Oh, gawd, Bobo thinks he can understand neuroscience. In “Beyond the Brain” he gurgles that advances in neuroscience promise many things, but they will never explain everything. (I doubt that anyone ever claimed that they would, Bobo. Not even the citation-less “some people” you always refer to.) Mr. Cohen considers “Obama’s German Storm” and says where Kennedy spoke of freedom, Obama must speak of the end of the security-skewed post-9/11 era. In “Lesser Lights, Big City,” Mr. Bruni says Anthony Weiner preens. Christine Quinn calibrates. And New Yorkers wonder: who’s got the stuff to be our next mayor? All I can say is that I’m profoundly glad I don’t live there any more… Here’s Bobo:
It’s a pattern as old as time. Somebody makes an important scientific breakthrough, which explains a piece of the world. But then people get caught up in the excitement of this breakthrough and try to use it to explain everything.
This is what’s happening right now with neuroscience. The field is obviously incredibly important and exciting. From personal experience, I can tell you that you get captivated by it and sometimes go off to extremes, as if understanding the brain is the solution to understanding all thought and behavior.
This is happening at two levels. At the lowbrow level, there are the conference circuit neuro-mappers. These are people who take pretty brain-scan images and claim they can use them to predict what product somebody will buy, what party they will vote for, whether they are lying or not or whether a criminal should be held responsible for his crime.
At the highbrow end, there are scholars and theorists that some have called the “nothing buttists.” Human beings are nothing but neurons, they assert. Once we understand the brain well enough, we will be able to understand behavior. We will see the chain of physical causations that determine actions. We will see that many behaviors like addiction are nothing more than brain diseases. We will see that people don’t really possess free will; their actions are caused by material processes emerging directly out of nature. Neuroscience will replace psychology and other fields as the way to understand action.
These two forms of extremism are refuted by the same reality. The brain is not the mind. It is probably impossible to look at a map of brain activity and predict or even understand the emotions, reactions, hopes and desires of the mind.
The first basic problem is that regions of the brain handle a wide variety of different tasks. As Sally Satel and Scott O. Lilienfeld explained in their compelling and highly readable book, “Brainwashed: The Seductive Appeal of Mindless Neuroscience,” you put somebody in an fMRI machine and see that the amygdala or the insula lights up during certain activities. But the amygdala lights up during fear, happiness, novelty, anger or sexual arousal (at least in women). The insula plays a role in processing trust, insight, empathy, aversion and disbelief. So what are you really looking at?
Then there is the problem that one activity is usually distributed over many different places in the brain. In his book, “Brain Imaging,” the Yale biophysicist Robert Shulman notes that we have this useful concept, “working memory,” but the activity described by this concept is widely distributed across at least 30 regions of the brain. Furthermore, there appears to be no dispersed pattern of activation that we can look at and say, “That person is experiencing hatred.”
Then there is the problem that one action can arise out of many different brain states and the same event can trigger many different brain reactions. As the eminent psychologist Jerome Kagan has argued, you may order the same salad, but your brain activity will look different, depending on whether you are drunk or sober, alert or tired.
Then, as Kagan also notes, there is the problem of meaning. A glass of water may be more meaningful to you when you are dying of thirst than when you are not. Your lover means more than your friend. It’s as hard to study neurons and understand the flavors of meaning as it is to study Shakespeare’s spelling and understand the passions aroused by Macbeth.
Finally, there is the problem of agency, the problem that bedevils all methods that mimic physics to predict human behavior. People are smokers one day but quit the next. People can change their brains in unique and unpredictable ways by shifting the patterns of their attention.
What Satel and Lilienfeld call “neurocentrism” is an effort to take the indeterminacy of life and reduce it to measurable, scientific categories.
Right now we are compelled to rely on different disciplines to try to understand behavior on multiple levels, with inherent tensions between them. Some people want to reduce that ambiguity by making one discipline all-explaining. They want to eliminate the confusing ambiguity of human freedom by reducing everything to material determinism.
But that is the form of intellectual utopianism that always leads to error. An important task these days is to harvest the exciting gains made by science and data while understanding the limits of science and data. The next time somebody tells you what a brain scan says, be a little skeptical. The brain is not the mind.
Next up we have Mr. Cohen:
Germany is normally a welcoming place for American leaders. But President Barack Obama will walk into a German storm Tuesday provoked by revelations about the Prism and Boundless Informant (who comes up with these names?) surveillance programs of the U.S. National Security Agency.
No nation, after the Nazis and the Stasi, has such intense feelings about personal privacy as Germany. The very word “Datenschutz,” or data protection, is a revered one. The notion that the United States has been able to access the e-mails or Facebook accounts or Skype conversations of German citizens has been described as “monstrous” by Peter Schaar, the official responsible for enforcing Germany’s strict privacy rules. When the German bureaucracy starts talking about monstrous American behavior, take note.
What was scripted as a celebration of U.S.-German bonds on the 50th anniversary of Kennedy’s “Ich bin ein Berliner” speech has turned into a charged presidential visit underlining how two nations that once had the same views about a shared enemy — the Soviet Union — now think differently about global threats and how to balance security and freedom in confronting them.
It would not be a surprise if Obama faced a banner or two at the Brandenburg Gate equating the United States with the Stasi; or, in an allusion to the chilling movie about the former East German spy service, one with this rebuke: “America, Respect the Lives of Others.”
A half-century ago, Kennedy said, “Freedom has many difficulties and democracy is not perfect, but we have never had to put a wall up to keep our people in, to prevent them from leaving us.” History plays devilish tricks even on the best-intentioned: Obama needs to find language of equal directness now to allay German fury about perceived American intrusion into their essential freedoms.
Saying U.S. actions were legal under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), which they apparently were, will not cut it. This is a crisis of American credibility. Hillary Clinton made an open and secure Internet supporting freedom around the world a cornerstone of her tenure as secretary of state. She called it the “21st century statecraft” agenda. It was an important program. Little survives of it, however, if its primary supporter — the United States — turns out to be the main proponent of mass global surveillance. No wonder the Chinese and Russians are reveling: You see, we told you so!
Last month, Obama made an important speech about security and freedom at the National Defense University. It was about lost American balance. He acknowledged that in the open-ended, post-9/11 war on terror, the president had been granted “unbound powers” and the United States had “compromised our basic values.” He vowed to end that unwinnable war (“This war, like all wars, must end”), and curtail the drone program. It amounted to a commitment to revoke what has, in some respects, been an undeclared State of Emergency.
There is a parallel between the drones and the surveillance program. Overshoot is inevitable when essential checks and balances erode. One flying robot becomes an army of them dropping bombs. A request to monitor one e-mail account becomes a technology-driven lurch toward capturing all the Internet traffic coming into the United States. And Germans start having nightmares about the digital footprints of their lives stored in a vast facility in Utah.
Obama needs to reprise some of his speech about American rebalancing and the end of the post-9/11 disorientation. He needs to spell out how and why requests are made to the FISA court for approval to monitor foreigners’ online activities (last year there were 1,856 FISA applications, of which 100 percent were approved.) He needs to demonstrate that what has been done is proportional to the threat. Europeans — and Americans — have a right to know more about the standards applied in this secret court. Google and other companies want to publish the terms of FISA requests: This would be helpful. Nobody knows if a single FISA request may involve one e-mail account or thousands. As with drones, Obama must commit to curtailment through greater oversight and accountability.
If the president is serious about winding down the American war that began a dozen years ago, Berlin is a good place to advance that cause. It is the post-Cold-War city par excellence, a vibrant demonstration of how American power in the service of its values can advance freedom.
Angela Merkel, who grew up on the other side of the Wall, will press Obama on surveillance. Given national anger it is a political necessity for her. But indignation is not enough for Europe. It needs to step up and help America defend Internet freedom.
Ben Scott, who was the policy adviser for innovation in Clinton’s State Department and is now based in Berlin, told me: “To be credible on the global stage, it now has to be more than the U.S. pushing the Internet freedom agenda — and the European Union could be particularly important.”
That agenda matters; indeed I cannot think of a more important one for the 21st century. Just look at Turkey.
Last but not least is Mr. Bruni:
Anthony Weiner’s quixotic mayoral candidacy is clearly a bid for redemption, and just as clearly a way to sate his epic, boundless need to be noticed.
But it wasn’t until I went to the Bronx for a candidates’ forum last week that I realized another function the campaign serves for him. It’s his cardio.
While the nine other contenders at a long conference table did what you’d expect and remained seated as they answered questions, Weiner alone shot to his feet whenever it was his turn to speak, an overeager suitor, an overbearing narcissist.
He’d sink back into his chair when his allotted 60 seconds ran out, then rise anew when it was once again Weiner Time. Up, down, up, down: he was part jack-in-the-box, part aerobics instructor and all about Anthony.
When it wasn’t Weiner Time, he made no pretense of caring about or even listening to what his rivals had to say. He’d bury his nose in the papers before him. He’d riffle through them. This despite several news items that had slammed him for similar behavior at a previous forum. For Weiner, rudeness isn’t an oversight. It’s a coat of arms.
He’s a sad spectacle, but that may also make him the perfect mascot for the unfolding mayoral race, which so far doesn’t reflect the greatness of the city whose stewardship is up for grabs. This contest feels crass. It feels small.
And it feels all the smaller because of the constant reminders of just how large a figure the departing mayor, Michael Bloomberg, both is and insists on being. He’s just brought us bikes. He’s determined to bring us composting. He means to vanquish smoking, he means to vanquish obesity and he’s intent on protecting us from the ever stormier seas, after which he means to vanquish global warming itself.
Say what you will about him, he’s a leader of formidable resolve and considerable boldness. And New York of all places needs that kind of swagger, those shades of grandiosity. Can any of his would-be successors provide them? Among many city denizens I know, I sense a justifiable worry, and sometimes an outright angst.
When they look at Christine Quinn, the front-runner for the Democratic nomination and the mayoralty itself, they see someone trying to thread so many needles she gets tangled in her own string.
She can’t run as an extension of Bloomberg, not in a Democratic primary. But she can’t run against his record, having played a key role in securing him a rule-busting third term.
As a woman, she often felt the need to emphasize her toughness. Then came Michael M. Grynbaum and David W. Chen’s remarkable story in The Times about her vicious temper and her frequent outbursts, so loud that her City Hall office had to be soundproofed. So she tacked in a softer, more vulnerable direction, drawing attention to the revelations of bulimia and alcoholism in a just-published memoir whose “sentimentality and self-deprecating girlishness might leaven her image as a brash virago,” Michelle Goldberg observed in The Daily Beast.
On Monday, however, the sentimentality and girlishness were gone as she gave a sharp-edged speech casting herself as a pol of proven dynamism in a field of pandering lightweights. It underscored yet another of the tricky calibrations in her Goldilocks campaign: what’s too liberal, what’s too moderate and what’s just right (and also credible coming from her, a longtime Bloomberg ally).
To some extent, the race for the Democratic nomination — which pits Quinn and Weiner against Bill de Blasio, the public advocate, and Bill Thompson, the 2009 nominee, among others — has been an anachronistic sequence of genuflections before the teachers’ union, African-American voters, Orthodox Jews, animal-rights advocates.
“It seems to me that this is a pre-1992, pre-Bill Clinton version of the Democratic Party, where the candidates dutifully troop before one narrow special-interest group after another and pledge fealty to whatever demands are in front of them,” Howard Wolfson, a longtime Democratic strategist who is now a deputy mayor, told me on Monday. Wolfson credited Quinn more than others for straying on occasion from that timid and tedious script.
The field’s lack of luster prompted Bloomberg last year to try to get Hillary Clinton to throw her pantsuit in the ring. And it has given rise to a belief among some political insiders and a few restless plutocrats that 2017 could be a ripe mayoral-election year for a political outsider interested in emulating Bloomberg’s ascent into office. By then, the theory goes, the winner of 2013 will have failed.
That’s a tad too cynical, though there’s no overstating the current excitement deficit, which is of course another reason Weiner joined this sorry circus. He detected an underwhelmed audience whose attention could be riveted, even if he had to play the clown.