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Tuesday, September 25, 2018

Psychologist and defense witness at Van Dyke trial says police officers suffer from memory distortions under acute stress

Posted By on 09.25.18 at 10:30 PM

Chicago police officer Jason Van Dyke listens to testimony during the second day of his trial for the shooting death of Laquan McDonald. - ANTONIO PEREZ/CHICAGO TRIBUNE
  • Antonio Perez/Chicago Tribune
  • Chicago police officer Jason Van Dyke listens to testimony during the second day of his trial for the shooting death of Laquan McDonald.

In October 2012, U.S. Border Patrol agent Lonnie Swartz shot and killed unarmed Mexican teenager José Antonio Elena Rodríguez through a border fence while responding to an incident in Nogales, Arizona. According to an autopsy, Rodriguez was struck ten times in the back with gunshot wounds to the head and arteries.

A grand jury indicted Swartz for second-degree murder. During the trial, Swartz testified that he fired on Rodriguez in self-defense after he heard rocks hitting the fence and "was scared to be hit by a rock, [scared] for my partner." He also stated that an officer had already been struck by a rock and that a police dog had also been injured, though testimony by other officers on the scene contradicted those statements.

Surveillance video of the shooting shows Swartz approach the fence with his gun drawn, fire through the fence three times, then move along the fence a few feet and shoot ten more times. After stepping back to reload, he fires another three times.

Swartz told the jury he couldn't remember doing any of that. He said he did recall sensing a second rock thrower in the area, though, and he also remembered throwing up after the shooting.

Prosecutors questioned why Swartz would remember details like throwing up and injuries to other officers yet fail to recall shooting at a subject. The defense called Laurence Miller, a Florida-based clinical psychologist in private practice, to help account for the discrepancy.

"What you actually see, what you actually hear, a lot of it depends on what you are paying attention to in that particular moment," Miller told the jury. In the case of a shooting situation, he explained, the brain focuses wholly on survival and can tune out everything else such that "some part of the scene is recalled especially vividly, while others are fuzzy or distorted."

As for Swartz's claim to have sensed a second rock thrower in the area, Miller testified that under intense stress, the brain may "magnify perceived threats of circumstances" to such an extent that the nonlethal can appear lethal in the moment.

In April, Swartz was acquitted of the second-degree murder charge. (Prosecutors are now trying him on charges of voluntary and involuntary manslaughter.) A juror later elaborated on the verdict, saying that no matter how strong its evidence, the prosecution couldn't prove that Swartz didn't feel in danger of losing his life.

Now Miller has been called as an expert witness by the defense in the murder trial of Chicago police officer Jason Van Dyke, whose guilt would seem to be unassailable based on the infamous dashcam video that shows him firing 16 shots at 17-year-old Laquan McDonald, who first appears to be moving away from the cops, then quickly falls to the ground as the shots continue.

Miller will testify that Van Dyke feared for his life when he shot Laquan McDonald, and that this mortal terror helps explain the discrepancies between his and other police reports and the videotape of the shooting. Specifically, he claims that Van Dyke's account could be the product of a brain under immense neuropsychological stress rather than a deliberate, self-serving attempt to obscure the facts of the case.

During open court in June, Cook County judge Vincent Gaughan cleared Miller's testimony after weeks of back-and-forth between prosecutors and Van Dyke's defense team about the admissability and even the relevance of his testimony. "The jury does not need Dr. Miller to tell them what thoughts were going through the defendant's mind before and during the shooting, because only the defendant can know that information," prosecutors maintained.

Miller specializes in working with law enforcement. He's written extensively about officer-involved shootings and the use of deadly force, with a focus on what happens neurologically in such incidents.

In a 2011 article published in the International Journal of Emergency Mental Health, Miller contends that approximately a third of officer-shooting cases involve a distortion of memory "to the extent that an officer's account of what happened differs markedly from the reports of other observers on the scene." According to Miller, even significant differences between video or eyewitness testimony and police accounts of shootings shouldn't automatically be taken to show that an officer was "lying or consciously distorting his or her report," because memory distortion is a side effect of the brain's hyperfocus on immediate danger.

In critical shooting situations, Miller says, "the brain naturally tries to tone the hyperarousal." In effect, the parts of the brain that help with memory storage are shut down, so the brain can respond to perceived threats rapidly. Under these circumstances, officers' recollections of their actions during a shooting may be wildly off-base or missing entirely.

The jury's still out on Miller's claims. According to Jordan Grafman, a neurology and cognition professor at Northwestern University, there is some data that suggests persistent stress can affect a person's memory, but much more testing is needed before any further conclusions can be drawn.

Lab experiments on rats have shown that "under conditions of persistent stress, there is neuronal loss in the hippocampus," Grafman said. "It may affect it enough that it then affects what we would call episodic memory, conscious retrieval of what just happened."

But rats are rats, and employing similar experiments on human subjects is obviously problematic. "I can't go to Northwestern University and say I want to stress people out for years" in order to conduct a controlled experiment, Grafman said. "So, if you're asking me do we have very certain data about that, we do with animals," he continued, "but [nothing] comparable to humans."

Grafman also noted that many of the memory-distortion studies Miller refers to rely on subjects' self-evaluations or interviews after the fact—not exactly clean data. Moreover, he said, there are other factors that can contribute to distortion of memory that need to be acknowledged.

"There is always going to be individual responses depending on everything from genetics [to your ability] to handle stress, your psychology, your resilience," he said. "Unless you have a significant amount of detail on the individual before the incident it's going to be hard to be precise.

"This application of neuroscience and cognitive science is starting to tippy-toe into the court room," Grafman added, "but the research is not quite there yet."

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Wednesday, May 30, 2018

Move over, T. rex: Field Museum shows off the diversity of dinos from outside America

Posted By on 05.30.18 at 05:00 AM

When you think "dinosaur" you're probably thinking of one from North America like the T. rex. - RYAN SMITH
  • Ryan Smith
  • When you think "dinosaur" you're probably thinking of one from North America like the T. rex.

Think "dinosaur" and your brain is likely to default to a Tyrannosaurus rex, triceratops, stegosaurus, velociraptor—all the superstar fauna of the Mesozoic era.

Beyond guest appearances in the Jurassic Park movies, the tie that binds these popular prehistoric creatures is their place of birth: they're all found in the U.S. or Canada. But where's the love for Giraffatitan, the giraffelike African sauropod, or Glacialisaurus, the beefy beast whose bones were discovered in an antarctic glacier?

We're too focused on the northern hemisphere when it comes to the dinosaur world, a diversity problem the Field Museum is trying to help rectify this spring. Last week, the natural history museum installed a fiberglass cast of a titanosaur skeleton from Argentina in Stanley Field Hall, and it's also putting the finishing touches on a new exhibit featuring the dinosaurs of Antarctica.

"We want to show that there's more to dinosaurs than T. rexes and all of the very familiar North American species," says Eric Gorscak, a postdoc research scientist at the Field.

Máximo, the 122-foot-long titanosaur, has invaded the Field Museum.
  • Máximo, the 122-foot-long titanosaur, has invaded the Field Museum.

Step one in diversifying the Field's dinos: moving Sue out of the museum's vast white-marbled main room after 18 years. The T. rex skeleton was taken down and rebuilt in a new suite on the second floor earlier this year to make way for Máximo—a massive herbivore native to South America.

The 70-ton titanosaur was initially discovered in 2010 at the Mayo family farm in the Patagonia region of Argentina (hence the name chosen for the species: Patagotitan mayorum). On Friday, crews needed a crane to attach its skull—the final piece of the dinosaur's frame. In its finished state, Máximo measures 122 feet long from head to tail, four-fifths the height of the Chicago Water Tower. At 28 feet tall, the dinosaur's fearsome-looking skull is at eye level with visitors standing on the museum's second-floor balcony.

"If you're going to move Sue, the biggest and baddest T. rex around, you have to go with something equally impressive, and we've got that in Máximo—the biggest dinosaur that's ever walked the earth," says Hilary Hansen, the museum's senior exhibitions project manager.

The titanosaur's rust-colored bones reflect the claylike soil common in South America, and its name was an intentional nod to the dinosaur's regional roots, Hansen noted. "It's also a nice play on words because it means 'maximum' in Spanish," she said.

Crews finished construction of Máximo last week. - RYAN SMITH
  • Ryan Smith
  • Crews finished construction of Máximo last week.

There are also other creatures in the 12-week "Antarctic Dinosaurs" exhibit that aren't as physically spectacular as Máximo, but they're likely to be just as unfamiliar to the public. That's partly because they're fairly new discoveries, including fossils dug up in 2010 and 2011 by a team of scientists encamped at Shackleton Glacier that included Field Museum paleontologists Pete Makovicky and Nate Smith.

The exhibition—which opens at the Field Museum on June 15—will include about 40 species from the icy continent from a time 200 million years ago when it was part of a bigger supercontinent called Gondwana. Then Antarctica was a wooded, lush habitat with a temperate climate that contained a number of dinosaurs—many of whom were covered with feathers.

A mock-up of the Antarctic Dinosaurs exhibit includes the Cryolophosaurus AKA "Elvisaurus" - FIELD MUSEUM
  • Field Museum
  • A mock-up of the Antarctic Dinosaurs exhibit includes the Cryolophosaurus AKA "Elvisaurus"

"The climate was similar to northern Alaska, where you have high latitude but you still have seasonality. So you had a lot of feathered dinosaurs running around in Antartica," says Gorscak.

Arguably the most famous Antarctic dino is the unique-looking Cryolophosaurus. Unearthed in 1991 and named in 1994, the meat-eating monster has been nicknamed "Elvisaurus" because of the curved forward-facing crest on its head that vaguely resembles young Elvis Presley's pompadour haircut.

With the Field Museum's help, maybe Elvisaurus or Máximo will get their own cameos in the next Jurassic World sequel, but Gorscak will settle for exposing people to new dinosaurs from places far from America.

"There are so many cool dinosaurs from different parts of the world and we're excited to open the public's minds to them."

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Friday, April 27, 2018

How to meet and greet little green men

Posted By on 04.27.18 at 06:00 AM

The cast of Star Trek: The Next Generation - NERDIST
  • Nerdist
  • The cast of Star Trek: The Next Generation

The
Reader's archive is vast and varied, going back to 1971. Every day in Archive Dive, we'll dig through and bring up some finds.

The year is 1989, and Star Trek: The Next Generation is in its second season, maintaining the mission of the U.S.S. Enterprise "to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where no one has gone before." The voyages of Captain Picard and his crew are dismissed by the scientific community as works of far-out fantasy, as they certainly are. It's a TV show, not a documentary. Yet Allan Goodman, a dean at Georgetown University, is spearheading an initiative to essentially carry out Picard's orders; by 1992, he hopes the United Nations will sign off on an agreement between world leaders to search the skies for intelligent life.

That's all well and good, but should the search bear fruit, what then? The Reader's hefty 1989 profile of Goodman, authored by Greg Kitsock, outlines his proposed protocol for when—not if—our planet makes contact with aliens. It contains multiple mandates, leading with one as prescient today as it was then:

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Wednesday, March 28, 2018

The 20,000-word article on bees that would forever define the Reader

Posted By on 03.28.18 at 06:00 AM

ILLUSTRATION BY ELWOOD H. SMITH
  • Illustration by Elwood H. Smith

The Reader's archive is vast and varied, going back to 1971. Every day in Archive Dive, we'll dig through and bring up some finds.

"It would not be terribly difficult to argue that the honeybee is a rather stupid animal by nature," Michael Lenehan wrote in his 1977 Reader article "The Essence of Beeing." He continues: "The earth is home to at least a million different insect species, probably a great many more, and of these the honeybee is easily number-one chump, the species most thoroughly controlled and exploited by humans."

Several paragraphs later, after an extensive discussion of apiarism and the habits of the honeybee, he concedes: "Of course, it would be easy to counter the foregoing assertions with testimony to the effect that bees are, in fact, quite intelligent as animals go, but to do so would require more of this silly anthropomorphic jocularity, and it is not considered good form to attribute values, motives, and powers of understanding to bees that they almost certainly do not possess. They're just bugs."

What makes Lenehan’s piece notable isn't just the education it provides on bees and beekeeping—although it's wonderfully thorough—but its sheer length. At over 20,000 words, it took up 30 pages of the November 17 edition of the paper (and this was back when the Reader was published as a quarterfold, much larger than its current format). Long enough to be a book, it eventually became one: in 1992 Sherwin Beach Press published the article as a 45-page hand-printed, hand-bound, nine-by-12-inch volume. (According to my research, if it were printed as a traditional paperback it would have been somewhere around 75 pages in length.) It also won the Westinghouse Science Writing Award from the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

Longtime Reader columnist Michael Miner wrote about the piece in 2011 for the paper’s 40th-anniversary dive into its past, calling it "the article that would forever define [the Reader]." The paper does have a history of extremely long cover stories, and I’ve heard it used to be a running joke that no one ever finished reading them. It wasn't even the longest article ever published in the Reader: in the 1990s there were several essays by Lee Sandlin that each came to more than 30,000 words in length.

I did read "The Essence of Beeing" in its entirety several years ago, though. It reminded me of the summers I spent with my grandparents when I was growing up, when I’d help my grandpa harvest honey from the beehives he kept on his Christmas-tree farm (the labels on his honey bears said "Thiel's Trees and Bees"). I learned a lot more about bees from the article than I did from my grandpa, which may be unsurprising given the sheer amount of information it contains.

Miner concludes: "In years to come, commentators were not sure what to think of this article. Penned by one of the Reader's most graceful and meticulous writers, it was unassailable as journalism. But perhaps it was insanely indulgent. Or perhaps never had a barrel of ink been more insouciantly allocated. At any rate, it was very very Readerish."

It was at that. Here's one more excerpt that jumped out at me as I skimmed the piece recently, an entire paragraph in a parenthetical:
(Bees are not alone in their low opinion of the drone's usefulness—beekeepers, who most often buy their queens already impregnated, try to discourage the presence of drones in the hive, because they eat much and contribute nothing. Even the bee breeders who sell the impregnated queens are learning to do without drones for the most part, as artificial insemination techniques become more popular. Doubtless, there is a lesson to be learned here for the chauvinist drones of the human species.)

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Friday, March 16, 2018

The two most-read Reader stories of all time both involve major disappointments

Posted By on 03.16.18 at 06:30 AM

This is not your friend. - TINA JOHANSSON
  • Tina Johansson
  • This is not your friend.

The
Reader's archive is vast and varied, going back to 1971. Every day in Archive Dive, we'll dig through and bring up some finds.

The most-read Reader story of all time is a 2012 Savage Love column with the headline "My husband violated the ground rules I'd set for our threesome." For some reason, this regularly pops up on the weekly list of top ten most-read posts. The husband promised his wife he would not stick his penis into the other woman, but he did it anyway. Dan's response begins, "Please hand this column to your husband. My response is for him: You are one stupid motherfucker."

The second most-read Reader story of all time is the far less sexy "Health: Does Coffee Make You Sleepy?" Published in 1990, it was the only story Roger Downey would ever write for the Reader. Still, since the paper went digital and we started tracking these things, he's probably racked up more page views than other staffers have in their entire careers.

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Wednesday, September 6, 2017

Beneath Chicago lies an entire second city of ants

Posted By on 09.06.17 at 09:00 AM

9780226266800.jpg

I need to begin this review with an apology. In the January edition of the Reader's semiannual list of books to look forward to, I included Dr. Eleanor's Book of Common Ants of Chicago with the explanation "Because forewarned is forearmed." I thought I was being witty. Now that I've actually read Dr. Eleanor's Book of Common Ants of Chicago, I realize how painfully naive and prejudiced I was. So I'm sorry, ants of the world, for underestimating you all and assuming you were pests. Now I know you're remarkable creatures of dazzling strength and ingenuity, even the rare species who pester humans (fewer than 30 of the 1000 who live in North America), and that our world would be a much sadder place without you.

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Friday, August 18, 2017

Where to watch the total eclipse in Chicago

Posted By on 08.18.17 at 05:12 PM

Chicago has plenty of prime spots to witness the rare solar eclipse on Monday 8/21. - WIKIMEDIA COMMONS
  • Wikimedia Commons
  • Chicago has plenty of prime spots to witness the rare solar eclipse on Monday 8/21.

The first total solar eclipse to cross the U.S. in 99 years will occur in the early afternoon of Monday, August 21. While Chicago is not in the "path of totality"—you'll have to head to downstate Carbondale, Illinois, to see the spectacle in its full glory—the Adler Planetarium says Monday will be the closest the city has been to a total eclipse in 92 years. In Chicago, the moon (that jerk!) will slowly begin to block out the sun at 11:54 AM, peak at 1:19 PM (80 to 90 percent coverage), and end at 2:42 PM. Throw on your viewing glasses (safety first!) and head out to one of the following events.

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Thursday, June 22, 2017

It’s the end of the world at the Museum of Science and Industry and we feel fine

Posted By on 06.22.17 at 03:42 PM

The original cover design that started it all. - MUSEUM OF SCIENCE AND INDUSTRY
  • Museum of Science and Industry
  • The original cover design that started it all.

It seems slightly unbelievable now, but the scientists who developed the nuclear bomb didn't want it to be used in an actual war. After the first test bomb exploded in New Mexico in July, 1945, J. Robert Oppenheimer, the head of the Los Alamos lab, said he was reminded of a quote from the Bhagavad Gita: "Now I am become death, the destroyer of worlds." Later that month, 70 scientists who'd worked on the Manhattan Project, which led to the development of the bomb, signed a petition begging President Truman not to use it against the Japanese.

Well, we all know how that went.

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Friday, April 28, 2017

Obama’s first post-presidency speech and the March for Science were nonpartisan to a fault

Posted By on 04.28.17 at 01:54 PM

Obama didn't mention Donald Trump in his conversation on civic engagement and community organizing at the University of Chicago on April 24. - CHARLES REX ARBOGAST/AP
  • Charles Rex Arbogast/AP
  • Obama didn't mention Donald Trump in his conversation on civic engagement and community organizing at the University of Chicago on April 24.

Though Barack Obama's first post-presidency speech on April 24 and the March for Science on April 22 were at least partially born out of a need to address dangers presented by the agenda of President Donald Trump and a reinvigorated GOP, both only winked at Trump while embracing a kind of bloodless nonpartisanship.

Held just a few miles apart, the two highly publicized events kept Trump and his agenda in the margins. The 44th president danced around his predecessor's name as if Trump were Voldemort. And while many pro-science marchers carried signs that attacked and mocked Trump, the speakers at the rally were careful not mention his name—part of an effort by the organizers to somehow keep the demonstration apolitical.

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How museum curators deal with the issue of race

Posted By on 04.28.17 at 08:00 AM

The Neighborhood/El Barrio by Bianca Diaz at the Museum of Mexican Art - SUN-TIMES MEDIA
  • Sun-Times Media
  • The Neighborhood/El Barrio by Bianca Diaz at the Museum of Mexican Art

"Museums are conservative institutions," says Carlos Tortolero, founder and president of the National Museum of Mexican Art in Pilsen. "They come from the same tradition, sometimes started by people who had money, sometimes by the government. Historically, they've been elite institutions. If you want to change it, first you have to admit you have a problem."

Tortolero will be appearing on a Chicago Humanities Fest panel this weekend with Chip Colwell, senior curator of anthropology at the Denver Museum of Nature & Science, and David Pilgrim, founder and director of the Jim Crow Museum at Ferris State University in Big Rapids, Michigan, to discuss one very big problem facing museums today: the problem of institutional racism.

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