Secrets of the Ghent Altarpiece

Everything you thought you knew about this work of art might be wrong

One of the most famous — and most frequently stolen — works of Western art reveals new truths about its past

Secrets of the Ghent Altarpiece: Everything you thought you knew about this work of art might be wrong
A detail of the Ghent Altarpiece in the Saint Bavo Cathedral, post-restoration. (Credit: Dominique Provost)

When, in 1994, the Sistine Chapel reopened to visitors after a decade of restoration, the world drew a collective gasp. Michelangelo’s painting, the most famous fresco in the world, looked nothing like it had for the past few centuries. The figures appeared clad in Day-Glo spandex, skin blazed an uproarious pink, and the background shone as if back-lit. Was this some awful mistake, an explosion of colors perhaps engineered by the sponsor, Kodak? Of course not. This was how the work that would launch the Mannerist movement and its passionate followers of Michelangelo’s revolutionary painting style originally looked before centuries of dirt, smog, and candle and lantern smoke clogged the ceiling with a skin of dark shadow. This restoration required a reexamination on the part of everyone who had ever written about the Sistine Chapel and Michelangelo.

After four years of restoration by the Royal Institute of Cultural Heritage (KIK-IRPA, Brussels), an equally important work of art was revealed on Oct. 12, and with similarly reverberant consequences. The painting looks gorgeous, with centuries of dirt and varnish peeled away to unclog the electric radiance of the work as it was originally seen, some six centuries ago. But this restoration not only reveals new facts about what has been called “the most influential painting ever made,” but also solves several lasting mysteries about its physical history, for it has also been called “the most coveted masterpiece in history,” and it is certainly the most frequently stolen.

On Oct. 12, I broke the story of the discoveries of the recent restoration of the painting. But there are many more details to tell, some of which have not yet made print.


“The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb,” often referred to as the Ghent Altarpiece, is an elaborate polyptych consisting of 12 panels painted in oils, which is displayed in the cathedral of St. Bavo in Ghent, Belgium. It was probably begun by Hubert van Eyck around 1426, but he died that year, so early in the painting process that it is unlikely than any of his work is visible. But it was certainly completed by his younger brother, Jan van Eyck, likely in 1432. It is among the most famous artworks in the world, a point of pilgrimage for educated tourists and artists from its completion to today. It is a hugely complex work of Catholic iconography, featuring an Annunciation scene on the exterior wing panels (viewed when the altarpiece is closed, as it would be on all but holidays), as well as portraits of the donors, grisaille (grey-scale) representations of Saints John the Baptist and John the Evangelist, and Old Testament prophets and sibyls. These exterior panels on the wings of the altarpiece are what has been restored so far, and what has revealed such rich discoveries.

The complex iconography is something of a pantheon of Catholicism. Adam and Eve represent the start, and Adam’s Original Sin is what required the creation of Christ in the Annunciation, and his ultimate sacrifice is what reversed Original Sin. But the visual puzzle of the painting is just one of its mysteries. For the physical painting itself, and its component panels, have had adventures of their own. The painting, all or in part, was stolen six times, and was the object of some 13 crimes and mysteries, several of which are as yet unsolved. But the discoveries made by conservators have peeled away not just varnish, but the veils on several of those mysteries, as well.


After the 2010 study of the painting, it was determined that the altarpiece needed conservation treatment and the removal of several layers of synthetic Keton varnishes, as well as thinning down the older varnishes added by past conservators, while adjusting the colors of older retouches. Bart Devolder, the young, dynamic on-site coordinator of the conservation work, explains, “Once we began the project, and the extent of over-painting became clear, the breadth of the work increased, as a committee of international experts decided that the conservators should peel away later additions and resuscitate, therefore, as much of the original work of van Eyck as possible.”

A 1.3 million EUR grant (80 percent of which came from the Flemish government, with 20 percent from the private sponsor Baillet Latour Fund) and four years later, only one-third of the altarpiece has been restored (the exterior wing panels of the polyptych), but the discoveries found are astonishing, and tell the story of a fraternal love and admiration that is as beautiful as any in history.

Surprise discoveries included silver leaf painted onto the frames themselves, which produce a three-dimensional effect and make the overall painting look very different. The inscription that Jan was “second in art,” and Hubert was the really great one, was proven to have been part of the original painting — almost certainly by Jan’s hand, a humble homage to his late brother. It also found that many different “hands” were involved in the painting.

Computer analysis of the paint, carried out by a team from University of Ghent, clearly demonstrates different hands involved — just as linguistic analysis programs can spot authorial styles, and so claim that at least five different people “wrote” the Pentateuch of the Old Testament, computers can also differentiate painterly techniques, even subtle ones (one man’s cross-hatching differs enough from another’s from the same studio, just like handwriting differs, even though we’ve all learned cursive). That different “hands” were involved is not a surprise, as van Eyck, like most artists of his time, ran a studio and works “by” him were, in fact, collaborative products of his studio. The outcome of the analysis is just proof of this, but examples of works certain to have been by Hubert are not known, so it is impossible to yet tell whether his paint strokes are visible today, among the several painters whose technique may be found in the altarpiece. If another work could firmly be linked to Hubert’s hand, then it could be compared via this same software to the Ghent Altarpiece to see if it appears. But some mysteries remain for future art detectives to solve.

“Damage was apparent in x-rays of the two painted donor figures” explains Devolder, “and we assumed that, in cleaning away overpainting and varnish layers, they would expose the damaged layer.” It was first thought that the damage had taken place during the initial painting phase — perhaps in Hubert’s studio, and Jan then “fixed it” by painting over it, thereby also repairing his brother’s legacy. But it later proved to be a 16th or early 17th century overpaint.

The conventional dating of the painting was likewise confirmed through dendrochronology (the panels in it came from the same tree), likely disproving a recent theory that the work may have been finished many years later than the 1432 date on which most scholars believe. “During the recent conservation campaign, two additional panels, one from the painting of Eve and the one plank from the panel of the hermits, were dendrochronologically tested by KIK-IRPA and shown to have come from the same tree trunk,” Devolder notes. “In an earlier study, a different pair of panels likewise matched.”

It is unlikely that different panels would come from the same tree and remain in van Eyck’s studio for a decade before being used in different sections of the same painting, so it is safe to let the current estimation hold, that it was completed in 1432 and installed as a backdrop for the baptism of the son of Duke Philip the Good of Burgundy (van Eyck’s patron — the painter also acted as godfather to his son). It also suggests that Jan immediately took up the project of his late brother, aware of its importance to his brother’s legacy and to his burgeoning career, rather than setting it aside and only “getting to it” later on.

The biggest discovery is that up to 70 percent of the work was found to contain over-painting, or later painters adding their own touch to the original, whether for restoration or editorial reasons. If, for centuries, scholars have based their interpretation on a careful analysis of every detail, and it now turns out that some of those details were never part of the original conception of the work, then the reading of the work must be reexamined.

The current round of funding (which was already increased once) allowed for a complete exploration and restoration only of the exterior of the wing panels. Yet the one-third that has been fully restored has revealed such a wealth of information, requiring every chapter and article on the painting to be rewritten, that it raises the question of what might be revealed if, in the future, the rest of the work can be similarly explored. While art historians are already primed to rework their van Eyck publications, there may be more discoveries to come.

Noah Charney is a Salon arts columnist and professor specializing in art crime, and author of “The Art of Forgery” (Phaidon).

Neoliberalism is creating loneliness

Illustration by Andrzej Krauze
Illustration by Andrzej Krauze

There are plenty of secondary reasons for this distress, but it seems to me that the underlying cause is everywhere the same: human beings, the ultrasocial mammals, whose brains are wired to respond to other people, are being peeled apart. Economic and technological change play a major role, but so does ideology. Though our wellbeing is inextricably linked to the lives of others, everywhere we are told that we will prosper through competitive self-interest and extreme individualism.

In Britain, men who have spent their entire lives in quadrangles – at school, at college, at the bar, in parliament – instruct us to stand on our own two feet. The education system becomes more brutally competitive by the year. Employment is a fight to the near-death with a multitude of other desperate people chasing ever fewer jobs. The modern overseers of the poor ascribe individual blame to economic circumstance. Endless competitions on television feed impossible aspirations as real opportunities contract.

Consumerism fills the social void. But far from curing the disease of isolation, it intensifies social comparison to the point at which, having consumed all else, we start to prey upon ourselves. Social media brings us together and drives us apart, allowing us precisely to quantify our social standing, and to see that other people have more friends and followers than we do.

As Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett has brilliantly documented, girls and young women routinely alter the photos they post to make themselves look smoother and slimmer. Some phones, using their “beauty” settings, do it for you without asking; now you can become your own thinspiration. Welcome to the post-Hobbesian dystopia: a war of everyone against themselves.

Is it any wonder, in these lonely inner worlds, in which touching has been replaced by retouching, that young women are drowning in mental distress? Arecent survey in England suggests that one in four women between 16 and 24 have harmed themselves, and one in eight now suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder. Anxiety, depression, phobias or obsessive compulsive disorder affect 26% of women in this age group. This is what a public health crisis looks like.

If social rupture is not treated as seriously as broken limbs, it is because we cannot see it. But neuroscientists can. A series of fascinating papers suggest that social pain and physical pain are processed by the same neural circuits. This might explain why, in many languages, it is hard to describe the impact of breaking social bonds without the words we use to denote physical pain and injury. In both humans and other social mammals, social contact reduces physical pain. This is why we hug our children when they hurt themselves: affection is a powerful analgesic. Opioids relieve both physical agony and the distress of separation. Perhaps this explains the link between social isolation and drug addiction.

Experiments summarised in the journal Physiology & Behaviour last month suggest that, given a choice of physical pain or isolation, social mammals will choose the former. Capuchin monkeys starved of both food and contact for 22 hours will rejoin their companions before eating. Children who experience emotional neglect, according to some findings, suffer worse mental health consequences than children suffering both emotional neglect and physical abuse: hideous as it is, violence involves attention and contact. Self-harm is often used as an attempt to alleviate distress: another indication that physical pain is not as bad as emotional pain. As the prison system knows only too well, one of the most effective forms of torture is solitary confinement.

It’s unsurprising that social isolation is strongly associated with depression, suicide, anxiety, insomnia, fear and the perception of threat. It’s more surprising to discover the range of physical illnesses it causes or exacerbates. Dementia, high blood pressure, heart disease, strokes, lowered resistance to viruses, even accidents are more common among chronically lonely people. Loneliness has a comparable impact on physical health to smoking 15 cigarettes a day: it appears to raise the risk of early death by 26%. This is partly because it enhances production of the stress hormone cortisol, which suppresses the immune system.

Studies in both animals and humans suggest a reason for comfort eating: isolation reduces impulse control, leading to obesity. As those at the bottom of the socioeconomic ladder are the most likely to suffer from loneliness, might this provide one of the explanations for the strong link between low economic status and obesity?

Anyone can see that something far more important than most of the issues we fret about has gone wrong. So why are we engaging in this world-eating, self-consuming frenzy of environmental destruction and social dislocation, if all it produces is unbearable pain? Should this question not burn the lips of everyone in public life?

There are some wonderful charities doing what they can to fight this tide, some of which I am going to be working with as part of my loneliness project. But for every person they reach, several others are swept past.

This does not require a policy response. It requires something much bigger: the reappraisal of an entire worldview. Of all the fantasies human beings entertain, the idea that we can go it alone is the most absurd and perhaps the most dangerous. We stand together or we fall apart.

Werner Herzog’s Lo and Behold: Reveries of The Connected World

Exploring the origins and impact of the Internet

By Kevin Reed
8 October 2016

German filmmaker Werner Herzog’s new documentary Lo and Behold: Reveries of The Connected World was released in August at select theatres across the US and for home viewing from various on-demand services. The movie—which examines the origins and implications of the Internet and related technologies such as artificial intelligence, robotics, the Internet of Things and space travel—has received generally favorable reviews following its premiere at the Sundance Film Festival in late January.

Lo and Behold

The work is divided into ten segments with titles like “The Early Days,” “The Glory of the Net” and “The Future,” with Herzog serving as narrator. Through a series of interviews, the director stitches his disparate topics together to explain something about how the Internet and World Wide Web were created and then to paint a troubling picture of the globally interconnected landscape.

The movie begins with a visit to the campus of the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), the birthplace—along with the Stanford Research Institute—of the Internet. The first interviewee is Leonard Kleinrock, one of the research scientists responsible for the development of the precursor of the Internet called ARPANET (Advanced Research Projects Agency Network of the US Defense Department). At age 82, Kleinrock is obviously thrilled at the opportunity to describe how the first-ever electronic message was transmitted between two points on the network.

As he opens a cabinet of early Internet hardware called a “packet switch,” Kleinrock describes in detail the events of October 29, 1969 at 10:30 pm. As the UCLA sender began typing the word “login”—and checking by telephone with his counterpart at Stanford University—only the first two characters of the message were successfully transmitted before his computer crashed. Despite this seemingly failed communication attempt, Kleinrock explains that “Lo” was an entirely appropriate word for the accomplishment. “It was from here,” he says, “that a revolution began.”

With Herzog occasionally interjecting off-camera during the interviews, the director’s goal seems clear enough. He wants the audience to share his sense of wonder and amazement at the transformative impact of the Internet. This is reinforced by equally intriguing interviews with several others who participated in the birth of the Net. The enthusiasm—and clarity on complex topics—expressed by these pioneers leaves one with a desire to hear more of their stories of discovery and progress.

As the film goes on, however, it emerges that Herzog has another plan; he abandons any historically logical accounting of the Internet and begins eclectically focusing on its various byproducts and offshoots, limitations and negative consequences. Herzog’s interview with Ted Nelson—a philosopher and sociologist credited with theoretically anticipating the World Wide Web and coining the terms “hypertext” and “hypermedia”—becomes the starting point for these wanderings.

Werner Herzog in 2007 (Photo: Erinc Salor)

As a student at Harvard University, Ted Nelson began working in 1960 on a computer system called Project Xanadu that he conceived of as “a digital repository scheme for world-wide electronic publishing.” Nelson also wrote an important book in 1974 entitled Computer Lib/Dream Machines, a kind of manifesto for hobbyists on the social and revolutionary implications of the personal computer.

Although it is left unexplained in the film, the Internet is the technical infrastructure upon which the World Wide Web was developed beginning in 1989. Ever since the widespread adoption of the World Wide Web, Nelson has been a public critic of its structure and implementation, especially HTML (Hypertext Markup Language). He has called HTML a gross oversimplification of his pioneering ideas and said that it “trivializes our original hypertext model with one-way, ever-breaking links and no management of version or contents.”

Why is it that HTML and the World Wide Web emerged as the dominant graphical layer of the Internet as opposed to a competing set of ideas? Is it possible that a solution more comprehensive, expressing more completely the potential of the technology and more effective and useful could have been adopted instead?

One aspect of the rapid global adoption of the World Wide Web—originally created by Tim Berners-Lee in 1989 at CERN in Switzerland—was the open access policy of its inventor. As Berners-Lee, who is also interviewed in the film, has explained, “Had the technology been proprietary, and in my total control, it would probably not have taken off. You can’t propose that something be a universal space and at the same time keep control of it.” However, while the non-proprietary nature of Berners-Lee’s creation was a significant factor in its success, it does not automatically follow that the core technology of the World Wide Web represented an advance over the ideas represented by others such as Ted Nelson.

These are important and complex questions that have been repeated again and again in the evolution of the information revolution of the past half-century, the further exploration of which would point to fundamental problems of modern technology, i.e. the contradiction between “what is possible” versus “what is required” within the economic and political framework of global capitalist society.

Showing little interest in exploring these matters more deeply, Lo and Behold goes on to present Nelson—a gifted but socially awkward man—as something of a high-tech Don Quixote. Herzog concludes the interview with the quip, “To us you appear to be the only one around who is clinically sane.”

Lo and Behold

Having made nearly forty documentaries in his five-decade career, Herzog is accomplished at gaining access to people with compelling stories to tell. The interview with Elon Musk, founder of Tesla Motors and SpaceX, raises important points. A consistently outspoken opponent of artificial intelligence, Musk makes the following warning: “[I]f you were running a hedge fund or private equity fund and all I want my AI to do is maximize the value of my portfolio, then AI could decide to short consumer stocks, go long on defense stocks, and start a war. Ah, and that obviously would be quite bad.”

This possible scenario under capitalism is not explored any further. While the US military is never specifically mentioned, it is remarkable that the only reference to war in the course of a 98-minute critical look at modern technology comes from a billionaire entrepreneur. Above all, Musk’s comments show that the new technologies by themselves bring no fundamental change to the class relations within capitalist society; indeed the Internet and artificial intelligence in the hands of the ruling elite enable a further and accelerated integration of financial parasitism and imperialist war.

Given that Lo and Behold is sponsored by Netscout Systems, a major corporate supplier of networking hardware and software, it is possible that such topics were off limits. However, the lack of a broader or coherent critical perspective is not something new for Werner Herzog.

While he made some interesting and disturbing fiction films in the 1970s (The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser, Aguirre: The Wrath of God and Stroszek in particular), the end of the period of radicalization had an impact on Herzog, as it did on other New German Cinema directors like R. W. Fassbinder, Wim Wenders and Volker Schlöndorff. There was always an overwrought element in Herzog’s work and an emphasis on physical or spiritual excess, without much reference to the content of the action.

In media interviews about his latest film, Herzog has been careful to explain that he does not blame technology itself for the aberrations depicted. “The Internet is not good or evil, dark or light hearted,” he says, “it is human beings” that are the problem. Following the advice of experts, Herzog suggests that people need some kind of “filter” to help them use the technology appropriately.

Leaving things so very much at the level of the individual does not begin to get at the source of the contradiction between the positive and destructive potential of modern technology. This contradiction, so clearly demonstrated during World War II with nuclear technology, is itself an expression of the alternatives facing mankind of socialism versus barbarism.

Lack of an understanding about—or refusal to acknowledge—the deeper social and class interests embedded in the forms of human technology leads to only two possible conclusions: (1) the utopian idea that technology develops automatically without wars and crisis toward the improvement of mankind, or (2) the dystopian belief that technological advancement always develops without any hope of revolutionary transformation of society in the direction of an existential threat to humanity. While Herzog and his producers believe they have provided a balanced perspective between these two, in the end, Lo and Behold comes down on the latter side.


What Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton Got Wrong About Nuclear Weapons

Donald and Hillary take a no-first-use pledge on relevant information.

Row of heavy nuclear missiles against blue sky with clouds.
Photo Credit: Oleksiy Mark

You may have missed it. Perhaps you dozed off. Or wandered into the kitchen to grab a snack. Or by that point in the proceedings were checking out Seinfeld reruns. During the latter part of the much hyped but excruciating-to-watch first presidential debate, NBC Nightly News anchor Lester Holt posed a seemingly straightforward but cunningly devised question. His purpose was to test whether the candidates understood the essentials of nuclear strategy.

A moderator given to plain speaking might have said this: “Explain why the United States keeps such a large arsenal of nuclear weapons and when you might consider using those weapons.”

What Holt actually said was: “On nuclear weapons, President Obama reportedly considered changing the nation’s longstanding policy on first use.  Do you support the current policy?”

The framing of the question posited no small amount of knowledge on the part of the two candidates. Specifically, it assumed that Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton each possess some familiarity with the longstanding policy to which Holt referred and with the modifications that Obama had contemplated making to it.

If you will permit the equivalent of a commercial break as this piece begins, let me explain why I’m about to parse in detail each candidate’s actual answer to Holt’s question. Amid deep dives into, and expansive punditry regarding, issues like how “fat” a former Miss Universe may have been and how high an imagined future wall on our southern border might prove to be, national security issues likely to test the judgment of a commander-in-chief have received remarkably little attention.  So indulge me.  This largely ignored moment in last week’s presidential debate is worth examining.

With regard to the issue of “first use,” every president since Harry Truman has subscribed to the same posture: the United States retains the prerogative of employing nuclear weapons to defend itself and its allies against even nonnuclear threats.  In other words, as a matter of policy, the United States rejects the concept of “no first use,” which would prohibit any employment of nuclear weapons except in retaliation for a nuclear attack.  According to press reports, President Obama had toyed with but then rejected the idea of committing the United States to a “no first use” posture.  Holt wanted to know where the two candidates aspiring to succeed Obama stood on the matter.

Cruelly, the moderator invited Trump to respond first.  The look in the Republican nominee’s eyes made it instantly clear that Holt could have been speaking Farsi for all he understood.  A lesser candidate might then have begun with the nuclear equivalent of “What is Aleppo?

Yet Trump being Trump, he gamely — or naively — charged headlong into the ambush that Holt had carefully laid, using his allotted two minutes to offer his insights into how as president he would address the nuclear conundrum that previous presidents had done so much to create.  The result owed less to early Cold War thinkers-of-the-unthinkable like Herman Kahn or Albert Wohlstetter, who created the field of nuclear strategy, than to Dr. Strangelove.  Make that Dr. Strangelove on meth.

Trump turned first to Russia, expressing concern that it might be gaining an edge in doomsday weaponry. “They have a much newer capability than we do,” he said.  “We have not been updating from the new standpoint.”  The American bomber fleet in particular, he added, needs modernization.  Presumably referring to the recent employment of Vietnam-era bombers in the wars in AfghanistanIraq, and Syria, he continued somewhat opaquely, “I looked the other night. I was seeing B-52s, they’re old enough that your father, your grandfather, could be flying them. We are not — we are not keeping up with other countries.”

Trump then professed an appreciation for the awfulness of nuclear weaponry.  “I would like everybody to end it, just get rid of it.  But I would certainly not do first strike.  I think that once the nuclear alternative happens, it’s over.”

Give Trump this much: even in a field that tends to favor abstraction and obfuscating euphemisms like “fallout” or “dirty bomb,” classifying Armageddon as the “nuclear alternative” represents something of a contribution.

Still, it’s worth noting that, in the arcane theology of nuclear strategy, “first strike” and “first use” are anything but synonymous.  “First strike” implies a one-sided, preventive war of annihilation.  The logic of a first strike, such as it is, is based on the calculation that a surprise nuclear attack could inflict the “nuclear alternative” on your adversary, while sparing your own side from suffering a comparable fate.  A successful first strike would be a one-punch knockout, delivered while your opponent still sits in his corner of the ring.

Yet whatever reassurance was to be found in Trump’s vow never to order a first strike — not the question Lester Holt was asking — was immediately squandered.  The Republican nominee promptly revoked his “no first strike” pledge by insisting, in a cliché much favored in Washington, that “I can’t take anything off the table.”

Piling non sequitur upon non sequitur, he next turned to the threat posed by a nuclear-armed North Korea, where “we’re doing nothing.”  Yet, worrisome as this threat might be, keeping Pyongyang in check, he added, ought to be Beijing’s job.  “China should solve that problem for us,” he insisted.  “China should go into North Korea.  China is totally powerful as it relates to North Korea.”

If China wouldn’t help with North Korea, however, what could be more obvious than that Iran, many thousands of miles away, should do so — and might have, if only President Obama had incorporated the necessary proviso into the Iran nuclear deal.  “Iran is one of their biggest trading partners.  Iran has power over North Korea.”  When the Obama administration “made that horrible deal with Iran, they should have included the fact that they do something with respect to North Korea.”  But why stop with North Korea?  Iran “should have done something with respect to Yemen and all these other places,” he continued, wandering into the nonnuclear world.  U.S. negotiators suitably skilled in the Trumpian art of the deal, he implied, could easily have maneuvered Iran into solving such problems on Washington’s behalf.

Veering further off course, Trump then took a passing swipe at Secretary of State John Kerry:  “Why didn’t you add other things into the deal?”  Why, in “one of the great giveaways of all time,” did the Obama administration fork over $400 million in cash?  At which point, he promptly threw in another figure without the slightest explanation — “It was actually $1.7 billion in cash” — in “one of the worst deals ever made by any country in history.”

Trump then wrapped up his meandering tour d’horizon by decrying the one action of the Obama administration that arguably has reduced the prospect of nuclear war, at least in the near future.  “The deal with Iran will lead to nuclear problems,” he stated with conviction.  “All they have to do is sit back 10 years, and they don’t have to do much.  And they’re going to end up getting nuclear.”  For proof, he concluded, talk to the Israelis.  “I met with Bibi Netanyahu the other day,” he added for no reason in particular.  “Believe me, he’s not a happy camper.”

On this indecipherable note, his allotted time exhausted, Trump’s recitation ended.  In its way, it had been a Joycean performance.

Bridge Over Troubled Waters?

It was now Clinton’s turn to show her stuff.  If Trump had responded to Holt like a voluble golf caddy being asked to discuss the finer points of ice hockey, Hillary Clinton chose a different course: she changed the subject. She would moderate her own debate.  Perhaps Trump thought Holt was in charge of the proceedings; Clinton knew better.

What followed was vintage Clinton: vapid sentiments, smoothly delivered in the knowing tone of a seasoned Washington operative.  During her two minutes, she never came within a country mile of discussing the question Holt had asked or the thoughts she evidently actually has about nuclear issues.

“[L]et me start by saying, words matter,” she began.  “Words matter when you run for president.  And they really matter when you are president.  And I want to reassure our allies in Japan and South Korea and elsewhere that we have mutual defense treaties and we will honor them.”

It was as if Clinton were already speaking from the Oval Office.  Trump had addressed his remarks to Lester Holt.  Clinton directed hers to the nation at large, to people the world over, indeed to history itself.  Warming to her task, she was soon rolling out the sort of profundities that play well at the Brookings Institution, the Carnegie Endowment, or the Council on Foreign Relations, causing audiences to nod — or nod off.

“It is essential that America’s word be good,” Clinton continued.  “And so I know that this campaign has caused some questioning and worries on the part of many leaders across the globe. I’ve talked with a number of them. But I want to — on behalf of myself, and I think on behalf of a majority of the American people, say that, you know, our word is good.”

Then, after inserting a tepid, better-than-nothing endorsement of the Iran nuclear deal, she hammered Trump for not offering an alternative.  “Would he have started a war?  Would he have bombed Iran?”  If you’re going to criticize, she pointed out, you need to offer something better.  Trump never does, she charged.  “It’s like his plan to defeat ISIS. He says it’s a secret plan, but the only secret is that he has no plan.”

With that, she reverted to platitudes. “So we need to be more precise in how we talk about these issues. People around the world follow our presidential campaigns so closely, trying to get hints about what we will do. Can they rely on us? Are we going to lead the world with strength and in accordance with our values? That’s what I intend to do. I intend to be a leader of our country that people can count on, both here at home and around the world, to make decisions that will further peace and prosperity, but also stand up to bullies, whether they’re abroad or at home.”

Like Trump, she offered no specifics.  Which bullies?  Where?  How?  In what order?  Would she start with Russia’s Putin?  North Korea’s Kim Jong-Un?  Perhaps Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines?  How about Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan?  Or Bibi?

In contrast to Trump, however, Clinton did speak in complete sentences, which followed one another in an orderly fashion.  She thereby came across as at least nominally qualified to govern the country, much like, say, Warren G. Harding nearly a century ago.  And what worked for Harding in 1920 may well work for Clinton in 2016.

Of Harding’s speechifying, H.L. Mencken wrote at the time, “It reminds me of a string of wet sponges.”  Mencken characterized Harding’s rhetoric as “so bad that a sort of grandeur creeps into it.  It drags itself out of the dark abysm of pish, and crawls insanely up the topmost pinnacle of posh.  It is rumble and bumble.  It is flap and doodle.  It is balder and dash.”  So, too, with Hillary Clinton.  She is our Warren G. Harding.  In her oratory, flapdoodle and balderdash live on.

The National Security Void

If I’ve taxed your patience by recounting this non-debate and non-discussion of nuclear first use, it’s to make a larger point.  The absence of relevant information elicited by Lester Holt’s excellent question speaks directly to what has become a central flaw in this entire presidential campaign: the dearth of attention given to matters basic to U.S. national security policy.

In the nuclear arena, the issue of first use is only one of several on which anyone aspiring to become the next commander-in-chief should be able to offer an informed judgment.  Others include questions such as these:

  • What is the present-day justification for maintaining the U.S. nuclear “triad,” a strike force consisting of manned bombers and land-based ballistic missiles and submarine-launched ballistic missiles?
  • Why is the Pentagon embarking upon a decades-long, trillion-dollar program to modernize that triad, fielding a new generation of bombers, missiles, and submarines along with an arsenal of new warheads?  Is that program necessary?
  • How do advances in non-nuclear weaponry — for example, in the realm of cyberwarfare — affect theories of nuclear deterrence devised by the likes of Kahn and Wohlstetter during the 1950s and 1960s?  Does the logic of those theories still pertain?

Beyond the realm of nuclear strategy, there are any number of other security-related questions about which the American people deserve to hear directly from both Trump and Clinton, testing their knowledge of the subject matter and the quality of their judgments.  Among such matters, one in particular screams out for attention.  Consider it the question that Washington has declared off-limits: What lessons should be drawn from America’s costly and disappointing post-9/11 wars and how should those lessons apply to future policy?

With Election Day now merely a month away, there is no more reason to believe that such questions will receive serious consideration than to expect Trump to come clean on his personal finances or Clinton to release the transcripts of her handsomely compensated Goldman Sachs speeches.

When outcomes don’t accord with his wishes, Trump reflexively blames a “rigged” system.  But a system that makes someone like Trump a finalist for the presidency isn’t rigged.  It is manifestly absurd, a fact that has left most of the national media grasping wildly for explanations (albeit none that tag them with having facilitated the transformation of politics into theater).

I’ll take a backseat to no one in finding Trump unfit to serve as president.  Yet beyond the outsized presence of one particular personality, the real travesty of our predicament lies elsewhere — in the utter shallowness of our political discourse, no more vividly on display than in the realm of national security.

What do our presidential candidates talk about when they don’t want to talk about nuclear war?  The one, in a vain effort to conceal his own ignorance, offers rambling nonsense.  The other, accustomed to making her own rules, simply changes the subject.

The American people thereby remain in darkness.  On that score, Trump, Clinton, and the parties they represent are not adversaries.  They are collaborators.


Andrew J. Bacevich is a professor of history and international relations emeritus at Boston University’s Pardee School of Global Studies. His new book is America’s War for the Greater Middle East: A Military History (Random House, 2016).

Proven Wrong About Many of Its Assertions, Is Psychiatry Bullsh*t?

Some psychiatrists view the chemical-imbalance theory as a well-meaning lie.

Photo Credit: Olena Yakobchuk / Shutterstock

In the current issue of the journal Ethical Human Psychology and Psychiatry, Australian dissident psychiatrist Niall McLaren titles his article, “Psychiatry as Bullshit” and makes a case for just that.

The great controversies in psychiatry are no longer about its chemical-imbalance theory of mental illness or its DSM diagnostic system, both of which have now been declared invalid even by the pillars of the psychiatry establishment.

In 2011, Ronald Pies, editor-in-chief emeritus of the Psychiatric Times, stated, “In truth, the ‘chemical imbalance’ notion was always a kind of urban legend—never a theory seriously propounded by well-informed psychiatrists.” And in 2013, Thomas Insel, then director of the National Institute of Mental Health, offered a harsh rebuke of the DSM, announcing that because the DSM diagnostic system lacks validity, the “NIMH will be re-orienting its research away from DSM categories.”

So, the great controversy today has now become just how psychiatry can be most fairly characterized given its record of being proven wrong about virtually all of its assertions, most notably its classifications of behaviors, theories of “mental illness” and treatment effectiveness/adverse effects.

Among critics, one of the gentlest characterizations of psychiatry is a “false narrative,” the phrase used by investigative reporter Robert Whitaker (who won the 2010 Investigative Reporters and Editors Book Award for Anatomy of an Epidemic) to describe the story told by the psychiatrists’ guild American Psychiatric Association.

In “Psychiatry as Bullshit,” McLaren begins by considering several different categories of “nonscience with scientific pretensions,” such as “pseudoscience” and “scientific fraud.”

“Pseudoscience” is commonly defined as a collection of beliefs and practices promulgated as scientific but in reality mistakenly regarded as being based on scientific method. The NIMH director ultimately rejected the DSM because of its lack of validity, which is crucial to the scientific method. In the DSM, psychiatric illnesses are created by an APA committee, 69 percent of whom have financial ties to Big Pharma. The criteria for DSM illness are not objective biological ones but non-scientific subjective ones (which is why homosexuality was a DSM mental illness until the early 1970s). Besides lack of scientific validity, the DSMlacks scientific reliability, as clinicians routinely disagree on diagnoses because patients act differently in different circumstances and because of the subjective nature of the criteria.

“Fraud” is a misrepresentation, a deception intended for personal gain, and implies an intention to deceive others of the truth—or “lying.” Drug companies, including those that manufacture psychiatric drugs, have been convicted of fraud, as have high-profile psychiatrists (as well as other doctors). Human rights activist and attorney Jim Gottstein offers an argument as to why the APA is a “fraudulent enterprise”; however, the APA has not been legally convicted of fraud.

To best characterize psychiatry, McLaren considers the category of “bullshit,” invoking philosopher Harry Frankfurt’s 1986 journal article “On Bullshit” (which became a New York Times bestselling book in 2005).

Defining Bullshit

What is the essence of bullshit? For Frankfurt, “This lack of connection to a concern with truth—this indifference to how things really are—that I regard as of the essence of bullshit.”

Frankfurt devotes a good deal of On Bullshit to differentiating between a liar and a bullshitter. Both the liar and the bullshitter misrepresent themselves, representing themselves as attempting to be honest and truthful. But there is a difference between the liar and the bullshitter.

The liar knows the truth, and the liar’s goal is to conceal it.

The goal of bullshitters is not necessarily to lie about the truth but to persuade their audience of a specific impression so as to advance their agenda. So, bullshitters are committed to neither truths nor untruths, uncommitted to neither facts nor fiction. It’s actually not in bullshitters’ interest to know what is true and what is false, as that knowledge can hinder their capacity to bullshit.

Frankfurt tells us that liar the hides that he or she is “attempting to lead us away from a correct apprehension of reality.” In contrast, the bullshitter hides that “the truth-values of his statements are of no central interest to him.”

Are Psychiatrists Bullshitters?

Recall establishment psychiatrist Pies’ assertion: “In truth, the ‘chemical imbalance’ notion was always a kind of urban legend—never a theory seriously propounded by well-informed psychiatrists.” What Pies omits is the reality that the vast majority of psychiatrists have been promulgating this theory. Were they liars or simply not well-informed? And if not well-informed, were they purposely not well-informed?

If one wants to bullshit oneself and the general public that psychiatry is a genuinely scientific medical specialty, there’s a great incentive to be unconcerned with the truth or falseness of the chemical imbalance theory of depression. Bullshitters immediately recognize how powerful this chemical imbalance notion is in gaining prestige for their profession and themselves as well as making their job both more lucrative and easier, increasing patient volume by turning virtually all patient visits into quick prescribing ones.

Prior to the chemical imbalance bullshit campaign, most Americans were reluctant to take antidepressants—or to give them to their children. But the idea that depression is caused by a chemical imbalance that can be corrected with Prozac, Paxil, Zoloft and selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor antidepressants sounded like taking insulin for diabetes. Correcting a chemical imbalance seemed like a reasonable thing to do, and so the use of SSRI antidepressants skyrocketed.

In 2012, National Public Radio correspondent Alix Spiegel began her piece about the disproven chemical imbalance theory with the following personal story about being prescribed Prozac when she was a depressed teenager:

My parents took me to a psychiatrist at Johns Hopkins Hospital. She did an evaluation and then told me this story: “The problem with you,” she explained, “is that you have a chemical imbalance. It’s biological, just like diabetes, but it’s in your brain. This chemical in your brain called serotonin is too, too low. There’s not enough of it, and that’s what’s causing the chemical imbalance. We need to give you medication to correct that.” Then she handed my mother a prescription for Prozac.

When Spiegel discovered that the chemical imbalance theory was untrue, she sought to discover why this truth had been covered up, and so she interviewed researchers who knew the truth. Alan Frazer, professor of pharmacology and psychiatry and chairman of the pharmacology department at the University of Texas Health Sciences Center, told Spiegel that by framing depression as a deficiency—something that needed to be returned to normal—patients felt more comfortable taking antidepressants. Frazer stated, “If there was this biological reason for them being depressed, some deficiency that the drug was correcting, then taking a drug was OK.” For Frazer, the story that depressed people have a chemical imbalance enabled many people to come out of the closet about being depressed.

Frazer’s rationale reminds us of Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky’s book Manufacturing Consent, the title deriving from presidential adviser and journalist Walter Lippmann’s phrase “the manufacture of consent”—a necessity for Lippmann, who believed that the general public is incompetent in discerning what’s truly best for them, and so their opinion must be molded by a benevolent elite who does know what’s best for them.

There are some psychiatrists who view the chemical imbalance theory as a well-meaning lie by a benevolent elite to ensure resistant patients do what is best for them, but my experience is that there are actually extremely few such “well-meaning liars.” Most simply don’t know the truth because they have put little effort in discerning it.

I believe McLaren is correct in concluding that the vast majority of psychiatrists are bullshitters, uncommitted to either facts or fiction. Most psychiatrists would certainly have been happy if the chemical-imbalance theory was true but obviously have not needed it to be true in order to promulgate it. For truth seekers, the falseness of the chemical imbalance theory has been easily available, but most psychiatrists have not been truth seekers. It is not in the bullshitters’ interest to know what is true and what is false, as that knowledge of what is a fact and what is fiction hinders the capacity to use any and all powerful persuasion. Simply put, a commitment to the truth hinders the capacity to bullshit.

Donald Trump isn’t backing down from his terrifying climate policy

His approach would revoke crucial climate protections and open up huge amounts of land to fossil fuel drilling.


On Thursday, Donald Trump spoke before an audience full of natural gas and energy industry leaders — and the message was exactly the same as his economic policy proposal from last week: fewer environmental regulations and more land available to fossil fuel companies.

“We need an America-First energy plan,” Trump said. “This means opening federal lands for oil and gas production; opening offshore areas; and revoking policies that are imposing unnecessary restrictions on innovative new exploration technologies.”

If elected president, Trump has pledged to revoke both the Clean Power Plan and President Obama’s Climate Action Plan, the cornerstones of Obama’s domestic climate agenda, and important signals to the international community of the United States’ commitment to climate action.

Trump has also promised to roll back the Waters of the United States Rule, which would extend drinking water protections for millions of Americans. Instead, he said that he would redirect the EPA to “refocus…on its core mission of ensuring clean air, and clean, safe drinking water for all Americans.”

Trump does not seem to understand that regulations he so deeply wants to cut are crucial to preserving clean air, and clean, safe drinking water for all Americans.

A recent Harvard study found that the public health benefits of the Clean Power Plan are so robust that they outweigh the costs of the carbon standard in 13 out of 14 power sectors within five years of implementation. The same study estimated that the plan could save some 3,500 lives every year. Similarly, the Waters of the United States rule would protect the drinking water for a third of Americans that currently get their water from unprotected sources.

Beyond rolling back crucial protections, Trump’s speech on Thursday showed that he does not intend to back down on his policy proposal that would open up vast regions of the United States to fossil fuel production. His desire to open both federal lands and offshore areas to drilling is the antithesis of the Keep It In the Ground movement, which has called for an end to new leases for fossil fuels on public lands — under a Trump presidency, not only would these leases continue, but leases would likely increase.

During his speech, Trump noted that less than 10 percent of federally-managed surface and mineral estates are currently leased for oil and gas development, while almost 90 percent of our offshore acreage is off-limits to oil production. Instead of viewing these protections as a benefit to both climate and the environment, however, Trump pledged to dismantle these restrictions, calling them “a major impediment to both shale production specifically, and energy production in general.”

“Trump’s dirty-fuels-first plan is pretty simple: drill enough off our coasts to threaten beaches from Maine to Florida, frack enough to spoil groundwater across the nation, and burn enough coal to cook the planet and make our kids sick.”

Trump’s speech comes on the same day that Oil Change International released a study illustrating that the potential emissions from the oil, gas, and coal in currently operating coal mines and oil fields is enough, if those mines and fields are operated through to the end of their projected lifetimes, to take the world well above 2 degrees Celsius of global warming. Several studies have already argued that for the world to remain below 2 degrees Celsius — the threshold agreed upon by more than 170 countries during the U.N. Conference on Climate Change last December — the majority of the world’s fossil fuel reserves need to remain untapped.

After Trump’s speech, Sierra Club Political Director Khalid Pitts criticized the Republican presidential candidate’s policies, calling them polluter “talking points.”

“Trump’s dirty-fuels-first plan is pretty simple: drill enough off our coasts to threaten beaches from Maine to Florida, frack enough to spoil groundwater across the nation, and burn enough coal to cook the planet and make our kids sick,” Pitts said in a statement. “In stark contrast, Hillary Clinton is the only candidate in this race who is committed to grow the booming clean energy economy to create jobs and help tackle the climate crisis.”

Trump’s speech on Thursday was a keynote address for Shale Insights, an annual conference by sponsored by the Marcellus Shale Coalition, a Pennsylvania-based pro-drilling group, and is co-sponsored by both the Ohio Oil and Gas Association and the West Virginia Oil and Natural Gas Association. The conference’s agenda notes that it extended speaking invitations to both major candidates, but Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton declined to speak at the event, citing a scheduling conflict, according to the Associated Press.

The International Union of Operating Engineers Local 66, a pro-fracking union, withdrew from the conference over Trump’s appearance, with the business manager for the group calling Trump a “snake oil salesman.” Labor groups including United Steelworkers and the AFL-CIO also held an anti-Trump rally on Thursday morning, in an attempt to “dispute the notion that Mr. Trump has wide union backing,” according to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette’s energy blog PowerSource.

What’s 11,000 Times Dirtier Than a Toilet Seat?

Hint: when you stop at a gas station, the grossest thing may not be the bathroom.

Photo Credit: Phovoir / Shutterstock

America is a gas-guzzling, car-obsessed, open-road nation. Few things appeal to Americans more than a (traffic-free, ideally) leisurely drive to a fun, kick-back-your-heels destination, all the while enjoying the passing scenery. Of course, in order to achieve this bucolic vision of paradise, we need to fuel up the car, and in order to do that, we have to stop at the gas station. A study by Kimberly-Clark in 2015 investigating bacterial hot spots in the workplace fingered gas pumps as one of the unhealthiest things you can handle, and a new survey recently corroborates those findings.

Admittedly, it’s probably no great surprise that gas pumps are not exactly pristine. Never mind the chemical contamination that comes from gasoline itself, think about the sheer number of people endlessly grabbing the pump, often after returning from a pit stop at the not-so-hygienic gas station bathroom. You get the idea. Still, the new study gives one pause and suggests a bottle of sanitizer might not be a bad glove compartment staple.

It’s not just the number of germs present on gas pump handles, but the quality of those germs. The earlier Kimberly-Clark study, led by a University of Arizona microbiologist named Charles Gerba (whom colleagues know as “Dr. Germ”), found that 71 percent of the pumps were highly contaminated with germs associated with disease. The new survey, conducted by Busbud, studied samples from three different gas stations, as well as three different charging stations, to see what we may be exposing ourselves to. The sample size is small, but the results mirror the larger earlier study and are eye-opening.

Based on laboratory results from swabs from the sample gas pumps, handles on gas pumps had an average of 2,011,970 colony-forming units (CFUs), or viable bacteria cells, per square inch. Worse, the buttons on the pumps (where you select the grade of gas you want), had 2,617,067 CFUs per square inch. To put that in perspective, money, which is considered quite dirty since it changes hands often, has only 5.2 CFUs per square inch. A toilet seat has 172 CFUs per square inch. That makes a gas pump handle about 11,000 times more contaminated than a toilet seat, and a gas pump button 15,000 times more contaminated.

OK. So there are over two million CFUs dancing around on the gas pump. What kind of germs are they? Luckily, about half of them are usually harmless. These are the CFUs known as gram-positive rods. (I say usually because gram-positive rods can sometimes cause some types of infections, but are not considered unusually worrisome.) But those other million or so CFUs are mostly of the gram-positive cocci variety, and these are nasty critters that can cause skin infections, pneumonia and toxic shock syndrome.

Does the type of gas you select safeguard you in any way? It would seem so, to some small degree. The sampling showed that the buttons for regular gas contained 3,255,100 CFUs per square inch, about a third of which were the gram-positive cocci (bad germs), and another third of which were bacilli, another type of bad-guy bacteria linked to food poisoning and infections in newborn babies. The other third were mostly the safer gram-positive rods, with a smattering, about 5 percent, of gram-negative rods. These latter germs are especially worrisome as they are linked to antibiotic resistance as well as meningitis and pneumonia. The premium gas button had about 2,022,034 CFUs per square inch, divided about half gram-positive rods and half yeast (and we all know about yeast infections).

Since a typical visit to the gas station involves pressing the gas grade button as well as lifting the pump handle, that means, for regular gas, exposure to about 5,267,070 CFUs per square inch, and for premium gas about 4,034,004 CFUs per square inch.

Tesla and Volt owners, rejoice! If you own an electric car, and use a charging station, you can breathe a lot easier. The typical car charger has only 7.890 CFUs per square inch.

If you want to minimize your exposure to these germs, use a paper towel to hold the handle and push the button, or keep that hand sanitizer around and wash your hands after filling up.

Read the full survey.

Larry Schwartz is a Brooklyn-based freelance writer with a focus on health, science and American history.