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Semblance of Fact: How brain scans are presented and consumed as photographs

LIKE PHOTOGRAPHS, brain scans are both factual records and cultural artifacts; they document real biological events and yet are interpreted within a social context. Unlike photographs, however, brain scans are not indexical, which is to say they are not direct mechanical imprints of a world beyond the image. But to most nonexperts, the products of functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) appear as photographs. And, like photographs, they are often seen only for their reportorial and evidentiary qualities. Calling them “scans” suggests they present a direct empirical view of activity in the brain. In fact, the fMRI machine is just a tool: It records blood-oxygen levels in the brain as subjects respond to specific stimuli, then algorithmically manipulates the experimental data to produce an overall image, which scientists must then interpret. And since fMRI science is a relatively young field, scientists don’t agree on the best practices of interpretation, much less what the data mean.

“Semblance of Fact” is part of “Common Minds,” a series of essays and conversations on the contemporary infatuation with the brain coedited by Dawn Chan. “Semblance of Fact” was produced by Triple Canopy as part of its Research Work project area, which is supported in part by the Brown Foundation, Inc., of Houston, the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs in partnership with the City Council, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the New York State Council on the Arts.

Excerpt from an essay by Jan Estep. Read it HERE

Human-ities · Science · Social/Politics · Theory

Truth Decay: A network scientist examines the lifespan of a fact.

It’s an irony of modern life that the exponential spread of information has given rise to another exponential spread, of books about the exponential spread of information. We’ve got more facts than we ever had before, and so we’ve got more ruminations on how those facts affect us. Does Google make us stupid, or has it given us a deeper knowledge? Is there now so much to read and learn that we’ll never master anything (a concern that dates back at least 800 years)? Are all these facts disposable, such that what we learn today will be obsolete tomorrow?

The Harvard network scientist and pop theorist Samuel Arbesman stokes our fears of information on the cover of his recent book, The Half-Life of Facts: Why Everything We Know Has an Expiration Date. Watch out, that title says: The truth is melting! But the argument that Arbesman lays out (in a set of loosely connected anecdotes and essays) works to do the opposite. He uses math as a medication for this anxiety, to keep us calm in the face of shifting knowledge. His book works like a data-beta-blocker: By fitting fickle truths to models and equations, it promises a way to handle life’s uncertainty and keep abreast of “the vibrations in the facts around us.” In the end, though, the prescription runs afoul of a more fundamental ambiguity: What does it mean to call a fact a fact to start with?

Excerpt of an article written by Daniel Engber at SLATE. Continue HERE

Book-Text-Read-Zines · Human-ities · Theory

The Lifespan of a Fact. What is fact, what is fiction?

The key passage in John D’Agata and Jim Fingal’s “The Lifespan of a Fact” (W.W. Norton: 124 pp., $17.95 paper) comes late in the book, during an exchange on the role of fact in the amorphous genre known as literary nonfiction, or creative nonfiction, or literary journalism, or, in D’Agata’s usage, “the essay.” D’Agata and Fingal are arguing about intent, and the extent to which, or whether, invention ought to be allowed.

It’s an essential question, albeit one that’s been boiled down to sound-bite status in recent years, after mini-tempests over James Frey, Margaret Seltzer and other memoirists who embellish, or falsify, their memories, and D’Agata, for one, has had enough. “I’m not calling this ‘nonfiction,'” he writes, “and neither do I tend to call anything that I write ‘nonfiction,’ because I don’t accept that term as a useful description of anything that I value in literature. The only reason this is being labeled ‘nonfiction’ by your editors is because that is one of the two binary categories that editors allow in prose.”

“The Lifespan of a Fact” offers an extended debate on that issue between D’Agata, author of the searingly good book “About a Mountain” and editor of “The Next American Essay,” and Fingal, a former fact-checker at McSweeney’s and the Believer. At the heart of their discussion is an essay D’Agata wrote, which later helped inspire “About A Mountain,” about the suicide of 16-year-old Levi Presley, who jumped from the tower observation deck of Las Vegas’ Stratosphere hotel in 2002. Commissioned by Harper’s, the piece was rejected and picked up by the Believer after many of its details could not be verified.

Excerpt of an article written by David L. Ulin, Los Angeles Times Book Critic. Continue HERE. Image by Dolly’s Bookstore