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Emerging, spreading

But not ‘evolving’: bugs and the politics of medical language

Why are biomedical researchers reluctant to use the word “evolution”? That is the question asked by a fascinating article at PLoS Biology. ((Antonovics J, Abbate JL, Baker CH, Daley D, Hood ME, et al. (2007) Evolution by Any Other Name: Antibiotic Resistance and Avoidance of the E-Word. PLoS Biol 5(2): e30 doi:10.1371/journal.pbio.0050030)) Their findings are summarized in the abstract:

The increase in resistance of human pathogens to antimicrobial agents is one of the best-documented examples of evolution in action at the present time, and because it has direct life-and-death consequences, it provides the strongest rationale for teaching evolutionary biology as a rigorous science in high school biology curricula, universities, and medical schools. In spite of the importance of antimicrobial resistance, we show that the actual word “evolution” is rarely used in the papers describing this research. Instead, antimicrobial resistance is said to “emerge,” “arise,” or “spread” rather than “evolve.” Moreover, we show that the failure to use the word “evolution” by the scientific community may have a direct impact on the public perception of the importance of evolutionary biology in our everyday lives.

The authors proceeded by counting word-frequencies in a set of biomedical papers about antimicrobial resistance, compared with a set of papers from evolutionary biology. In the biomedical literature, they found, the word “evolution” (“or its lexemes such as ‘evolutionary’ or ‘evolving'”) was used 2.7% of the time to denote the appearance of antibiotic resistance, as against 65.8% of the time in the evolutionary literature. continued »


Loyal to language

On ‘desiring to tell the truth’

Interviewed on BBC Radio 4 this morning, a celebrated writer was asked “What do you think makes a great author?”. He said this:

The writer’s job – and I always think that one must be very careful not to assign too much of a role to this sort of thing – is first of all and principally to be loyal to language. And I think if you interpret that properly, you’ll find that other loyalties derive from it or arise from it. I think you can’t really be loyal to language without some sense of desiring to tell the truth.

I suppose that being “loyal to language” must mean more than just a promise to use speech instead of belching in one’s opponent’s face, or punching him. It seems to imply a commitment to use words as carefully and precisely as possible, so as to arrive as close as possible to an accurate representation of things. We are offered a kind of ethics of writing, if a rather crude and inflexible one. What might it have to say about neologism, or surrealist poetry, or science fiction? Might it not even be possible, in some cases, that “loyalty” to language for its own sake will take a writer further from the truth? Or is the argument that the truth about language is coterminous with the truth about the world?

Anyway, the passage does state a kind of moral principle, as far as it goes. So who was proposing it? Why, it was none other than Christopher Hitchens, who in recent times has exploited subtle contortions of language so as to insinuate the desirability of torture, ((Unspeak, pp180-2.)) and to avoid telling, or actually to misrepresent, truths he finds unpalatable. ((See previous posts Sheltered, Some percentage, A proper account, and Slower to get it.)) Isn’t it ironic?

One might equably object that Unspeak is language too, so why can’t you be “loyal” to it? That is certainly possible, but it’s somewhat less compatible with “desiring to tell the truth”, a volitional habit that Hitchens has long since cast off. Or perhaps Hitchens is cleverly implying that desiring to tell the truth is no guarantee that one will actually tell it: there might be overriding reasons, of whatever nature, to prefer misdirection and noble lies.

Hitchens’s co-interviewee was Martin Amis, fellow scourge of Islam. There is a Realplayer stream but no transcript – you will miss nothing essential, however, if you read instead this near-clairvoyant post from last week by Dennis Perrin.


Font wars

Georgia on my mind

Design interlude: this is a test post formatted in a serif font, unlike the sans-serif fonts used for previous posts. In order to create a seductive yet temporary oasis of aesthetic democracy in my otherwise dictatorial fiefdom, I open the question of which font should use for new posts to you, the readers.

Do the serifs make it easier to read and even lend it a patina of rationality — as though you were reading something printed, and therefore indubitably true? Or do you like the no-nonsense old-skool screen font of yore? Listen to your eyes: the decision is yours!

Update: the old font wins, 66-55!




At The Universe of Discourse, Mark Dominus notes (with a followup) a gorgeously simple geometrical proof that the square root of 2 is irrational.

Irrational? Well, the mathematical use of that word is probably owed to the fact that such a number is not expressible as a ratio or fraction of two whole numbers. OED cites an early use of “to be rational to” as meaning “to be in a ratio with”:

1614 T. BEDWELL Nat. Geom. Numbers i. 2 The Base and Height are said to be rational one to another, when as the rate or reason of both may be expressed by a number of the same measure given.

But OED‘s first citation of numbers being called “irrational” predates Bedwell’s explanation by half a century, so it is not entirely clear that this is a watertight derivation.

Could we also ask, for example, whether the survival of the term “irrational” in mathematics also carries an echo of an ancient mystical superstition – that the existence of a number which could not be expressed as a fraction of two integers somehow represented a catastrophic flaw in the logical purity of the universe? (The legend goes that the Pythagorean who discovered √2’s irrationality was drowned by his comrades for this reason – although, as Myles Burnyeat shows in this week’s LRB, what we thought we knew about the Pythagoreans is mostly wrong.)

OED shows that, whether from distinct motivations or not, “irrational” was from the beginning applied both to beasts, or to men who couldn’t properly exercise the faculty of reason, and also to the “irrational numbers”. Interestingly, “rational” itself was for a time contrasted with “empirical”: the “Rational Physicians” or “Rational Psychologists” or practitioners of “Rational Mechanics” were those who worked from first principles rather than observation.

If an old superstitious despair at creation’s imperfection might illuminate the origin of the mathematical sense of “irrational”, we could also note that the use of the word in contemporary political arguments is, too, almost always superstitious and nihilistic. As I have previously pointed out, to call Islamist groups, for instance, “irrational”, is to take pride in intellectual laziness, to refuse the effort of understanding, and to shut down conversation as a prelude to more righteous violence. (Although arguably to do so is “rational” in the older sense of according a subordinate place to facts.)

A propos of the apparently endlessly ramifying links between mathematical and political terminology, meanwhile, the square-root sign, √, is also known as the “radical”. Thus, to save time, which is of the essence in such matters, “radical cleric” can be written: √Ω.


Radical cleric

Who will rid me of al-Sadr?

The BBC reports:

Radical Iraqi Shia cleric Moqtada Sadr is currently in Iran, an adviser to the Iraqi prime minister has said.

We see an awful lot of the description radical cleric these days. It certainly has a more exotic frisson than, say, turbulent priest. Should we espy a hint of orientalism in the fact that contemporary figures of western Christianity or Judaism are much less often called “clerics” by the media? (Of course, “cleric” and “clergy”, via Old French and Latin for “clerkship”, originally denoted members of the English Catholic orders.) As Sourcewatch points out: “Martin Luther King, Jr. could reasonably be described as a ‘radical cleric’ of Christianity.” But he is not often so described. ((Although in regard to another self-identifying Christian, Josh Marshall and atrios, among others, have offered the usage “radical cleric Pat Robertson”, which is amusing, but perpetuates the phrase’s implication of enmity, thus in a way reinforcing the “normal” loaded usage.)) Is there even in our contemporary use of “cleric” an implicit denial of legitimacy? If the media will grant other religious figures their own titles, such as vicar, priest, or rabbi, why do they not refer to al-Sadr’s title as that of “Hojatoleslam” or “Scholar of Islam”? (Perhaps there is only any appetite for adopting those Arabic terms that reinforce the impression of Islam as frightening.) continued »


Change our force posture

Bush’s last stand

At his press conference yesterday, George W. Bush said:

And the first step for success is to do something about the sectarian violence in Baghdad so they can have breathing space in order to do the political work necessary to assure the different factions in Baghdad, factions that are recovering from years of tyranny, that there is a hopeful future for them and their families. I would call that political breathing space.

(That’s another rare positive use of the word “political“. But “political” things are probably fine for other governments, just not for the President’s domestic critics.)

And by providing this political breathing space, in other words, giving the Maliki government a chance to reconcile and do the work necessary to achieve reconciliation, it’ll hasten the day in which we can change our force posture in Iraq.

“Change our force posture”. It surely would be excellent to send a wizened old Chinese tai chi master out to Iraq to instruct US soldiers to relax their knees, drop their tailbones, and imagine a golden thread holding up the top of their craniums. The posture of the forces, as well as their “force posture” or ability to withstand shoving, would surely be changed, and for the better. But what I suspect change our force posture really means is “get the hell out of there”. As Bush later said:

I want our troops out of there as quickly as possible.

But not before they stand up straight. This lays to rest any doubts remaining that the aim of the Surge Escalation Reinforcements is actually to speed the day when America can, er, cut and run. In a way the strategy is the reverse of the old French expression. Sauter pour mieux reculer.

Testily responding to questions on Iran, meanwhile, Bush twice referred to himself in the third person as the “Commander-in-Chief“. Don’t argue, just salute. And tuck your chin in.


The anality of evil

Hitler’s ‘diabolic dimension’

Written for this week’s New Statesman.

The Castle in the Forest
by Norman Mailer

A new novel attempts to trace, through bucolic family history and symbolic early traumas, the origin of absolute evil in a man whose name later becomes a byword for iniquity. I am talking about Thomas Harris’s Hannibal Rising, the recent potboiling prequel to the sadistic Hannibal Lecter thrillers. But in terms of theme and structure, Normal Mailer’s latest novel is weirdly similar, a kind of high-flown twin, advertising deep historical research, in which the subject is the daddy of them all: Adolf Hitler.

Is there something about the present moment that has artists so fascinated by how mass murderers get the way they are? In addition to the lurid origin myth of Hannibal, there have been George Lucas’s Star Wars prequels, ploddingly transforming Anakin Skywalker into Darth Vader; or the wittily nasty Showtime television series Dexter, whose hero is an ethical serial killer prodded by a murderous shadow to uncover his own childhood trauma. We await the manga comic about the difficult boyhood of Joseph Stalin; in the meantime, Mailer’s novel promises to help us comprehend history’s perhaps most notorious monster.

“The world has an impoverished understanding of Adolf Hitler’s personality,” its narrator argues at one point. “Detestation, yes, but understanding of him, no – he is, after all, the most mysterious human being of the century.” The fashion in which Mailer attempts to make him less mysterious is surprising indeed. continued »



Why Bush and Krauthammer hate politics

George W. Bush despises politics. That, at least, is one interpretation of the curious fact that, whenever he wants to dismiss criticism or ideas, he labels them “political”. Thus did he speak on CNN:

I guess my reaction to all the noise about, you know, [funny deep voice] ‘He wants to go to war’ [end of funny deep voice] is, uh, first of all I don’t understand the tactics, and I guess it would say it’s political.

Er… well, yes, it is political, in that it’s about the nation’s citizens discussing what to do about international affairs. That’s what people do in politics. For Mr Bush, however, “political” seems to be synonymous with something like “playing politics”. Anything that’s “political” must be cynical Machiavellian manoeuvring. Bush’s semantic extremism, in which he cannot allow the word “political” itself to have any good or even neutral sense, bespeaks a more deep-seated contempt for debate of any kind. continued »


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