Random Samples

Science  25 Feb 2005:
Vol. 307, Issue 5713, pp. 1197
1. French Psychoflap

Freudian psychoanalysis is far from the mainstream in modern mental health care. But it's alive and well in France—and it just got a shot in the arm from health minister Philippe Douste-Blazy, to the consternation of many scientists.

Speaking at a 5 February meeting of psychoanalysts in Paris, Douste-Blazy praised their work while announcing that he had ordered the removal from his department's Web site of a 2004 report concluding that the scientific evidence favors cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) over psychoanalysis. “You won't hear about [the report] again,” Douste-Blazy, a cardiologist, assured his elated audience.

France has a strong psychoanalytical tradition, founded by Jacques Lacan (1901–81), who melded classic Freudian ideas with structuralism in what his detractors say is a pseudoscientific, cultlike movement now led by his son-in-law Jacques-Alain Miller. Many of its followers were angered when France's leading health agency INSERM issued a report in February 2004 that took the currently popular “evidence-based” approach to psychotherapy and concluded that CBT has the most to show for itself.

This time, many other psychologists and psychiatrists are incensed. “I'm totally amazed and puzzled,” says Jean Cottraux, a psychiatrist at the Pierre Wertheimer Neurological Hospital in Lyon and a member of the INSERM panel. He calls the report's removal “an act of censorship” that could favor a regressive “lacanist takeover” of the field.

There's speculation that Douste-Blazy's remarks also are behind the sudden resignation last week of epidemiologist William Dab, director-general for health, whose office had requested the study.

2. Math Without Words

How much higher thinking can there be without language? That's been a perennial question. An intriguing piece of the answer has been supplied by research with three brain-damaged men whose ability to use words is severely impaired but who can still do complex math.

Math and verbal reasoning clearly involve analogous functions, but experts differ on how the two types of syntactic processes are related. To cast more light on the question, a team led by Rosemary Varley of the University of Sheffield, U.K., administered mathematical tests to three men who had damage to the language-processing centers in their left cortical hemispheres. The tasks involved not only simple addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division but more complex problems such as numbers embedded in brackets analogous to language structures—subordinate clauses, for example—that the men were no longer able to use. Although they even had difficulty deciphering words for numbers, they performed competently on a variety of tests presented in Arabic numeral format, the authors report in a paper appearing online on 14 February in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The study offers “a powerful new argument” for the view that “in the adult brain at least, the syntax of arithmetic and the syntax of language are independent,” says neuroscientist Brian Butterworth of University College London. The authors say the results don't rule out the possibility that language in early life provides a “template” that facilitates math learning. But by adulthood, it appears that mathematical thinking can stand on its own.

3. Sensitivity or Censorship?

A new wave of political sensitivity appears to be sweeping over the national parks, to the dismay of some archaeologists. This time it's focused on the word “Anasazi,” a term used for almost a century by archaeologists to denote ancient pueblo dwellers of the Southwest.

At Colorado's Mesa Verde National Park, there are two books you can't find these days: Understanding the Anasazi of Mesa Verde and Hovenweep by David Grant Noble and Water for the Anasazi by Kenneth Wright. Some archaeologists such as David Breternitz, professor emeritus of the University of Colorado, Boulder, are upset at the exclusion, calling it “censorship.” But Tessy Shirakawa, a park spokesperson and tribal liaison, explains that some Pueblo Indians consider the word “Anasazi” derogatory. The Navajo term can mean “Enemy Ancestors” or “Non-Navajo Ancestors,” depending on the tribe, according to archaeologist Linda Cordell of the University of Colorado, Boulder, Museum. Many Indians therefore prefer the term “Ancient Puebloans.” Shirakawa says the park is switching terms in its own publications and asks authors and publishers to do the same.

There has also been a minor flurry over the matter of rock art at New Mexico's Petroglyph National Monument bookstore. The bookstore has declined to carry Rock Art in New Mexico by Polly Schaafsma. Some Indians have objected to the term “rock art” because “art” is said to suggest a European cultural activity rather than a spiritual undertaking, says Diane Souder, tribal liaison and monument spokesperson. However, Souder says the book was turned down for yet another reason: It shows sacred images that tribes believe should not be photographed. For this reason, Souder says, the bookstore no longer sells calendars with such images.

7. Deaths

Surely you're joking. D. Allan Bromley, who died of a heart attack on 10 February at the age of 79, had a distinguished career as the founder and longtime director of Yale's A. W. Wright Nuclear Structure Laboratory and science adviser to President George H. W. Bush. Less well known—but in keeping with his warm sense of humor—is his contribution to theological meteorology.

In 1972, Bromley was one of the brains behind an anonymous article in Applied Optics that combined clues from two biblical passages with physical principles to put bounds on the temperatures of heaven and hell. Using the physics of radiation and the chemistry of sulfur, the authors argued that the bright light of eternal bliss suggested that heaven was a sweltering 798 K, whereas hell's boiling brimstone lakes had to be below 718 K. The paper quickly became physics legend and remains alive on the Internet.

In 1998, two Spanish physicists threw cold water on the analysis by pointing out an error in the paper's interpretation of biblical passages, bringing heaven's temperature down to a more tolerable but nonetheless scalding 505 K. When asked to comment on the new finding, Bromley laughed and said, “Go to hell.”

8. Awards

Never too late. The White House has announced the winners of the nation's top honors in science and technology for 2003.

Eight researchers will receive the National Medal of Science: J. Michael Bishop, University of California, San Francisco; G. Brent Dalrymple, Oregon State University; Carl R. De Boor, University of Wisconsin, Madison; Riccardo Giacconi, Johns Hopkins University; R. Duncan Luce, University of California, Irvine; John M. Prausnitz, University of California, Berkeley; Solomon H. Snyder, Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine; and Charles Yanofsky, Stanford University.

Six individuals, one company, and a foundation have won the National Medal of Technology: Jan D. Achenbach, Northwestern University; Watts S. Humphrey, Software Engineering Institute, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania; Robert M. Metcalfe, Polaris Venture Partners, Waltham, Massachusetts; Rodney D. Bagley, Irwin Lachman, and Ronald M. Lewis, Corning Inc.; UOP LLC, Des Plaines, Illinois; and Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation, Madison.

The awardees will be honored at a White House ceremony on 14 March.