"Over all the years that followed, I found myself thinking from time to time of that picture, my hand over the baby's mouth. I knew then, and I still think now, that the right thing to do would have been to kill that baby."
Like a morbid time capsule from the mind of an elder New York psychiatrist, a report surfaced this week in which Dr. Fredric Neuman essentially confesses to criminal breaches of medical ethics. His essay "The Cyclops Child," which appeared on the website of the journal Psychology Today, recounts the dishonesty and cruelty surrounding the brief existence of a child with severe birth defects. Compounding the offenses detailed in the story itself, Dr. Neuman uses dehumanizing terminology -- referring to the infant as a "monster" -- and focuses disproportionately on the hardship endured by hospital staff, as opposed to the dying child (or "it," according to the author). An anachronism of some unadulterated views from a voice of the medicinal community circa 1960, "The Cyclops Child" is an offending document in itself.
I will summarize here the critical facts resurrected by Dr. Neuman, but please do read his entire essay as well. While he withheld the specifics, I estimate that the hospital was St. Vincent's (now closed), and the year was 1959 or 1960 (based on my review of his curriculum vitae). The essay -- which catalogues what would today be considered kidnapping, assault and possibly murder -- shocks our modern sensibilities. "As a person with disabilities, I find this entire post chilling," one of Dr. Neuman's readers wrote. "I hope the NY state medical board investigates the physicians involved and takes appropriate action," chimed in another.
Here's what happened. A mother gave birth to an infant with a fatal developmental defect called holoprosencephaly. Infants born today with this condition are almost unheard of, as most women will opt to abort the pregnancy when the condition is identified on an early ultrasound. Fifty years ago, women didn't have this option. They were treated by obstetricians who felt that they operated on a higher plane than the rest of us, paternalistically keeping information from patients and limiting options however they saw fit. In this case, the obstetrician decided the parents should not know that the baby was born with the condition. Instead, he and the rest of the team lied to the parents, telling them their baby was dead.
A word about this baby's condition, holoprosencephaly. As humans develop in the womb from a bundle of cells into distinct tissues and organs, the nervous system emerges from a structure called the "neural tube." In rare instances that doesn't form appropriately. In the case of holoprosencephaly, a defect in the neural tube occurs at the head, and various midline structures like the brain, eyes, and mouth may not fully form. In this case, Dr. Neuman describes the deformity using "cyclops" -- which is actually a valid medical term, but is used here outside of the appropriate pathological context -- in describing eye tissue that did not separate into two distinct eyes. It is disturbing that the term holoprosencephaly never occurs in his essay.
The baby is treated as an object and given no gender, referred to as "it." In the events that followed there is no indication that he received any palliative treatment, as would be the standard today (comfort care, including pain management).
The hospital staff expected and hoped that the newborn would soon pass away, but he did not. They left the child ignored in the back of the hospital nursery. Doctors and nurses waited for him to starve. An excruciating death watch followed that dragged on for about 13 days, as Dr. Neuman notes in the comments section of his piece. The child's cries anguished nursery staff who kept the dark secret. Dr. Neuman wrote:
"There was a price to be paid. Dying though it might be, the staff still had to tend to it, to change it, to clean it, to hold it in repeated attempts to comfort it. The baby was suffering, and so was everyone else. Earlier, I had caught an aide crying. A couple of nurses had stayed home that day. It was at that point that I began to think about killing the baby."
Dr. Neuman did not kill the baby. But he did torture him at the direction of his senior resident, who asked him to practice a finger amputation procedure on the child:
"The way you treat a baby's extra fingers is to tie a ligature, a string, as tight as you can around the base of the finger. The blood supply is cut off, and after a while the finger falls off.
When I went over to the baby, it was lying quietly in its bed. It did not object when I picked up its hand. But when I tied the ligature around its finger and pulled tightly, it screamed."
The newborn finally died. The parents of the child never knew of the suffering or the needless procedure. Dr. Neuman still believes he should have euthanized the child:
Over all the years that followed, I found myself thinking from time to time of that picture, my hand over the baby's mouth. I knew then, and I still think now, that the right thing to do would have been to kill that baby. It wasn't really a baby; it just sounded like a baby--that's what I tell myself. But I would like to stop thinking about it. After all, the whole thing happened over fifty years ago.
I'd compare Dr. Neuman's sickening tale to the work of Edgar Allen Poe, except that Dr. Neuman has not written a piece of creative fiction. This is the truth, we're told. So, has Psychology Today just published potential evidence in a trial for murder?
That's possible, but in no way probable, says Professor Martin Guggenheim of the New York University School of Law. Despite the fact that the statute of limitations doesn't run out on homicide, Guggenheim can't imagine a city prosecutor being interested in the case today. "Particularly because St. Vincent's is no more, I'd be more than a bit surprised if a prosecutor would do anything about this," Guggenheim says. All the other crimes - the kidnapping, the assault, the lies - are far too dated to be actionable.
Disability scholar Rebecca Garden, who teaches medical bioethics at Upstate Medical University, points out that despite the prevailing 1960's attitudes in this essay, deciding when life is worth living is still a contested issue. Disability rights advocates are still dealing with this on a daily basis. In this context, she feels Dr. Neuman's blog post is "distressing on many levels."
"This piece seems to be a complex and conflicted mix of confession, provocation, and defense or apologia," Professor Garden told me. Parts of "The Cylops Child" are written in the present tense. There is a passage where Dr. Neuman suggests that an obstetrician could smother such a baby. His observation that "such things happen" isn't confined to the past, Garden observes.
How can we fathom Dr. Neuman repeatedly describing this child as a monster? According to Laurence McCullough of the Center for Medical Ethics and Health Policy at Baylor College of Medicine, we're merely witnessing equally valid discourse from another era. Our modern scientific understanding that such developmental anomalies are errors of reproductive development derived from our evolutionary biology carries little human meaning, Prof. McCullough points out. A monster was considered "a portent sent by the Gods to punish transgression."
At least that's something people can somehow grasp and justify. "What may, at first, strike us as a wrong-headed or even repellent discourse of the past... turns out to have a distinct advantage over our own," McCullough says.
Though I would like to think of "The Cyclops Child" as a dusty artifact, it nonetheless appeared on my computer in 2012, from the mind of person living contemporaneously. I find myself trying to construct a narrative around it, to explain and contain it. Maybe Professor McCullough is right that "human scale" explanations at least offer us a framework to comprehend the things that distress us.
Alright, then. I'll believe the essay is a monstrosity published by the Gods to punish one doctor's fifty-year-old transgression.
Is a lack of meaning really worse than a lack of freedom?
A man named François is a professor in Paris. He is a scholar of Joris-Karl Huysmans, an obscure 19th-century author who, in his later years, converted to Catholicism in an epiphany. François is the hero, or rather anti-hero, of French novelist Michel Houellebecq’s Submission. François is listless—even his attitude toward sex is uninspired, as if it’s an activity like any other, perhaps like playing tennis on a Sunday, but probably with less excitement. There is too much freedom and too many choices, and sometimes he’d rather just die.
The world around him, though, is changing. It is 2022. After a charismatic Islamist wins the second round of the French presidential elections against the right-wing Marine Le Pen (after gaining the support of the Socialists), a Muslim professor, himself a convert, attempts to persuade François to make the declaration of faith. “It’s submission,” the professor tells him. “The shocking and simple idea, which had never been so forcefully expressed, that the summit of human happiness resides in the most absolute submission.”
But what foods are actually associated with weight gain in kids?
To find out, a group of researchers from Duke–National University of Singapore looked to the Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children, which consists of 15,444 children born in 1991 and 1992 around Bristol, a city in southwest England. For their analysis, they included the 4,646 children who filled out a three-day food diary and had their height, weight, and physical activity measured at ages 7, 10, and 13. They tracked the changes in their BMI and measured how much chubbier or thinner they were than the average kid their age.
New evidence challenges one of the most celebrated ideas in network science.
A paper posted online last month has reignited a debate about one of the oldest, most startling claims in the modern era of network science: the proposition that most complex networks in the real world—from the World Wide Web to interacting proteins in a cell—are “scale-free.” Roughly speaking, that means that a few of their nodes should have many more connections than others, following a mathematical formula called a power law, so that there’s no one scale that characterizes the network.
Purely random networks do not obey power laws, so when the early proponents of the scale-free paradigm started seeing power laws in real-world networks in the late 1990s, they viewed them as evidence of a universal organizing principle underlying the formation of these diverse networks. The architecture of scale-freeness, researchers argued, could provide insight into fundamental questions such as how likely a virus is to cause an epidemic, or how easily hackers can disable a network.
A new study explores a strange paradox: In countries that empower women, they are less likely to choose math and science professions.
Though their numbers are growing, only 27 percent of all students taking the AP Computer Science exam in the United States are female. The gender gap only grows worse from there: Just 18 percent of American computer-science college degrees go to women. This is in the United States, where many college men proudly describe themselves as “male feminists” and girls are taught they can be anything they want to be.
Meanwhile, in Algeria, 41 percent of college graduates in the fields of science, technology, engineering, and math—or “STEM,” as its known—are female. There, employment discrimination against women is rife and women are often pressured to make amends with their abusive husbands.
According to a report I covered a few years ago, Jordan, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates were the only three countries in which boys are significantly less likely to feel comfortable working on math problems than girls are. In all of the other nations surveyed, girls were more likely to say they feel “helpless while performing a math problem.”
Tech analysts are prone to predicting utopia or dystopia. They’re worse at imagining the side effects of a firm's success.
The U.S economy is in the midst of a wrenching technological transformation that is fundamentally changing the way people sleep, work, eat, shop, love, read, and interact.
At least, that’s one interpretation.
A second story of this age of technological transformation says that it’s mostly a facade—that the last 30 years have been a productivity bust and little has changed in everyday life, aside from the way everyone reads and watches videos. People wanted flying cars and got Netflix binges instead.
Let’s call these the Disrupt Story and the Dud Story of technology. When a new company, app, or platform emerges, it’s common for analysts to divide into camps—Disrupt vs. Dud—with some yelping that the new thing will change everything and others yawning with the expectation that traditionalism will win out.
Last weekend’s security conference in Munich was a stark reminder that this class has nothing of substance to offer a world in turmoil.
Eighty years ago in Munich, French and British politicians handed Czechoslovakia over to Adolf Hitler’s carving knife. Twenty-five years later, a German veteran of the ensuing war founded a conference in Munich that, in its own way, was designed to ensure that such a mistake would never reoccur. That veteran, Ewald von Kleist, came from a distinguished Prussian military family; he served as an officer in the Wehrmacht, had opposed Hitler, and participated actively in a plot against him. He was sent to a prison camp, and was lucky to have escaped execution.
The conference was originally called Wehrkunde (loosely translated as “military affairs”), and since 1963 it has met almost every year in Munich. The picturesque old Bayerischer Hof Hotel, where the event is held each year, becomes a seething mass of nearly 700 politicians, businesspeople, pundits, and officers, all eyed coldly and shoved out of the way by squads of contemptuous bodyguards. Attendees not eminent enough to have reserved seating often cannot elbow their way to the policy wonk mosh pit that the conference floor morphs into. The bathrooms can barely handle their traffic, and the hotel takes on the moist warmth and stale air of an aging high school gym. But still they come, now in the many hundreds, slowed by the officious motorcades of the truly important, trudging past half a dozen security cordons manned by thousands of vigilant German police.
Reuters photographer Stéphane Mahé visited a farmer named Jean-Bernard Huon on his farm in western France, where he deliberately lives a traditional, non-mechanized farm life.
Over the course of several recent months, Reuters photographer Stéphane Mahé visited and photographed a farmer named Jean-Bernard Huon on his farm in western France. Huon, now 70, grew up here, and deliberately lives a traditional, non-mechanized farm life, favoring ox teams over tractors. From a Reuters article: “When farm machinery revolutionized French agriculture in the years after World War II, a young Jean-Bernard Huon turned his back on the new technology. Half a century later, in a corner of southern Brittany on France’s west coast, Huon still uses oxen to plow his fields, determined to preserve an ancestral, peasant way of life.”
An investigation into a surprisingly divisive question
It seemed like an easy question.
The query came from a Twitter poll I spotted on my news feed last week, from user @cgpgrey. “Please help resolve a marital dispute,” @cgpgrey wrote. “You would describe the color of a tennis ball as:” green, yellow, or other.
Yellow, obviously, I thought, and voted. When the results appeared, my jaw dropped with cartoonish effect. Of nearly 30,000 participants, 52 percent said a tennis ball is green, 42 percent said it’s yellow, and 6 percent went with “other.”
I was stunned. I’d gone from being so sure of myself to second-guessing my sanity in a matter of seconds. More than that, I could never have imagined the question of the color of a tennis ball—surely something we could all agree on, even in these times—would be so divisive.
For a century, urban commotion has been treated as a moral failing of individuals. Fixing it will require systemic changes to environmental noise.
What are your ears hearing right now? Maybe the bustling sounds of a busy office, or your partner cooking dinner in the next room. Whatever the texture of the sonic landscape of your life may be, beneath it all is the same omnipresent din: the sound of cars.
That might seem benign, or perhaps even endearing—the sound of the bustle of the big city. But the din of vehicles, along with transit and industrial activity, is making people sick. People forget that noise pollution is still pollution. And noise pollution is everywhere.
Unlike many other injuries, hearing damage is irreparable. It also functions differently. People tend to assume that hearing loss is akin to turning down the volume in one’s head—that everything just sounds quieter. But it’s more complex than that. Sound at certain frequencies just vanishes—birdsong, intelligible human speech, the gentle rustling of leaves, the crispy highs of brushes on jazz cymbals. People can avoid using earbuds excessively or attending loud concerts. But people do not necessarily have the ability to avoid high levels of environmental noise—it’s in their neighborhoods, near their schools, at their workplaces. That makes noise pollution a matter of bodily autonomy.