- I just read this long piece in the Atlantic Magazine and it is the clearest (and the most frightening) thing I’ve read on ISIS, who they are, why they are and what they want.
- It is a long but, I think, essential read to understand what ISIS is about.
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The Islamic State is no mere collection of psychopaths. It is a religious group with carefully considered beliefs, among them that it is a key agent of the coming apocalypse. Here’s what that means for its strategy—and for how to stop it.
What is the Islamic State?
Where did it come from, and what are its intentions? The simplicity of these questions can be deceiving, and few Western leaders seem to know the answers. In December, The New York Times published confidential comments by Major General Michael K. Nagata, the Special Operations commander for the United States in the Middle East, admitting that he had hardly begun figuring out the Islamic State’s appeal. “We have not defeated the idea,” he said. “We do not even understand the idea.” In the past year, President Obama has referred to the Islamic State, variously, as “not Islamic” and as al-Qaeda’s “jayvee team,” statements that reflected confusion about the group, and may have contributed to significant strategic errors.
The group seized Mosul, Iraq, last June, and already rules an area larger than the United Kingdom. Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi has been its leader since May 2010, but until last summer, his most recent known appearance on film was a grainy mug shot from a stay in U.S. captivity at Camp Bucca during the occupation of Iraq. Then, on July 5 of last year, he stepped into the pulpit of the Great Mosque of al-Nuri in Mosul, to deliver a Ramadan sermon as the first caliph in generations—upgrading his resolution from grainy to high-definition, and his position from hunted guerrilla to commander of all Muslims. The inflow of jihadists that followed, from around the world, was unprecedented in its pace and volume, and is continuing.
Our ignorance of the Islamic State is in some ways understandable: It is a hermit kingdom; few have gone there and returned. Baghdadi has spoken on camera only once. But his address, and the Islamic State’s countless other propaganda videos and encyclicals, are online, and the caliphate’s supporters have toiled mightily to make their project knowable. We can gather that their state rejects peace as a matter of principle; that it hungers for genocide; that its religious views make it constitutionally incapable of certain types of change, even if that change might ensure its survival; and that it considers itself a harbinger of—and headline player in—the imminent end of the world.
The Islamic State, also known as the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), follows a distinctive variety of Islam whose beliefs about the path to the Day of Judgment matter to its strategy, and can help the West know its enemy and predict its behavior. Its rise to power is less like the triumph of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt (a group whose leaders the Islamic State considers apostates) than like the realization of a dystopian alternate reality in which David Koresh or Jim Jones survived to wield absolute power over not just a few hundred people, but some 8 million.
We have misunderstood the nature of the Islamic State in at least two ways. First, we tend to see jihadism as monolithic, and to apply the logic of al?Qaeda to an organization that has decisively eclipsed it. The Islamic State supporters I spoke with still refer to Osama bin Laden as “Sheikh Osama,” a title of honor. But jihadism has evolved since al-Qaeda’s heyday, from about 1998 to 2003, and many jihadists disdain the group’s priorities and current leadership.
Bin Laden viewed his terrorism as a prologue to a caliphate he did not expect to see in his lifetime. His organization was flexible, operating as a geographically diffuse network of autonomous cells. The Islamic State, by contrast, requires territory to remain legitimate, and a top-down structure to rule it. (Its bureaucracy is divided into civil and military arms, and its territory into provinces.)
We are misled in a second way, by a well-intentioned but dishonest campaign to deny the Islamic State’s medieval religious nature. Peter Bergen, who produced the first interview with bin Laden in 1997, titled his first book Holy War, Inc. in part to acknowledge bin Laden as a creature of the modern secular world. Bin Laden corporatized terror and franchised it out. He requested specific political concessions, such as the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Saudi Arabia. His foot soldiers navigated the modern world confidently. On Mohammad Atta’s last full day of life, he shopped at Walmart and ate dinner at Pizza Hut.
There is a temptation to rehearse this observation—that jihadists are modern secular people, with modern political concerns, wearing medieval religious disguise—and make it fit the Islamic State. In fact, much of what the group does looks nonsensical except in light of a sincere, carefully considered commitment to returning civilization to a seventh-century legal environment, and ultimately to bringing about the apocalypse.
The most-articulate spokesmen for that position are the Islamic State’s officials and supporters themselves. They refer derisively to “moderns.” In conversation, they insist that they will not—cannot—waver from governing precepts that were embedded in Islam by the Prophet Muhammad and his earliest followers. They often speak in codes and allusions that sound odd or old-fashioned to non-Muslims, but refer to specific traditions and texts of early Islam.
To take one example: In September, Sheikh Abu Muhammad al-Adnani, the Islamic State’s chief spokesman, called on Muslims in Western countries such as France and Canada to find an infidel and “smash his head with a rock,” poison him, run him over with a car, or “destroy his crops.” To Western ears, the biblical-sounding punishments—the stoning and crop destruction—juxtaposed strangely with his more modern-sounding call to vehicular homicide. (As if to show that he could terrorize by imagery alone, Adnani also referred to Secretary of State John Kerry as an “uncircumcised geezer.”)
But Adnani was not merely talking trash. His speech was laced with theological and legal discussion, and his exhortation to attack crops directly echoed orders from Muhammad to leave well water and crops alone—unless the armies of Islam were in a defensive position, in which case Muslims in the lands of kuffar, or infidels, should be unmerciful, and poison away.
The reality is that the Islamic State is Islamic. Very Islamic. Yes, it has attracted psychopaths and adventure seekers, drawn largely from the disaffected populations of the Middle East and Europe. But the religion preached by its most ardent followers derives from coherent and even learned interpretations of Islam.
Virtually every major decision and law promulgated by the Islamic State adheres to what it calls, in its press and pronouncements, and on its billboards, license plates, stationery, and coins, “the Prophetic methodology,” which means following the prophecy and example of Muhammad, in punctilious detail. Muslims can reject the Islamic State; nearly all do. But pretending that it isn’t actually a religious, millenarian group, with theology that must be understood to be combatted, has already led the United States to underestimate it and back foolish schemes to counter it. We’ll need to get acquainted with the Islamic State’s intellectual genealogy if we are to react in a way that will not strengthen it, but instead help it self-immolate in its own excessive zeal.
by Robert Reich – Chancellor’s Professor of Public Policy, University of California at Berkeley
Suppose that by enacting a particular law we’d increase the U.S. Gross Domestic Product. But almost all that growth would go to the richest 1 percent.
The rest of us could buy some products cheaper than before. But those gains would be offset by losses of jobs and wages.
This is pretty much what “free trade” has brought us over the last two decades.
I used to believe in trade agreements. That was before the wages of most Americans stagnated and a relative few at the top captured just about all the economic gains.
Recent trade agreements have been wins for big corporations and Wall Street, along with their executives and major shareholders. They get better access to foreign markets and billions of consumers.
They also get better protection for their intellectual property — patents, trademarks, and copyrights. And for their overseas factories, equipment, and financial assets.
But those deals haven’t been wins for most Americans.
The fact is, trade agreements are no longer really about trade. Worldwide tariffs are already low. Big American corporations no longer make many products in the United States for export abroad.
The biggest things big American corporations sell overseas are ideas, designs, franchises, brands, engineering solutions, instructions, and software.
Google, Apple, Uber, Facebook, Walmart, McDonalds, Microsoft, and Pfizer, for example, are making huge profits all over the world.
But those profits don’t depend on American labor — apart from a tiny group of managers, designers, and researchers in the U.S.
To the extent big American-based corporations any longer make stuff for export, they make most of it abroad and then export it from there, for sale all over the world — including for sale back here in the United States.
The Apple iPhone is assembled in China from components made in Japan, Singapore and a half-dozen other locales. The only things coming from the U.S. are designs and instructions from a handful of engineers and managers in California.
Apple even stows most of its profits outside the U.S. so it doesn’t have to pay American taxes on them.
This is why big American companies are less interested than they once were in opening other countries to goods exported from the United States and made by American workers.
They’re more interested in making sure other countries don’t run off with their patented designs and trademarks. Or restrict where they can put and shift their profits.
In fact, today’s “trade agreements” should really be called “global corporate agreements” because they’re mostly about protecting the assets and profits of these global corporations rather than increasing American jobs and wages. The deals don’t even guard against currency manipulation by other nations.
According to Economic Policy Institute, the North American Free Trade Act cost U.S. workers almost 700,000 jobs, thereby pushing down American wages.
Since the passage of the Korea-U.S. Free Trade Agreement, America’s trade deficit with Korea has grown more than 80 percent, equivalent to a loss of more than 70,000 additional U.S. jobs.
Since China’s admission to the World Trade Organization, the U.S. goods trade deficit with China increased $23.9 billion (7.5 percent) to $342.6 billion. Again, the ultimate result has been to keep U.S. wages down.
The old-style trade agreements of the 1960s and 1970s increased worldwide demand for products made by American workers, and thereby helped push up American wages.
The new-style global corporate agreements mainly enhance corporate and financial profits, and push down wages.
That’s why big corporations and Wall Street are so enthusiastic about the upcoming Trans Pacific Partnership — the giant deal among countries responsible for 40 percent of the global economy.
That deal would give giant corporations even more patent protection overseas. It would also guard their overseas profits.
And it would allow them to challenge any nation’s health, safety and environmental laws that stand in the way of their profits — including our own.
The Administration calls the Trans Pacific Partnership a key part of its “strategy to make U.S. engagement in the Asia-Pacific region a top priority.”
Translated: The White House thinks it will help the U.S. contain China’s power and influence.
But it will make giant U.S. global corporations even more powerful and influential.
White House strategists seem to think such corporations are accountable to the U.S. government. Wrong. At most, they’re answerable to their shareholders, who demand high share prices whatever that requires.
I’ve seen first-hand how effective Wall Street and big corporations are at wielding influence — using lobbyists, campaign donations, and subtle promises of future jobs to get the global deals they want.
Global deals like the Trans Pacific Partnership will boost the profits of Wall Street and big corporations, and make the richest 1 percent even richer.
- In 1999, Motorola, at my request, sent me to Silicon Valley for a week-long course in advanced Windows Win32 programming.
- During this course, I remember talking with another participant; a young computer whiz who was from the NSA.
- He talked about how they (the NSA computer guys) conducted red-team green-team battles to see who could infiltrate the other’s team’s computer systems.
- But the thing he talked about, that caught my interest the most, was when he said the hot new frontier was getting into firmware as a way of exerting control over computers remotely. It was a new idea that immediately fascinated me but once he saw my interest, I think he realized that he might be talking too much and clammed up. He avoided me for the rest of the week.
- The story, below, says that the technique of firmware infiltration may have been around since 2001. I’m sure I heard the sound of the other shoe dropping when I read that.
- The article says:
It is not clear how the NSA may have obtained the hard drives’ source code. Western Digital spokesman Steve Shattuck said the company “has not provided its source code to government agencies.” The other hard drive makers would not say if they had shared their source code with the NSA.
- I don’t find it all that mysterous. How hard would it be for the NSA to field computer-savvy agents directed to seek employment in these companies? Or, as the article says, to require the companies to provide their source code to the NSA for security reviews before the U.S. Government will allow it to be used in U.S. facilities?
- Once the NSA has the firmware’s source code, they can modify it and then intercept the firm’s drives in shipment and refresh the firmware on the intercepted drives with the NSA’s new stuff … that does everything the old firmware does … and a bit more.
- The interception-during-shipment technique was outed over a year ago as being one of their favorite techniques though in that case it had to do with routers.
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The US National Security Agency has figured out how to hide spying software deep within hard drives made by Western Digital, Seagate, Toshiba and other top manufacturers, giving the agency the means to eavesdrop on the majority of the world’s computers, according to cyber researchers and former operatives.
That long-sought and closely guarded ability was part of a cluster of spying programs discovered by Kaspersky Lab, the Moscow-based security software maker that has exposed a series of Western cyberespionage operations.
Kaspersky said it found personal computers in 30 countries infected with one or more of the spying programs, with the most infections seen in Iran, followed by Russia, Pakistan, Afghanistan, China, Mali, Syria, Yemen and Algeria. The targets included government and military institutions, telecommunication companies, banks, energy companies, nuclear researchers, media, and Islamic activists, Kaspersky said.
The firm declined to publicly name the country behind the spying campaign, but said it was closely linked to Stuxnet, the NSA-led cyberweapon that was used to attack Iran’s uranium enrichment facility. The NSA is the agency responsible for gathering electronic intelligence on behalf of the United States.
A former NSA employee told Reuters that Kaspersky’s analysis was correct, and that people still in the intelligence agency valued these spying programs as highly as Stuxnet. Another former intelligence operative confirmed that the NSA had developed the prized technique of concealing spyware in hard drives, but said he did not know which spy efforts relied on it.
NSA spokeswoman Vanee Vines declined to comment.
Kaspersky published the technical details of its research on Monday, which should help infected institutions detect the spying programs, some of which trace back as far as 2001.
The disclosure could further hurt the NSA’s surveillance abilities, already damaged by massive leaks by former contractor Edward Snowden. Snowden’s revelations have hurt the United States’ relations with some allies and slowed the sales of US technology products abroad.
The exposure of these new spying tools could lead to greater backlash against Western technology, particularly in countries such as China, which is already drafting regulations that would require most bank technology suppliers to proffer copies of their software code for inspection.
According to Kaspersky, the spies made a technological breakthrough by figuring out how to lodge malicious software in the obscure code called firmware that launches every time a computer is turned on.
Disk drive firmware is viewed by spies and cybersecurity experts as the second-most valuable real estate on a PC for a hacker, second only to the BIOS code invoked automatically as a computer boots up.
“The hardware will be able to infect the computer over and over,” lead Kaspersky researcher Costin Raiu said in an interview.
Though the leaders of the still-active espionage campaign could have taken control of thousands of PCs, giving them the ability to steal files or eavesdrop on anything they wanted, the spies were selective and only established full remote control over machines belonging to the most desirable foreign targets, according to Raiu. He said Kaspersky found only a few especially high-value computers with the hard-drive infections.
Kaspersky’s reconstructions of the spying programs show that they could work in disk drives sold by more than a dozen companies, comprising essentially the entire market. They include Western Digital, Seagate, Toshiba, IBM, Micron Technology and Samsung.
Western Digital, Seagate and Micron said they had no knowledge of these spying programs. Toshiba and Samsung declined to comment. IBM did not respond to requests for comment.
GETTING THE SOURCE CODE
Raiu said the authors of the spying programs must have had access to the proprietary source code that directs the actions of the hard drives. That code can serve as a roadmap to vulnerabilities, allowing those who study it to launch attacks much more easily.
“There is zero chance that someone could rewrite the [hard drive] operating system using public information,” Raiu said.
Concerns about access to source code flared after a series of high-profile cyberattacks on Google Inc and other US companies in 2009 that were blamed on China. Investigators have said they found evidence that the hackers gained access to source code from several big US tech and defense companies.
It is not clear how the NSA may have obtained the hard drives’ source code. Western Digital spokesman Steve Shattuck said the company “has not provided its source code to government agencies.” The other hard drive makers would not say if they had shared their source code with the NSA.
Seagate spokesman Clive Over said it has “secure measures to prevent tampering or reverse engineering of its firmware and other technologies.” Micron spokesman Daniel Francisco said the company took the security of its products seriously and “we are not aware of any instances of foreign code.”
According to former intelligence operatives, the NSA has multiple ways of obtaining source code from tech companies, including asking directly and posing as a software developer. If a company wants to sell products to the Pentagon or another sensitive US agency, the government can request a security audit to make sure the source code is safe.
“They don’t admit it, but they do say, ‘We’re going to do an evaluation, we need the source code,'” said Vincent Liu, a partner at security consulting firm Bishop Fox and former NSA analyst. “It’s usually the NSA doing the evaluation, and it’s a pretty small leap to say they’re going to keep that source code.”
Kaspersky called the authors of the spying program “the Equation group,” named after their embrace of complex encryption formulas.
The group used a variety of means to spread other spying programs, such as by compromising jihadist websites, infecting USB sticks and CDs, and developing a self-spreading computer worm called Fanny, Kasperky said.
Fanny was like Stuxnet in that it exploited two of the same undisclosed software flaws, known as “zero days,” which strongly suggested collaboration by the authors, Raiu said. He added that it was “quite possible” that the Equation group used Fanny to scout out targets for Stuxnet in Iran and spread the virus.
- This is a subject near and dear to my heart though I don’t typically talk a lot about it because these substances are still outlawed in much of the world.
- Do I think they can be harmful? Yes, absolutely. If people who just want to party or who have mental problems or unstable personalities take them – they can be a nightmare.
- Do I think they can be helpful? Yes, absolutely. If stable, mentally healthy people take them for reasons of self-inquiry, I think they are some of the most amazing substances on the planet. They can be positive life-changers.
- Check these associated articles out for other opinions: and
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Research into psychedelics, shut down for decades, is now yielding exciting results.
On an April Monday in 2010, Patrick Mettes, a fifty-four-year-old television news director being treated for a cancer of the bile ducts, read an article on the front page of the Times that would change his death. His diagnosis had come three years earlier, shortly after his wife, Lisa, noticed that the whites of his eyes had turned yellow. By 2010, the cancer had spread to Patrick’s lungs and he was buckling under the weight of a debilitating chemotherapy regimen and the growing fear that he might not survive. The article, headlined “HALLUCINOGENS HAVE DOCTORS TUNING IN AGAIN,” mentioned clinical trials at several universities, including N.Y.U., in which psilocybin—the active ingredient in so-called magic mushrooms—was being administered to cancer patients in an effort to relieve their anxiety and “existential distress.” One of the researchers was quoted as saying that, under the influence of the hallucinogen, “individuals transcend their primary identification with their bodies and experience ego-free states . . . and return with a new perspective and profound acceptance.” Patrick had never taken a psychedelic drug, but he immediately wanted to volunteer. Lisa was against the idea. “I didn’t want there to be an easy way out,” she recently told me. “I wanted him to fight.”
Patrick made the call anyway and, after filling out some forms and answering a long list of questions, was accepted into the trial. Since hallucinogens can sometimes bring to the surface latent psychological problems, researchers try to weed out volunteers at high risk by asking questions about drug use and whether there is a family history of schizophrenia or bipolar disorder. After the screening, Mettes was assigned to a therapist named Anthony Bossis, a bearded, bearish psychologist in his mid-fifties, with a specialty in palliative care. Bossis is a co-principal investigator for the N.Y.U. trial.
After four meetings with Bossis, Mettes was scheduled for two dosings—one of them an “active” placebo (in this case, a high dose of niacin, which can produce a tingling sensation), and the other a pill containing the psilocybin. Both sessions, Mettes was told, would take place in a room decorated to look more like a living room than like a medical office, with a comfortable couch, landscape paintings on the wall, and, on the shelves, books of art and mythology, along with various aboriginal and spiritual tchotchkes, including a Buddha and a glazed ceramic mushroom. During each session, which would last the better part of a day, Mettes would lie on the couch wearing an eye mask and listening through headphones to a carefully curated playlist—Brian Eno, Philip Glass, Pat Metheny, Ravi Shankar. Bossis and a second therapist would be there throughout, saying little but being available to help should he run into any trouble.
I met Bossis last year in the N.Y.U. treatment room, along with his colleague Stephen Ross, an associate professor of psychiatry at N.Y.U.’s medical school, who directs the ongoing psilocybin trials. Ross, who is in his forties, was dressed in a suit and could pass for a banker. He is also the director of the substance-abuse division at Bellevue, and he told me that he had known little about psychedelics—drugs that produce radical changes in consciousness, including hallucinations—until a colleague happened to mention that, in the nineteen-sixties, LSD had been used successfully to treat alcoholics. Ross did some research and was astounded at what he found.
“I felt a little like an archeologist unearthing a completely buried body of knowledge,” he said. Beginning in the nineteen-fifties, psychedelics had been used to treat a wide variety of conditions, including alcoholism and end-of-life anxiety. The American Psychiatric Association held meetings centered on LSD. “Some of the best minds in psychiatry had seriously studied these compounds in therapeutic models, with government funding,” Ross said.
Between 1953 and 1973, the federal government spent four million dollars to fund a hundred and sixteen studies of LSD, involving more than seventeen hundred subjects. (These figures don’t include classified research.) Through the mid-nineteen-sixties, psilocybin and LSD were legal and remarkably easy to obtain. Sandoz, the Swiss chemical company where, in 1938, Albert Hofmann first synthesized LSD, gave away large quantities of Delysid—LSD—to any researcher who requested it, in the hope that someone would discover a marketable application. Psychedelics were tested on alcoholics, people struggling with obsessive-compulsive disorder, depressives, autistic children, schizophrenics, terminal cancer patients, and convicts, as well as on perfectly healthy artists and scientists (to study creativity) and divinity students (to study spirituality). The results reported were frequently positive. But many of the studies were, by modern standards, poorly designed and seldom well controlled, if at all. When there were controls, it was difficult to blind the researchers—that is, hide from them which volunteers had taken the actual drug. (This remains a problem.)
By the mid-nineteen-sixties, LSD had escaped from the laboratory and swept through the counterculture. In 1970, Richard Nixon signed the Controlled Substances Act and put most psychedelics on Schedule 1, prohibiting their use for any purpose. Research soon came to a halt, and what had been learned was all but erased from the field of psychiatry. “By the time I got to medical school, no one even talked about it,” Ross said.
The clinical trials at N.Y.U.—a second one, using psilocybin to treat alcohol addiction, is now getting under way—are part of a renaissance of psychedelic research taking place at several universities in the United States, including Johns Hopkins, the Harbor-U.C.L.A. Medical Center, and the University of New Mexico, as well as at Imperial College, in London, and the University of Zurich. As the drug war subsides, scientists are eager to reconsider the therapeutic potential of these drugs, beginning with psilocybin. (Last month The Lancet, the United Kingdom’s most prominent medical journal, published a guest editorial in support of such research.) The effects of psilocybin resemble those of LSD, but, as one researcher explained, “it carries none of the political and cultural baggage of those three letters.” LSD is also stronger and longer-lasting in its effects, and is considered more likely to produce adverse reactions. Researchers are using or planning to use psilocybin not only to treat anxiety, addiction (to smoking and alcohol), and depression but also to study the neurobiology of mystical experience, which the drug, at high doses, can reliably occasion. Forty years after the Nixon Administration effectively shut down most psychedelic research, the government is gingerly allowing a small number of scientists to resume working with these powerful and still somewhat mysterious molecules.
As I chatted with Tony Bossis and Stephen Ross in the treatment room at N.Y.U., their excitement about the results was evident. According to Ross, cancer patients receiving just a single dose of psilocybin experienced immediate and dramatic reductions in anxiety and depression, improvements that were sustained for at least six months. The data are still being analyzed and have not yet been submitted to a journal for peer review, but the researchers expect to publish later this year.
“I thought the first ten or twenty people were plants—that they must be faking it,” Ross told me. “They were saying things like ‘I understand love is the most powerful force on the planet,’ or ‘I had an encounter with my cancer, this black cloud of smoke.’ People who had been palpably scared of death—they lost their fear. The fact that a drug given once can have such an effect for so long is an unprecedented finding. We have never had anything like it in the psychiatric field.”
I was surprised to hear such unguarded enthusiasm from a scientist, and a substance-abuse specialist, about a street drug that, since 1970, has been classified by the government as having no accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse. But the support for renewed research on psychedelics is widespread among medical experts. “I’m personally biased in favor of these type of studies,” Thomas R. Insel, the director of the National Institute of Mental Health (N.I.M.H.) and a neuroscientist, told me. “If it proves useful to people who are really suffering, we should look at it. Just because it is a psychedelic doesn’t disqualify it in our eyes.” Nora Volkow, the director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), emphasized that “it is important to remind people that experimenting with drugs of abuse outside a research setting can produce serious harms.”
Many researchers I spoke with described their findings with excitement, some using words like “mind-blowing.” Bossis said, “People don’t realize how few tools we have in psychiatry to address existential distress. Xanax isn’t the answer. So how can we not explore this, if it can recalibrate how we die?”
Herbert D. Kleber, a psychiatrist and the director of the substance-abuse division at the Columbia University–N.Y. State Psychiatric Institute, who is one of the nation’s leading experts on drug abuse, struck a cautionary note. “The whole area of research is fascinating,” he said. “But it’s important to remember that the sample sizes are small.” He also stressed the risk of adverse effects and the importance of “having guides in the room, since you can have a good experience or a frightful one.” But he added, referring to the N.Y.U. and Johns Hopkins research, “These studies are being carried out by very well trained and dedicated therapists who know what they’re doing. The question is, is it ready for prime time?”
The idea of giving a psychedelic drug to the dying was conceived by a novelist: Aldous Huxley. In 1953, Humphry Osmond, an English psychiatrist, introduced Huxley to mescaline, an experience he chronicled in “The Doors of Perception,” in 1954. (Osmond coined the word “psychedelic,” which means “mind-manifesting,” in a 1957 letter to Huxley.) Huxley proposed a research project involving the “administration of LSD to terminal cancer cases, in the hope that it would make dying a more spiritual, less strictly physiological process.” Huxley had his wife inject him with the drug on his deathbed; he died at sixty-nine, of laryngeal cancer, on November 22, 1963.
Psilocybin mushrooms first came to the attention of Western medicine (and popular culture) in a fifteen-page 1957 Life article by an amateur mycologist—and a vice-president of J. P. Morgan in New York—named R. Gordon Wasson. In 1955, after years spent chasing down reports of the clandestine use of magic mushrooms among indigenous Mexicans, Wasson was introduced to them by María Sabina, a curandera—a healer, or shaman—in southern Mexico. Wasson’s awed first-person account of his psychedelic journey during a nocturnal mushroom ceremony inspired several scientists, including Timothy Leary, a well-regarded psychologist doing personality research at Harvard, to take up the study of psilocybin. After trying magic mushrooms in Cuernavaca, in 1960, Leary conceived the Harvard Psilocybin Project, to study the therapeutic potential of hallucinogens. His involvement with LSD came a few years later.
In the wake of Wasson’s research, Albert Hofmann experimented with magic mushrooms in 1957. “Thirty minutes after my taking the mushrooms, the exterior world began to undergo a strange transformation,” he wrote. “Everything assumed a Mexican character.” Hofmann proceeded to identify, isolate, and then synthesize the active ingredient, psilocybin, the compound being used in the current research.
Perhaps the most influential and rigorous of these early studies was the Good Friday experiment, conducted in 1962 by Walter Pahnke, a psychiatrist and minister working on a Ph.D. dissertation under Leary at Harvard. In a double-blind experiment, twenty divinity students received a capsule of white powder right before a Good Friday service at Marsh Chapel, on the Boston University campus; ten contained psilocybin, ten an active placebo (nicotinic acid). Eight of the ten students receiving psilocybin reported a mystical experience, while only one in the control group experienced a feeling of “sacredness” and a “sense of peace.” (Telling the subjects apart was not difficult, rendering the double-blind a somewhat hollow conceit: those on the placebo sat sedately in their pews while the others lay down or wandered around the chapel, muttering things like “God is everywhere” and “Oh, the glory!”) Pahnke concluded that the experiences of eight who received the psilocybin were “indistinguishable from, if not identical with,” the classic mystical experiences reported in the literature by William James, Walter Stace, and others.
In 1991, Rick Doblin, the director of the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS), published a follow-up study, in which he tracked down all but one of the divinity students who received psilocybin at Marsh Chapel and interviewed seven of them. They all reported that the experience had shaped their lives and work in profound and enduring ways. But Doblin found flaws in Pahnke’s published account: he had failed to mention that several subjects struggled with acute anxiety during their experience. One had to be restrained and given Thorazine, a powerful antipsychotic, after he ran from the chapel and headed down Commonwealth Avenue, convinced that he had been chosen to announce that the Messiah had arrived.
The first wave of research into psychedelics was doomed by an excessive exuberance about their potential. For people working with these remarkable molecules, it was difficult not to conclude that they were suddenly in possession of news with the power to change the world—a psychedelic gospel. They found it hard to justify confining these drugs to the laboratory or using them only for the benefit of the sick. It didn’t take long for once respectable scientists such as Leary to grow impatient with the rigmarole of objective science. He came to see science as just another societal “game,” a conventional box it was time to blow up—along with all the others.
Was the suppression of psychedelic research inevitable? Stanislav Grof, a Czech-born psychiatrist who used LSD extensively in his practice in the nineteen-sixties, believes that psychedelics “loosed the Dionysian element” on America, posing a threat to the country’s Puritan values that was bound to be repulsed. (He thinks the same thing could happen again.) Roland Griffiths, a psychopharmacologist at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, points out that ours is not the first culture to feel threatened by psychedelics: the reason Gordon Wasson had to rediscover magic mushrooms in Mexico was that the Spanish had suppressed them so thoroughly, deeming them dangerous instruments of paganism.
“There is such a sense of authority that comes out of the primary mystical experience that it can be threatening to existing hierarchical structures,” Griffiths told me when we met in his office last spring. “We ended up demonizing these compounds. Can you think of another area of science regarded as so dangerous and taboo that all research gets shut down for decades? It’s unprecedented in modern science.”
Early in 2006, Tony Bossis, Stephen Ross, and Jeffrey Guss, a psychiatrist and N.Y.U. colleague, began meeting after work on Friday afternoons to read up on and discuss the scientific literature on psychedelics. They called themselves the P.R.G., or Psychedelic Reading Group, but within a few months the “R” in P.R.G. had come to stand for “Research.” They had decided to try to start an experimental trial at N.Y.U., using psilocybin alongside therapy to treat anxiety in cancer patients. The obstacles to such a trial were formidable: Would the F.D.A. and the D.E.A. grant permission to use the drug? Would N.Y.U.’s Institutional Review Board, charged with protecting experimental subjects, allow them to administer a psychedelic to cancer patients? Then, in July of 2006, the journal Psychopharmacology published a landmark article by Roland Griffiths, et al., titled “Psilocybin Can Occasion Mystical-Type Experiences Having Substantial and Sustained Personal Meaning and Spiritual Significance.”
“We all rushed in with Roland’s article,” Bossis recalls. “It solidified our confidence that we could do this work. Johns Hopkins had shown it could be done safely.” The article also gave Ross the ammunition he needed to persuade a skeptical I.R.B. “The fact that psychedelic research was being done at Hopkins—considered the premier medical center in the country—made it easier to get it approved here. It was an amazing study, with such an elegant design. And it opened up the field.” (Even so, psychedelic research remains tightly regulated and closely scrutinized. The N.Y.U. trial could not begin until Ross obtained approvals first from the F.D.A., then from N.Y.U.’s Oncology Review Board, and then from the I.R.B., the Bellevue Research Review Committee, the Bluestone Center for Clinical Research, the Clinical and Translational Science Institute, and, finally, the Drug Enforcement Administration, which must grant the license to use a Schedule 1 substance.)
Griffiths’s double-blind study reprised the work done by Pahnke in the nineteen-sixties, but with considerably more scientific rigor. Thirty-six volunteers, none of whom had ever taken a hallucinogen, received a pill containing either psilocybin or an active placebo (methylphenidate, or Ritalin); in a subsequent session the pills were reversed. “When administered under supportive conditions,” the paper concluded, “psilocybin occasioned experiences similar to spontaneously occurring mystical experiences.” Participants ranked these experiences as among the most meaningful in their lives, comparable to the birth of a child or the death of a parent. Two-thirds of the participants rated the psilocybin session among the top five most spiritually significant experiences of their lives; a third ranked it at the top. Fourteen months later, these ratings had slipped only slightly.
Furthermore, the “completeness” of the mystical experience closely tracked the improvements reported in personal well-being, life satisfaction, and “positive behavior change” measured two months and then fourteen months after the session. (The researchers relied on both self-assessments and the assessments of co-workers, friends, and family.) The authors determined the completeness of a mystical experience using two questionnaires, including the Pahnke-Richards Mystical Experience Questionnaire, which is based in part on William James’s writing in “The Varieties of Religious Experience.” The questionnaire measures feelings of unity, sacredness, ineffability, peace and joy, as well as the impression of having transcended space and time and the “noetic sense” that the experience has disclosed some objective truth about reality. A “complete” mystical experience is one that exhibits all six characteristics. Griffiths believes that the long-term effectiveness of the drug is due to its ability to occasion such a transformative experience, but not by changing the brain’s long-term chemistry, as a conventional psychiatric drug like Prozac does.
A follow-up study by Katherine MacLean, a psychologist in Griffiths’s lab, found that the psilocybin experience also had a positive and lasting effect on the personality of most participants. This is a striking result, since the conventional wisdom in psychology holds that personality is usually fixed by age thirty and thereafter is unlikely to substantially change. But more than a year after their psilocybin sessions volunteers who had had the most complete mystical experiences showed significant increases in their “openness,” one of the five domains that psychologists look at in assessing personality traits. (The others are conscientiousness, extroversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism.) Openness, which encompasses aesthetic appreciation, imagination, and tolerance of others’ viewpoints, is a good predictor of creativity.
“I don’t want to use the word ‘mind-blowing,’ ” Griffiths told me, “but, as a scientific phenomenon, if you can create conditions in which seventy per cent of people will say they have had one of the five most meaningful experiences of their lives? To a scientist, that’s just incredible.”
The revival of psychedelic research today owes much to the respectability of its new advocates. At sixty-eight, Roland Griffiths, who was trained as a behaviorist and holds senior appointments in psychiatry and neuroscience at Hopkins, is one of the nation’s leading drug-addiction researchers. More than six feet tall, he is rail-thin and stands bolt upright; the only undisciplined thing about him is a thatch of white hair so dense that it appears to have held his comb to a draw. His long, productive relationship with NIDA has resulted in some three hundred and fifty papers, with titles such as “Reduction of Heroin Self-Administration in Baboons by Manipulation of Behavioral and Pharmacological Conditions.” Tom Insel, the director of the N.I.M.H., described Griffiths as “a very careful, thoughtful scientist” with “a reputation for meticulous data analysis. So it’s fascinating that he’s now involved in an area that other people might view as pushing the edge.”
Griffiths’s career took an unexpected turn in the nineteen-nineties after two serendipitous introductions. The first came when a friend introduced him to Siddha Yoga, in 1994. He told me that meditation acquainted him with “something way, way beyond a material world view that I can’t really talk to my colleagues about, because it involves metaphors or assumptions that I’m really uncomfortable with as a scientist.” He began entertaining “fanciful thoughts” of quitting science and going to India.
In 1996, an old friend and colleague named Charles R. (Bob) Schuster, recently retired as the head of NIDA, suggested that Griffiths talk to Robert Jesse, a young man he’d recently met at Esalen, the retreat center in Big Sur, California. Jesse was neither a medical professional nor a scientist; he was a computer guy, a vice-president at Oracle, who had made it his mission to revive the science of psychedelics, as a tool not so much of medicine as of spirituality. He had organized a gathering of researchers and religious figures to discuss the spiritual and therapeutic potential of psychedelic drugs and how they might be rehabilitated.
When the history of second-wave psychedelic research is written, Bob Jesse will be remembered as one of two scientific outsiders who worked for years, mostly behind the scenes, to get it off the ground. (The other is Rick Doblin, the founder of MAPS.) While on leave from Oracle, Jesse established a nonprofit called the Council on Spiritual Practices, with the aim of “making direct experience of the sacred more available to more people.” (He prefers the term “entheogen,” or “God-facilitating,” to “psychedelic.”) In 1996, the C.S.P. organized the historic gathering at Esalen. Many of the fifteen in attendance were “psychedelic elders,” researchers such as James Fadiman and Willis Harman, both of whom had done early psychedelic research while at Stanford, and religious figures like Huston Smith, the scholar of comparative religion. But Jesse wisely decided to invite an outsider as well: Bob Schuster, a drug-abuse expert who had served in two Republican Administrations. By the end of the meeting, the Esalen group had decided on a plan: “to get aboveboard, unassailable research done, at an institution with investigators beyond reproach,” and, ideally, “do this without any promise of clinical treatment.” Jesse was ultimately less interested in people’s mental disorders than in their spiritual well-being—in using entheogens for what he calls “the betterment of well people.”
Shortly after the Esalen meeting, Bob Schuster (who died in 2011) phoned Jesse to tell him about his old friend Roland Griffiths, whom he described as “the investigator beyond reproach” Jesse was looking for. Jesse flew to Baltimore to meet Griffiths, inaugurating a series of conversations and meetings about meditation and spirituality that eventually drew Griffiths into psychedelic research and would culminate, a few years later, in the 2006 paper in Psychopharmacology.
The significance of the 2006 paper went far beyond its findings. The journal invited several prominent drug researchers and neuroscientists to comment on the study, and all of them treated it as a convincing case for further research. Herbert Kleber, of Columbia, applauded the paper and acknowledged that “major therapeutic possibilities” could result from further psychedelic research studies, some of which “merit N.I.H. support.” Solomon Snyder, the Hopkins neuroscientist who, in the nineteen-seventies, discovered the brain’s opioid receptors, summarized what Griffiths had achieved for the field: “The ability of these researchers to conduct a double-blind, well-controlled study tells us that clinical research with psychedelic drugs need not be so risky as to be off-limits to most investigators.”
Roland Griffiths and Bob Jesse had opened a door that had been tightly shut for more than three decades. Charles Grob, at U.C.L.A., was the first to step through it, winning F.D.A. approval for a Phase I pilot study to assess the safety, dosing, and efficacy of psilocybin in the treatment of anxiety in cancer patients. Next came the Phase II trials, just concluded at both Hopkins and N.Y.U., involving higher doses and larger groups (twenty-nine at N.Y.U.; fifty-six at Hopkins)—including Patrick Mettes and about a dozen other cancer patients in New York and Baltimore whom I recently interviewed.
Since 2006, Griffiths’s lab has conducted a pilot study on the potential of psilocybin to treat smoking addiction, the results of which were published last November in the Journal of Psychopharmacology. The sample is tiny—fifteen smokers—but the success rate is striking. Twelve subjects, all of whom had tried to quit multiple times, using various methods, were verified as abstinent six months after treatment, a success rate of eighty per cent. (Currently, the leading cessation treatment is nicotine-replacement therapy; a recent review article in the BMJ—formerly the British Medical Journal—reported that the treatment helped smokers remain abstinent for six months in less than seven per cent of cases.) In the Hopkins study, subjects underwent two or three psilocybin sessions and a course of cognitive-behavioral therapy to help them deal with cravings. The psychedelic experience seems to allow many subjects to reframe, and then break, a lifelong habit. “Smoking seemed irrelevant, so I stopped,” one subject told me. The volunteers who reported a more complete mystical experience had greater success in breaking the habit. A larger, Phase II trial comparing psilocybin to nicotine replacement (both in conjunction with cognitive behavioral therapy) is getting under way at Hopkins.
“We desperately need a new treatment approach for addiction,” Herbert Kleber told me. “Done in the right hands—and I stress that, because the whole psychedelic area attracts people who often think that they know the truth before doing the science—this could be a very useful one.”
Thus far, criticism of psychedelic research has been limited. Last summer, Florian Holsboer, the director of the Max Planck Institute of Psychiatry, in Munich, told Science, “You can’t give patients some substance just because it has an antidepressant effect on top of many other effects. That’s too dangerous.” Nora Volkow, of NIDA, wrote me in an e-mail that “the main concern we have at NIDA in relation to this work is that the public will walk away with the message that psilocybin is a safe drug to use. In fact, its adverse effects are well known, although not completely predictable.” She added, “Progress has been made in decreasing use of hallucinogens, particularly in young people. We would not want to see that trend altered.”
The recreational use of psychedelics is famously associated with instances of psychosis, flashback, and suicide. But these adverse effects have not surfaced in the trials of drugs at N.Y.U. and Johns Hopkins. After nearly five hundred administrations of psilocybin, the researchers have reported no serious negative effects. This is perhaps less surprising than it sounds, since volunteers are self-selected, carefully screened and prepared for the experience, and are then guided through it by therapists well trained to manage the episodes of fear and anxiety that many volunteers do report. Apart from the molecules involved, a psychedelic therapy session and a recreational psychedelic experience have very little in common.
The lab at Hopkins is currently conducting a study of particular interest to Griffiths: examining the effect of psilocybin on long-term meditators. The study plans to use fMRI—functional magnetic-resonance imaging—to study the brains of forty meditators before, during, and after they have taken psilocybin, to measure changes in brain activity and connectivity and to see what these “trained contemplatives can tell us about the experience.” Griffiths’s lab is also launching a study in collaboration with N.Y.U. that will give the drug to religious professionals in a number of faiths to see how the experience might contribute to their work. “I feel like a kid in a candy shop,” Griffiths told me. “There are so many directions to take this research. It’s a Rip Van Winkle effect—after three decades of no research, we’re rubbing the sleep from our eyes.”
“Ineffability” is a hallmark of the mystical experience. Many struggle to describe the bizarre events going on in their minds during a guided psychedelic journey without sounding like either a New Age guru or a lunatic. The available vocabulary isn’t always up to the task of recounting an experience that seemingly can take someone out of body, across vast stretches of time and space, and include face-to-face encounters with divinities and demons and previews of their own death.
Volunteers in the N.Y.U. psilocybin trial were required to write a narrative of their experience soon after the treatment, and Patrick Mettes, having worked in journalism, took the assignment seriously. His wife, Lisa, said that, after his Friday session, he worked all weekend to make sense of the experience and write it down.
When Mettes arrived at the treatment room, at First Avenue and Twenty-fifth Street, Tony Bossis and Krystallia Kalliontzi, his guides, greeted him, reviewed the day’s plan, and, at 9 A.M., presented him with a small chalice containing the pill. None of them knew whether it contained psilocybin or the placebo. Asked to state his intention, Mettes said that he wanted to learn to cope better with the anxiety and the fear that he felt about his cancer. As the researchers had suggested, he’d brought a few photographs along—of Lisa and him on their wedding day, and of their dog, Arlo—and placed them around the room.
At nine-thirty, Mettes lay down on the couch, put on the headphones and eye mask, and fell silent. In his account, he likened the start of the journey to the launch of a space shuttle, “a physically violent and rather clunky liftoff which eventually gave way to the blissful serenity of weightlessness.”
Several of the volunteers I interviewed reported feeling intense fear and anxiety before giving themselves up to the experience, as the guides encourage them to do. The guides work from a set of “flight instructions” prepared by Bill Richards, a Baltimore psychologist who worked with Stanislav Grof during the nineteen-seventies and now trains a new generation of psychedelic therapists. The document is a summary of the experience accumulated from managing thousands of psychedelic sessions—and countless bad trips—during the nineteen-sixties, whether these took place in therapeutic settings or in the bad-trip tent at Woodstock.
The “same force that takes you deep within will, of its own impetus, return you safely to the everyday world,” the manual offers at one point. Guides are instructed to remind subjects that they’ll never be left alone and not to worry about their bodies while journeying, since the guides will keep an eye on them. If you feel like you’re “dying, melting, dissolving, exploding, going crazy etc.—go ahead,” embrace it: “Climb staircases, open doors, explore paths, fly over landscapes.” And if you confront anything frightening, “look the monster in the eye and move towards it. . . . Dig in your heels; ask, ‘What are you doing in my mind?’ Or, ‘What can I learn from you?’ Look for the darkest corner in the basement, and shine your light there.” This training may help explain why the darker experiences that sometimes accompany the recreational use of psychedelics have not surfaced in the N.Y.U. and Hopkins trials.
Early on, Mettes encountered his brother’s wife, Ruth, who died of cancer more than twenty years earlier, at forty-three. Ruth “acted as my tour guide,” he wrote, and “didn’t seem surprised to see me. She ‘wore’ her translucent body so I would know her.” Michelle Obama made an appearance. “The considerable feminine energy all around me made clear the idea that a mother, any mother, regardless of her shortcomings . . . could never NOT love her offspring. This was very powerful. I know I was crying.” He felt as if he were coming out of the womb, “being birthed again.”
Bossis noted that Mettes was crying and breathing heavily. Mettes said, “Birth and death is a lot of work,” and appeared to be convulsing. Then he reached out and clutched Kalliontzi’s hand while pulling his knees up and pushing, as if he were delivering a baby.
“Oh God,” he said, “it all makes sense now, so simple and beautiful.”
Around noon, Mettes asked to take a break. “It was getting too intense,” he wrote. They helped him to the bathroom. “Even the germs were beautiful, as was everything in our world and universe.” Afterward, he was reluctant to “go back in.” He wrote, “The work was considerable but I loved the sense of adventure.” He put on his eye mask and headphones and lay back down.
“From here on, love was the only consideration. It was and is the only purpose. Love seemed to emanate from a single point of light. And it vibrated.” He wrote that “no sensation, no image of beauty, nothing during my time on earth has felt as pure and joyful and glorious as the height of this journey.”
Then, at twelve-ten, he said something that Bossis jotted down: “O.K., we can all punch out now. I get it.”
He went on to take a tour of his lungs, where he “saw two spots.” They were “no big deal.” Mettes recalled, “I was being told (without words) not to worry about the cancer . . . it’s minor in the scheme of things . . . simply an imperfection of your humanity.”
Then he experienced what he called “a brief death.”
“I approached what appeared to be a very sharp, pointed piece of stainless steel. It had a razor blade quality to it. I continued up to the apex of this shiny metal object and as I arrived, I had a choice, to look or not look, over the edge and into the infinite abyss.” He stared into “the vastness of the universe,” hesitant but not frightened. “I wanted to go all in but felt that if I did, I would possibly leave my body permanently,” he wrote. But he “knew there was much more for me here.” Telling his guides about his choice, he explained that he was “not ready to jump off and leave Lisa.”
Around 3 P.M., it was over. “The transition from a state where I had no sense of time or space to the relative dullness of now, happened quickly. I had a headache.”
When Lisa arrived to take him home, Patrick “looked like he had run a race,” she recalled. “The color in his face was not good, he looked tired and sweaty, but he was fired up.” He told her he had touched the face of God.
Bossis was deeply moved by the session. “You’re in this room, but you’re in the presence of something large,” he recalled. “It’s humbling to sit there. It’s the most rewarding day of your career.”
Every guided psychedelic journey is different, but a few themes seem to recur. Several of the cancer patients I interviewed at N.Y.U. and Hopkins described an experience of either giving birth or being born. Many also described an encounter with their cancer that had the effect of diminishing its power over them. Dinah Bazer, a shy woman in her sixties who had been given a diagnosis of ovarian cancer in 2010, screamed at the black mass of fear she encountered while peering into her rib cage: “Fuck you, I won’t be eaten alive!” Since her session, she says, she has stopped worrying about a recurrence—one of the objectives of the trial.
Great secrets of the universe often become clear during the journey, such as “We are all one” or “Love is all that matters.” The usual ratio of wonder to banality in the adult mind is overturned, and such ideas acquire the force of revealed truth. The result is a kind of conversion experience, and the researchers believe that this is what is responsible for the therapeutic effect.
Subjects revelled in their sudden ability to travel seemingly at will through space and time, using it to visit Elizabethan England, the banks of the Ganges, or Wordsworthian scenes from their childhood. The impediment of a body is gone, as is one’s identity, yet, paradoxically, a perceiving and recording “I” still exists. Several volunteers used the metaphor of a camera being pulled back on the scene of their lives, to a point where matters that had once seemed daunting now appeared manageable—smoking, cancer, even death. Their accounts are reminiscent of the “overview effect” described by astronauts who have glimpsed the earth from a great distance, an experience that some of them say permanently altered their priorities. Roland Griffiths likens the therapeutic experience of psilocybin to a kind of “inverse P.T.S.D.”—“a discrete event that produces persisting positive changes in attitudes, moods, and behavior, and presumably in the brain.”
Death looms large in the journeys taken by the cancer patients. A woman I’ll call Deborah Ames, a breast-cancer survivor in her sixties (she asked not to be identified), described zipping through space as if in a video game until she arrived at the wall of a crematorium and realized, with a fright, “I’ve died and now I’m going to be cremated. The next thing I know, I’m below the ground in this gorgeous forest, deep woods, loamy and brown. There are roots all around me and I’m seeing the trees growing, and I’m part of them. It didn’t feel sad or happy, just natural, contented, peaceful. I wasn’t gone. I was part of the earth.” Several patients described edging up to the precipice of death and looking over to the other side. Tammy Burgess, given a diagnosis of ovarian cancer at fifty-five, found herself gazing across “the great plain of consciousness. It was very serene and beautiful. I felt alone but I could reach out and touch anyone I’d ever known. When my time came, that’s where my life would go once it left me and that was O.K.”
I was struck by how the descriptions of psychedelic journeys differed from the typical accounts of dreams. For one thing, most people’s recall of their journey is not just vivid but comprehensive, the narratives they reconstruct seamless and fully accessible, even years later. They don’t regard these narratives as “just a dream,” the evanescent products of fantasy or wish fulfillment, but, rather, as genuine and sturdy experiences. This is the “noetic” quality that students of mysticism often describe: the unmistakable sense that whatever has been learned or witnessed has the authority and the durability of objective truth. “You don’t get that on other drugs,” as Roland Griffiths points out; after the fact, we’re fully aware of, and often embarrassed by, the inauthenticity of the drug experience.
This might help explain why so many cancer patients in the trials reported that their fear of death had lifted or at least abated: they had stared directly at death and come to know something about it, in a kind of dress rehearsal. “A high-dose psychedelic experience is death practice,” Katherine MacLean, the former Hopkins psychologist, said. “You’re losing everything you know to be real, letting go of your ego and your body, and that process can feel like dying.” And yet you don’t die; in fact, some volunteers become convinced by the experience that consciousness may somehow survive the death of their bodies.
In follow-up discussions with Bossis, Patrick Mettes spoke of his body and his cancer as a “type of illusion” and how there might be “something beyond this physical body.” It also became clear that, psychologically, at least, Mettes was doing remarkably well: he was meditating regularly, felt he had become better able to live in the present, and described loving his wife “even more.” In a session in March, two months after his journey, Bossis noted that Mettes “reports feeling the happiest in his life.”
How are we to judge the veracity of the insights gleaned during a psychedelic journey? It’s one thing to conclude that love is all that matters, but quite another to come away from a therapy convinced that “there is another reality” awaiting us after death, as one volunteer put it, or that there is more to the universe—and to consciousness—than a purely materialist world view would have us believe. Is psychedelic therapy simply foisting a comforting delusion on the sick and dying?
“That’s above my pay grade,” Bossis said, with a shrug, when I asked him. Bill Richards cited William James, who suggested that we judge the mystical experience not by its veracity, which is unknowable, but by its fruits: does it turn someone’s life in a positive direction?
Many researchers acknowledge that the power of suggestion may play a role when a drug like psilocybin is administered by medical professionals with legal and institutional sanction: under such conditions, the expectations of the therapist are much more likely to be fulfilled by the patient. (And bad trips are much less likely to occur.) But who cares, some argue, as long as it helps? David Nichols, an emeritus professor of pharmacology at Purdue University—and a founder, in 1993, of the Heffter Research Institute, a key funder of psychedelic research—put the pragmatic case most baldly in a recent interview with Science:“If it gives them peace, if it helps people to die peacefully with their friends and their family at their side, I don’t care if it’s real or an illusion.”
Roland Griffiths is willing to consider the challenge that the mystical experience poses to the prevailing scientific paradigm. He conceded that “authenticity is a scientific question not yet answered” and that all that scientists have to go by is what people tell them about their experiences. But he pointed out that the same is true for much more familiar mental phenomena.
“What about the miracle that we are conscious? Just think about that for a second, that we are aware we’re aware!” Insofar as I was on board for one miracle well beyond the reach of materialist science, Griffiths was suggesting, I should remain open to the possibility of others.
“I’m willing to hold that there’s a mystery here we don’t understand, that these experiences may or may not be ‘true,’ ” he said. “What’s exciting is to use the tools we have to explore and pick apart this mystery.”
Perhaps the most ambitious attempt to pick apart the scientific mystery of the psychedelic experience has been taking place in a lab based at Imperial College, in London. There a thirty-four-year-old neuroscientist named Robin Carhart-Harris has been injecting healthy volunteers with psilocybin and LSD and then using a variety of scanning tools—including fMRI and magnetoencephalography (MEG)—to observe what happens in their brains.
Carhart-Harris works in the laboratory of David Nutt, a prominent English psychopharmacologist. Nutt served as the drug-policy adviser to the Labour Government until 2011, when he was fired for arguing that psychedelic drugs should be rescheduled on the ground that they are safer than alcohol or tobacco and potentially invaluable to neuroscience. Carhart-Harris’s own path to neuroscience was an eccentric one. First, he took a graduate course in psychoanalysis—a field that few neuroscientists take seriously, regarding it less as a science than as a set of untestable beliefs. Carhart-Harris was fascinated by psychoanalytic theory but frustrated by the paucity of its tools for exploring what it deemed most important about the mind: the unconscious.
“If the only way we can access the unconscious mind is via dreams and free association, we aren’t going to get anywhere,” he said. “Surely there must be something else.” One day, he asked his seminar leader if that might be a drug. She was intrigued. He set off to search the library catalogue for “LSD and the Unconscious” and found “Realms of the Human Unconscious,” by Stanislav Grof. “I read the book cover to cover. That set the course for the rest of my young life.”
Carhart-Harris, who is slender and intense, with large pale-blue eyes that seldom blink, decided that he would use psychedelic drugs and modern brain-imaging techniques to put a foundation of hard science beneath psychoanalysis. “Freud said dreams were the royal road to the unconscious,” he said in our first interview. “LSD may turn out to be the superhighway.” Nutt agreed to let him follow this hunch in his lab. He ran bureaucratic interference and helped secure funding (from the Beckley Foundation, which supports psychedelic research).
When, in 2010, Carhart-Harris first began studying the brains of volunteers on psychedelics, neuroscientists assumed that the drugs somehow excited brain activity—hence the vivid hallucinations and powerful emotions that people report. But when Carhart-Harris looked at the results of the first set of fMRI scans—which pinpoint areas of brain activity by mapping local blood flow and oxygen consumption—he discovered that the drug appeared to substantially reduce brain activity in one particular region: the “default-mode network.”
The default-mode network was first described in 2001, in a landmark paper by Marcus Raichle, a neurologist at Washington University, in St. Louis, and it has since become the focus of much discussion in neuroscience. The network comprises a critical and centrally situated hub of brain activity that links parts of the cerebral cortex to deeper, older structures in the brain, such as the limbic system and the hippocampus.
The network, which consumes a significant portion of the brain’s energy, appears to be most active when we are least engaged in attending to the world or to a task. It lights up when we are daydreaming, removed from sensory processing, and engaging in higher-level “meta-cognitive” processes such as self-reflection, mental time travel, rumination, and “theory of mind”—the ability to attribute mental states to others. Carhart-Harris describes the default-mode network variously as the brain’s “orchestra conductor” or “corporate executive” or “capital city,” charged with managing and “holding the entire system together.” It is thought to be the physical counterpart of the autobiographical self, or ego.
“The brain is a hierarchical system,” Carhart-Harris said. “The highest-level parts”—such as the default-mode network—“have an inhibitory influence on the lower-level parts, like emotion and memory.” He discovered that blood flow and electrical activity in the default-mode network dropped off precipitously under the influence of psychedelics, a finding that may help to explain the loss of the sense of self that volunteers reported. (The biggest dropoffs in default-mode-network activity correlated with volunteers’ reports of ego dissolution.) Just before Carhart-Harris published his results, in a 2012 paper in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, a researcher at Yale named Judson Brewer, who was using fMRI to study the brains of experienced meditators, noticed that their default-mode networks had also been quieted relative to those of novice meditators. It appears that, with the ego temporarily out of commission, the boundaries between self and world, subject and object, all dissolve. These are hallmarks of the mystical experience.
If the default-mode network functions as the conductor of the symphony of brain activity, we might expect its temporary disappearance from the stage to lead to an increase in dissonance and mental disorder—as appears to happen during the psychedelic journey. Carhart-Harris has found evidence in scans of brain waves that, when the default-mode network shuts down, other brain regions “are let off the leash.” Mental contents hidden from view (or suppressed) during normal waking consciousness come to the fore: emotions, memories, wishes and fears. Regions that don’t ordinarily communicate directly with one another strike up conversations (neuroscientists sometimes call this “crosstalk”), often with bizarre results. Carhart-Harris thinks that hallucinations occur when the visual-processing centers of the brain, left to their own devices, become more susceptible to the influence of our beliefs and emotions.Carhart-Harris doesn’t romanticize psychedelics, and he has little patience for the sort of “magical thinking” and “metaphysics” they promote. In his view, the forms of consciousness that psychedelics unleash are regressions to a more “primitive style of cognition.” Following Freud, he says that the mystical experience—whatever its source—returns us to the psychological condition of the infant, who has yet to develop a sense of himself as a bounded individual. The pinnacle of human development is the achievement of the ego, which imposes order on the anarchy of a primitive mind buffeted by magical thinking. (The developmental psychologist Alison Gopnik has speculated that the way young children perceive the world has much in common with the psychedelic experience. As she puts it, “They’re basically tripping all the time.”) The psychoanalytic value of psychedelics, in his view, is that they allow us to bring the workings of the unconscious mind “into an observable space.”
In “The Doors of Perception,” Aldous Huxley concluded from his psychedelic experience that the conscious mind is less a window on reality than a furious editor of it. The mind is a “reducing valve,” he wrote, eliminating far more reality than it admits to our conscious awareness, lest we be overwhelmed. “What comes out at the other end is a measly trickle of the kind of consciousness which will help us to stay alive.” Psychedelics open the valve wide, removing the filter that hides much of reality, as well as dimensions of our own minds, from ordinary consciousness. Carhart-Harris has cited Huxley’s metaphor in some of his papers, likening the default-mode network to the reducing valve, but he does not agree that everything that comes through the opened doors of perception is necessarily real. The psychedelic experience, he suggests, can yield a lot of “fool’s gold.”
Nevertheless, Carhart-Harris believes that the psychedelic experience can help people by relaxing the grip of an overbearing ego and the rigid, habitual thinking it enforces. The human brain is perhaps the most complex system there is, and the emergence of a conscious self is its highest achievement. By adulthood, the mind has become very good at observing and testing reality and developing confident predictions about it that optimize our investments of energy (mental and otherwise) and therefore our survival. Much of what we think of as perceptions of the world are really educated guesses based on past experience (“That fractal pattern of little green bits in my visual field must be a tree”), and this kind of conventional thinking serves us well.
But only up to a point. In Carhart-Harris’s view, a steep price is paid for the achievement of order and ego in the adult mind. “We give up our emotional lability,” he told me, “our ability to be open to surprises, our ability to think flexibly, and our ability to value nature.” The sovereign ego can become a despot. This is perhaps most evident in depression, when the self turns on itself and uncontrollable introspection gradually shades out reality. In “The Entropic Brain,” a paper published last year in Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, Carhart-Harris cites research indicating that this debilitating state, sometimes called “heavy self-consciousness,” may be the result of a “hyperactive” default-mode network. The lab recently received government funding to conduct a clinical study using psychedelics to treat depression.
Carhart-Harris believes that people suffering from other mental disorders characterized by excessively rigid patterns of thinking, such as addiction and obsessive-compulsive disorder, could benefit from psychedelics, which “disrupt stereotyped patterns of thought and behavior.” In his view, all these disorders are, in a sense, ailments of the ego. He also thinks that this disruption could promote more creative thinking. It may be that some brains could benefit from a little less order.
Existential distress at the end of life bears many of the psychological hallmarks of a hyperactive default-mode network, including excessive self-reflection and an inability to jump the deepening grooves of negative thought. The ego, faced with the prospect of its own dissolution, becomes hypervigilant, withdrawing its investment in the world and other people. It is striking that a single psychedelic experience—an intervention that Carhart-Harris calls “shaking the snow globe”—should have the power to alter these patterns in a lasting way.
This appears to be the case for many of the patients in the clinical trial of psilocybin just concluded at Hopkins and N.Y.U. Patrick Mettes lived for seventeen months after his psilocybin journey, and, according to Lisa, he enjoyed many unexpected satisfactions in that time, along with a dawning acceptance of death.
“We still had our arguments,” Lisa recalled. “And we had a very trying summer,” as they endured a calamitous apartment renovation. But Patrick “had a sense of patience he had never had before, and with me he had real joy about things,” she said. “It was as if he had been relieved of the duty of caring about the details of life. Now it was about being with people, enjoying his sandwich and the walk on the promenade. It was as if we lived a lifetime in a year.”
After the psilocybin session, Mettes spent his good days walking around the city. “He would walk everywhere, try every restaurant for lunch, and tell me about all these great places he’d discovered. But his good days got fewer and fewer.” In March, 2012, he stopped chemo. “He didn’t want to die,” she said. “But I think he just decided that this is not how he wanted to live.”
In April, his lungs failing, Mettes wound up back in the hospital. “He gathered everyone together and said goodbye, and explained that this is how he wanted to die. He had a very conscious death.”
Mettes’s equanimity exerted a powerful influence on everyone around him, Lisa said, and his room in the palliative-care unit at Mt. Sinai became a center of gravity. “Everyone, the nurses and the doctors, wanted to hang out in our room—they just didn’t want to leave. Patrick would talk and talk. He put out so much love.” When Tony Bossis visited Mettes the week before he died, he was struck by Mettes’s serenity. “He was consoling me. He said his biggest sadness was leaving his wife. But he was not afraid.”
Lisa took a picture of Patrick a few days before he died, and when it popped open on my screen it momentarily took my breath away: a gaunt man in a hospital gown, an oxygen clip in his nose, but with shining blue eyes and a broad smile.
Lisa stayed with him in his hospital room night after night, the two of them often talking into the morning hours. “I feel like I have one foot in this world and one in the next,” he told her at one point. Lisa told me, “One of the last nights we were together, he said, ‘Honey, don’t push me. I’m finding my way.’ ”
Lisa hadn’t had a shower in days, and her brother encouraged her to go home for a few hours. Minutes before she returned, Patrick slipped away. “He wasn’t going to die as long as I was there,” she said. “My brother had told me, ‘You need to let him go.’ ”
Lisa said she feels indebted to the people running the N.Y.U. trial and is convinced that the psilocybin experience “allowed him to tap into his own deep resources. That, I think, is what these mind-altering drugs do.”
Despite the encouraging results from the N.Y.U. and Hopkins trials, much stands in the way of the routine use of psychedelic therapy. “We don’t die well in America,” Bossis recently said over lunch at a restaurant near the N.Y.U. medical center. “Ask people where they want to die, and they will tell you at home, with their loved ones. But most of us die in an I.C.U. The biggest taboo in American medicine is the conversation about death. To a doctor, it’s a defeat to let a patient go.” Bossis and several of his colleagues described the considerable difficulty they had recruiting patients from N.Y.U. ’s cancer center for the psilocybin trials. “I’m busy trying to keep my patients alive,” one oncologist told Gabrielle Agin-Liebes, the trial’s project manager. Only when reports of positive experiences began to filter back to the cancer center did nurses there—not doctors—begin to tell patients about the trial.
Recruitment is only one of the many challenges facing a Phase III trial of psilocybin, which would involve hundreds of patients at multiple locations and cost millions of dollars. The University of Wisconsin and the University of California, Los Angeles, are making plans to participate in such a trial, but F.D.A. approval is not guaranteed. If the trial was successful, the government would be under pressure to reschedule psilocybin under the Controlled Substances Act, having recognized a medical use for the drug.
Also, it seems unlikely that the government would ever fund such a study. “The N.I.M.H. is not opposed to work with psychedelics, but I doubt we would make a major investment,” Tom Insel, the institute’s director, told me. He said that the N.I.M.H would need to see “a path to development” and suspects that “it would be very difficult to get a pharmaceutical company interested in developing this drug, since it cannot be patented.” It’s also unlikely that Big Pharma would have any interest in a drug that is administered only once or twice in the course of treatment. “There’s not a lot of money here when you can be cured with one session,” Bossis pointed out. Still, Bob Jesse and Rick Doblin are confident that they will find private money for a Phase III clinical trial, and several private funders I spoke to indicated that it would be forthcoming.
Many of the researchers and therapists I interviewed are confident that psychedelic therapy will eventually become routine. Katherine MacLean hopes someday to establish a “psychedelic hospice,” a retreat center where the dying and their loved ones can use psychedelics to help them all let go. “If we limit psychedelics just to the patient, we’re sticking with the old medical model,” she said. “But psychedelics are so much more radical than that. I get nervous when people say they should only be prescribed by a doctor.”
In MacLean’s thinking, one hears echoes of the excitement of the sixties about the potential of psychedelics to help a wide range of people, and the impatience with the cumbersome structures of medicine. It was precisely this exuberance about psychedelics, and the frustration with the slow pace of science, that helped fuel the backlash against them.
Still, “the betterment of well people,” to borrow a phrase of Bob Jesse’s, is very much on the minds of most of the researchers I interviewed, some of whom were more reluctant to discuss it on the record than institutional outsiders like Jesse and MacLean. For them, medical acceptance is a first step to a broader cultural acceptance. Jesse would like to see the drugs administered by skilled guides working in “longitudinal multigenerational contexts”—which, as he describes them, sound a lot like church communities. Others envisage a time when people seeking a psychedelic experience—whether for reasons of mental health or spiritual seeking or simple curiosity—could go to something like a “mental-health club,” as Julie Holland, a psychiatrist formerly at Bellevue, described it: “Sort of like a cross between a spa/retreat and a gym where people can experience psychedelics in a safe, supportive environment.” All spoke of the importance of well-trained guides (N.Y.U. has had a training program in psychedelic therapy since 2008, directed by Jeffrey Guss, a co-principal investigator for the psilocybin trials)* and the need to help people afterward “integrate” the powerful experiences they have had in order to render them truly useful. This is not something that happens when these drugs are used recreationally. Bossis paraphrases Huston Smith on this point: “A spiritual experience does not by itself make a spiritual life.”
When I asked Rick Doblin if he worries about another backlash, he suggested that the culture has made much progress since the nineteen-sixties. “That was a very different time,” he said. “People wouldn’t even talk about cancer or death then. Women were tranquillized to give birth; men weren’t allowed in the delivery room. Yoga and meditation were totally weird. Now mindfulness is mainstream and everyone does yoga, and there are birthing centers and hospices all over. We’ve integrated all these things into our culture. And now I think we’re ready to integrate psychedelics.” He also points out that many of the people in charge of our institutions today have personal experience with psychedelics and so feel less threatened by them.
Bossis would like to believe in Doblin’s sunny forecast, and he hopes that “the legacy of this work” will be the routine use of psychedelics in palliative care. But he also thinks that the medical use of psychedelics could easily run into resistance. “This culture has a fear of death, a fear of transcendence, and a fear of the unknown, all of which are embodied in this work.” Psychedelics may be too disruptive for our society and institutions ever to embrace them.
The first time I raised the idea of “the betterment of well people” with Roland Griffiths, he shifted in his chair and chose his words carefully. “Culturally, right now, that’s a dangerous idea to promote,” he said. And yet, as we talked, it became clear that he, too, feels that many of us stand to benefit from these molecules and, even more, from the spiritual experiences they can make available.
“We are all terminal,” Griffiths said. “We’re all dealing with death. This will be far too valuable to limit to sick people.”
- A discussion going on here in New Zealand about the role of intellectuals in society. But, I think it is relevant for any advanced western society especially now as business-centric neoliberalism is in its ascendency and seriously needs questioning.
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The recent uproar over comments by writer Eleanor Catton (here) showed that there are still dangers in being a public intellectual in New Zealand. Some Kiwi thinkers talk about their experiences with Philip Matthews.
What happens when you lift your head above the parapet? You must be prepared for the slings and arrows of outrageous criticism.
“Public intellectuals need to be as tough as Special Olympics athletes,” says David Rutherford, chief commissioner of the Human Rights Commission.
He should know. Not because he considers himself a public intellectual – in fact, he does not – but because he came to the commission after running Special Olympics in Asia Pacific.
Yet he knows how it feels to be on the receiving end of official opprobrium for speaking his mind. Despite being government-appointed, by then justice minister Simon Power, he has taken public flak from Prime Minister John Key and MPs Nick Smith and Gerry Brownlee for his commission’s stance on spying, Christchurch red zones and democracy.
Rutherford is in a rare, sometimes difficult position as a state-funded fly in the ointment. Critical public intellectuals? Despite excusing himself, he sees the need.
“While New Zealanders are pragmatists who value common sense I also think most of us know we need people who challenge our thinking and the status quo.”
This need has become enormously topical in the wake of the response to writer Eleanor Catton’s comments at a literary festival in India last month. Catton talked about New Zealand’s “neoliberal” orthodoxy, the reluctance of our authors to pen manifestos, the general underfunding of the cultural sector and the tensions that come when individual artistic success is somehow “owned” by the rest of the country.
Key did not like it and criticised her tenuous Green Party affiliations. In an infamous segment on Radio Live, broadcaster Sean Plunket attacked Catton as “ungrateful” and suggested that state funding, whether it comes from arts body Creative NZ or a job at a tertiary institution, should buy the New Zealand government unquestioning promotion abroad.
Everyone with an opinion waded into the debate. Which was good and healthy.
But a greater issue went mostly unexplored. Do we have public intellectuals? If so, who are they and how do they feel now about what they do?
So we set about identifying a dozen public intellectuals, some established and some lesser-known.
They were sent standard questions about whether they considered themselves public intellectuals, what the role involves, the risks of being public and their assessment of support from universities, media companies and the general public.
Only one declined. Psychologist and broadcaster Nigel Latta resisted applying the label to himself and opted not to join the discussion, as “I think this whole incident has been completely overcooked so I’ll politely decline the offer rather than contribute to the already overboiled pot”.
Italian thinker Antonio Gramsci defined intellectuals as those whose work is based on the possession and exercise of knowledge. New Zealand writer Bruce Jesson said that the role of an intellectual is to be a critic of society as well as a servant of it and saw no difference between being a servant and a critic.
Gramsci and Jesson’s lines appear in the introduction to Speaking Truth to Power: Public Intellectuals Rethink New Zealand, which is almost 10 years old but highly relevant to the Catton debate.
The anti-intellectual strategies of former prime minister Robert Muldoon, who mocked intellectuals as “snobs” and “ivory tower types”, are close to those practised by Key and Plunket.
And when academic Laurence Simmons wrote in the introduction that “while we revel in the global branding of our sporting heroes, our adventurers or our show-business successes, we shrink from acknowledging the influence and legacy of our thinkers who question the way things are”, he all but predicted the Catton story.
If the Catton furore had a prequel it was the art and media controversy around New Zealand’s installation at the Venice Biennale in 2005.
The exhibition by the et al collective was repeatedly misrepresented in the media and as it was part of et al’s art practice to not speak directly to media, misunderstandings accumulated.
Stung by the bad publicity, Creative NZ commissioned a major report and opted not to return to Venice until 2009. From now on, the “creative team” should include people with “recognised public relations skills”, the report said.
The Venice report found that “one prominent New Zealander stated that the ‘deliberately obtuse manifesto was hard to understand’ and went on to explain that the New Zealand public like it straight up and down and are impatient with things that are perceived as too hard to understand”. Anti-intellectualism was taken as gospel and applied as a marketing strategy.
As in the Catton story there was an idea that if the government has funded art, the artist is obliged to do positive tourism promotion abroad. Was Venice about art or New Zealand Inc networking?
That was under Helen Clark’s Labour government but belittling of academics and experts has also been a feature of Key’s government. Besides Rutherford and Catton, there was the time architecture writer and presenter Kevin McCloud was dismissed as “a tourist” by Brownlee when he offered opinions on the Christchurch rebuild. Leading academic Dame Anne Salmond was attacked as “shrill and unprofessional” and “high and mighty” by Attorney-General Chris Finlayson when she opposed spying legislation in 2013.
Even Whale Rider star Keisha Castle-Hughes was told to “stick to acting” by Key when she voiced an opinion on climate change in 2009.
But none of the previous criticisms generated anything like the coverage accorded to Catton. Partly this was because of Catton’s international status as a Man Booker Prize winner, partly because she responded so calmly to her critics on her blog and partly because the conversation raised deep issues about intellectual discourse in New Zealand.
University of Otago politics lecturer Bryce Edwards thinks that Catton emerged with more fortitude than ever and that it was Sean Plunket who lost face. He sees the Catton story as a lightning rod for wider discontent about politics and the media.
Salmond, in her response to our questions, says: “Some fundamental matters act as flashpoints, where debate spirals out of control.
“This is partly because some groups with vested interests do not welcome public scrutiny of their activities and actively seek to suppress it. This happened in the Dirty Politics saga, for example.”
Salmond believes that “the tone is set from the top”. In attacks on Catton and some journalists, “the responses have been quite vicious and designed to damage people’s lives and careers. The quality of public debate in New Zealand is increasingly nasty and that’s a matter for concern.”
Some of our media is courageous and some is obsequious to those with wealth and power. As for our universities, “they are increasingly required to dance to the tune of vested interests, from politicians to corporate funders”. This is dangerous for democracy and works against creativity, innovation and the free flow of ideas, Salmond adds.
Economist Gareth Morgan dislikes the term “public intellectual” but concedes that he has been working in the public eye since 1982 and has lately enjoyed the luxury of applying his research skills and resources to subjects ranging from climate change, public health, fisheries management, tax and welfare, and obesity to the Treaty of Waitangi.
Morgan has estimated that five years of work on his Treaty book will have personally cost him $600,000 by the end of 2015.
“In order to educate myself I research and write a book and then share those learnings with the public at large, often starting a national conversation on the topic.”
One great example was the national conversation Morgan started about the threat of cats to native birdlife.
And while others must wear criticism from politicians, media or the public, Morgan seems immune. He believes his experience as a public thinker has been largely positive.
“My experience is that the public love the conversation. Further, I find that when we become well-informed, the public is incredibly rational and balanced. Eventually it steers our politicians in the right direction.”
Writer and investigative journalist Nicky Hager generously opened his discussion by listing others he would name as public intellectuals. The Dirty Politics author rates political scientists Bryce Edwards and Jon Johansson, economists Rod Oram, Bill Rosenberg, Brian Easton and Marilyn Waring and science lecturers Mike Joy and Nicola Gaston.
“There are plenty of people who will defend those in power,” Hager says.
“My picture of a public intellectual is someone who is willing to challenge established interests and ideas on behalf of the public, and provide a counter narrative.”
When Dirty Politics appeared, Hager was attacked as “a screaming Left-wing conspiracy theorist” by no less than the prime minister.
He says it is “sadly common” for those who speak on public issues and are attacked to then bow out of public life.
“Large numbers of people in New Zealand are pushed out of public roles and effectively lose their freedom of speech in this way. That is a large part of what Dirty Politics is about.”
In Speaking Truth to Power, Hager argued that the “tall poppy syndrome” is the establishment’s way of cutting down critics rather than the authentic response of the man or woman on the street. Not anti-intellectualism but “a punishment of alternative views”.
He believes that New Zealanders are open to and appreciate the work of public intellectuals, even if they might not use the term.
“There is a wide appetite for intelligent discussion and ideas. But there seems to be little active support and the media in particular should do more to encourage them. The media could start using thoughtful and informed people for commentary instead of people offering celebrity and ignorant controversy.”
Remember the incest gaffe?
Former ACT leader Jamie Whyte knows how it feels to be personally attacked for dissenting views.
Within weeks of assuming the party leadership, Whyte was ridiculed for his belief that the state should not intervene if adult siblings wish to marry. He quickly learned that what is acceptable for rational but politically naive philosophers is taboo for politicians.
Attracting ridicule is an inevitable risk, he says. Sometimes it is deserved, he adds.
Even the public intellectual label “rightly attracts ridicule because it is pompous and suggests that some kind of authority comes with it. None does. No one’s opinions are worth any more than the arguments or evidence that supports them,” he says.
“Vilification is also a risk. If you discuss sensitive topics, such as race, sex and religion, you are likely to upset people. Some will accuse you not only of being wrong but of being wicked. I notice a trend towards arguing not about what people have said but about whether they should have said it.
“Many people seem to believe they have a right to go through life undisturbed by being confronted with views contrary to their own.”
So is New Zealand hostile to intellectuals? Not especially. Whyte sees that English-speaking countries generally have a healthy scepticism about public intellectuals compared to continental Europe.
“Politics is no more intellectually downmarket here than in the UK, US or Australia. Perhaps there is less commentary from intellectuals on TV but that mainly results from the lack of think tanks and similar organisations that aim to push ideas into the media.
“The lack of these organisations results from our small population. To put the matter in perspective, you might ask whether life is better for a public intellectual in New Zealand or in Kentucky, which has the same population.”
A near-forgotten speech made by a US congressman warned of global warming and the mismanagement of natural resources
When we think of the birth of the conservation movement in the 19th century, the names that usually spring to mind are the likes of John Muir and Henry David Thoreau, men who wrote about the need to protect wilderness areas in an age when the notion of mankind’s “manifest destiny” was all the rage.
But a far less remembered American – a contemporary of Muir and Thoreau – can claim to be the person who first publicised the now largely unchallenged idea that humans can negatively influence the environment that supports them.
George Perkins Marsh (1801-1882) certainly had a varied career. Here’s how Clark University in Massachusetts, which has named an institute in his memory, describes him:
Throughout his 80 years Marsh had many careers as a lawyer (though, by his own words, “an indifferent practitioner”), newspaper editor, sheep farmer, mill owner, lecturer, politician and diplomat. He also tried his hand at various businesses, but failed miserably in all – marble quarrying, railroad investment and woolen manufacturing. He studied linguistics, knew 20 languages, wrote a definitive book on the origin of the English language, and was known as the foremost Scandinavian scholar in North America. He invented tools and designed buildings including the Washington Monument. As a congressman in Washington (1843-49) Marsh helped to found and guide the Smithsonian Institution. He served as US Minister to Turkey for five years where he aided revolutionary refugees and advocated for religious freedom. He spent the last 21 years of his life (1861-82) as US Minister to the newly United Kingdom of Italy.
More than 160 years on, it really does pay to re-read his speech as it seems remarkably prescient today. It also shows that he was decades ahead of most other thinkers on this subject. After all, he delivered his lecture a decade or more before John Tyndall began to explore the thesis that slight changes in the atmosphere’s composition could cause climatic variations. And it was a full half a century before Svante Arrhenius proposed that carbon dioxide emitted by the “enormous combustion of coal by our industrial establishments” might warm the world (something he thought would be beneficial).
Yes, in his speech, Marsh talks about “civilised man” and “savages” – and the language is turgid in places – but let’s cut him a little slack: this was 1847, after all. It’s about half way through he gets to the bit that matters most to us today:
Man cannot at his pleasure command the rain and the sunshine, the wind and frost and snow, yet it is certain that climate itself has in many instances been gradually changed and ameliorated or deteriorated by human action. The draining of swamps and the clearing of forests perceptibly effect the evaporation from the earth, and of course the mean quantity of moisture suspended in the air. The same causes modify the electrical condition of the atmosphere and the power of the surface to reflect, absorb and radiate the rays of the sun, and consequently influence the distribution of light and heat, and the force and direction of the winds. Within narrow limits too, domestic fires and artificial structures create and diffuse increased warmth, to an extent that may effect vegetation. The mean temperature of London is a degree or two higher than that of the surrounding country, and Pallas believed, that the climate of even so thinly a peopled country as Russia was sensibly modified by similar causes.
Some of the terminology he uses is clearly a little archaic to our ears today, but, broadly speaking, his hunch has subsequently proved to be correct. You can see him grappling with concepts that we now know as the urban heat island effectand greenhouse effect.
But in the speech he also called for a more thoughtful approach to consuming natural resources, despite the apparent near-limitless abundance on offer across the vast expanses of northern America. As the Clark University biography notes, he wasn’t an environmental sentimentalist. Rather, he believed that all consumption must be reasoned and considered, with the impact on future generations always kept in mind: he was making the case for what we now call “sustainable development”. In particular, he argued that his audience should re-evaluate the worth of trees:
The increasing value of timber and fuel ought to teach us that trees are no longer what they were in our fathers’ time, an incumbrance. We have undoubtedly already a larger proportion of cleared land in Vermont than would be required, with proper culture, for the support of a much greater population than we now possess, and every additional acre both lessens our means for thorough husbandry, by disproportionately extending its area, and deprives succeeding generations of what, though comparatively worthless to us, would be of great value to them.
The functions of the forest, besides supplying timber and fuel, are very various. The conducting powers of trees render them highly useful in restoring the disturbed equilibrium of the electric fluid; they are of great value in sheltering and protecting more tender vegetables against the destructive effects of bleak or parching winds, and the annual deposit of the foliage of deciduous trees, and the decomposition of their decaying trunks, form an accumulation of vegetable mould, which gives the greatest fertility to the often originally barren soils on which they grow, and enriches lower grounds by the wash from rains and the melting snows.
The inconveniences resulting from a want of foresight in the economy of the forest are already severely felt in many parts of New England, and even in some of the older towns in Vermont. Steep hill-sides and rocky ledges are well suited to the permanent growth of wood, but when in the rage for improvement they are improvidently stripped of this protection, the action of sun and wind and rain soon deprives them of their thin coating of vegetable mould, and this, when exhausted, cannot be restored by ordinary husbandry. They remain therefore barren and unsightly blots, producing neither grain nor grass, and yielding no crop but a harvest of noxious weeds, to infest with their scattered seeds the richer arable grounds below.
But this is by no means the only evil resulting from the injudicious destruction of the woods. Forests serve as reservoirs and equalizers of humidity. In wet seasons, the decayed leaves and spongy soil of woodlands retain a large proportion of the falling rains, and give back the moisture in time of drought, by evaporation or through the medium of springs. They thus both check the sudden flow of water from the surface into the streams and low grounds, and prevent the droughts of summer from parching our pastures and drying up the rivulets which water them.
On the other hand, where too large a proportion of the surface is bared of wood, the action of the summer sun and wind scorches the hills which are no longer shaded or sheltered by trees, the springs and rivulets that found their supply in the bibulous soil of the forest disappear, and the farmer is obliged to surrender his meadows to his cattle, which can no longer find food in his pastures, and sometime even to drive them miles for water.
Again, the vernal and autumnal rains, and the melting snows of winter, no longer intercepted and absorbed by the leaves or the open soil of the woods, but falling everywhere upon a comparatively hard and even surface, flow swiftly over the smooth ground, washing away the vegetable mould as they seek their natural outlets, fill every ravine with a torrent, and convert every river into an ocean. The suddenness and violence of our freshets increases in proportion as the soil is cleared; bridges are washed away, meadows swept of their crops and fences, and covered with barren sand, or themselves abraded by the fury of the current, and there is reason to fear that the valleys of many of our streams will soon be converted from smiling meadows into broad wastes of shingle and gravel and pebbles, deserts in summer, and seas in autumn and spring.
The changes, which these causes have wrought in the physical geography of Vermont, within a single generation, are too striking to have escaped the attention of any observing person, and every middle-aged man, who revisits his birth-place after a few years of absence, looks upon another landscape than that which formed the theatre of his youthful toils and pleasures. The signs of artificial improvement are mingled with the tokens of improvident waste, and the bald and barren hills, the dry beds of the smaller streams, the ravines furrowed out by the torrents of spring, and the diminished thread of interval that skirts the widened channel of the rivers, seem sad substitutes for the pleasant groves and brooks and broad meadows of his ancient paternal domain.
If the present value of timber and land will not justify the artificial re-planting of grounds injudiciously cleared, at least nature ought to be allowed to reclothe them with a spontaneous growth of wood, and in our future husbandry a more careful selection should be made of land for permanent improvement. It has long been a practice in many parts of Europe, as well as in our older settlements, to cut the forests reserved for timber and fuel at stated intervals. It is quite time that this practice should be introduced among us.
After the first felling of the original forest it is indeed a long time before its place is supplied, because the roots of old and full grown trees seldom throw up shoots, but when the second growth is once established, it may be cut with great advantage, at periods of about twenty-five years, and yields a material, in every respect but size, far superior to the wood of the primitive tree. In many European countries, the economy of the forest is regulated by law; but here, where public opinion determines, or rather in practice constitutes law, we can only appeal to an enlightened self-interest to introduce the reforms, check the abuses, and preserve us from an increase of the evils I have mentioned.
A footnote: it is 150 years ago this year since Marsh was personally appointed by Abraham Lincoln to be the US’s first ambassador to Italy. (Marsh was buried in Rome.) Just three years later, Lincoln approved the legislation which would lead to the creation of Yosemite National Park in California. This acted as a precedent across the world for federal and state governments to purchase or secure wilderness areas so they could be protected in perpetuity from development or exploitation. It’s speculation, of course, but I’ve always wondered whether Marsh and Lincoln ever discussed such matters, be it in person or in correspondence. Perhaps, there’s a keen historian out there who knows the answer?
In an effort to tend to their diverse learning needs, the administration divided the GATE students into two groups Morgan termed the “Perfects” and the “Clods.”The Perfects were all high-achieving gifted kids—those who could sit still and listen to their teacher and, therefore, scored higher on tests.
Morgan, on the other hand, was a Clod.
The Clods, Morgan says, “were all over-excited. All hyper-sensitive. There were sensory issues running wild.” Chaos reigned in the Clod classroom. “No one could sit still. We were all talking back and yelling over each other.”
- I was a gifted kid in the sixties – I graduated High School in 1965.
- My school district, in Long Beach, California, had a program where they put the gifted kids all together in a class. This wasn’t our only class as most of us had four to six different classes per day. But, once a day for an hour, we’d gather in this special class. I can’t even recall what we did there.
- And we were a wide mix. Everything from the Scholarship bound student class leaders to the serious misfits (like the perfects and the clods in the quote, above).
- I can’t recall that this class had much of an effect on me other than to make me realize that I had something in common with some of the kids who seemed to excel in everything – like popularity, academics and sports. Though, at the time, I couldn’t imagine that I would ever get it together to be like them.
- After reading this article, I think I would define myself, luckily, as closer to being one of the ‘Perfects’ – as opposed to being one of the ‘clods’.
- Oh, I had problems at school – but they were nurture problems that derived from a disruptive home (alcoholism) and not nature problems that were inborn into my nervous system.
- This is hugely interesting read. And, if you have gifted kids, or if you were gifted yourself, you are sure to learn something here.
Those who think exceptional students have it made don’t understand that being brilliant can have dark implications, writes Swerve’s Marcello Di Cintio.
Reed Ball started playing Monopoly with his family at age three—and beat them.
In the early 1980s, he was one of the first kids to have a “portable” computer, a 10-kilogram Amstrad PPC512. Reed brought it to class until one of the school’s bullies knocked it out of his hands and down a stairwell. Reed was a math whiz, and used to correct his teachers’ science errors. When they warned him he would get lead poisoning if he kept stabbing at his own arm with a pencil, Reed replied, “actually, it is graphite.”
Just before he graduated from high school in 1991, Reed developed software for a major oil company that converted old blueprints into working documents.
He began his studies for a degree in mathematics that September, but flunked out a year later.
Then, when he was 21 years old, Reed Ball swallowed a bottle of sleeping pills.
He died quietly with his pet kitten, Solis, beside him and his computer still on.
“Reed never fit in,” says Jennifer Aldred, one of his longtime schoolmates. “My heart broke for him.”
Aldred recalls Reed’s math skills and his heavy computer, but what she remembers most about Reed was how he used to twist his slender body around the legs of his desk.
He would tie himself into such knots that the caretaker would be summoned to rescue Reed by taking apart the desk with a screwdriver.
Reed’s entanglements serve as an apt metaphor for the school life of severely gifted children.
For those who feel weird and wrong and struggle to find like minds among their peers, school itself can be a contortion. Reed’s exceptional life and early death inspired Aldred into a career in gifted education. She and her colleagues work to help children like Reed untwist.
His tragedy reveals what can be at stake for these kids.
Our most brilliant children are among our most vulnerable. The challenge of teaching them is finding a way to nurture their souls and ease the burden of their extraordinary minds.
“Giftedness is a tragic gift, and not a precursor to success,” says Janneke Frank, principal of Westmount Charter School and a local guru of gifted education:
The gifted don’t just think differently, they feel differently. And emotions can ricochet out of control sometimes.
To speak of giftedness as a disability seems counterintuitive. Part of the problem is simply semantic; the word “gifted” suggests an advantage and does not conjure up the intense challenges these children can face.
Intelligence test results also fail to tell the whole story.
Quantitatively, giftedness is rather easy to define. A child is considered gifted with an IQ at or around 130—about 30 points higher than those of us with average brains.
But IQ scores alone don’t reflect the range of psychological issues that trouble many gifted students.
Gifted children might express heightened physical sensitivities to light, touch and textures. Parents of some gifted children have to cut the tags out of their kids’ clothing, for example, or buy specially-designed socks with no seams. More serious, though, are the emotional challenges. Gifted children are more prone to depression, self-harm, overexcitability, and learning deficits.
A gifted student might be so paralyzed by her own perfectionism, say, that she refuses to hand in any assignments.
The same 10-year-old who can set up the school’s computer system with the proficiency of a college-educated tech might also throw a tantrum like a toddler if she’s not invited to a birthday party.
Another child might be so affected by a piece of music that he won’t be able to focus on anything else the rest of the day.
Aldred, too, was an eccentric and gifted child. She traded her eraser collection for a classmate’s cast-off eyeglasses, and fashioned herself a set of braces from metal paperclips she pilfered from her teacher’s desk.
“I was delighted with the look,” Aldred says, even though the glasses made her eyes hurt and the paperclips lacerated the inside of her mouth.
When I smiled, blood dripped down my teeth.
Eventually Aldred modified her design to include eyeglass frames without lenses and plastic-coated paperclips that didn’t cut her gums.
Aldred believed with heart-pounding certainty that her school was the sort of enchanted forest or magic kingdom she read about in the books she loved. In addition to the glasses and fake braces, Aldred wore gowns, crowns and glitter-covered wings to school to be ready when this magic revealed itself. Aldred had absolute faith the dream world she yearned for was perpetually at hand.
Looking back, Aldred wonders if this fantasy represented her own contortion.
Like Reed’s twisted body, Aldred’s belief in magic was her way of coping with a real world that made little sense to her.
It was an attempt at resiliency—to somehow scream ‘but this is what I see’, even when a thousand forces tried their best to tear it from me. — Aldred
Those forces succeeded eventually.
Aldred’s teacher confiscated the glasses and banned her from raiding the paperclip jar. Aldred started to leave the wings and crowns at home.
Parts of me died in those early years. When I started teaching, the only thing I wanted to be sure of—especially working with gifted kids—was that no part of them died. — Aldred
In Aldred and Reed’s time, schools offered little programming for gifted students. Aldred briefly attended a “cluster group” at Prince of Wales Elementary. The school administration yanked the smartest kids from each grade out of their regular classes and grouped them together for special learning. No doubt the developers of the program meant well, but the effectiveness of the pull-out class seems rather dubious.
“We sat in dark rooms where we imagined different ways to build stuffed animals and played chess for a while,” Aldred remembers.
Colin Martin—Aldred’s cluster classmate who used to play Monopoly with Reed, on multiple boards at the same time, in Reed’s parents’ basement—says the program aided the school bullies by assembling all their favourite victims in one convenient location.
After graduating from high school in the early ’90s, Aldred left Calgary for Queen’s University, where she completed honours degrees in English and fine arts, followed by a bachelor of education with a focus on gifted learning.
She returned to Calgary for her practicum and, by coincidence, ended up teaching back at Prince of Wales.
By this time, more sophisticated programs were available for Calgary’s gifted students.
Prince of Wales was, and remains, one of five schools running the Calgary Board of Education’s Gifted and Talented Education program, or GATE. In addition, Westmount Charter School offers “qualitatively differentiated educational programming” for gifted students.
Both programs require potential students to undergo psychological assessments and score high on intelligence tests to identify their giftedness.
At Prince of Wales, Aldred was charged with teaching English literature to GATE students. She’d taught Shakespeare’s plays to “regular” teenagers in Ontario, and suspected she’d have to find simplified versions for her younger charges at Prince of Wales.
She was wrong: “They just got it.”
Her gifted students took to the poetic language immediately and grasped the metaphorical elements in the text better than students 10 years older.
When Aldred taught a unit on Arthurian legend, her students showed no interest in the illustrated children’s anthologies Aldred brought for them.
Instead, they looted the stack of academic treatises and primary source material on Aldred’s own desk.
One nine-year-old girl hauled away a 900-page copy of The Mists of Avalon. She read the entire book that night and returned it, exhausted, the next morning.
What delighted Aldred most about her first gifted class was that despite their sophisticated grasp of the material, the GATE students were still children.
They believed in magic the same way she used to.
Intellectually, they were at a university level, but they were trapped in these little kid bodies that still believed in unicorns.
Their enthusiasm for the material astonished her.
The day after she read aloud the first three lines of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, one of her students came to class dressed as the Queen of the Fairies.
Some of these kids acted as if they’d been waiting their whole life for Aldred to bring them Shakespeare, or Sylvia Plath, or Margaret Atwood. “For me, as a teacher, it was a dream come true,” Aldred says.
After her practicum, Aldred earned a master’s in gifted education at the University of Calgary.
By then, her experience convinced her that gifted students should have their own classrooms and not be scattered among the general school population.
I believe hugely in a congregated setting. — Aldred
To argue against integration also feels counterintuitive.
The separation of the gifted may seem unfair and discriminatory; parents of “regular” kids often wonder why resources and special classrooms are devoted to gifted students.
Kathy Stone, the mother of gifted twin boys, remembers an irate father standing up at a meeting with a school superintendent to protest funding a gifted program.
“I am so sick of hearing that elitist crap,” Stone remembers the man saying.
He called gifted kids arrogant, complained that they already have everything, and rejected the idea that they needed ‘country club programming.’
“Kids are all the same and should be treated the same,” he continued.
Nearly all teachers and parents of gifted students, however, consider congregated classrooms essential.
People say it teaches the kids not to get along in the real world. I believe it is about survival.
Gifted kids need a place where they can feel safe and accepted for all their various intensities. A place where they can be themselves, quirks and all.
Janice Robertson agrees: a congregated gifted program may well have saved her son’s life.
Janice had long been concerned about Mark (both their names have been changed).
He was an exceptionally smart kid who taught himself to read by the time he was two years old.
But a darkness always hung behind Mark’s brightness.
“He would say things like, ‘I’m just going to hurt myself,’” Janice remembers.
He used to bang his head on the floor and once, when he was three, pointed to a digger on a construction site and said, “I’m going to ask that digger to dig a hole and put us in it and bury us.”
Mark’s early schooling in Saskatchewan proved difficult. He behaved poorly. Mark threw things around the classroom, made animal noises during quiet reading time, and hurled snowballs at cars at recess.
The school principal called Mark’s parents with reports of misbehaviour several times a week.
A doctor wrote Mark a prescription for Zoloft, an anti-anxiety drug, but the medication had no effect.
“He was driving himself and everyone else crazy,” Janice says. She decided to have Mark tested for giftedness.
These tests are expensive. The Wechler Intelligence Scale for Children (WISC), one of the most common tests used to determine giftedness, costs anywhere between $800 and $2000 to administer.
In most cases, individual teachers will identify a child who should be tested and recommend the school cover the cost. But without a teacher’s referral—or if the school’s budget for testing runs dry—parents must foot the bill.
Mark’s family was fortunate that they could afford the tests, but many lower-income families cannot.
Gifted-education advocates like Aldred and Frank worry that many gifted children are not being identified at all.
Mark scored well into the gifted range and was eligible for special programming, but the gifted programs in Saskatoon’s public school system did not start until Grade 5.
Mark’s parents decided they couldn’t wait.
The whole family moved to Calgary and Mark started the GATE program at Hillhurst Elementary.
After about a year into the program, Mark settled down and his grades improved.
He wasn’t as bored. There was not as much need to create chaos to keep himself entertained.
Most importantly, though, was that Mark had found his tribe. “People understood him better. He made more intellectual connections.”
Occasionally, Mark clashed with kids “outside his little clan,” Janice says, but never with his fellow GATE classmates. These were his people.
Mark continued with the GATE program until Grade 11, when he enrolled in a hockey program at Athol Murray College of Notre Dame in Wilcox, Saskatchewan. (A true eccentric, Mark played goal.) Now he studies engineering at Queen’s University.
As it turns out, his roommates in Kingston are old classmates from the GATE program in Calgary.
Without that program, Janice says, Mark would have fallen apart.
I honestly believe if we hadn’t gotten him into that segregated program he would have dropped out and started dealing drugs somewhere. Mark would have ended up killing himself or someone else. — Janice
Not all students feel saved by gifted education, however.
Alyssa Morgan needed to be saved from her gifted program.
Morgan had always been an odd kid. For as long as she can remember, she has never been able to stand tags on her clothing and can’t wear anything made out of corduroy or polyester. “I’ve worn jeans and a cotton T-shirt for basically my entire life,” she says.
Morgan started to notice her own giftedness in Grade 3 when she started to find school unbearably dull. Morgan often snuck out of her classroom to read books in the library. When she did attend class, Morgan pestered her teacher with constant questions.
It was like an itch I couldn’t scratch. The thirst to know and understand everything. — Morgan
Morgan’s parents didn’t worry too much about their daughter’s eccentricities until Grade 4 when a substitute teacher—and mother of two gifted children—recognized something exceptional in Morgan’s misbehaviour. The substitute teacher suggested testing Morgan’s IQ. She scored a 137 and started in the GATE program at Nellie McClung the following year.
In a way, Morgan was lucky she was such a pain in the ass. Gifted boys tend to act out much more often than gifted girls. Young males tend to combat their boredom by disrupting the class.
Often their frustrated teachers send them to be tested for behavioural problems only to discover that the little monsters have off-the-chart IQs. Gifted girls, however, are more likely to turn inward. Their silent brooding may be interpreted as nothing more than feminine coquettishness, and their giftedness may be overlooked.
Initially, the GATE program was everything Morgan wanted. “The first two years I was in that program were incredible,” she says.
Her teacher assigned expansive projects to the class. They discussed concepts, shared ideas, and approached each piece of curriculum from several angles at once.
Every single day I was coming home bursting at the seams with all of this. — Morgan
At the family dinner table, Morgan rambled on about how she learned about pi. About Archimedes. About the pay system of the ancient Incas. “It got to the point that my parents said ‘You need to stop and let everyone else talk about their day as well.’”
The GATE teachers at McClung knew how to manage the various excitabilities and sensory issues of their students. Morgan’s Grade 6 teacher, Michelle Odland, gave the students regular “body breaks.” Allowing them to get up and run around the class a few times a day helped their concentration.
Odland also wrapped everyone’s desk in sheets of paper so that they could doodle nonstop if they needed to. When some of the more sensitive kids complained about the constant buzz of the fluorescent tube lighting, Odland strung up Christmas bulbs everywhere to provide a calmer, quieter light.
“She would constantly ask ‘What’s bugging you?’” Morgan says. “This was a teacher who understood we weren’t just a bunch of kids that were really, really smart. She offered us emotional support.”
But Morgan’s dream education ended when she left McClung and started junior high at John Ware.
In an effort to tend to their diverse learning needs, the administration divided the GATE students into two groups Morgan termed the “Perfects” and the “Clods.”The Perfects were all high-achieving gifted kids—those who could sit still and listen to their teacher and, therefore, scored higher on tests.
Morgan, on the other hand, was a Clod.
The Clods, Morgan says, “were all over-excited. All hyper-sensitive. There were sensory issues running wild.” Chaos reigned in the Clod classroom. “No one could sit still. We were all talking back and yelling over each other.”
The Clods’ teachers lacked Mrs. Odland’s talent for teaching gifted kids. Instead of assigning big projects, most teachers handed out worksheets. Students were not encouraged to debate concepts anymore, and were expected to simply sit, listen and behave.
We did not have enough teachers who actually understood what gifted is. — Morgan
Before long, the students turned on each other. Gifted students are rarely bullies, but without an outlet for their various intensities the Clods of Nellie McClung vented their frustration on Morgan.
The teasing and abuse escalated throughout junior high and into high school.
Morgan hid most of what was happening from her parents. “They were aware there was bullying, and would give advice and pep talks, but they were not aware of the levels I was being attacked,” she says.
Morgan did not elaborate on the details of all she endured, only that the incidents culminated in something she calls the “Terrible Awful.”
She finally fled the GATE program altogether in Grade 11.
Now 21, Morgan is studying journalism at the University of Vancouver Island. Her gifted eccentricities endure. She hauled 400 books into her tiny dorm room when she moved in, for example, and recently spent an entire night reading all the case files and grand jury testimony in the Michael Brown case in Ferguson.
The “Terrible Awful,” though, still haunts her.
Morgan’s doctor recently diagnosed her with PTSD.
“I did not handle what happened to me the appropriate way,” Morgan admits, but she believes much of the blame lies with her GATE teachers.
The people who failed us were those who didn’t know what gifted was. Had my teachers been better, none of this stuff would have happened. — Morgan
Mercifully, Morgan’s story is an anomaly. Most gifted students thrive in the programs designed for them.
But her experience exposes the vital role of the teacher in gifted education.
Congregation, though essential, is not enough for some of these students. They need educators who possess a holistic understanding of giftedness.
In Canada, no specific training is necessary for gifted-education teachers.
In the U.S., teachers of the gifted need to have special certification.
“Here you just have to be alive,” Frank says. Very few teachers possess a gifted-focused master’s degree like Aldred.
Principals and administrators assign teachers to gifted programs based on interviews and on the teacher’s interest.
At Westmount, Frank looks for teachers who display flexibility in their thinking and are intellectually honest.
An ideal teacher of the gifted must also be creative and humble.
If you are paralyzed by someone being smarter than you, please do not go into giftedness. — Frank
Above all, Frank says a teacher of the gifted needs to understand that “these students are wired differently.”
Gifted teachers “encourage students, in their authentic search for self, to make conscious choices towards the good.”
Empathy is key.
For this reason, Frank believes the best teachers of the gifted are gifted themselves.
Frank understands the suggestion may rankle some, but no one understands the nuances of giftedness better than those who have endured them first hand.
Thankfully, gifted education tends to self-select for gifted teachers anyway. Many of those who apply to teach gifted programs, Frank says, display the same exceptional traits their potential students do.
Frank and Jennifer Aldred both admit that there is little gifted students can learn from their teachers, at least intellectually, that they cannot learn on their own. Exceptional kids can speed through a year’s worth of school board curriculum in a matter of hours. “I will never know more than they do,” Aldred says. They need teachers and programs that focus not on the magnificence of their brains, but on the fragility of their hearts.
Unless their heart is intact, no learning can happen. — Aldred
She quotes from Galway Kinnell’s “Saint Francis and the Sow,” a poem she teaches her literature students:
…sometimes it is necessary to reteach a thing its loveliness, to put a hand on its brow of the flower and retell it in words and in touch it is lovely
“According to UN sources, more than 3,600 separate attacks against educational institutions, teachers and students were recorded in 2012 alone.”
The report went on to remark that the exclusion or marginalisation of girls within the educational, political and economic realm means they are often unable to demand equal access to particular human rights.
The result, it argues, becomes a cycle of impunity reinforcing a subordinate social status for girls.
The right to education plays a “catalytic role in promoting substantive equality between men and women” in regards to economic, political, cultural and health development outcomes, the report said.
Recent attacks targeting girls include the abduction of 300 schoolgirls in Nigeria by the armed group Boko Haram and the shooting of education activist Malala Yousafzai by members of the Taliban in Pakistan.
Many girls are the target of sexual violence, abduction, intimidation and harassment during war and peacetime resulting in lower attendance rates at schools, the report said.
In Pakistan’s Swat, the Taliban’s attacks and violent threats against girls, their families and teachers resulted in 120,000 female students and 8,000 female teachers ceasing to attend schools in 2009.
However, there have been other instances in which girls were targeted for their higher level of education.
The Lords’ Resistance Army in Uganda targeted secondary school girls because of their superior literacy which made them valuable recruits for military communications work.
The motivations for the attacks, in particular the underlying discrimination and gender stereotyping has aided in preventing girls from accessing education opportunities, the OHCR said.
The report concluded that violence against schoolgirls cannot be preventing without addressing broader patterns discrimination against women and girls.
Study Warns of Unprecedented Risk of Drought in 21st Century
During the second half of the 21st century, the U.S. Southwest and Great Plains will face persistent drought worse than anything seen in times ancient or modern, with the drying conditions “driven primarily” by human-induced global warming, a new study predicts.
The research says the drying would surpass in severity any of the decades-long “megadroughts” that occurred much earlier during the past 1,000 years—one of which has been tied by some researchers to the decline of the Anasazi or Ancient Pueblo Peoples in the Colorado Plateau in the late 13th century. Many studies have already predicted that the Southwest could dry due to global warming, but this is the first to say that such drying could exceed the worst conditions of the distant past. The impacts today would be devastating, given the region’s much larger population and use of resources.
“We are the first to do this kind of quantitative comparison between the projections and the distant past, and the story is a bit bleak,” said Jason E. Smerdon, a co-author and climate scientist at the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, part of the Earth Institute at Columbia University. “Even when selecting for the worst megadrought-dominated period, the 21st century projections make the megadroughts seem like quaint walks through the Garden of Eden.”
“The surprising thing to us was really how consistent the response was over these regions, nearly regardless of what model we used or what soil moisture metric we looked at,” said lead author Benjamin I. Cook of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies and the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory. “It all showed this really, really significant drying.”
The new study, “Unprecedented 21st-Century Drought Risk in the American Southwest and Central Plains,” will be featured in the inaugural edition of the new online journal Science Advances, produced by the American Association for the Advancement of Science, which also publishes the leading journal Science.
Today, 11 of the past 14 years have been drought years in much of the American West, including California, Nevada, New Mexico and Arizona and across the Southern Plains to Texas and Oklahoma, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor, a collaboration of U.S. government agencies.
The current drought directly affects more than64 million people in the Southwest and Southern Plains, according to NASA, and many more are indirectly affected because of the impacts on agricultural regions.
Shrinking water supplies have forced western states to impose water use restrictions; aquifers are being drawn down to unsustainable levels, and major surface reservoirs such as Lake Mead and Lake Powell are at historically low levels. This winter’s snowpack in the Sierras, a major water source for Los Angeles and other cities, is less than a quarter of what authorities call a “normal” level, according to a February report from the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power. California water officials last year cut off the flow of water from the northern part of the state to the south, forcing farmers in the Central Valley to leave hundreds of thousands of acres unplanted.
“Changes in precipitation, temperature and drought, and the consequences it has for our society—which is critically dependent on our freshwater resources for food, electricity and industry—are likely to be the most immediate climate impacts we experience as a result of greenhouse gas emissions,” said Kevin Anchukaitis, a climate researcher at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. Anchukaitis said the findings “require us to think rather immediately about how we could and would adapt.”
Much of our knowledge about past droughts comes from extensive study of tree rings conducted by Lamont-Doherty scientist Edward Cook (Benjamin’s father) and others, who in 2009 created the North American Drought Atlas. The atlas recreates the history of drought over the previous 2,005 years, based on hundreds of tree-ring chronologies, gleaned in turn from tens of thousands of tree samples across the United States, Mexico and parts of Canada.
For the current study, researchers used data from the atlas to represent past climate, and applied three different measures for drought—two soil moisture measurements at varying depths, and a version of the Palmer Drought Severity Index, which gauges precipitation and evaporation and transpiration—the net input of water into the land. While some have questioned how accurately the Palmer drought index truly reflects soil moisture, the researchers found it matched well with other measures, and that it “provides a bridge between the [climate] models and drought in observations,” Cook said.
The researchers applied 17 different climate models to analyze the future impact of rising average temperatures on the regions. And, they compared two different global warming scenarios—one with “business as usual,” projecting a continued rise in emissions of the greenhouse gases that contribute to global warming; and a second scenario in which emissions are moderated.
By most of those measures, they came to the same conclusions.
“The results … are extremely unfavorable for the continuation of agricultural and water resource management as they are currently practiced in the Great Plains and southwestern United States,” said David Stahle, professor in the Department of Geosciences at the University of Arkansas and director of the Tree-Ring Laboratory there. Stahle was not involved in the study, though he worked on the North American Drought Atlas.
Smerdon said he and his colleagues are confident in their results. The effects of CO2 on higher average temperature and the subsequent connection to drying in the Southwest and Great Plains emerge as a “strong signal” across the majority of the models, regardless of the drought metrics that are used, he said. And, he added, they are consistent with many previous studies.
Anchukaitis said the paper “provides an elegant and convincing connection” between reconstructions of past climate and the models pointing to the risk of future drought.
Toby R. Ault of Cornell University is a co-author of the study. Funding was provided by the NASA Modeling, Analysis and Prediction Program, NASA Strategic Science, and the U.S. National Science Foundation.
When a restaurant fails a health code inspection, sometimes the easiest thing to do is to close up shop, let people forget what happened, then slap a new sign on the door and reopen under a new name. That’s essentially what the world’s biggest banks are doing with a complex, high-risk investment product that helped destroy the global economy less than eight years ago.
Goodbye, “collateralized debt obligations.” Hello, “bespoke tranche opportunities.” Banks including Goldman Sachs are marketing that newfangled product, according to Bloomberg, and total sales of “bespoke tranche opportunities” leaped from under $5 billion in 2013 to $20 billion last year.
Like other derivatives, these “BTOs” allow investors to place wagers on the outcome of various loans, bonds, and securities in which they are not directly invested. Hedge funds and other sophisticated financial industry actors use derivatives both as a form of insurance to manage the total risk they are exposed to across their whole investment portfolio, and to gamble on real-world economic events such as mortgage payments, municipal bonds, and the price of physical commodities. The resulting web of complicated contracts can be very difficult to untangle, and can involve impossible-sounding amounts of money. The Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission concluded that derivatives “were at the center of the storm” and “amplified the losses from the collapse of the housing bubble by allowing multiple bets on the same securities.” In 2010, the total on-paper value of every derivative contract worldwide was $1.4 quadrillion, or 23 times the total economic output of the entire planet.
Collateralized debt obligations (CDOs) are a form of derivative that breaks one pool of financial assets — either direct loans or securities that are based on groups of loans — into multiple layers of riskiness. Those layers care called tranches, and investors who buy the least-risky tranche of the derivative will get paid before those who buy the second tranche, and so on. Banks selling traditional CDOs had to create these multiple risk tranches based on a given set of loans or securities, and then hope that someone would buy each of them.
The new “bespoke” version of the idea flips that business dynamic around. An investor tells a bank what specific mixture of derivatives bets it wants to make, and the bank builds a customized product with just one tranche that meets the investor’s needs. Like a bespoke suit, the products are tailored to fit precisely, and only one copy is ever produced. The new products are a symptom of the larger phenomenon of banks taking complex risks in pursuit of higher investment returns, Americans for Financial Reform’s Marcus Stanley said in an email, and BTOs “could be automatically exempt” from some Dodd-Frank rules.
This is not the first time that large banks have tried to reboot the CDO machine since the financial crisis made those products a much-reviled household name. In early 2013, JP Morgan Chase and Morgan Stanley tried and failed to find buyers for a new set of CDOs. The nature of that failure helps illuminate the rationale behind the new version of the product. Finding buyers for the various different layers of risk was “like trying to line up boxcars,” one investor told the Financial Times after the 2013 reboot effort fizzled. Many of the firms that used to buy such products prior to the crisis “no longer exist, and those that survive have very bad memories” of the experience, another analyst said.
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