News of What?

Today’s New York Times has a 7000 word article by Amy Harmon on cryonics, brain scanning, and brain emulation. Now these are subjects of great interest to me; my first book comes out in spring on the third topic. And 7000 words is space to say a great deal, even if you add the constraint that what you say must be understandable to the typical NYT reader.

So I’m struck by the fact that I have almost nothing to say in response to anything particular said in this article. Ms. Harmon gives the most space to one particular young cryonics patient who got others to donate to pay for her freezing. This patient hopes to return via brain emulation. Ms. Harmon discusses some history of the Brain Preservation Prize, highlighting Ken Hayworth personally, and quotes a few experts saying we are nowhere close to being able to emulate brains. At one point she says,

The questions the couple faced may ultimately confront more of us with implications that could be preposterously profound.

Yet she discusses no such implications. She discusses no arguments on if emulation would be feasible or desirable or what implications it might have. I’ll give her the benefit of the doubt and presume that her priorities accurately reflect the priorities of New York Times readers. But those priorities are so different from mine as to highlight the question: what exactly do news readers want?

For a topic like this, it seems readers want colorful characters described in detail, and quotes from experts with related prestige. They don’t want to hear about arguments for or against the claims made, or to discuss further implications of those claims. It seems they will enjoy talking to others about the colorful characters described, and perhaps enjoy taking a position on the claims those characters make. But these aren’t the sort of topics where anyone expects to care about the quality or care of the arguments one might. It is enough to just have opinions.

Added 14Sep: Amy posted a related article that is a technical review of brain emulation tech. I’m glad it exists, but I also have nothing particular to say in response.

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  • Ben Albert Pace

    When I was with my family two days ago it was the same. I have little to add to the conversation, they just listed their opinions about people and topics.

  • Today’s New York Times has a 7000 word article by Amy Harmon on cryonics, brain scanning, and brain emulation.

    That’s a funny statement about the article’s intended subject matter, the title being “A Dying Young Woman’s Hope in Cryonics and a Future,” pretty clearly about a “dying woman” rather than about cryonics as such.

    I’ve never had any interest in this sort of journalism. It’s like movies based on “true stories.” But that’s another matter.

  • Dave Lindbergh

    Do you read the NYT regularly? This is normal. It exists to regurgitate conventional opinions to faux-sophisticates who don’t want any of their preconceived notions challenged, or to have to think.

    Happily, the NYT is not typical modern journalism. Most modern journalism is much better.

  • Faze

    The standard NYT story is a plea for one thing or another. But I couldn’t figure out what they were asking for in this story. It was not an argument to raise or lower the status of any individual or group. I think you have it right, in that it belongs to the smaller class of NYT articles meant as conversation fodder.

  • Chris Hibbert

    As I told my S.O. when I related the fact of the NYT article, “The news is that the NYT had a /nice/ article on Cryonics.” I don’t read the Times other than when someone points me to a particular article, but it was news to me that mainstream media might talk about people choosing cryonics in any tone other than horror.

  • zarzuelazen

    On a technical note, you can read the detailed Alcor report at the link. Very very disappointing. It appears that the cryopreservation failed.

    *There was a delay of over hour before the hospice nurse arrived, far too late to prevent brain damage.

    *Detailed scans of Kim’s brain show that the cryoprotection method was not effective in the slightest

    “The left hemisphere is minimally dehydrated, while the right hemisphere shows no evidence of dehydration. This supports the view that cryoprotective perfusion was not generally successful.”

    as stated in the comments:

    “Unfortunately for Kim, a series of mis-steps and awful planning has probably reduced what little chance for success to essentially zero. Take away: if you are going to go down this road make sure that simple things like batteries being charged and you have an RN on hand. Because Kim had the temerity to die during a shift change, it was an hour before the nurse arrived to declare her dead so the preservation process could begin. From the sounds of the report, her brain is likely just mush at this point.”

    KEY POINT: there is only a technical chance of cryonics working if you receive near instant (within minutes) treatment after your death. The main problem is managing to get frozen fast enough.

    • M_1

      The main problem is lack of cooperation from hospitals and the legal system.

    • Simon

      It sounds like her cerebral cortex – the area of the brain widely considered to be key to human cognition – was protected from ice formation. But even if it wasn’t, there’s no scientific reason to think that neural connections are destroyed beyond recognition by ice.

      Since we’re talking about scanning a frozen brain into a computer, obstacles to biological revival – like the fact that many arteries in the brain collapse after a few minutes of ischemia – are not necessarily important to the technical chance of cryonics working. The article explicitly discusses how imperfectly preserved brains may still contain information that’s crucial to personal identity.


    “At one point she says,

    The questions the couple faced may ultimately confront more of us with implications that could be preposterously profound.

    Yet she discusses no such implications. She discusses no arguments on if emulation would be feasible or desirable or what implications it might have.”

    Maybe she thinks those implications are so different for different (ideologically inclined) people it’s not wise/useful to go over a list, or she just doesn’t really know what those implications would be (similar to how professors will say a solution is “trivial” to avoid having to admit they don’t know/understand the solution).

    But… I have to admit the “smart-sounding conversation fodder for people, nay, folks, who want to sound smart” is a convincing explanation as well.

  • You ask “what exactly do news readers want?”. This is not a mystery. They want what all humans want: a narrative story arc with moral meaning, not technical information. Simple as that.

    In general I’ve noticed science writers write two types of articles: 1) pure technical explainers, 2) explainers wrapped inside a story arc. The latter are considered finer form and far superior. But of course doing #2 well is very hard, and often you wind up with a meandering story and minimal science content. But I’ve seen this done well, for example I really liked The Song of the Dodo: Island Biogeography in an Age of Extinctions by David Quammen. It’s an adventure story, a narrative on various views on evolution, a history of evolutionary theory, and a lament on the loss of biodiversity. It’s really a great book. But Quammen then wrote Spillover, where he used the same adventure/narrative structure, and to be honest I found it tedious. Halfway through I looked Ebola up on wikiepdia (the mystery in the book was whether bats spread Ebola) and found wikipedia far more interesting and to the point. So even one of the very finest science writers can only sometimes pull off this kind of narrative based science writing. It has a very sharp uncanny valley of death to avoid, where the article can become pretty bad and boring if not done perfectly. And yet it’s often attempted. And to be honest, human beings love stories with a narrative arc. So I can’t blame writers for writing what people want to read. Even if for the most part I find that kind of writing mind numbingly tedious and boring.

    By the way, another recent example of this narrative style (done fairly well) is the Kathryn Schulz Seattle Tsunami piece from a few months back. You can see why it got so many views. And overall I think science is only overhyped a bit here and then, and the narrative arc is fine. So it’s quite good. But very hard to pull off.

    If you want a true no bullshit writing style, I really like Nick Lane. His latest two books on origins of life are very good. Barely any narrative beyond having differing theories represented by various scientists. So Bob stands for theory x, and Mary stands for theory y. Which I found a fairly useful writing device for explaining, though not sure the people involved would be happy having their views stylized like that. Anyway, love Nick Lane’s style. Pure science explaining, with his own strong views, yet still attempting to be careful to explain to people who disagree. No narrative arc at all (thankfully). So people do write that way. Just not as common.

    • zarzuelazen

      Exactly so! In fact ‘Narrative’ is one the 27 primitive categories in my upper-ontology of everything. It’s the fundamental unit of ‘culture’.
      Essentially humans comprehend the social world through narratives (story arcs). Narratives decompose into collections of ‘Projects’ (specific tasks or events with social aims) which in turn reduce to combinations of ‘Memes’ (units of social actions or ideas) .
      The logical analogy to ‘narratives’ are ‘models’ , which present the factual (scientific as opposed social) view of the world. People do like to learn about ‘models’ as well, but as you say, learning is far more effective when embedded a strong narrative.

  • SilentCal

    ‘Portrait journalism’ is something of a genre. It’s narratively engaging and therefore entertaining, but as far as content… I’m having trouble writing something that doesn’t sound like paranoid raving about the man telling you what to think, because it’s pretty clear you can paint a portrait to support any side of any cause. Suffice it to say that “The New York Times Editorial Board deems a sympathetic portrayal of cryonics fit to print on the front page” is information homo hypocritus might have some use for.

  • There’s a definite journalistic genre such stories belong to: the “human interest story.” What needs do they serve generally? Robin (if it’s fair to generalize) suggests discussion fodder. I think it may be a gossip substitute.

    Such stories are far from universally enjoyed. I don’t think I’m at all alone in generally finding them boring (and not due to any general dislike of narrative). The traits of the people enjoying them could corroborate one or another hypothesis.

    Are they folks who are constrained in their gossip, and who need a substitute (in this case, a very sublimiated one)? Or are they folks who seek out a lot of social interaction. [Not opposites, but different.]

  • ScottH3

    Modern readers don’t reach conclusions or arrive at positions. Those items gradually reveal themselves as reality’s “givens” within the context of a particular article.

  • J.j. Cintia

    Oh good, just what we needed. TV Dinners for zombies! With the Zombie Apocalypse about to happen, these will come in handy.

  • Simon

    Yet she discusses no such implications.

    The implication that death may not be permanent isn’t profound?

    She discusses no arguments on if emulation would be feasible or desirable or what implications it might have.

    Half the article is scientists arguing about the feasibility of emulating brains preserved with various protocols.