Open Science and the Citizen Science Movement

Solutions: Open Science

Directed by James Corbett (2019)

Film Review

This documentary evaluates potential solutions to the problems with shoddy and fraudulent research Corbett identified in his prior documentary The Crisis of Science (see Why Most Published Research Findings Are False).

Among the reforms Corbett notes are growing pressure by scientific journals for researchers to publish raw data and negative results and the formation of an entity known as Redaction Watch. The latter closely monitors studies that are retracted for fraudulent data or questionable methodology.

However the most important solutions, in Corbett’s view, are the Open Science and Citizen Science movement. The former campaigns for free public access to scientific research, which until a decade ago was locked away behind costly paywalls.*

The most well known Open Science activist was Aaron Swartz, who published the Guerilla Open Access Manifesto in 2008. The FBI arrested Swartz in 2011 for using an MIT server to upload thousands of academic papers to a free Internet site. His legal problems allegedly prompted Swartz to kill himself two weeks before he went to trial. However numerous factors suggest he may have been “suicided” (see The Mystery of Aaron Swartz’s Alleged Suicide).

Like Swartz, Corbett argues that allowing freer public access to scientific research allows the public to monitor what scientists are up to. The Open Science movement has led to a substantial increase in research available for free on the Open Source PLOS (Public Library of Science).

Citizen Science refers to the growing participation of amateur scientists in the collection, storage and, in some case, analysis, of scientific data. Examples include projects in which scientists use citizens to collect migration data on butterflies and songbirds.

In another model, ordinary citizens set up their own projects to solve specific problems. The best example is Safecast, created by anti-nuclear  activists when it became clear the Japanese government was lying about radiation levels resulting from the Fukushima meltdowns. In this project, a network of activists created an automated Geiger counter to collect radiation counts every five seconds and upload them to an online database. They then recruited thousands of Japanese volunteers to attach them to their cars and bikes (see The Citizen Science Movement).


*Revenues resulting from scientific journal subscriptions accrue mainly to for profit publishers (like Elsevier) rather than researchers who write scientific papers.

 

 

The Roots of Gun Violence in Houston

Tears in the Bayou

Directed by Rico King (2017)

Film Review

This documentary is about gun violence in Houston’s African American Third Ward. Houston, the fourth largest US city, is home to more than a dozen multibillion dollar companies. It also experienced 4,194 murders between 2003-2017.

The film begins by tracing the history of Houston’s once thriving African American community with its strong African American businesses. Beginning in the1980s, the Third Ward collapsed economically, with the loss of good paying manufacturing jobs and many small businesses. As in many other cities, as men lost their jobs, more and more households were headed by single mothers supporting their families on low-wage caretaking jobs. And growing numbers of teenagers and young adults turned to drug dealing to help their families put food on the table.

The film profiles numerous local gang members, families of young people killed by gun violence, religious leaders and community activists and organizers.

For me, hearing gang members describing their own individual experiences was the most valuable part of the film. They talk at length about their parents being continuously away from home (at work) and having nothing to show for it; their own inability to find work; the pressure and stress of providing for their families through drug dealing, hustling, stealing and even armed robbery; their regard of fellow gang members as “family”; their genuine fear of being out on the street unarmed; and their horrific experience of recovering from multiple gunshot wounds.

Although the filmmakers cite research regarding the direct correlation between poverty, lack of economic opportunity and death by gun violence, none of the solutions the film proposes to to address the main underlying problem. This, in my view, is the documentary’s major weakness. I was also disappointed that they failed to address the Third Ward’s high rate of youth suicide – which apparently is even higher than the rate of death by gun violence.

 

Going Undercover at Facebook

Inside Facebook: Secrets of the Social Network

Al Jazeera (2018)

Film Review

In this documentary an Al Jazeera reporter goes undercover with CBL, an Irish company contracted to moderate “offensive” content posted on Facebook UK. Over a period of weeks he undergoes training to become an official moderator. His findings are revealing.

Rather than undertaking independent monitoring of offensive posts, moderators only act on inappropriate content reported by other Facebook users. Moreover they bend over backwards to leave extremist content online, as it generates the most page shares, as well as keeping people on Facebook longer (so they can view more ads).

CBL guidelines divide offensive posts into four broad. categories: graphic violence, bullying, suicide and self harm and hate speech. Each CBL moderator has three choices in dealing with user complaints: ignore, delete or mark and disturbing and require user to click a tab confirming they’re over 18.

  • Graphic violence: Filmmakers give the example of a video of an adult male repeatedly and brutally beating and kicking an 2 1/2 year old child. CBL moderators marked this content “disturbing” and allowed it to remain on site because it had 44,000 shares. They didn’t report the abuse to police – they only report child abuse if it’s live streamed.
  • Bullying: CBL moderators marked a video of a teenage girl beating the shit out of another girl as “disturbing” and left it on site. Both were clearly identified by name. CBL justified their decision based on the post’s “condemning caption.” CBL only deletes bullying videos if parents request them removed. Psychologists condemn this policy of placing the burden on parents. Where a victim’s identity is clearly established, they are re-traumatized every time the video is shared.
  • Suicide/self-harm Suicide and self-harm photos and videos are only deleted if they contain a promotional statement. CBL justifies leaving them up as follows: “If we took it down, their friends and families wouldn’t know they were at risk.” Owing to clear evidence that viewing self-ham posts increases self-harm, this policy also contradicts the professional advice of mental health workers.
  • Hate speech (by definition advocates exclusion, death or harm to specific ethnic or religious groups): Statements that denigrate Muslims are deleted. Identical statements that denigrate Muslim immigrants are ignored because “people have a right to express their views on immigration policy.”

Inside the Banker’s Brain: The Physiology of Greed

In Search of the Banker’s Brain

Directed by Jos de Putter (2013)

Film Review

In Search of the Banker’s Brain is about the biochemical changes associated with greed. Inspired by a Dutch blogger who investigated the “banker culture” that led to the 2008 global economic collapse, it paints a troubling picture about our willingness to place the welfare of the global economy in the hands of 25-year-old ruthless macho hyper-competitive psychopaths.

In addition to several former investment bankers, the film also features a Dutch psychologist who treats Wall Street bankers and a former trader turned neuropsychologist who investigates how greed affects the brain. He begins by describing the rigged reward system that rewards traders to take enormous risks with other peoples’ money – they get massive bonuses if they’re successful and no consequences at all if they fail.

In response, they begin to crave risk, which feels just like a narcotic when it floods their brain with adrenaline and cortisol. They become cunning like heroin addicts looking for their next fix and show traits (loss of conscience and scruples) virtually indistinguishable from psychopaths in a prison environment.

Like psychopaths, they also tend to burn out around age 40, which is when they are at high risk for “econocide.”*


* Term coined by psychologists term for banker suicide.

 

Psychedelics: A Miracle Cure for PTSD?

Soldiers of the Vine

Directed by Charles Shaw (2016)

Film Review

This documentary traces the experience of six US veterans with post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) who undergo treatment with the psychedelic ayahuasca, owing to their failure to respond to conventional treatment.*

Ex-GIs who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan suffer extremely high rates of PTSD, traumatic brain injury and suicidal depression. They commit suicide at twice the rate of the general population and US prisons, mental hospitals and homeless shelters are full of disabled veterans.

Studies show that psychedelic drugs, such as ayahuasca and ibogaine** are often helpful in treating heroin addiction and alcoholism. Their use in PTSD is still experimental.

In the film the six veterans travel to the Amazon jungle, where ayahasca is viewed as a sacred plant, to undergo a nine day healing ceremony with an indigenous shaman.


*Western medicine has no recognized treatment for PTSD.

**Ibogaine is legal for treating drug addiction in over 190 countries, including Mexico, Canada, Costa Rica, New Zealand, Russia, China and Ukraine. See Why Are We Sending Vets to Costa Rico (and Canada and Mexico).

Decadence: The Meaninglessness of Modern Life

Decadence: The Meaninglessness of Modern Life

Pria Viswalingam

Review

Decadence is a 2006 Australian TV series examining the plummeting quality of Australian life, which director and narrator Pria Viswalingam blames on a global economic system based on frenetic consumption, fueled by debt and ridiculously long hours of work. The cinematography choreographs to perfection the self-indulgent moral degradation of a culture that has been subsumed by US political and cultural norms that reward narcissism and the vacuous idolization of celebrity.

The only critique I would have is the absence class perspective. I have a problem with Viswalingam’s blanket assertion that all Australians are working ridiculously long hours because they value the accumulation of luxuries more than family time or friendships. I think this criticism applies chiefly to the shrinking Australian middle class – which I estimate at around 20-30% of the population. From my experience, the majority of Aussies – like their Kiwi and American counterparts – work ridiculously long hours because this is the only way they can put food on the table.

The series consists of six episodes:

Episode 1 Money – describes the MacDonaldization of Australian society, where workers work longer hours than Germany, Japan or even the US and are plagued by debt, depression, drugs and high suicide rates. Viswalingam makes the assertion that greed and ignorance are a far bigger threat to civilization than terrorism. I agree.

Episode 2 Sex – describes how the commodification of sex has led to a situation where more “sex” occurs in the street than in bedroom. Viswalingam especially deplores the sexualization of children for commercial reasons, the alarming increase in culturally driven misogyny and the epidemic of pedophilia in the church.

Episode 3 Democracy – explores America’s zeal in exporting “democracy” to the rest of the world and the undermining of Australia’s parliamentary democracy by wealthy business interests.

Episode 4 Education – explores the decline of Australia’s educational system, which focuses more on fast tracking students into lucrative jobs than on teaching ideas and critical thinking.

Episode 5 Family – explores statistics showing Aussies are marrying less, breaking up more and increasingly opting to remain childless. Viswalingam blames this partly on the absence of good paying jobs (forcing mothers into the work place) and the failure of the feminist movement to win support for women in their struggle to balance  work and family responsibilities.

Episode 6 Religion – describes how organized religion sowed the seeds of its own destruction through centuries of justifying wealth accumulation and genocidal western expansion. Here Viswalingam makes some fuzzy, poorly supported assertions about the fundamental importance of spirituality in facilitating human connection.