Archive for the 'News' Category

The papal telephone game

October 3, 2013

From JasonBachCartoons (Via The Chant Cafe)

Although I’m not sure this sort of thing can entirely account for the odd things Pope Francis is lately said to have said…


July 15, 2013

This is a pleasant surprise to me, and may be to you too:


The publication date will be in November; I know what I want for Christmas. A brief description from The Millions:

When Flannery O’Connor was in her early 20s and a student at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, she kept a journal which focused on her relationship with her faith. Recently discovered, this journal should be a fascinating prospect for anyone with an interest in O’Connor’s writing, inseparable as it is from her Catholic belief in sin and redemption. It dates from 1946-47, around the time she was writing the stories that would converge into her debut novel Wise Blood. It looks to have been an exercise in bringing herself closer to her God through the act of writing: “I do not mean to deny the traditional prayers I have said all my life; but I have been saying them and not feeling them. My attention is always fugitive. This way I have it every instant.”

George and his critics

June 26, 2013

There was an interesting profile of Robert P. George earlier this week in the New York Times. George is on the faculty at Princeton and must be counted among the more prominent conservative academics in the US. The occasion for the profile is the publication of his most recent book, Conscience and Its Enemies, but the piece is mostly providing background on his interests and concerns. I have never read one of George’s books, and perhaps I ought to; on those few occasions when I have heard or seen him in the media he has been unusually thoughtful and articulate.

The NYT profile throws out a few mild criticisms of George’s work. A more interesting critique came from David B. Hart a few months ago. George is an advocate for natural law theory, in that he holds that there are certain truths, including moral truths, which are discernable by natural reason to all persons of good will and therefore able to provide a suitable foundation for public moral reflection and political action in a liberal democracy. This view is in some ways similar to Thomistic natural law theory, which has informed so much Catholic moral and political thought, except that George (and others) contend that natural law is intelligible and (indeed) compelling even within the comparatively denuded metaphysical furnishings of modernity (as opposed to the lush Aristotelian metaphysics native to Thomistic natural law). In his critique Hart calls down a plague on both their houses, and it makes for bracing reading. (It is true that Hart never mentions George by name, but I have it on good authority that he is prominent among the supposedly plague-ridden.)

Be that as it may, the NYT profile is worth reading.

Notes on neuroscience

June 6, 2013

I am in no respect an expert in neuroscience, but naturally I am aware of the main technical developments of the past few decades — especially functional MRI — which now provide neuroscientists with amazing imagery related to brain activity. I am also aware of the broad effort in the field to establish correlations between brain activity and mental states.

I will not deny that I am mildly discomfited by this effort, not because there is anything suspect about such correlations but because they are so often conjoined with a strange presumption that somehow brain scans are particularly probative windows on human behaviour, whereas in fact they are usually just fancy proxies for things we already know by other means (as has been convincingly argued). One also routinely runs into a tacit neurological reductionism according to which minds are “really just” brains, and you and I are, at bottom, “really just” fleshy computers processing stimuli. In this view of things, the notion of persons as bearers of freedom, dignity, and moral responsibility tends to become, at best, occluded.

My discomfort is only mild because I am aware that, whatever the merits of any particular scientific study, the minds-are-brains view is plagued by conceptual problems and, at least within the ambit of the reigning philosophy of nature in which matter is defined to be devoid of mental properties, is doomed to failure.

But, quite apart from the question of how we should interpret findings of correlations between mental states and brain activity, there remains the question of whether we should believe that such correlations exist in the first place. It seems that we should, but with reservations, for the evidence is not as strong or as straightforward as one might think.

For instance, a few years ago an important paper identified problems with common analysis techniques in fMRI studies. The authors showed that using such techniques they could produce nice correlations using data that were pure noise. Studies which avoided such confused methods uniformly showed comparatively low correlations. The authors speculated that a significant number of the findings claimed by the field might be illusory. I do not know what revisions resulted when (or if) the data were analyzed again.

And now, in this month’s Nature Reviews, comes another paper that criticizes the results of a wide swath of neuroscience work. The authors argue that a significant fraction of neuroscience studies suffer from low statistical power, meaning that both the sample sizes and the effects being studied are generally small. The problems with low power studies are many: the probability of missing true effects is fairly high, as is the probability of falsely “discovering” something that isn’t there. Even when a finding is true, low power studies tend to exaggerate it. Here is a popular level summary of the paper and the issues at stake.

Obviously it is up to the specialists to sort these issues out, and I have no doubt that they will. But there does seem to be warrant for wariness the next time you hear a claim that the neural correlate of this-or-that aspect of your mental life has been found. Sometimes things are just not that simple.


Roger Ebert, RIP

April 4, 2013

The news has come across the wire this evening that Roger Ebert has died. Just yesterday he wrote that, though his cancer had returned, he was nonetheless brimming with plans for the future: a new web site, his film festival, a documentary on his life. It makes for poignant reading tonight.

Like many people, I first encountered him through the television programme he hosted with Gene Siskel, only later discovering that he was primarily a critic in print. I remember being fascinated by the television show, principally, I think, because I had never before heard considered judgments and articulate criticism about much of anything, still less something as commonplace as movies. It was my first intimation that there might be more to the movies than just entertainment.  Those old shows, segments of which have made their way onto YouTube, still make for good viewing.

His print reviews make for good reading too. He could almost always be counted on to give a clear account of a film’s strengths and weaknesses, often with considerable wit. (Bad films, especially, seemed to inspire his muse, and his collection of critical pans, Your Movie Sucks, makes for terrific occasional reading.) High praise from him was often enough to convince me to clear some time for a film I might otherwise have passed over. I am going to miss my weekly visit to his site.

Readers of this blog might be interested in something he wrote exactly one month ago: a short essay called “How I Am a Roman Catholic”. Those who read him regularly will know that he grew up in a devout Catholic family, attended Catholic schools, but drifted — so I gather — from the practice of the faith in his adult years. Yet Catholicism remained in his bones, and he continued to circle around it. Indeed, in this recent essay he insisted that “I consider myself Catholic, lock, stock, and barrel”. True, this confession was confused to no small extent by his admission that he “cannot believe in God”. I take him to have meant that he had doubts, that he had no firm assurance of faith. If so, he would hardly be alone in that.

In that same essay he, rather surprisingly, staked out a position on a question of current moral controversy that was not calculated to endear him to people who matter. In other words, he was true to his critical task to the end: saying what he thought, with clarity and reason, and leaning into the wind when it blew contrary-wise.

Requiescat in pace.

Easter bustle

April 3, 2013

One or two people may have noticed that things have been a little quiet around here of late. This is because things have not been quiet elsewhere, and I’ve had little to no leisure.

I have been learning that selling a house is an all-consuming activity. We were advised to “de-clutter” prior to listing the house, and so, after several weeks of sorting and sifting and packing, this past weekend we moved a fair bit of furniture and about 80 boxes out of the house and into storage. I am still trying to understand the mindset of people who consider books to be “clutter”.

With that out of the way, we turn our attention to little matters like painting, scrubbing, staining, fixing, and generally beautifying the place. It’s a lovely house, and I can’t see why someone shouldn’t want it. But it will be even lovelier when we’re through. I hope.

Did I mention that the only time I have to do any of this work is when I should be in bed?

In the middle of all this was Easter: Happy Easter! It was the tenth anniversary of my reception into the Catholic Church, and I had really been looking forward to it. It turned out to be the worst Triduum that I can remember: we had to leave the Holy Thursday Mass early because the kids were crazed, we were terribly late for the Good Friday service, and I even missed the start of the Vigil Mass (which, if you’ve never been, is the best part). Between times, when I would normally want to think about Easter, I was instead thinking about boxes and tape and cleaning supplies and when I went to the church it felt as though I had parachuted in from another realm.

But there was much to be thankful for, all the same. Our wonderful priests, who delivered some of the most thoughtful and provoking homilies that I can ever remember hearing, celebrated all of the Triduum liturgies with great beauty and solemnity. Being there was a balm. We really are blessed to have found our parish (and now, of course, we will really miss it). We are thankful for friends and family who, in the middle of all of this exhausting activity, are lending a hand when and where they can. Mostly we’re just thankful for Easter.

Happy Easter!

Planck results

March 21, 2013

Big science news today: the Planck experiment has released a huge raft of results based on cosmological observations made during 2009-10. Planck is a satellite-based experiment that has been making precision measurements of the cosmic microwave background (CMB) radiation, the details of which tell us a great deal about the history and structure of the universe. Planck is a truly spectacular project.

I remember that when I was an undergraduate physics student — which was quite a long time ago now — we heard rumours of this satellite, which was then in the planning stages. The hope was that it, and to a lesser extent its predecessor WMAP, would usher in an era of “precision cosmology”, in which cosmologists would have a wealth of high quality measurements against which to judge their theories about cosmic structure and evolution.

Based on the results published today, I would say that those hopes have been triumphantly vindicated. For instance, consider this paper on cosmological parameters; look at Tables 1 and 2. These are amazing results: baryon density is about 2.2%, cold dark matter density about 12%, dark energy density about 68%, Hubble constant about 67, and the age of the universe about 13.8 billion years (with an uncertainty of only about 100 million years!).

There is a lot here for non-specialists to digest — and I certainly count myself in that group. The BBC is on the case.

Pope Francis

March 14, 2013

Habemus Papam!

It appears that my decision to not follow any of the pre-conclave speculations on papal candidates saved time and energy; Pope Francis seems to have taken most commentators by surprise. I am surprised too; I had, to my recollection, never heard of Jorge Mario Cardinal Bergoglio before yesterday. The two or three minutes during which he was on the balcony were hardly sufficient to form any adequate idea of the man, but he made a strong and favourable impression on me. Notice that he spent most of those minutes praying with and for the people gathered to greet him. A good beginning.

Among the three or four bits of background that are floating up into news reports is the observation that he has been known in Argentina as an unusually humble and self-effacing cleric, eschewing most of the pomp of his  office in favour of a life of relative simplicity. His choice of name would seem to be indicate that such observations are relevant to the kind of pope we can expect him to be. I am personally an enthusiast for papal pomp — the restoration of which was for me one of the attractive aspects of Benedict XVI’s reign — but I can also see the appeal of a principled (as opposed to a desultory) simplicity, such as one finds in Benedictine monasteries and (naturally) in the life of St. Francis of Assisi.

The two most informative pieces I have seen on Pope Francis were both written before his election. John Allen, who is generally regarded as being the best informed and most astute Vatican journalist in the English-speaking world, wrote a profile of him a few weeks ago, and back in 2005 the Catholic Herald published a fairly lengthy essay by Jose Maria Poirier about him after Benedict XVI’s election:

If he were Pope? Everything suggests that his approach would be above all pastoral, which is what a number of the cardinals were looking for in the conclave. He would govern the Curia with a sure hand, as he does his diocese. He would likely take a firm stand with the powerful of this world. But the modern-day media demands on the papacy would be a torture for this most retiring of Church leaders.

It would be a torture for most of us, I expect. The Holy Father made it clear in his first address that he wants the Catholic faithful to pray for him; Janet Cupo has posted a few suitable prayers.

Tristan und Isolde in Toronto

January 31, 2013

I have mentioned before that in February I will be seeing the Canadian Opera Company’s production of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde. It is one of those operas that has been on my short-list for quite a few years, and I am thrilled to finally have the opportunity to see it.

It opened this week, and I am pleased to see that the production is being praised in lavish terms (also here). Hurrah! I think this is going to be great.

Here is a promotional video for the COC’s production:

Botched abortions and homicide

January 31, 2013

This is not a politics blog, but after what I wrote yesterday about this week’s sad anniversaries, I want to follow up by commenting on a story that has broken just today: three Canadian Members of Parliament have asked our national police commissioner to investigate documented cases of infants who were apparently born alive during an abortion procedure and subsequently died. The MPs contend that these cases may meet the legal standard for homicide.

The media coverage of this story is, once again, incompetent. Several major news outlets (the CBC and National Post, for starters) are running the same story from the Canadian Press, which states, falsely, that

…the MPs say abortions performed at 20 weeks gestation or later breach Section 223a of the Criminal Code.

But Section 223 concerns the definition of homicide as it pertains to newborns, which should have tipped the journalist off. What the letter actually states is this:

From 2000 to 2009 in Canada, there were 491 abortions, of 20 weeks gestation and greater, that resulted in live births. This means that the aborted child died after it was born… According to the Criminal Code, a child is considered to be a human being and a person after proceeding fully from the mother’s womb, therefore, based on Section 223(2) of the Criminal Code, there should be 491 homicide investigations or prosecutions in connection with these deaths.

As I say, this is, at best, incompetent journalism. The MPs are not asking that all abortions performed after 20 weeks gestation be investigated as possible homicides, as the article states, but only those cases in which the child is first born alive and then allowed to die. I don’t think there is a clear moral difference between the two cases, but there is a difference under the Canadian Criminal Code, according to which birth magically confers “human being”-ness upon the child, thereby making the child a potential victim of homicide. Was any medical care offered to these young human beings? Of course it might be that some were not yet at the point of viability and so nothing could have been done to save their young lives (apart from preventing the abortion attempt in the first place), but some of them may have been viable. (With current technology in North America viability is about 50% at 24 weeks gestation.) Certainly it is hard to argue that such cases, grisly as they are, should not at least be investigated to discover the facts. It might be that the cases do not, according to the various fictions governing this section of our Criminal Code, constitute legal homicide, but wouldn’t you like to know for sure?

The Toronto Star, in a piece by Tonda MacCharles, gets the story right.

Update: the CBC have now improved their story to reflect the fact that the letter is about infants born alive. That is a big improvement. However the television segment, accessible through the same page, presents the story as being about all abortions after 20 weeks gestation. Given that the reporter is on camera waving the letter and still doesn’t bother to state the facts clearly begins to look less like incompetence and more like fudging. I don’t actually expect much better from the CBC, but I would have been happy to be wrong.