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See Inside Scientific American Mind Volume 25, Issue 2

Readers Respond to "Unconscious Bias"

Letters to the editor from the November/December 2013 issue of Scientific American MIND



Brett Ryder

UNCONSCIOUS BIAS?
As a subscriber to Scientific American Mind, I was very disappointed to see your cover story “Seven Deadly Sins” illustrated by a dark-skinned woman. Centuries of negative, harmful stereotyping have associated women with sin and portrayed non-Caucasians as dangerous. Did no one question this choice during the design process?

The table of contents page uses a compelling graphic, and any number of images of white male devils could have been used. Instead someone chose to reinforce the meme that dark-skinned females are evil. Or was there an overriding need to have a sexy photo on the newsstand?

Please reread your own articles about unconscious bias and make more enlightened artwork selections in the future.

Joanna Cazden
Burbank, Calif.

What on earth were you thinking to illustrate the title “Seven Deadly Sins” with a portrait of a young woman of color, rather than, say, a young white man? As the mother of a young biracial girl, seeing this sort of thoughtless, antebellum-era racism by a “scientific” periodical, and seeing this image coupled with this title in supermarkets across the country, chills me to the bone.

I have enjoyed newsstand copies of this magazine for years. Never again.

Maureen de Zeeuw
via e-mail


MORAL OBJECTIONS
When reading Jesse Bering's article, “Disgust is in the Eye of the Beholder” [Perspectives], I was surprised to see the author give no argument for his very counterintuitive and controversial position on morality. Moral nihilism, he says, is a “healthy antidote” for the stigma associated with certain cultures' sexualities. But how is “healthy” here supposed to be understood? If moral nihilism is the case, then we have no moral reasons to adopt this attitude; all we would have are motivations of self-interest—in which case moral nihilism's being the healthier attitude becomes an empirical claim. As it stands, I'd say it's an empirically dubious one.

It's also important to notice that ethicists (those who study morality) haven't felt the need to discuss sexuality for decades (and probably for reasons that Bering himself would adduce). That Westerners err in their moral judgments regarding that topic would only be a good reason to recommend moral nihilism if the ethical study of sexuality constituted a considerable portion, or all, of ethics. But it doesn't now, and it never has.

Toward the end of the article, Bering says, “To adopt the most clear-sighted stance on these increasingly slippery subjects, we must remember to take deviance within its given context, and harm must be understood as harm experienced by the parties involved, not by us as ‘disgusted' onlookers.” This is a healthy recommendation. And this recommendation is wholly compatible with one of the pillars of contemporary ethical theory, utilitarianism, the (objective) theory of morality under which harm—anyone's—is the only bad (and well-being the only good).

So it is unusual that Bering recommends we abnegate something so central to social living, morality, when our only reasons to do so are in keeping with one of the major theories of it.

Last, it may well be true that morality is “not out there in the world,” as Bering says. But he gives us no reason at all to suspect that it isn't.

William A. Sharp
San Antonio


SUGAR ADDICTION
In “Gluttony: Are We Addicted to Eating?,” by Karen Schrock Simring, the Fast Facts box reads, “Although the concept of food addiction is controversial …” No one tries to say that “food” is addictive. Hamburger, cauliflower and walnuts do not cause tachyphylaxis, physical dependency and withdrawal, which are the hallmarks of addiction. Sugar does produce all these phenomena plus neuroanatomical imaging patterns that show undeniable and startling similarities with abusive drug use. Fats, salt and high glycemic carbs may have similar results, but the jury is still out.

Barugna
commenting online at www.ScientificAmerican.com/Mind


ADMIRATION IS NOT ENVY
Why is half of the article “Envy: The Feeling Can Help Us Even When It Hurts,” by Jan Crusius and Thomas Mussweiler, confusing admiration with envy? Wanting to be like someone in a positive way (improving oneself) is not a form of envy. It is a positive response to admiration.

tuned
commenting online at www.ScientificAmerican.com/Mind


A CUT FOR RELIEF
I definitely agree with the premise of “Self-Cutters May Be Seeking Pain Relief” [Facts and Fictions in Mental Health], by Hal Arkowitz and Scott O. Lilienfeld, which states that a large part of the motivation to cut is pain relief. I used to cut myself. It was a quick, predictable, effective and potent way to relieve intrapersonal distress and emotional pain.

I suffered depression for decades, from an early age. When I was younger, I did not have the insight or vocabulary of emotional experience to comprehend and examine what I was going through, let alone to talk about it with anybody else. I found treatment with drugs only minimally effective. My inability to describe what was going on inside myself made talk therapy simply futile. Cutting myself was the only thing that I found that had any effect at all.

When I did cut, it would be when I was at my most desperate. Immense emotional pain, distress, inability to see any way that pain could end, that life could become good again; this was my state of mind.

The first instant of pain signals the onset of relief. Immediately I am totally, completely focused on my singular action. Thoughts, emotions, feelings, worries—everything disappears, and all that exists is my arm, the blade, the blood, the burning: simple, basic, immediate, understandable things. No longer do I feel torn apart from the inside out, no more dread, no more wanting to die. Nothing exists but a bright, blinding white feeling. No more pain, my mind is still. I am back in a world that I understand. I float on calm waters.

After writing this, I now see that the relief of pain was not my sole motivation for cutting. Another critical element was regaining control of my inner world. Loss of control is a key fact of mental illness; being able to relieve pain is extremely empowering.

kebil
commenting at www.ScientificAmerican.com/Mind


EMOTIONAL METAPHORS
In response to “Hidden Metaphors Get under Our Skin” [Head Lines], by Tori Rodriguez: The idea of the concrete metaphor comes from literary theory, of all places, and has since been taken up by cognitive and artificial-intelligence scientists. It says that the brain basically works by comparing the unknown to known and embodied metaphors as a kind of pattern recognition. Writers and artists have instinctively used metaphor for centuries to add depth and meaning to their work, such as where a landscape or setting reflects and reveals the subjects' moods. I think the fact that metaphor has emotional as well as intellectual meaning makes it a good candidate for exploring the bridge between thought and emotion.

dr_mabeuse
commenting online at www.ScientificAmerican.com/Mind


DIGITAL PAT ON THE BACK
Your magazine, obviously, is fantastic with great articles. I'm writing to say that your iPad app is equally good. It's wonderful to navigate. The people who made it deserve much praise.

Thank you!

Taimur Habib
via e-mail

This article was originally published with the title "Letters."

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