against him since then’. Why are ‘hardening attitudes’ something to be proud of? When attitudes harden, they turn into unexamined prejudice.
When Mary Midgely gave Sheldrake’s new book a favourable review in The Guardian this week, the attack dogs of materialism come out, predictably enough, to denounce the article in the comments as woo-woo, bunkum, bullshit. If you look at the comments, many of them see the book as an attack on science. It’s not. Sheldrake is a scientist. He merely wants us to have the courage to look at all the data, rather than having a pre-existing narrative that we aggressively defend.
That is the problem about turning secular materialist atheism into a political ideology, as Richard Dawkins and others have done. When you turn Skepticism into a political mass movement, the dogma is what gives the movement its coherence, like a marching band keeping soldiers in step. God forbid anyone who walks out of line. But is that how science has ever progressed? By an orderly march of believers? Isn’t it precisely the mavericks, those out of step with the dominant beat, who reveal new worlds to us?
The original Skeptics, in ancient Greece, were against any sort of dogma. They believed in hypotheses, in probabilities, in exploring the unknown. Today, Skepticism is too evangelical for my liking. It has become a set of beliefs to be aggressively defended by its ‘champions’. Skeptics go looking on the internet for ‘smack-downs’ – they love seeing their champions rudely dismiss and destroy anyone who contradicts the dogmas. But the ability to recognise and challenge our own most deeply held convictions is, surely, the definition of Skepticism.