Wednesday, March 30, 2016

A fascinating new book about Supreme Court and Eugenics in the US

by Salman Hameed

When talking about the famous 1925 Scopes (Monkey) Trial, the focus is usually on evolution and religion. But one of the important backdrops of it was the existence of social Darwinism and eugenics in the biology textbooks of the time. Not just that, but eugenics was also legal in many states in the US. There is a fascinating new book out that talks about the a 1927 US Supreme Court case that - in an 8-1 decision - further strengthened eugenics in the US and led to at least 60,000 forced sterilizations. Furthermore, it served as a blueprint for the Nazi eugenics program.

Here is a Fresh Air interview with the author of Im-be-ciles: The Supreme Court, American Eugenics, and the Sterilization of Carrie Buck. Here is an excerpt from the interview:
Author Adam Cohen tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross that Buck v. Bell was considered a victory for America's eugenics movement, an early 20th century school of thought that emphasized biological determinism and actively sought to "breed out" traits that were considered undesirable. 
"There were all kinds of categories of people who were deemed to be unfit [to procreate]," Cohen says. "The eugenicists looked at evolution and survival of the fittest,
as Darwin was describing it, and they believed 'We can help nature along, if we just plan who reproduces and who doesn't reproduce.' " 
All told, as many as 70,000 Americans were forcibly sterilized during the 20th century. The victims of state-mandated sterilization included people like Buck who had been labeled "mentally deficient," as well as those who who were deaf, blind and diseased. Minorities, poor people and "promiscuous" women were often targeted. 
Cohen's new book about the Buck case, Imbeciles, takes its name from the terms eugenicists used to categorize the "feebleminded." In it, he revisits the Buck v. Bell ruling and explores the connection between the American eugenics movement and the rise of the Nazi party in Germany. 
Cohen notes that the instinct to "demonize" people who are different is still prevalent in the U.S. today, particularly in the debate over immigration. 
"I think these instincts to say that we need to stop these other people from 'polluting us,' from changing the nature of our country, they're very real," Cohen warns. "The idea that those who don't remember the past are condemned to repeat it — it's very troubling that we don't remember this past."
Here is the bit about Carrie Buck - the person at the center of the Supreme Court case:
This is this poor young woman, really nothing wrong with her physically or mentally, a victim of a terrible sexual assault, and there's a little hearing, she's declared feebleminded and she gets sent off to the colony for epileptics and feebleminded. (Photograph: Carrie Buck (left) and her monther (right) in 1924). 
When she's at the colony, the guy who is running the colony, Dr. Albert Priddy, is on the prowl. He's looking for someone to put at the center of this test case that they want to
bring, so he's looking for someone to sterilize, and he sees Carrie Buck when she comes in, he does the examination himself, and there are a lot of things about her that excite him. She is deemed to be feebleminded, she has a mother who is feebleminded, so that's good because you can show some genetics, and then they're hoping that [her] baby could be determined to be feebleminded too, then you could really show a genetic pattern of feeblemindedness. The fact that she had been pregnant out of wedlock was another strike against her. So he fixes on her and thinks Carrie Buck is going to be the perfect potential plaintiff. ... 
He chooses her, and then under the Virginia law, they have to have a sterilization hearing at the colony, which they do and they give her a lawyer (who is really not a lawyer for her; it's really someone who had been the chairman of the board of the colony and was sympathetic to the colony's side) and they have a bit of a sham hearing where she is determined to be a suitable person for sterilization; they vote to sterilize her, and that is the order that then gets challenged by Carrie as the plaintiff first in the Virginia court system and then in the Supreme Court.
And what is further heart wrenching is that the process for women was not a minor surgery and they were not always told ahead of time that they were being sterilized:
For men it was something like a vasectomy. For women it was a salpingectomy, where they cauterized the path that the egg takes toward fertilization. It was, in the case of women, not minor surgery and when you read about what happened, it's many, many days of recovery and it had certain dangers attached to it, and a lot of the science was still quite new. ... 
When you add onto all that, the fact that in many, many cases the women involved were not told what was being done to them, they might be told that they were having an appendectomy, they weren't being told that the government has decided that you are unfit to reproduce and we're then going to have surgery on you, so that just compounds the horror of the situation.
You can listen to the full interview here.

Here is a review of the book in Nature (you will need subscription to the read the full article):
By 1928, a total of 375 US universities and colleges were teaching eugenics, and 70% of high-school biology textbooks endorsed the pseudoscience in some form. Eugenics was also endorsed by presidents including Theodore Roosevelt, funded by philanthropic organizations including the Carnegie Institution, and touted by award-winning scientists such as biologist Edwin Grant Conklin and the Nobel laureate Hermann Muller, discoverer of X-ray mutagenesis, as well as prominent inventors such as Alexander Graham Bell. Eugenics came to be seen as the solution to everything from hearing loss to criminality. In Britain, advocates tended to focus on segregation and voluntary sterilization. Major British eugenicists included left-leaning scientists J. B. S. Haldane and Havelock Ellis, and supporters included the economist John Maynard Keynes, social reformers Sidney and Beatrice Webb, and writer H. G. Wells. 
In 1927, a month after her sterilization, Buck was released from the asylum as hired help, on a kind of parole. Later, she married. Her sister Doris was also sterilized; interviews suggest that she thought the operation an appendectomy. Imbeciles traces their later life in detail, noting one of the most poignant aspects of the case — Buck's letters to the asylum about her relatives and probationary status. These, Cohen notes, revealed Buck to be intelligent and diligent in trying to contact and protect her mother and child, who lived with a foster family: a testament to one of the most spectacular miscarriages of justice in US history. To this day, the Supreme Court has never officially overruled Buck v. Bell.
Read the full review here.

Also, see these amazing photographs of American Eugenics Society promoting "fitter families". 

Saturday, March 26, 2016

A short science fiction film: "The March"

by Salman Hameed

I am co-teaching a class this semester on creating science fiction short films. We watched one of the delightful Oscar nominated shorts, The World of Tomorrow. It is both simple in animation and profound and touching in its message. Unfortunately, it is not yet available for free screening (I think it is available on Netflix). However, here is another film that was the winner of London 48 Hour Sci Fi Film Challenge (yes - you get 48 hours to make a short film based on the prompts given by the competition) in 2014 - and it also has some of the same features.

Sci-Fi 48 WINNER 'The March' - Sci-Fi London 48 Hour Film Challenge 2014 from Josh Fortune on Vimeo.

The use of the syllable "Al" - from Alcohol and Alcatraz to Algol and Algorithm

by Salman Hameed

Here is an excerpt from an article by Paul Braterman on 3quarksdaily (if you don't know 3quarksdaily, you should visit and visit it often for its intellectual content): Science in the World of Islam I -  The Syllable Al:
The syllable Al- is Arabic for "The", and is attached to the beginning of the word to which it applies. 
Like English today, or Latin in Renaissance Europe, the dominant language of learned discourse for several centuries was Arabic. Arabic-speaking scholars translated the great works of the Greek philosophers and scientists, as well as studying them in the original, did likewise for the texts of Indian mathematics (from which we derive our modern "Arabic" numbering system), and made important discoveries of their own. Spain was where the worlds of Islam and of Western Christianity met, fought, and mingled for more than seven hundred years, and it is mainly through Spanish that Arabic words have entered the English language. 
Alcatraz, an island in California famous for its prison, was named by the Spanish explorers for the pelican (Arabic al-qadus, the water carrier), which they wrongly believed to carry water in its bill. In a further misapplication, the word has passed into English as the name for a completely different bird, the "Albatross". Alcove (al-qubbah, the arch) reminds us of the glories of Moorish architecture, as in the Alhambra (or the red house) in Granada. This building was decorated with abstract designs (Arabesques) great intricacy, whose patterns show so subtle a use of geometry and symmetry that they are studied by mathematicians even today. Alfalfa (from the Arabic name for the plant) is grown for hay in dry climates, such as that of Spain. 
The syllable al also occurs in numerous place names. The Algarve to us is the south of Portugal; to the Iberian Arabs, it was al-Gharb, the West. A very common combination is with wadi, valley, as in Guadalquivir (al-wad al-kebir, the Mighty River, the island of Guadalcanal in the Pacific (named after a town in Spain, wad-al-Kanat, valley of merchant stalls), Guadalajara (wad-al-Hajara or valley of stones) in Spain and Mexico. There are even a few Arabic-Spanish or Arabic-Latin hybrid names, such as Alicante (al- tacked onto the Roman name Lucentum, or City of Light) or Guadalupe (wad-al-lupus, valley of the wolf) But most of the Arabic al- words in common English use refer to the Arabic achievements in science and mathematics.
Read the full article here.

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Monday, March 21, 2016

"Sepideh - Reaching for the Stars" as part of Science on Screen

by Salman Hameed

Many movies simply slip under the radar and here is one example. Sepideh - Reaching for the Stars is a fascinating documentary film that looks at the life of an Iranian teenager, who is obsessed with astronomy and wants to be an astronaut. The film is directed by Berit Madsen. When she first heard of an astronomy society in a small town in southern Iran, she wanted to document these amateur astronomers. However, she ended up focusing on Sepideh - as she turned out to be a fascinating person. I also chatted with the director about a year ago, but did not get a chance to post the interview. I hope to do that in the coming week.

I will be introducing this film at Amherst Cinema tomorrow (Tuesday) night as part of their Science on Screen series. And after the screening, we will have telescopes for viewing Jupiter, the Moon, and Orion nebula right outside the theater - courtesy of Amherst Area Amateur Astronomers Association. If you are in the area, please join us there. Also, here is my chat with Monte Belmonte for WRSI 93.9 about the movie.

Here is the trailer for the film:

And here is more information about the event:
SEPIDEH - REACHING FOR THE STARS follows an Iranian teenage girl, named Sepideh Hooshyar, living in a small town 400 miles south of Tehran. She is obsessed with astronomy and becomes an active member of a local astronomy club led by her physics teacher. But her real passion is to become an astronaut, following in the footsteps of her idol, Persian-American astronaut, Anousheh Ansari. The documentary provides a unique and complex look into Iranian society, gender expectations, and our shared passion for understanding the universe. This film provides a welcome respite from the prevalent political rhetoric about Iran in the news and gives us a slice of Iranian life in a small town.

Friday, March 04, 2016

Social media in the Middle East - The Times They Are a-Changin'...

by Salman Hameed

Image from The Atlantic

The line it is drawn
The curse it is cast
The slow one now
Will later be fast
As the present now
Will later be past
The order is
Rapidly fadin'
And the first one now
Will later be last
For the times they are a-changin'.

During the initial phases of the Arab Spring, there was a lot of discussion about the role played by social media in the uprisings. Then came a number of analysis that downplayed its actual impact. Whatever the case, it is clear that platforms like Facebook and Twitter are transforming the youth - be it in the US or in Saudi Arabia. Damian Radcliffe has recently released a report, Social Media in the Middle East: The Story of 2015 (you can download it from the link). Here are his key findings:
  • Facebook is the Middle East’s most used social network, with 80 million users in the region. The U.S., with 192 million subscribers, has more than double the Facebook users of the whole of the MENA region.
  • Egypt, with 27 million users, has MENA’s largest Facebook population; although with fewer (30.5 percent) than a third of the country’s residents on the network, there remains considerable scope for growth. In contrast, 59.7 percent (192 million) of the U.S. is on Facebook.
  • The next most populous Facebook nations are Saudi Arabia (12 million users, akin to 43.2 percent of the total population) and Iraq (11 million, representing a third of the country’s 33 million residents). In Iraq, where there are also 11 million internet users, Facebook is the Internet for many people. 
  • WhatsApp, the popular messaging service owned by Facebook, is the leading social media platform in Lebanon, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), according to Northwestern University in Qatar. Beyond just being an SMS replacement service, WhatsApp groups are used to discuss religion, cooking and the news, as well as being a platform for a growing group of eCommerce entrepeneurs.
  • WhatsApp is also the preferred social media channel for 41 percent of social media users in 20 countries across the region, according to a 2015 study produced by the research agency TNS.
And since we at SSiMS are working on videos related to science and Islam, here are the Damian's findings about videos in the MENA: 
  • MENA is the fastest growing consumer of videos on Facebook. Consumption per head of Facebook embedded videos is twice the global average.
  • Turkey is the second most active country for Periscope streams; and three Turkish cities – Istanbul, Ankara and Izmir – are among the top 10 cities with the most Periscope users worldwide. Periscope, the live video streaming app, was launched by Twitter during March 2015.
  • Growth in watch time on YouTube is up over 80 percent year on year in the region, Google data show. After the U.S., MENA enjoys the world’s second-highest online video viewership.
These video stats are incredible! This is one of the reasons we have to look at the impact of online videos. 

Read the full article here

Thursday, March 03, 2016

Another atheist in Saudi Arabia sentenced for 10 years in prison and 2000 lashes

by Salman Hameed

You have probably heard about Saudi blogger Raif Badawi. He was arrested in 2012 and is serving a 10 year prison sentence for his thoughts. He has also been lashed 50 times for his sentence of 1000
lashes. These floggings were public and in front of a crowd of spectators. And to provide some more context, he just turned 32 this past January. He has a wife and three children (they are in Canada with a political asylum). There has been an international outcry on the treatment of Badawi (for example, see Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch) - but to no avail. He continues to suffer while he awaits more lashes.

Now we have news of another person - this time a 28-year old - who has been sentenced to 10 years in prison and 2000 lashes for his tweets expressing atheism:
According to Saudi newspaper Al Watan, the country's Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice found that the 28-year-old man posted more than 600 tweets denying the existence of God, critiquing the teachings of prophets, and deriding Quranic verses. When questioned by the religious police, known locally as the Haia, the man reportedly refused to back down from his beliefs and maintained that he had the right to free expression. The court also fined him 20,000 riyals or $5,300. 
In 2014, Saudi Arabia introduced draconian new counter-terrorism laws that said atheists are the same as terrorists, criminalized all expression of dissenting speech, and gave the Interior Ministry the legal authority to jail people or spy on their communications without judicial oversight.
Until the draconian laws are changed, we are going to see more and more of such cases and more and more young lives being destroyed. Interestingly, Saudi Arabia has the highest number of Twitter users in the Arab world, even surpassing Egypt. Social media provides a way to connect with other ideas and people - but unfortunately - it does so in a public way. And that can be dangerous in an insecure authoritarian state:
Twitter had been a huge hit among young Saudis. In 2013, a study found that Saudis made up 4 percent of Twitter's users, almost as many as Spain and more than France or Mexico. One user said they believed Twitter was so popular in the country "because we are able to say what we couldn't say in real life. It's a breather from the suppression we live under, without fear." 
Earlier this month, a Saudi activist wound up with a 10-year jail sentence after he took to Twitter to call for the release of prisoners convicted of "terrorism." 
Saudi Arabia's Grand Mufti, the country's leading religious cleric, has condemned Twitter as "the source of all evil and devastation," which serves only to spread "lies and falsehood." The Haia, however, activated its own Twitter account last summer and immediately gained more than 66,000 followers. According to a report in the Saudi Gazette, the commission's leader Abdul Rahman Al-Sanad hoped that joining Twitter would improve public perception of the police.
Read the full article here
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