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I am Albert Einstein, and I heartily approve of this blog, insofar as it seems to believe both in science and the importance of intellectual imagination, uncompromised by out of date emotions such as the impulse toward conventional religious beliefs, national aggression as a part of patriotism, and so on.   As I once remarked, the further the spiritual evolution of mankind advances, the more certain it seems to me that the path to genuine religiosity does not lie through the fear of life, and the fear of death, and blind faith, but through striving after rational knowledge.   Certainly the application of the impulse toward blind faith in science whereby authority is treated as some kind of church is to be deplored.  As I have also said, the only thing that ever interfered with my learning was my education. I am Freeman Dyson, and I approve of this blog, but would warn the author that life as a heretic is a hard one, since the ignorant and the half informed, let alone those who should know better, will automatically trash their betters who try to enlighten them with independent thinking, as I have found to my sorrow in commenting on "global warming" and its cures.
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A sudden bold and unexpected question doth many times surprise a man and lay him open. – Sir Francis Bacon (1561 – 1626)

He who knows only his own side of the case, knows little of that. – John Stuart Mill

Whenever you find that you are on the side of the majority, it is time to reform. – Mark Twain

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The evolution of the world tends to show the absolute importance of the category of the individual apart from the crowd. - Soren Kierkegaard

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Susan Boyle, Goddess of the Overlooked

April 25th, 2009

Cheeky wallflower conquers world with chutzpah on behalf of all of “us”

Cynics struggle to find a flaw in vain, but now Cinderella gets a makeover

Susan, science and the missing gene

Susan Boyle wowed the worldWell, you have all heard of Susan Boyle, but just to recap: The viral sensation on YouTube for nearly two weeks has been Susan Boyle, the frumpy but friendly 47 year old Scottish woman who came onstage at Britain’s Got Talent to rolling eyes from Simon Cowell and the audience, and won their hearts a few seconds later.

She bowled over the judges and wowed the cheering, standing audience with a soaring rendition of the well chosen Les Miserables anthem, I Dreamed a Dream, and the main YouTube replay Susan Boyle – Singer – Britains Got Talent 2009 (With Lyrics) has now been seen 42,747,287 times so far. Actually, the best is the full 7.31 minutes one, a perfect short Full Version. Win Susan Win. Susan Boyle – Britains Got Talent. (5,516,633 views).

Needless to say, we can’t resist commenting on this as a political and social phenomenon of high significance, just like every other journalist and human being we know.

The not so hidden significance of Susan Boyle

For we believe that it was not just a moving validation of an otherwise obscure human being, with whom we can all identify (unless we are already famous). It was not just a hugely satisfying revelation of talent in what appeared to be an unlikely candidate, with which most of us can also identify. Or even that the brilliantly edited video of the incident makes such a perfect short story in itself. Or that the numbers have grown so huge that Susan Boyle at over 100 million YouTube views (this figure prematurely announced begins to seem accurate by now) and top of the Twitter topic pile may be the most talked about persona in the Western World, topping Obama.

It is that the Susan Boyle viral event serves as a litmus test for the sense or nonsense of all the professional and amateur commentary it evokes, including ours. How well did the mainstream print and TV media do in this respect, and what does it tell us about whether they deserve the prominence they are steadily losing to the Web?

Are we fed up with the culture of looks?

Susan Boyle belts it out, and who says she ain't pretty in her original state?Like it or not, the video and the hundreds of thousands of Comments on the web show how important good looks are in first impressions and in how people treat each other these days at least when they first meet. They also suggest that people chafe under this oppression, which is imposed and magnified by a mainstream media culture ever more infatuated with looks.

Obviously, on screen success goes with appearance, and with rare exceptions such as Tiny Tim this has always been so. Politicians have to be presentable to attract and please the cameras which mediate their influence on the audience. But the extent to which most senators now look as if they have just stepped down from the movie screen is astonishing, with women swooning over Obama a classic example on the Presidential level.

Hollywood, of course led this trend from the start in insisting that actors and actresses were good looking enough to stir audiences and encourage them to empathize with the on screen seduction. Likewise models have to have winning looks, and often sell the enhancement of appearance with cosmetics, dress or fine possessions, constantly implying success and looks go together. Nowadays it seems that even the rich have to be good looking to attract the attention of the media, and if they aren’t they are made up and dressed to be so.

The question that Susan Boyle raises in the face of all this is whether this has to be so in daily life. Is appearance now totally correlated to success off screen as well as on? Do we have any time or tolerance left for the plain, the ordinary, the everyday, the ugly, the shabby or the worn out, ie ourselves in the mirror? We are talking of strangers and friends here, not family, of course. Presumably nearly everybody lets their guard down at home unless they have company.

What the Boyle boom suggests to us is that millions are fed up with the disconnect between on screen beauty and off screen normal appearance. Perhaps Susan Boyle charms us with relief from this disconnect, as she trumps it with vivacity and high talent. From the ugly duckling emerged a swan of a voice. In this she was in line with the vast new tradition of the Web, where the balance between beauty and ordinary is the same numerically as on the planet, and in high contrast with the lovely faces and sexy bodies we see on the mainstream media.

This is not to say, of course, that one can’t find beauty and high chemistry all around in daily life if one goes to the right venue, for example, the campuses of NYU, Columbia or other institutions of higher learning in New York City where the young and often beautiful study (other places too, but we find intelligence and higher education add to appeal, as Gordon Lish implied in his famous Esquire piece).

 Britain's Got Talent star Susan Boyle, sporting a new look after undergoing a makeover, outside her home in Blackburn, West Lothian.     PA Photos /LandovActually we would be the first to point out that Susan Boyle is certainly not ugly, in fact she is characterful and quite pleasing with her snub nose and cheerfully rounded cheeks, and her jolly friendliness, despite her double chin and stocky body. OK, she is no swan, but with a bit of attention she can be made highly presentable for the international stage. In fact she has now been made over, as per the photo left. Is it an improvement, or does she lose in natural appeal what she gains by artifice? We would have to see her in action, but we wonder.

“She looks 10 years younger,” said Toni Jones, assistant fashion editor at The Sun tabloid newspaper, which featured the new look Boyle on its cover Friday.

“Compared to what she had, it’s a 200 percent improvement. But our readers think this is as far as she should go. We want her to stay one of us.””She looks 10 years younger,” said Toni Jones, assistant fashion editor at The Sun tabloid newspaper, which featured the new look Boyle on its cover Friday.

“Compared to what she had, it’s a 200 percent improvement. But our readers think this is as far as she should go. We want her to stay one of us.”

“One of us”, the phrase tells it all. Glamor pusses are goddesses, not us.

Meanwhile, Susan has admitted that her “Never been kissed” was just her “wicked sense of humor”, so that unlikely claim has been scotched by the source herself.

Press silliness emerges

Meanwhile, what has been most enjoyable about Susan’s burst onto the world scene is the silly commentary she provoked among otherwise serious and sensible talking heads, especially on a certain Sunday morning talk show.

After George Stephanopolos ran the video last Sunday, Peggy Noonan came out with “I think it was Noel Coward who said Funny how potent cheap music is!” Huh? Many would say that the Les Miserables anthem is one of the finest in musical theater, ma’am. But Peggy, it wasn’t the music that moved us as such, it was the moving way Susan trumped the initial scorn and derision of those who judged her by her appearance.

Reagan’s brilliant speechwriter (the Challenger “touched the face of God”) continued with her philosophical musings thus: “Sometimes you watch and you know you are being manipulated and you still burst into tears!”

Manipulated? Emotionally, this was not manipulation so much as a genuine triumph, sentimental though it may have been. Frizzy haired stocky frump appears to general scorn unbowed, her cheerful confidence in her own worth plain for all to see, and proceeded to wow an audience now over 100 million with her talent. How is this manipulation? Any skepticism we and Peggy may have felt over Boyle’s frumpiness was purely self-induced, not manipulated, surely. The basic facts we were presented with were true. Susan looked like a cheerful frog, sang like a princess. Any joy we felt identifying with a scorned human being’s victory over unbelievers was fully justified.

Of course, there was the issue of whether the surprise itself was genuine as far as the judges went. Were they really kept in the dark by the producers, and the bookers who carried out the initial filtering? Judging from their faces, we are sure they were. They are not professional actors.

But was the event staged, for all that? Well, now we do learn that the bookers heard about and sought out Susan Boyle, she didn’t appear for audition on her own. Also, in a very tiny way she has recorded before, a CD for a charity that pressed only 1000 copies in 1999. She sang beautifully there too. In fact, she sang beautifully twenty years ago, at a family gathering. Is this surprising? She was born with talent, practiced it, and it emerged where she lived. It was just national recognition that she lacked.

The problem of cynicism

The problem with the group think of journalists and critics we find, particularly in movie reviewing, is that they may rush to compete in sophistication and cynically discount anything which is genuinely moving as manipulation. Perhaps this is due to fear of being exposed as naive, or it may be just the natural product of overexposure to an art and too many of its failures, resulting in a thick skinned perception of universal themes as cliches, and seeing artifice in sincerity. But sometimes cynicism is misplaced. Sometimes it isn’t an emotional button being pressed by a cliche. Sometimes a story is simply genuine and moving for a good reason, even amid trashy framing. Susan Boyle is one such case.

Of course there was knowledge and anticipation among some people in advance as to what would happen, including Boyle herself. After her filtering audition, some knew she was a good singer. She didn’t spring fully grown into existence, after all. She has been a fixture in Blackburn all her life, keeping house for herself, her late mother and her 10 year old cat Pebbles in the rented cottage she was born in – slightly brain damaged, they say – singing in the choir and gaining respect in many karayoke performances in the local pub. She has a voice teacher, who told the Times of London that she had been a contestant before in similar events, and she had vowed this was to be her last try at being discovered.

Does that amount to a fraud and a manipulation? Surely not. The woman has tried repeatedly to be a singer in public and always failed, probably because of her unglamorous looks, and now has finally received the credit she deserves. All she really needed for the world stage was a new haircut, a better wardrobe and recognition of her quality. Many would rather she stayed in her original state, that of a splendidly natural and perky Scottish village lass.

Meanwhile the self protectively cynical journalistic reflex to try and find a flaw in a sentimental triumph is unstoppable, and almost funny in how unsuccessful it is. For example, at the Vancouver Sun:

Susan Boyle: Has the world been conned?

BY BART JACKSONAPRIL 21, 2009 12:02 PM

VANCOUVER – Whaddaya mean there’s no Santa Claus?!

It’s worse than that. Internet sensation Susan Boyle, who garnered at least 30 million YouTube views with her Cinderella performance on Britain’s Got Talent, is a player in a giant fraud.

Or is she? She can surely sing, as evidenced by the tears that flooded the world as the plain Scottish lass sang the Les Miz hit I Dreamed a Dream.

Suddenly, the 47-year-old virgin became everybody’s sweetheart; the kind that brings warmth in the middle of a frosty recession. Broke and jobless? “I know, Andy, we’ll put on a show!”

And a show did talent curmudgeon Simon Cowell surely put on. Or was it crusty Cowell’s put-on?

If the Boyle tour de force was a publicity ploy, it rocked. From nowhere, she was everywhere: Oprah, Larry King, newscasts around the globe. Billions of hearts warmed.

Then, out of New York City, among others, a giant wet blanket was thrown to cool the planet’s ardour. Maureen Callahan in the New York Post noted that the Boyle event was too perfect: “A dowdy, 47-year-old virgin named Susan Boyle takes the stage, wearing her low heels and her Sunday best. The crowd laughs at her, and Boyle – how devastating – laughs along. She says she wants to be a professional singer; people laugh harder and louder. They point. It’s grammar school and the Roman coliseum combined. Simon Cowell – panelist and show creator – rolls his eyes. And then Susan Boyle sings.”

The same cynicism rumbled online. Notes “Rick” on Yahoo:

1) All of these shows have try-outs for filter out thousands of aspiring hacks before going on international television. Simon and the other judges were listening to her for the first time. This is not normal.

2) The next sign to look for is the clumsy humpty-dumpty music played in the background at the beginning while she eats a donut. The idea is to give the audience the perception of a frumpy donut eating middle aged unemployed woman. This is important to aid in her “rags to riches” story. The audience must have the perception of her being totally hopeless before she sings for maximum affect.

3) The orchestra’s music continues to play in the background even while the judges give their verdicts. As far as I know, this is the ONLY time this has ever happened in the history of this show. Simon’s vote is saved for last and suspiciously timed out perfectly before the crescendo of the orchestra. This is exactly how a movie would plan the same effect to help jerk a few extra tears from the audience.

Meanwhile, reports arise that Cowell has arranged a recording contract for the frumpy phenom, and he has a piece of what will undoubtedly be lucrative action.

Still if it wasn’t the spontaneous “reality” it pretended to be, the show was staged to perfection.

And in these parlous times, give a fairy tale its due.

The fact is that poor wonderful Susan is or was a bit of a frump, who revealed a magical talent which she had always wanted to use on stage if she could find recognition. Now she has it. Doesn’t matter if she already has been filtered once, or had recorded one little song on one little charity CD before, or practiced all her life. She was obscure, and now in deserved limelight. and will get some grooming!

Carping is a journalistic reflex and it is funny how unsuccessful it is in this case. Long live Susan!

Frog into prince

Meanwhile, in case you didn’t know, this is not the first time this has happened. Paul Potts, an English carphone salesman turned from a bull frog into a prince when he opened his mouth on the same stage two years ago and sang Nessun Dorma or “No one shall sleep” from Puccini’s Turandot, landing a CD which sold 2 million and so far 47 million views of his audition on YouTube.

Paul Potts’ jumbly teeth advertised the parlous state of British dentistry all over the world, a relative lack of dental care for the man in the street which is part of the reason probably why Sun readers don’t feel that the world of media stars is full of “us”. Martin Amis, one of Britain’s most brilliant literary celebrities, aroused considerable resentment for having his teeth cosmetically fixed a number of years ago.

So what?

So is there any serious point to be made of all this? Perhaps one could say one thing. If journalists have a built in gene for cynical assessment of events that look like staged fairy tales and other self serving entertainments for the populace, how come that gene is blocked when it comes to the fairy tales concocted by self serving scientists?

Could it be that scientists enjoy a priestly immunity to questioning because their stock in trade is as secret and off limits as the expertise of lawyers, bankers and others whose specialty is a monopoly over arcane matters beyond the reach of reporters?

Updates and added science:

Sun April 26: While Boyle continues at the top of twitter, second only to swine flu today, the bloom is off the Scottish rose for us, we are sad to find, and the fundamental truth is becoming ever more powerful in our mind as we sort through photos of the not so wee lass. And what is that fundamental truth, easy to overlook or set aside in the excitement of the underdog’s sudden triumph? It is that Susan is simply not a face that one wants to gaze at too long. Not, anyway, when one has Mariel Hemingway to look at, see below.

The fundamental question is, then, how long will the victory of this oddity last? How long will her transcendent voice allow us to set aside her somewhat uninspiring looks? In the age of video, perhaps not very long, in the end. Let’s see. Fair or not, it seems likely that despite her excellent voice her blatant lack of sex appeal will cripple her career after the initial tsunami of attention is over, and reduce her to a brilliant flash in the pan, a golden talent unfortunately set in too plain a frame for permanent center stage in live performance or video.

Or will her lively common sense friendliness make up for the deficit in the looks department, and maintain the acceptability quotient needed to enjoy her performance with the eyes as well as ears?

More silly commentary from the press:

Here’s a piece in the Times today which surely misses the point completely. Many found Susan’s shimmy (after she told the judges her age, 47, she did a little hip shake, and said “But that’s only half of me!”) amusing, laughing with her not at her. We did. And the issue was not whether Susan was threatening or unthreatening, but whether she was attractive or off putting, and whether her deserved status could be misread in her clothing, looks and behavior.

Surely the fundamental useful point to be made about the whole affair is not just that stereotypes are superficial and misleading, that we should not assume too readily that the cover accurately reflects the content of the book, or that dress and sexual attractiveness tell us everything about what talent hides within.

It is the truth that the longer we know someone, the more we uncover about their abilities and everything else they have to offer. Finding out about the talents and unique qualities of a human being is a life long process, and the treasures that one discovers in even the plainest wrapping can be priceless, surpassing anything we imagined when we first encounter a new friend.
Yes, Looks Do Matter by Pam Belluck, New York Times, Sun April 26.

Susan Fiske, a professor of psychology and neuroscience at Princeton, said that traditionally, most stereotypes break down into two broad dimensions: whether a person appears to have malignant or benign intent and whether a person appears dangerous. “In ancestral times, it was important to stay away from people who looked angry and dominant,” she said.

Women are also subdivided into “traditionally attractive” women, who “don’t look dominant, have baby-faced features,” Professor Fiske said. “They’re not threatening.”

Indeed, attractiveness is one thing that can make stereotypes self-fulfilling and reinforcing. Attractive people are “credited with being socially skilled,” Professor Fiske said, and maybe they are, because “if you’re beautiful or handsome, people laugh at your jokes and interact with you in such a way that it’s easy to be socially skilled.”

The Untold Susan Boyle Story by Steve Rosenbaum, Huffington Post:

For some, the music is what it’s all about. For others, it’s the ugly duckling who spreads her wings. And then, it may just be given the economy, with people feeling so beaten up, that watching an underdog totally triumph was just too hard to resist.

It hardly matters. She totally owned the gig – and now she’s a rocket. And the best part? This isn’t some contrived media event from the pop-culture factory. This is real.

Susan-Boyle.com has created a pop-up destination where people can connect, share stories, record videos, and watch Susan Boyle’s video experience. It is a feel good site with most comments gushing with enthusiasm and support. There is something that feels good about watching a community grow organically around such a positive media moment and personality. We just don’t have enough of this stuff these days.

Four days later he has a website that is getting close to a million page views a day and has over 12,000 registered members.

RESEARCH: Proving the sun rises in the East: Studies on whether people think less of the plain or ugly in appearance, and how many of us worry about it:

“61% – 82% of adults (Harris & Carr, 2001; Liossi, 2003) have significant appearance concerns which result in distress and affect a variety of health behaviours.”

Interpersonal effects of Appearance-based Rejection Sensitivity Journal of Research in Personality, Lora E. Park and Rebecca T. Pinkusa, Feb 2009 (in press). Appearance-based Rejection Sensitivity (Appearance-RS) is the tendency to anxiously expect, readily perceive, and overreact to rejection based on one’s physical attractiveness.

A Self Study of the Link Between Appearance and Self Esteem by Charlie Bradley, Associated Content Open Content Network, Oct 5 2007.

…Prior to the beginning of my self-study into how one’s appearance affects his or her self-esteem, I generally didn’t put too much thought into the way I dressed. I would just put on a shirt, socks, a belt, jeans, and shoes, and go on about my day doing what I needed to do. One day I took a look in the mirror and the reflection actually made my skin crawl. I thought ‘I look dumpy. How can I expect someone to take an interest in me when I look like absolute hell?’ …

A collection of loveliesThe effects of women’s age and physical appearance on evaluations of attractiveness and social desirability. Perlini, Arthur H. ; Bertolissi, Susan ; Lind, David L.,The Journal of Social Psychology, June 1, 1999.

In a landmark study, Dion, Bersheid, and Walster (1972) showed participants photographs of attractive and unattractive individuals and asked them to rate these target people on a series of personality traits. They found that attractive individuals are perceived as more sensitive, kind, sociable, interesting, outgoing, strong, poised, and exciting than less attractive people. These findings stimulated 25 years of research into the physical attractiveness stereotype.

In a recent meta-analytic review of this research, Feingold (1992) concluded that there are few dispositional differences between physically attractive and physically unattractive people; nonetheless, physically attractive men and women are perceived as more sociable, dominant, sexually warm, mentally healthy, and socially skilled than physically unattractive people. Dion and Dion (1987) have called on researchers to identify moderators of this physical attractiveness stereotype.

The present study was designed to evaluate the role of one such variable, namely age, in understanding this halo effect of attractiveness. The literature and previous research relevant to our study have used North American samples; thus the issues relevant to the present study may not be generalizable to other cultures….

Our findings demonstrate that both younger and older judges exhibited an attractiveness bias: Attractive female photo targets, whether younger or older, were rated as higher in social desirability than matched unattractive targets. These findings confirmed those of Johnson and Pittenger (1984) who found evidence of an attractiveness bias toward older targets by both younger and older judges. Additionally, our findings extended theirs by demonstrating that this attractiveness bias also existed in both younger and older judges evaluating younger female target photos.

The present findings also indicated that the impact of target age on social desirability ratings appeared to have been moderated by both target attractiveness and participant age. Among younger judges, being older and attractive was declared equal in social desirability as being younger and attractive. On the other hand, among older male judges, being older and attractive was regarded as lower in social desirability compared with being younger and attractive.

This was the case even though these same older male judges rated the older attractive targets as similar in physical attractiveness to the younger attractive targets. All other things being equal, the prevailing attractiveness stereotype suggests that to be attractive is to be youthful in appearance.

Age, like attractiveness, may connote differences in status and competence to observers, which in turn may affect their perceptions of others. It has been suggested (Berger, Rosenholtz, & Zelditch, 1980) that when several status characteristics are present (i.e., age and attractiveness), this information is aggregated together in the process of forming expectations. People who are consistent with these expectations are rated positively; hence, although “what is beautiful is good,” among older male judges, “what is beautiful and younger is better”

Although the previous finding highlighted the impact of target age for impressions of attractive target females, target age also played a role in social desirability ratings of unattractive targets: It was less socially desirable to be younger and unattractive than to be older and unattractive. This was the case even though there were no differences in the ratings of physical attractiveness of the younger and older unattractive targets.

Consistent with the explanation of why younger attractive women are conferred an advantage in terms of social desirability, younger unattractive women may have been conferred a similar disadvantage for the same reasons; more specifically, observable cues such as age and attractiveness, when consistent (e.g., younger and attractive), conferred high status and positive expectations. In contrast, when these observable cues were inconsistent (e.g., younger and unattractive), the resultant status and expectations may have been compromised. In line with research that demonstrates that violations of expectations often induce negative affect (Butler & Geis, 1990), it is conceivable that those women who violated this expectation (i.e., unattractive younger women) were perceived as less socially desirable than those who were not expected to be attractive (i.e., older women).

This explanation adds age to physical attractiveness as an additional status characteristic underlying personality inferences (Dion & Dion, 1987).

One word of caution is needed about the generalizability of the present findings. The targets were restricted to women, and the variations in attractiveness were arrived at by artificially, but realistically, manipulating several facial features. Moreover, the respondents were Canadians, and thus part of a Western culture in which older people may be perceived of as part of a lower status group than are older people in other cultures.

Cultural differences in the status of older people or the moderating effects of a target’s gender on perceptions of older people are two key issues on which future research should focus. Ultimately, a coherent understanding of the effects of age and attractiveness on social perceptions demands a more comprehensive approach that includes both male targets and a more cross-culturally representative sample of respondents.

In conclusion, the present findings supported those of Johnson and Pittenger (1984), confirming that the attractiveness stereotype has life-span generality; moreover, the findings of the latter investigators have been extended by demonstrating that both younger and older judges tend to hold this stereotype, regardless of the age of the stimulus woman.

To be sure, the age of the woman evaluated did play a key role in the manner in which this stereotype was instituted; specifically, being younger appeared to be a disadvantage to a physically unattractive woman but an advantage to a physically attractive woman. With respect to ratings of physical attractiveness, the findings suggested a slight leniency bias of older judges rating targets within their age group. Taken together, these findings suggest that age is an important moderating variable in physical attractiveness stereotyping.

The psychology of appearance: Why health psychologists should “do looks” Nichola Rumsey, University of West England Bristol, The European Health Psychologist, Vol. 10, September 2008.

“Societal interest in appearance has a long history, but has never been more prevalent than now. Messages associating physical attractiveness with success and happiness are unremitting; researchers and commentators consider that extensive, and for a proportion of the population, debilitating levels of appearance concerns are considered normative. In this article I will offer a brief history of appearance research as a context for the current state of play in this area, explore reasons why the topic of appearance remains
peripheral at best for most health psychologists, and offer arguments for why it should become more central.

A brief history of appearance research

As early as 1921, Perrin stated in the Journal of Experimental Psychology that ‘just why the physical characteristics of individuals should exert so profound an influence over their associates furnishes an interesting topic of speculation’. A few pockets of work on self-perceptions of appearance emerged in the 1940s and 50s – the first self-rating scales to measure subjective ratings of appearance were designed by Secord and Jourard in 1953.

However, these forays were the exception rather than the rule, and Perrin would have been disappointed that so few researchers felt compelled to take up the challenge until later in the century. Walster et al (1966) found that in a study of 752 students during Freshers Week, the only predictor of an individual’s liking for and desire to subsequently date a potential partner was physical attractiveness. However, Walster was discouraged by her colleagues from publishing the findings, as appearance was almost universally regarded as a frivolous and superficial attribute for psychologists to research.

Kleinke (1974) suggested that by avoiding the study of facial appearance, psychologists could refrain from supporting the unpalatable view that looks really are important in how a person is judged, but in the 1970s the climate was beginning to change. Society was becoming more preoccupied with the body beautiful and first impressions were more important. People were becoming more geographically mobile and were coming into contact with larger numbers of unknown others for the first time (Bull & Rumsey, 1988).

The legal profession became interested in the potential of building cases around the detrimental impact of impaired physical appearance on social and economic opportunities and on self-esteem, and were eager for evidence to support these cases. Most of the research at this time claimed pronounced and positive effects played by facial attractiveness in liking, dating and in longer-term relationships and in the educational and criminal justice systems.

In 1981 Berscheid claimed that levels of physical attractiveness had been shown in numerous investigations to be an ‘extraordinary important psychological variable’ with pervasive and strong effects resulting in numerous preferential social treatments. However in a comprehensive review Bull and Rumsey (1988) felt Berscheid’s claim was overstated and the conclusions misleading. The majority of studies were methodologically weak and conceptually naïve. Most involved undergraduate students rating head and shoulder photographs, and almost all lacked ecological validity”.

The early 1990s saw the publication of two metaanalyses, both of which went some way to
acknowledging the complexity of the processes involved in interpersonal perception. Eagly et al (1991) found evidence for correlations between physical attractiveness and various positive traits, but concluded the average magnitude of the beauty-is-good effect was
moderate at best. Feingold (1992) concluded that physically attractive people were viewed by others as having more positive personality and social traits; however there were ‘generally trivial relationships’ between physical attractiveness and measures of ability.

Throughout the 1990s debates concerning the social currency of physical attractiveness continues to rage among social psychologists, sociologists and social commentators. In parallel an emerging body of literature on body image (self perceptions of physical appearance) was dominated by the interests of clinical psychology and psychiatry, and was fuelled by the rising rates of eating disorders in young women.

Although this research focused largely on issues of weight and shape, the more general applicability of body image research was highlighted by Cash et al (1986) who reported that in a nationwide study in the US, only 7% of women expressed little or no concern with their appearance. Rodin et al (1985) coined the term ‘normative discontent’ at this time. In their landmark texts, (1990; 2002) Cash and Pruzinsky summarised evidence that from early childhood onwards, body image plays an integral role in understanding many aspects of human experience.

During this time, a third area of research gradually gathered momentum, and a small number of health and clinical psychologists had began to engage with the task of understanding the psychosocial effects of living with disfigurement. A range of challenges were identified, relating in the main to self perceptions and difficulties in social encounters (Rumsey & Harcourt, 2005).

By 2000 there was a coherent body of research highlighting individual variation in adjustment, and confirming the lack of a relationship between the extent and severity of a disfigurement and levels of distress (Lansdown et al, 1997). The effect of type of condition, and demographic variables such as gender and age had less impact than many had expected, and a number of psychological factors began to emerge with increasing regularity as contenders for the most influential variables in the multifactorial process of adjustment.

However, care provision remained focused around medical and surgical interventions to ‘improve’ appearance. A major sea-change in the provision of care in the UK was heralded in 1998 with a government circular outlining recommendations for the reorganisation of care for those affected by cleft lip and/or palate. This circular stated that all cleft teams should include an ‘appropriately trained’ full time psychologist as a core member of the multidisciplinary care team.

Similar moves are currently being pursued in burn care. Despite increasing evidence of the widespread impact of appearance concerns, there still seems to be a reluctance amongst health psychologists to engage with the pervasive nature of the psychological ramifications of appearance concerns. In 2004, Natty Leitner (now Triskel) trawled abstracts from 6 of most prominent health and clinical psychology research journals from the previous 3 years.

Appearance issues were central in only 2% of articles – even when participants had appearance altering conditions (arthritis, MS, Parkinsons, self injury, exercise dependence). Triskel joined Cash and Pruzinsky (2002) in concluding that appearance is a highly pertinent and usually overlooked aspect of research in health and clinical psychology.

Why should health psychologists take appearance concerns more seriously?
People’s feelings about their appearance can have significant effects on their self perceptions, wellbeing, their health behaviours and their adherence to treatment.

The psychology of appearance

61% – 82% of adults (Harris & Carr, 2001; Liossi, 2003) have significant appearance concerns which result in distress and affect a variety of health behaviours. The increase in financial outlay on beauty products, gym memberships, exercise equipment, dietary supplements, weight loss programmes and cosmetic surgery is exponential. In the U.S., there are currently unprecedented levels of debt related to appearance enhancement – with the majority of those affected drawn from lower income groups. There are signs that spending patterns in the UK and Europe are heading the same way.

Appearance concerns and health related behaviours

There is now a body of evidence to suggest that dissatisfaction with appearance impacts on a range of health behaviours, including smoking, eating and exercise.

In relation to smoking, Garner’s report on a body image study conducted by Psychology Today in the US (1997) found that 50% of female respondents smoked to control their weight. Stice and Shaw (2003) reported that adolescent girls with body image disturbances were significantly more likely to initiate smoking and Amos and Bostock (2007) found that teenage boys and girls commonly use smoking as an appetite suppressant. Smoking cessation attempts may also be hampered by appearance concerns, particularly in relation to weight gain (King et al, 2005).

The rise in various patterns of disordered eating in attempts to match up to physical ideals (slim for females; slim and muscled for males) has been noted by many researchers. Girls from the age of 5 show a preference for thinner ideal body sizes than their own (Williamson & Delin, 2001), and are aware of calorie counting as a way to lose weight. Body dissatisfaction
is evident in boys from 8 years and may occur earlier. Neumark-Sztainer, et al (2006) have noted a steady increase in the proportion of teenagers using diet pills, laxatives and diuretics, and Pope et al (2002) have discussed the growing prevalence of teenage boys and
young men taking steroids and protein powders in attempts to gain muscle bulk. Only one in ten women profess to be free of concern about their weight and shape (Etcoff, et al, 2006) and Prynn (2004) has reported that 1:4 men are actively dieting at any one time.

Although on the face of it, increased exercise participation might be seen as an advantageous consequence of concern about appearance, there are increases in the numbers compulsively over-exercising. Research into the relationship between appearance concerns and the uptake and maintenance of exercise has generated conflicting findings, however, in a recent meta analysis, Hausenblas and Fallon (2006) concluded that exercisers have a more positive body image than non-exercisers, and also that exercise intervention participants have a significantly better body image post intervention than non exercising
controls. Moderating variables in these relationships (including motivation to exercise, body composition etc) need to be further researched.

Suntanning behaviour: One area in which appearance has been more salient in driving health promotion campaigns is sun tanning behaviour and the associated risks of skin cancer. Castle et al (1999) found the perceived benefits of having a sun tan (primarily the belief that tanned skin is more attractive) predicted the intention to suntan without protection. A tan remains a desirable commodity amongst teenagers (Livingston et al, 2007) and has been linked to both excessive exposure to sun and to the use of sun beds. The news is not all bad however. Mahler et al (2007) concluded that the depiction of faces with wrinkles and sun damaged skin was effective in motivating sun protection.

A neural basis for the effect of candidate appearance on election outcomes. Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, 2008; Spezio et al. ; DOI: 10.1093/scan/nsn040.

Negative Cues From Appearance Alone Matter For Real Elections

California Institute of Technology, October 31, 2008 — Brain-imaging studies reveal that voting decisions are more associated with the brain’s response to negative aspects of a politician’s appearance than to positive ones, says a team of researchers from the California Institute of Technology (Caltech), Scripps College, Princeton University, and the University of Iowa. This appears to be particularly true when voters have little or no information about a politician aside from their physical appearance.

Deciding whom to trust, whom to fear, and indeed for whom to vote in an election depends, in part, on quick, implicit judgments about people’s faces. Although this general finding has been scientifically documented, the detailed mechanisms have remained obscure. To probe how a politician’s appearance might influence voting decisions, Michael Spezio, an assistant professor of psychology at Scripps College and visiting associate at Caltech, and Antonio Rangel, an associate professor of economics at Caltech, examined brain activation in subjects looking at the faces of real politicians….

One surprise in the study is that negative evaluations, such as the perception that a candidate is threatening, influence election loss significantly more than positive evaluations like attractiveness influence election success….

In particular, Adolphs says, the observed effects, while statistically significant, were rather small.

House of Numbers attacked, but gains respectful coverage

April 23rd, 2009

Heated argument at panel after showing in Boston, Harvard scientist attempts put down

Long piece in Bay Windows, and Red Dirt, Tennessean reviews, suggest film impresses

John Moore and other paradigm promoters fulminate they were caught out

The inevitable counter attack on House of Numbers, the new film which exposes and explores the debate about whether HIV/AIDS policy is founded on incorrect science, began this week, erupting in loud altercation after the screening Tuesday (April 21) at the Boston International Film Festival.

A long and detailed report on the event, Crazy ’House’ by associate editor Ethan Jacobs appeared yesterday (April 22 Wed) in Bay WIndows, a gay and lesbian newspaper. It is worth reading to the very end, for after the obligatory deprecation of the film as featuring “AIDS denialism”, and an account of the outraged behavior of “denialists” who objected to the post screening “panel” as more of a platform for paradigm promoters, it gives considerable space to Brent Leung the director, and presents the film in a fairly favorable light.

In fact, the trickle of coverage of the film so far seems quite respectful, despite the best efforts of John Moore and other scientists who appear in the film to disparage it. They now feel they were misled into revealing the weakness and unsettled nature of HIV/AIDS theory, which as this blog has pointed out for the last three years is an established fact revealed by the scientific literature and by expert critiques in the media, including many books. In other words, the misleaders now complain of being misled.

Unbiased readers will probably get the right message from this long report, which makes it clear that the emotionalism in Boston was caused by yet another example of the political and social repression of “denialism” ie of free speech about the gross flaws and improbabilities, indeed the impossiblility, of HIV=AIDS, repression enthusiastically endorsed by the Harvard faculty and John Moore, and that there is an ongoing debate nonetheless, well presented by the filmmaker.

A panel discussion about a controversial AIDS documentary, House of Numbers, descended into a screaming match April 21 at the Boston International Film Festival, with both the film’s director, Brent Leung, and other members of the audience shouting down and attempting to drown out the remarks of Dr. Daniel Kuritzkes, an HIV expert and Harvard Medical School professor who was interviewed in the film.

Many of the audience members who attempted to silence Kuritzkes were supporters of a fringe movement known as AIDS denialism, which consists of people who argue that the HIV virus either is not the cause or not the sole cause of AIDS. While AIDS denialism has been roundly rejected as bogus science by the mainstream scientific and medical community, House of Numbers suggests that there is still a robust debate about the cause of AIDS, the existence of HIV, and the validity of HIV testing. Kuritzkes used his remarks to try to debunk the denialist movement, and he is one of more than a dozen scientists interviewed in the film who have signed onto a statement rejecting AIDS denialism and claiming that they were misled about Leung’s intentions in making the film.

Leung and the denialists in the audience at the AMC Loews Boston Common theater vocally objected to the format of the panel discussion even before it got underway. The panel, organized by Amit Dixit — a board member of Massachusetts Area South Asian Lambda Association (MASALA) — in conjunction with Fenway Community Health and the festival organizers, included Kuritzkes and Fenway president and CEO Dr. Stephen Boswell. Kevin Cranston, head of the Massachusetts Department of Public Health’s Bureau of Infectious Disease, served as moderator, and Cranston invited Leung to participate as a panelist, although Leung elected to remain in the audience.

As Kuritzkes began reading from a prepared statement two members of the audience who appeared in the film walked down to the front of the theater, sat beside Boswell and Kuritzkes at the panelists’ table and refused to leave. Those audience members, Christian Fiala, an Austrian gynecologist, and Liam Scheff, identified in the film as a freelance journalist, both claimed that they were forcibly joining the panel to provide balance. In the middle of Kuritzkes’s speech Leung and several other audience members shouted over him, “This is not a panel!” and, “Where’s the panel?” The shouting reached a fever pitch when Kuritzkes began reading a list of names of AIDS denialists who allegedly died of complications from AIDS.

“This is an exercise in free speech,” said Cranston, attempting to quiet the crowd. “Dr. Kuritzkes is speaking. After he has completed speaking we will open up for free dialogue. We can only do this if one person speaks at a time. Shouting people down is not dialogue.”

Several audience members continued shouting over Kuritzkes’s remarks despite Cranston’s admonition. Cranston warned audience members that anyone who continued to interrupt the program would be asked to leave. A police officer was present inside the theater, but he did not directly intervene, and Fiala and Scheff remained seated at the panelists’ table for the rest of the program.

Fair and balanced?

Leung’s film followed his personal journey to London, Germany, South Africa and the United States (Leung is Canadian) talking to a mix of scientists and health officials as well as AIDS denialist activists like Fiala, Scheff, and freelance journalist Celia Farber, who wrote a controversial 2006 article in Harper’s Magazine that was widely accused of promoting the denialist cause. The film included an interview with Peter Duesberg, a University of California-Berkeley molecular biology professor and arguably the most famous AIDS denialist. Leung also interviewed Christine Maggiore, founder of the denialist group Alive and Well. Maggiore was HIV-positive but denied the link between HIV and AIDS; she died last December. Maggiore’s supporters claim that her death was unrelated to AIDS, but a copy of her death certificate posted on AIDStruth.org, a site aimed at opposing the AIDS denialist movement, lists the cause of death as disseminated herpes viral infection and bilateral bronchial pneumonia, AIDS-related opportunistic infections. An L.A. Times obituary of Maggiore reports that her three-year-old daughter died in 2005 of AIDS-related pneumonia.

The film also included interviews with luminaries in the field of HIV/AIDS research, including Robert Gallo and Luc Montagnier, credited as co-discoverers of the HIV virus, Peter Piot, former executive director of UNAIDS, and Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institutes of Allergy and Infectious Diseases at the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

In his narration of the film Leung claims that his goal is to present an unbiased view of the state of HIV research, but his film suggests that certain key facts about HIV/AIDS that have been long settled in mainstream scientific circles are still in dispute. During a segment about the beginnings of the AIDS crisis among gay men in the United States Kary Mullis, a leading AIDS denialist and a Nobel Prize-winning chemist, blamed many early AIDS cases on poppers, saying, “What exactly caused Kaposi’s sarcoma? We know that now. It was amyl nitrite.”

Former Sunday Times health reporter Neville Hodgkinson, who wrote several articles questioning the link between HIV and AIDS, says in the film, “The lifestyle explanation proved politically unacceptable, but the virus explanation proved very, very acceptable to many different parties.”

In another section Duesberg claims that many of the symptoms of AIDS were in fact caused by the drugs used to treat the syndrome. Several people interviewed in the film question the effectiveness of HIV tests. Ostensibly to provide balance the film also includes interviews with people rebutting the AIDS denialists’ arguments, but there is minimal discussion of the reasons why mainstream scientists have largely written off the denialists’ claims as junk science. During one interview Duesberg says, “They’re all prostitutes, most of them, my colleagues.”

At the film’s end Leung suggests that the cause of the global AIDS epidemic is poverty, not the HIV virus.

“At journey’s end I find myself perplexed, bewildered at times with an overall feeling of dismay and sadness. I found a research community in disarray over the most fundamental understanding of HIV, all the while presenting a monolithic public posture of authority and certainty. Bluntly stated, we have tests that prove nothing, remedies that kill, and statistics manipulated to the point of absurdity,” Leung says. “Ninety percent of global HIV corresponds to areas of great poverty and squalor. Ironically, while we may have been pursuing a phantom killer, a shape-shifting assassin, perhaps the real enemy has been hiding in plain view, clear as day and as old as time.”

During a post-film question-and-answer session held before the panel Leung claimed that his film took a neutral stance on the question of what causes AIDS. He declined to say which side he represents.

“The purpose of the film is to present a broad range of ideas, and those ideas are for you, the audience, and for scientists to take and to create a catalyst for more discussion,” said Leung.

One audience member asked Leung who funded the film, noting that Leung seemed to have a large budget for travel. Leung declined to name the sources but described them as a group of “funders from all over the world.” When Bay Windows later asked him if most of his funders supported the viewpoint of AIDS denialists, Leung claimed that they did not.

Filmmaker versus subject

Once the panel discussion got underway and Cranston succeeded in getting the audience under control, Elizabeth Ely, an audience member affiliated with the denialist group Rethinking AIDS, asked Kuritzkes what remarks in the film had been taken out of context. Kuritzkes said his own remarks in the film had been presented in a misleading light. During the film there is a brief clip of Kuritzkes saying that in the early days of the epidemic the standard dosage of the AIDS drug AZT was likely too high. The clip follows comments by Duesberg blaming AZT for many of the symptoms of AIDS.

“I can give you an example of my own quotation where I was quoted very briefly in talking about how early doses of AZT were toxic and that was the end of the statement, but in a broader discussion about anti-retroviral therapy, as I recall, the issue is really that the drugs have improved over time, the drugs have become less toxic, and the treatments today are highly effective, which is why we’ve seen an 80 percent reduction in mortality from HIV,” said Kuritzkes.

Leung jumped in and told the crowd, “I would like to add that was not taken out of context. Antiretrovirals are a separate part of the film. AZT is one part of the film.”

Kuritzkes replied, “AZT is an antiretroviral, unfortunately.”

Kuritzkes is one of several scientists featured in the film who have since come forward and argued that they were interviewed for the film under false pretenses and that they believe House of Numbers promotes an AIDS denialist agenda. John Moore, a professor at Weill Medical College of Cornell University, drafted a statement signed by himself and 15 others interviewed for the film, including Kuritzkes, Gallo and Piot, alleging that the film “presents the AIDS denialist agenda as being a legitimate scientific perspective on HIV/AIDS, when it is no such thing. [Leung’s] film perpetuates pseudo-science and myths.”

Moore, who was not present at the screening, told Bay Windows he and several other scientists interviewed for the film first came in contact with Leung through Martin Delany, the pioneering AIDS activist and executive director of Project Inform who passed away in January. Delany was interviewed for the film, and Moore said Delany vouched for Leung as a legitimate filmmaker. Moore said Leung interviewed him on two successive occasions, once in 2006 and again a year later, and said Leung told him the goal of his film was to document the history of AIDS research and to expose the lies behind the denialist movement. Several weeks ago Moore said Leung e-mailed him and other film participants a link to the film trailer, and Moore was shocked to find that the film seemed to present a sympathetic portrait of denialists.

“I didn’t know he lied until I saw the trailer,” said Moore, who said watching the trailer prompted him to draft his statement and contact the other film participants to ask them to sign it. He has not seen the film, which debuted at the Nashville Film Festival April 19 and has only screened in Nashville and Boston, but he said based on the trailer and conversations he has had with people who have attended the screenings he believes the film falls squarely in the denialist camp.

Leung told Bay Windows that he was up front with Moore about the subject of his film. He said he told Moore that the film was a documentary on public awareness about HIV and AIDS, about AIDS education and testing and other issues relating to the epidemic. He also said that since Moore had authored a 2006 New York Times op-ed opposing the denialist movement entitled “Deadly Quackery,” he wanted “to address whether HIV is the cause of immune deficiency. And that was the extent that I told him it was about.” He said he believes some of the scientists who signed Moore’s statement were upset because the film allegedly shows them making contradictory statements about the nature of HIV and AIDS.

What’s at stake

During the panel discussion Boswell told the denialists in the crowd, “It’s important to know there’s a lot at stake. If you’re wrong and HIV does cause [AIDS] you’re doing a profound disservice to our race.”

Ely responded from the audience, saying, “And if you’re wrong you’re doing a profound disservice. That’s our point.”

Boswell replied, “Science has a way, a system for testing new ideas, and if you have an idea that’s different then you can present those ideas, you can test them in a scientific way, present your findings in a peer-reviewed journal, have another laboratory verify what you say happened. I haven’t seen any of that happen in any of this work. All I know is that we test for HIV in the blood supply and over a period of three years transfusion-transmissible AIDS virtually disappeared in the United States. We start testing women for the HIV virus who are pregnant, and we virtually eliminate AIDS in children. In 1995 I give a cocktail of medications to patients who are within weeks of dying, and those patients a few weeks later have gained 10, 20 pounds, and some of them are alive today.”

Following the panel Leung told Bay Windows that he nearly pulled the film from the festival 15 minutes before the screening. He said festival organizers had promised him that there would be a “two-sided” panel discussion, and he objected to the selection of Cranston as moderator, calling him “obviously biased to one side” because of his work on HIV/AIDS in the public health sector.

Asked if his film was designed to spread the message of the AIDS denialist movement Leung said, “I don’t feel strongly about getting their message out. I feel strongly about freedom of speech. As I’ve gone around the world interviewing these world scientists who set the foundation for everything we know about HIV and AIDS and continue to set the foundation in policies, I found that there’s a lot of disconnect between what they say, there’s a lot of contradiction, there’s a lot of confusion, and people are dying. So it doesn’t matter who says what, what arguments come from each side. We have to have an open dialogue. We need to know why people are dying.”

The film festival released a statement saying that the goal of the post-film panel was to create a venue for members of the community to respond to the film.

“The Boston International Film Festival never intended to host a formal debate about the film; we intended to provide a forum in which members of the community could engage with, and respond to, the film. It was a difficult decision to screen ’House of Numbers,’ and we are very pleased that the director, Brent Leung, attended the screening and answered questions about his film,” read the statement in part.

The statement goes on to say that there was some miscommunication between festival organizers and the filmmaker about the format of the panel discussion but that the festival decided to go forward with the panel “to create an opportunity for healthy social discourse.”

The statement also says the festival requested the presence of a police officer at the screening in response to concerns about security.

“In anticipation of the event, we were concerned about security and we believed it was very important to have a visible police presence at the screening; Security issues were also considered in how the situations were handled. …We are issuing this statement so that other festivals can be aware of the potential for escalated actions, and that the other festivals can be extremely diligent in their planning so that future screenings can be executed in a safe and constructive manner.”

Chloe McFeters, public relations manager for the festival, declined to elaborate on what prompted concerns about security. Dixit, who worked with the festival organizers to organize the panel discussion, said the festival requested a police officer because an AIDS denialist with a past history of violent actions and run-ins with the law had posted on the Internet that he would attend the Nashville screening, and the Boston festival organizers were concerned he would attend the Boston screening as well.

Dixit said that he believes the film presents a biased perspective in favor of the AIDS denialists, and the goal in selecting Boswell and Kuritzkes as the panelists was to bring in respected members of the local scientific community to present their response to the claims laid out in the film.

“I said [to the filmmakers during the planning process] you have 87 minutes, and then the director Q&A, but for me to put these people on the same panel [the night of the screening] who barged up, who have no credentials, it’s an absolute insult to the people we know, it’s an insult to Boswell and Dan who have been doing this for years. … Fenway, myself, we were about creating a scientific dialogue, that was what the whole premise was,” said Dixit.

He said he was frustrated that the denialists in the audience seemed intent on drowning out the panelists.

“For me I was very disappointed in not being able to hear the experts. Dan spoke eloquently and he answered the questions right on. I was very proud to have our heroes onstage,” said Dixit. “But I was very disappointed. What we tried to do was create a scientific dialogue. It was interrupted by denialists in the audience who were very aggressive, and they couldn’t engage in a civil manner to our experts.”

Ethan Jacobs can be reached at ejacobs@baywindows.com

We reproduce the entire thing for the record and to make our point, but urge readers to go to the linked page and review the comments, and make one.

The review in the Tennessean, House of Numbers: What is AIDS? Are you sure?, and the one in Red Dirt Report suggest that critical viewers are getting the urgent message that John Moore wishes to sweep under the carpet.

That message is that HIV/AIDS policy and theory are a mess which needs to be resolved, and that this film needs to be screened in the White House at Barack Obama’s earliest convenience, ie as soon as the President has time away from the global financial and economic crisis, the threat of a nuclear Taliban, the threat of a nuclear Iran, the threat of a nuclear North Korea, &c.

Here’s the photo caption:

Dr. Daniel Kuritzkes (second from left), a professor at Harvard Medical School, told the audience at the screening that Leung’s film gave unwarranted credibility to the AIDS denialist movement, and he accused Leung of taking his own comments out of context in the film. Kuritzkes was joined by fellow panelist and Fenway Health President and CEO John Boswell (left), as well as (right to left) Liam Scheff and Christopher Fiala, two audience members who sat at the table uninvited and claimed that they were providing balance to the panel. (Source:Marilyn Humphries)

American Violet’s compelling message

April 16th, 2009

True to life movie a vivid portrayal of justice system’s racism

Lead role tour de force by newcomer Beharie makes audience identify

Can fiction on screen make a difference?

So much of the human skulduggery alive in modern systems is hidden beneath the surface that even the best documentaries such as House of Numbers (see below) may have a hard time revealing it all, especially when there is heavy resistance to exposure, and when the lid is taken off the cockroaches flee too quickly from the light.

That is why some authors are driven to fiction, “the great lie that tells the truth about how the world lives”, as Dorothy Allison has said. In HIV/AIDS, for instance, the truth so vastly contradicts the officially endorsed scientific error that serves as conventional wisdom that at least two authors have presented it as fiction in book form (see David Rasnick’s Germ of Lies and Stephen Davis’s Wrongful Death)

No one has yet attempted to attack HIV=AIDS thinking in movie fiction form, however, although The Constant Gardener (click for trailer) was taken by many to be a step forward in undermining the credibility of science too influenced by drug company propaganda.

No doubt there will be a movie sooner or later that will present the scientific and political manipulations of the scientists in HIV/AIDS, such as the roguish Robert Gallo, the newly discreet John Moore, and eminence grise David Baltimore and their bureaucratic fellow travelers under the dapper Anthony Fauci of NIAID. Of course there will be little need for the script writers to embellish the truth to add colorful criminality to those characters. The final cut promises to leave Jim Watson’s rip off of Rosalyn Franklin in The Double Helix smelling like an English rose by comparison.

For one thing that the movie-movie has over the documentary is that it can make plain the rights and wrongs of its case without pulling punches or leaving out motivations for which there is no hard evidence as such. This is why a movie released this week is worth noting, for beyond its entertainment value, it seems likely to change views and votes.

Review:

American Violet’s powerful plea

<b>American Violet, which stars Nicole Beharie as a Texas waittress railroaded by a small town racist DA </b>There is never any doubt in American Violet (click for trailer) as to the rights and wrongs of the case of false accusation at its heart.

Played with compelling power by newcomer Nicole Beharie in what is amazingly only her second film outing, the lead role of (pseudonym) “Dee Roberts” (real name Regina Kelly), who was 24 at the time in real life, is a cleancut young mother of three and respected diner waitress wrongly arrested in a drug sweep ordered by a racist district attorney.

Facing years in jail unless she plea bargains her way to a felony conviction which will still deprive her of job and home, Roberts fights her way out with the help of a pair of ACLU lawyers from out of town, and a reluctant ally, an ex-assistant DA and local lawyer (a charmingly conflicted Will Patton) willing to risk his own livelihood and take on all his old friends and colleagues in a system he will always have to live with.

Feeding the prisons

The high energy personal drama draws attention to one of the great institutionalized schemes of racial injustice in American democracy and shows vividly how the levers are worked. Dee Roberts’ frightening experience is typical of a justice system which unfairly punishes blacks. As the ACLU lawyer tells the blacks in Melody, “What’s happening in Melody is happening all over our country. Drug task forces use military tactics to terrorize poor people.” The national level of the problem is suggested by the televisions in the background playing excerpts of the 2000 election campaign, with then Texas governor Bush’s face on the screen.

Forced pleas, however, are the more crucial and subtle violence. The large portion of the US population (1 in 150) now in prison is vastly inflated by the numbers of blacks falsely accused and convicted of petty drug offenses with draconian penalties. Over 90% of all prisoners are incarcerated as a result of plea bargains, forced by aggressively nasty district attorneys with threats of huge jail terms for conviction unless the terrified victims cooperate.

This is exactly the chest tightening predicament of the heroine – if she doesn’t give in, it’s 16 to 25 years for conviction, she is told. Calvin Beckett, the DA played with devilish villainy by Michael O’Keefe, knows very well his informant’s charges are false. As the cop who arranges the testimony admits, “Eddie Porter is crazier than a three dollar bill. He wouldn’t know which way the sky is up unless I pointed him at it”.

DA out of control

Roberts’ story is a classic case of an innocent whose life would have been steamrollered flat in this vicious way unless outsiders had intervened. All parts of the great machine of false conviction of blacks that DA’s across the country have built to feed the prisons and their own careers are vividly portrayed. The script by Bill Haney deftly dramatizes even the depositions. The whole juggernaut in Melody is under the control of an all powerful DA with a heart so dark that even his ex wife and his daughter are moved to testify against him.

The forceful realism of the film is glossy with high decibel Hollywood level production values but the feel of documentary truth is not lost as American Violet pursues its straight ahead story line. All the talent (Charles Dutton as the local preacher, sexy rapper Xzibit as drunken, abusive father, Alfre Woodard as grandmother) has strong screen presence and Haney’s polished script expertly maps the social and legal complexities of this oil fed Texan small town without missing a beat, yielding a faster paced treatment of Southern racial tensions than its forty year old classic forerunner, Sidney Poitier and Rod Steiger in Heat of the Night (1967).

Persuasive politics

With 2 million in our great democracy’s prisons – more than China with four times our population – American Violet is a true tale of courage and victory over systemic abuse which is not only fascinating in its own right, but a window into rampant injustice, a national problem which we imagine many in the audience will now be moved to vote against, or even actively fight.

The problem is by no means history, even in Hearne, Texas, the real Melody. As a screen update tells us before the credits roll, the black hat DA exposed as a racist scoundrel in the court nonetheless won reelection. On the other hand, Texan law now more explicitly forbids forced plea bargaining, illegal arrest without a search warrant, and false testimony.

Director Tim Disney is a grand nephew of Walt and he partnered producer/writer Blll Haney in documentaries before this fictional treatment of Ms Roberts brave saga. Her ordeal was so painful that rather than make her relive it blow by blow they turned to fiction, which they thought would be “more dramatically compelling and enlightening”.

They succeeded well enough to suggest that it is time to apply the same technique to the science politics with which our readers are familiar.

Update: Rave review by Rex Reed in the New York Observer: Finally, a Good Movie to See and a True Story I Can Believe In!

House of Numbers doc will expose non-science of “HIV=AIDS”

April 2nd, 2009

Young filmmaker to hit festivals with high quality inspection of NIAID baloney factory

Will this initiative finally prove the downfall of Anthony Fauci and Robert Gallo, or will it be ignored?

Reasons to think it might break through in post Madoff era

There is good news for paradigm heretics in HIV/AIDS. Brent Leung, 29, has finished House of Numbers, his documentary on the disputed causes of AIDS, and its world premiere will be presented at the Nashville film festival on April 19th, followed by a screening in Boston on April 21st. On April 23rd a second screening in Nashville will be followed by a discussion panel. Also expected, a showing at the deadCENTER film festival in Oklahoma City in June.

In ‘House of Numbers,’ an AIDS film like no other, the HIV/AIDS story is being rewritten. This is the first film to present the uncensored POVs of virtually all the major players; in their own settings, in their own words — it rocks the foundation upon which all conventional wisdom regarding HIV/AIDS is based. ‘House of Numbers’ could well be the opening volley in a battle to bring sanity and clarity to an epidemic gone awry.

<I>The new documentary is not a new version of the 1957 Jack Palance movie, though this poster would do fine</I>
The accomplished film is sure to bring renewed attention to the corrupt scientific and political foundation of the troubled field. Its trailer (at the House of Numbers website just being put up) is good enough to suggest it will have major impact, winning mainstream media reviews and with the eventual help of YouTube, may trigger the official reassessment of HIV/AIDS so long overdue.

The HIV/AIDS can of scientific worms

As readers of this blog know very well, but to recap for newcomers, the conventional but improbable wisdom in HIV/AIDS is that the modern plague is caused by a retrovirus, HIV, which is infectious, and must be medicated with drugs of unproven benefit that are severely damaging in their own right.

That this theory is not only unproven after two decades but entirely contradicted in the scientific literature is a truth not generally known or appreciated by even the most assiduous readers of the New York Times, whose neglect of the topic may be the Gray Lady’s most shameful secret.

The Times’ fellow traveling support of the status quo in HIV/AIDS is partly responsible for the scandal that despite well over thirty books on the topic, most of the general public have never heard of the possibility that HIV does not cause AIDS, and that almost all responsible officials, editors, doctors, health workers, and patients dismiss the idea out of hand.

However, apart from the CDC trained Times medical correspondent Larry Altman, who should have known better, it must be allowed that the Times reporters and editors are merely following the lead of the scientists and bureaucrats in the field.

Never a good answer

For in a remarkable display of unprofessional behavior, luminaries such as Robert Gallo, Mathilde Krim, Anthony Fauci, John Moore and David Baltimore have seen fit to reject the contention that HIV could be the wrong culprit for AIDS without ever coming up with an effective answer to the critiques in Cancer Research and the Proceedings of the National Academy that Peter Duesberg wrote twenty years ago, and has added to ever since.

Instead, the public is asked to accept that “overwhelming evidence” proves otherwise than Duesberg’s impeccably reasoned, severely peer reviewed, multiple cannon broadsides, sustained over 22 years and never answered, let alone refuted, in the same elite journals in which he published, and supposedly rebutted only in other venues either not peer reviewed or where discussion was brought to a premature halt by editors, such as John Maddox of Nature, who believed that Duesberg did not have a “right to reply”, because his conclusions were “dangerous” to the public he was trying to save from the error.

The planet’s most improbable hypothesis

In other words, as we have exhaustively investigated and confirmed here, in company with many other respectable skeptics and sites (see blogroll list on right), the belief that HIV is the cause of AIDS, and that it is infectious and spreads around the world, is a highly improbable working hypothesis which has been artificially maintained for over 22 years by people professionally invested in the paradigm, led by senior scientists in the field abetted by Anthony Fauci of NIAID, the notoriously well tailored bureaucrat who has successfully imposed a sort of press silence on the topic for the same period.

All this is well known to readers of this blog and all careful students of the topic, who are aware that it is a sociological and political problem rather than a scientific one, where the science itself could be easily be sorted out in short order by any honest committee, or Senate or White House staff investigation.

Leung takes the lid off on Friday April 17

How much of all this lurid and worm infested story will be exposed by Brett Leung’s House of Numbers, we don’t yet know, but the trailer (which can be viewed here) is promising. It includes Peter Duesberg, the chief academic critic of HIV/AIDS, and Celia Farber, the most doggedly persevering of journalists in covering this topic, who published the definitive piece in Harpers two years ago flagging the core problem of rank moral and scientific corruption in the field.

John Moore, the Cornell scientist who has made a name for himself by verbally violently attacking any criticism of HIV=AIDS in the Times and elsewhere as “deadly quackery”, also appears. The smooth faced and cheerfully unbowed non-Nobelist Gallo is featured, also, as is Nobel winner Luc “By itself HIV does not do damage” Montagnier. Presumably the wily Anthony Fauci knew better, since he wisely turned down our offer last year to interview him as a “hero of AIDS’, though we hope he accepted the intrusion.

(Update) List of Interviewees in order of appearance:

Mark Conlan, Dr. John P. Moore, Dr. Donald P. Francis, Dr. Hans R. Gelderblom, Eleni Papadopulos, MSc; Dr. Robert Gallo, Street Interview England, Street Interview Australia, Dr. Kary Mullis, Dr. James Chin, Dr. Peter H. Duesberg, Dr. Reinhard Kurth, Dr. Niel T. Constantine (voice over in testing), Dr. Harold Jaffe, Celia Farber, Neville Hodgkinson, and Dr. Luc Montagnier.

Sadly, as this update shows, it seems they didn’t corral Fauci, the wily eminence grise and official enabler of corrupt HIV=AIDS politics. But one way or another, this movie seems likely to cover the ground more effectively than ever before. Pouria Montazeri’s camera work is evidently good enough to ensure enhanced credibility for critics such as Duesberg and Farber on that basis alone, and in our experience Leung’s artistic approach in documentary making is spot on – giving a big platform to both sides and allowing the newly well informed audience to make up its own mind after all have their say.

In current era, movie could be influential

So could this film make any difference? Could this presentation, if it is as effective as it looks judging from the trailer, burst the protective bubble of HIV/AIDS paradigm defense? There have been good films before, after all, and they are now very accessible on YouTube and other Web sites.

We think that the answer is yes, and it is not impossible that House of Numbers could be the tipping point in the torment of AIDS science and medicine. Its excellent production values will make the presentation very credible, and Brent Leung has the chops to pull off the trick required to persuade in documentaries which expose flaws in a general belief, namely, to be both even handed yet ultimately damning.

Not only that, but the time is right. The economic crisis and the advent of the Obama administration have exposed a long list of hidden corruptions in business and politics, and the NIAID led media propaganda machine which has long shut out alternative views and maintained the fiction that the scientific leaders of HIV/AIDS can be trusted without review has lost much of its power, although now desperate to maintain funding.

In such a dispute where a common assumption of media and officialdom is challenged by outsiders, nothing is more persuasive than a good film, where credibility can be directly assessed by the viewer presented with the living images of the critics and their opponents, with all the telling tics and inadvertent giveaways that have to be seen to be appreciated.

If the film lives up to its trailer, we can imagine Fauci, Moore and Gallo all buying larger suitcases and air tickets for points south of the border, given that they may, if they decide to stay on and stick it out here, be forced to wear much the same grimace as Bernie Madoff as they thread their way through shouting reporters and cameramen on their way into Senate hearings.

Addendum:
Review at Red Dirt Report


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