Monthly Archives: May 2016

‘No Vax, No Visit’? If mum was vaccinated baby is already protected against whooping cough

The Conversation

Samantha Carlson, University of Sydney; Kerrie Wiley, University of Sydney, and Peter Bruce McIntyre, University of Sydney

NO VAX, NO VISIT! Our baby girl is due in four weeks. We can’t wait to meet her! If you would like to meet her, we ask that you ask your doctor for a whooping cough booster this week. Our daughter can’t receive her first vaccination until she’s six weeks old, so relies on us to keep her safe from germs. #NoVaxNoVisit

Have you seen these requests in your social media feeds recently?

No Vax, No Visit is a movement being propagated through social media and social pressure. Expectant parents are demanding that all visitors who wish to visit their newborn are recently vaccinated against whooping cough. If visitors can’t prove they’re vaccinated, they’re refused permission to visit the baby in hospital or at home until after the newborn’s two-month vaccination (which can be given at six weeks).

It is understandable that prospective parents, aware of how devastating whooping cough can be, want to leave no stone unturned to protect their baby. But is it supported by the best evidence?

No Vax, No Visit is an unofficial extension of the “cocooning” strategy, recommended by the Australian Immunisation Handbook since 2003.

The official cocooning recommendation is to vaccinate regular household contacts if they haven’t had a whooping cough booster within the last ten years. This strategy targets parents, siblings, grandparents and anyone who is in regular contact with babies, as they are the most common sources of infection in newborns.


‘Cocooning’ doesn’t mean a baby can’t come into contact with anyone who hasn’t been vaccinated. Tom Leuntjens/Flickr, CC BY

The cocooning recommendation doesn’t mean that anyone who comes through the front door to visit and say a quick hello must be vaccinated. It doesn’t mean regular household contacts need to be vaccinated for every child born within those ten years.

Although the idea of creating a “cocoon” of protection around babies is attractive, this approach has limitations. And eliminating all possible sources of whooping cough this way just isn’t possible.

So, what should parents do?

Evidence became available in 2014 that showed if mums are vaccinated during pregnancy, the vaccine is 91% effective in preventing severe whooping cough in very young infants.

When a mum is vaccinated during pregnancy, the protective antibodies travel across the placenta and into the baby. It’s essentially a baby’s first vaccine, so the baby is born with an army of antibodies ready for defence.

Contrary to the American vaccine insert, many studies, such as this one, have actually tested the vaccine on tens of thousands of pregnant women. The studies demonstrate how effective and safe this is for pregnant mums and their unborn child. Subsequently, in March 2015, the Australian Immunisation Handbook began recommending that women who are between 28 and 32 weeks pregnant receive a whooping cough booster for each pregnancy.

If mums follow this pregnancy recommendation, the vaccination of all visitors (in addition to regular household contacts) could theoretically offer a small amount of additional protection for the baby. However, there’s no evidence to say this is the case. The person more likely to benefit is the one receiving the vaccination, particularly if they are elderly.

Social consequences

Important things to consider with No Vax, No Visit are the unintended social consequences.

While some parents will find their family and friends are happy to be vaccinated, we are also hearing stories of isolation of new parents, division in social groups, and guilt of friends feeling irresponsible. Some new parents are even too scared to take their baby to the “disease-riddled” shopping centre, school or playground.

What seems to be forgotten is the high level of protection the baby already has if mum was vaccinated while pregnant.

While there’s no evidence that No Vax, No Visit will offer any additional protection for the newborn, there is evidence that social isolation can lead to postnatal depression. This is particularly important when we consider one in seven new mothers in Australia experiences postnatal depression.

Support for new parents is most needed during the newborn’s first few weeks of life. If new parents don’t have any visitors and are too scared to go out into the world with their newborn, what effect will this have on the family’s wellbeing?

So, what else can parents do to protect their newborn before the six-week vaccination if mum was vaccinated during pregnancy, and dad, siblings and grandparents are all up to date with their vaccines? Ask visitors to postpone their visit if they are sick, and hand-washing before cuddles is essential.

With all this in place, there’s little or no extra benefit from No Vax, No Visit.

The ConversationSamantha Carlson, Social Science Research Officer for the National Centre for Immunisation Research and Surveillance, University of Sydney; Kerrie Wiley, Research Fellow, National Centre for Immunisation Research & Surveillance, and School of Public Health, University of Sydney, and Peter Bruce McIntyre, Professor and Director for the National Centre for Immunisation Research and Surveillance of Vaccine, University of Sydney

This article was originally published on The Conversation. (Reblogged by permission). Read the original article.

 

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Brother Tayler on Reza Aslan

Why Evolution Is True

If there is a poster child for the Regressive Left, it’s Reza Aslan.  Appealing to soft-headed liberals like Oprah Winfrey, Aslan gives comfort to those who simply can’t believe that any faith, including Islam, could promote evil. For if one religion can, so can they all, and the conclusion would be that superstition has a dark side. Aslan also helps resolve the cognitive dissonance of liberals who are torn between two Enlightenment values: a humanistic concern for the oppressed on the one hand (Muslims, seen as an oppressed people of color), and a promotion of equality among groups like gays and women. What do you do with a religion held by people of color that, at the same time, largely demonizes gays and women, often calls for the death of nonbelievers and apostates, and wants to spread theocracy via sharia law? Well, you simply assert that that religion simply doesn’t 

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Time for a real debate about our most important relationship

The Conversation

Mark Beeson, University of Western Australia

While still considered unlikely, there is now a real and growing possibility that Donald Trump will be the next president of the United States. And yet, despite the fact that Bill Shorten apparently considers him to be “barking mad”, there has been almost no serious discussion about what this might mean for Australia.

Indeed, there has been precious little foreign policy debate so far in the election campaign. No surprise about this, perhaps: foreign policy is usually something of an afterthought during election campaigns.

Australians are not unique in being rather uninterested in foreign affairs, but one might have thought this time things would be different. We are subjected to a fairly relentless bombardment about the supposed threats to national security and the deteriorating regional strategic environment, after all.

One of the reasons there is so little discussion of foreign and strategic policy is that there are few significant differences between the major parties, or about the received wisdom among most of the commentariat. Whatever your views of the Greens’ policies in this area may be, they are at least willing to question the basis of a conventional wisdom that has seen Australia take part in every major conflict since the second world war.

Such a debate looks timely, given that prominent figures from both Labor and the Coalition have expressed deep concern about the implications of a Trump presidency. Even John Howard, who is now held in remarkably high esteem throughout the country, has suggested that Trump is “too unstable to hold that high office”.

One might have thought that under such circumstances, where there is a bipartisan consensus on the dangers of a Trump presidency, there would be an informed discussion of what this might actually mean for the security policy that has formed the foundation of Australia’s defence since the second world war.

On the contrary, though, Malcolm Turnbull has attempted to shut down debate by suggesting that there should be no commentary on the politics of other countries during an election.

Opening up this debate might raise uncomfortable questions that neither of the major parties want to discuss. Most importantly, does it make sense for this country – or any other for that matter – to rely so heavily on a foreign power, no matter how intimate the relationship may have grown over the years?

Australian policy is essentially hostage to the preferences of the US and the expectations that they will always coincide with ours.

The dangers of such a strategy were revealed in the disastrous but entirely predictable decision to take part in the invasion of Iraq. Not only was this a folly of the grandest proportions, but it was also one that had no bearing on or relevance to Australia’s own security.

Important lessons could and should have been learned from this experience, which might be used to guide policy now when the potential threat is even more direct and unambiguous.

Australian policymakers and commentators have always assumed that what’s good for America in foreign policy terms will necessarily be good for Australia. This always looked like an exercise in wishful thinking and a dereliction of responsibility on the part of generations of Australian policymakers.

With the ascent of a potentially dangerous figure like Trump, who even prominent conservative commentators in the US have described as a fascist, the dangers of this policy are becoming painfully apparent.

Some debates are plainly too discomfiting to contemplate. It is noteworthy that, 40 years after the end of the Vietnam War, Barack Obama has been attempting to develop a close strategic relationship with the still notionally communist government in Hanoi. Quite why two million Vietnamese had to die in the conflict, not to mention 60,000 Americans and some 500 Australians, is not entirely clear in retrospect.

One of the problems of failing to confront uncomfortable realities in the past or the present is that it becomes impossible to learn potential lessons and adjust policy in the future. Vietnam and Iraq look like entirely avoidable and pointless conflicts from this distance, especially for Australia, which was not threatened by either country and had little to gain – other than the good opinion of our notional security guarantor.

But it’s an odd sort of security that involves the continuing expenditure of so much blood and treasure to ingratiate ourselves with another country. The potential folly of this policy could be demonstrated by president Trump, who has nothing but contempt for loyal allies that are judged to freeload on American power.

Outsourcing responsibility for foreign and security policy is not wise at the best of times. There is undoubtedly much to admire about the US. As hegemonic powers go, things might have been a lot worse. But the time has come to have a mature debate about our relationship with the US and the world more generally.

There is potentially much that Australia could do as a creative middle power in conjunction with regional partners like Japan, South Korea or Indonesia. However, until we have an independent policy position on critical foreign and strategic policies that affect this country, the chances of such initiatives coming about look remote.

The ConversationMark Beeson, Professor of International Politics, University of Western Australia

This article was originally published on The Conversation. (Reblogged by permission). Read the original article.

 

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Australia’s volcanic history is a lot more recent than you think

The Conversation

Jozua van Otterloo, Monash University

Australia is an old and stable continent with not many geological risks such as major earthquakes and volcanic eruptions. At least that is what most people think.

But throughout its geological history Australia has known volcanic activity right up to the time that humans lived here. The most recent eruptions on the Australian mainland occurred at Mt Gambier and Mt Schank in South Australia about 5,000 years ago.

These volcanoes are part of a larger volcanic area or province in south-eastern Australia, where we can still expect another eruption. What will such an eruption look like and where will it happen?


Mt Elephant, at 190m, is the tallest scoria cone in western Victoria.
Jozua van Otterloo

Looking into Australia’s recent volcanoes

Researchers from Monash University have looked at a few of the more recent volcanoes in the Newer Volcanics Province to work out what happened and what we can expect in the future.

This volcanic province stretches more than 400km from the Melbourne CBD in the east to Mount Gambier in the west. More than 400 volcanoes have been identified in this area.

The majority of these produced extensive lava flows, especially in the Western Plains district of Victoria. But many volcanoes were also explosive, ranging from beautiful fire fountains like those seen in Hawaii to very explosive ash-cloud-forming eruptions.


Map of the Newer Volcanics Province of southeast Australia, Australia’s most recent volcanic area. Jozua van Otterloo

Many of the younger volcanoes in Victoria and South Australia are maar volcanoes. Maar volcanoes are craters with low rims around them and are formed by intensely explosive interaction between magma (mixture of molten rock, crystals and gases) and groundwater.

Victoria hosts two of the world’s largest maar volcanoes: Tower Hill near Warrnambool and Lake Purrumbete near Camperdown.

These large maars are more than 3km wide, whereas normally maars are only up to 500m in diameter. The size of these maars is actually the result of eruption from multiple vents that merged into a larger maar crater.

Know your volcanic eruption style

Volcanic eruptions can be in various forms or styles. Mildly explosive styles are the Hawaiian-style fire fountains and the Strombolian-style spraying, as it happens on the Mediterranean island of Stromboli.

When eruptions become more explosive they turn to Plinian, named after Pliny the Younger who described the 79AD eruption of Vesuvius that destroyed Pompeii.

Plinian eruptions develop tall eruption columns with umbrella clouds that last for many days to weeks.

But if the intense explosions occur more like bursts, then they are Vulcanian, with a smaller eruption column that can disappear with the wind within a few hours.

When the cloud of a Plinian or Vulcanian eruption is no longer upheld by upwards forces from the explosions, this cloud can collapse. A collapsing eruption column results in fast-travelling clouds of hot gases and volcanic material down the slopes of the volcano called pyroclastic flows.

If water from the sea, a lake or under the ground starts interacting with the magma, very explosive reactions can occur. These magma-water explosions, or phreatomagmatic explosions, produce large craters and release lots of fine material less than 2mm in diameter called ash.

A large part of this ash is transported along the ground surface by fast-travelling clouds of water vapour called base surges.

Volcanic eruptions in south-eastern Australia

Many of the younger Australian volcanoes erupted with a mixture of different styles.

Tower Hill not only erupted very explosively because of the interaction between magma and water, but it also produced fire fountains, resulting in the cones in the centre of the crater.

Mt Gambier and Mt Schank contain piles from Hawaiian-style fire fountains, explosive cones from milder Plinian eruptions (Micro-Plinian) with eruption columns between 5km and 10km high, and maar craters from explosive magma-water interaction.

The eruption of Mt Gambier 5,000 years ago is probably the best studied of all of these volcanoes. This volcano has at least 14 different vents from which the eruption occurred.

The most prominent are the Valley Lake and the Blue Lake craters, which were formed as maar craters, but not in the normal style. These craters were capped under a lava flow from earlier phases in the eruption, so with increased magma-water interaction later on, pressure built up.

This pressure built up until it broke through the capping lava flow, producing a big Vulcanian-style blast with actual pyroclastic flows!


Pyroclastic flows at Mt Gambier formed by Vulcanian-style blasts after Hawaiian fire-fountaining. Firstly, the Blue Lake crater erupted with such a large blast, which was followed by a westward-directed blast in the Valley Lake crater. Jozua Van Otterloo and Cas, RAF. in the Journal of the Geological Society

Size matters

Volcanic eruptions are ranked on the Volcanic Explosivity Index (VEI). The smallest explosive eruptions such as fire fountains have a ranking of 1 and supervolcanoes rank 8.

The 2010 Eyafjallajökull eruption (or just the 2010 Iceland eruption) that caused a lot of disruption in Europe ranked 4.

The studied volcanic cones and maars formed by more intense explosive activity in the Newer Volcanics Province ranged in VEI from 2 to 4. Eruptions at Mt Leura in Camperdown, Ecklin Maar and Red Rock near Colac were of VEI category 2, forming small plumes of 1-5km.

Most volcanoes in the area would have erupted with similar magnitudes. But Australia’s youngest volcano, Mt Gambier, has also been the most explosive (that we know of) with a VEI of 4.

It produced eruption plumes of about 10km in height and a large volume of magma erupted over a very short time. This eruption would have been very similar to the 2010 Iceland eruption.

The next eruption?

So what can we expect the next volcanic eruption to be like? It depends where it happens.

If the next eruption occurs in the northern areas of the Newer Volcanics Provinces (around Bendigo, Ballarat or Hamilton), we can expect lots of lava flows and fire fountains.

But if it occurs in the southern part (Colac, Camperdown, Warrnambool or Mt Gambier), the presence of groundwater could make it much more explosive.

We could be up for an eruption just like the 2010 Iceland eruption where a big plume of ash was sent high in the atmosphere. In this case disruption will occur in Eastern Australia and New Zealand.

Will it happen any time soon? Well, the Newer Volcanics Province has been active for more than 4.5 million years, with eruptions occurring at least once every 10,000 years.

It could happen in our lifetime, but more likely it will happen after that.

Oh, another outcome of the research was that the first warning signs with Mt Gambier would have been noticed only by the most sensitive equipment up to two days in advance.

Such equipment is not present in the area at the moment.


What if another volcano would erupt with an impact similar to that of the 2010 Eyjafjallajökull eruption? This image was created by overlaying the 2010 ash cloud over the Pacific region, taking into account the southern hemisphere atmospheric situation.
Jozua van Otterloo

The ConversationJozua van Otterloo, Assistant Lecturer in Volcanology, Monash University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. (Reblogged by permission). Read the original article.

 

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Where Do We Go Next? — III

Footnotes to Plato

Toolbox[for a brief explanation of this ongoing series, as well as a full table of contents, go here]

The tools of the trade

We have already discussed at some length one important — if controversial — philosophical tool: the deployment of intuitions. I find it interesting that rarely critics and defenders of the use of intuition in philosophy bother to look at the broader literature on intuitions in cognitive science, which is actually significant and covers fields as diverse as chess playing, nursing and the teaching of math. I have discussed some of this literature elsewhere (Pigliucci 2012), but a quick recap may be useful in this specific context.

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Science or Snake Oil: can a detox actually cleanse your liver?

The Conversation

Nick Fuller, University of Sydney

This is the first article in our new ongoing series Science or Snake Oil. Articles will look at the claims for a product and decide whether they are supported by science or lacking in evidence.


The human adult liver weighs about one-and-a-half kilograms, making it one of the largest organs in the body. It is responsible for a range of functions. It helps break down fats, carbohydrates and proteins into substances the body can utilise.

The liver acts as a storage unit for these substances (including vitamins and minerals) and supplies the body with them when they need it. For example, when your blood sugar level drops, the liver will release stored carbohydrate (glycogen) to rectify the problem.

It also acts by metabolising toxins into harmless substances or by eliminating toxic substances from the body. Clever marketing has led us to believe it is the food that contains toxins and, hence, following a diet that eliminates certain foods and taking over-the-counter products that “cleanse” your liver of “toxins” will detoxify the liver.

Can the liver be ‘cleansed’?

We have a misconception we can “cleanse” the body by following a “detox” diet.

This is a complete fallacy. To explain this process one must first understand exactly what a toxin is. A toxin is a harmful substance that enters your body from the environment. Examples include carbon monoxide from motor vehicles, bisphenol A (BPA) from consumer plastics, and heavy metals such as lead and mercury. Toxins can also include drugs and poisons.

However, substances are only toxic based on the quantities in which we ingest them. The situation in which “detoxification” is required is when someone is being treated in a hospital for a dangerous level of a substance that is life-threatening.

The liver is otherwise working to eliminate unwanted substances in the body through our faeces and urine. These are the toxic byproducts from the metabolization of foods. For example, excessive amounts of protein can be dangerous to the liver.

Many over-the-counter products claim to “clean” your liver of “toxins”. But does the liver really respond to an over-the-counter product that claims to “detoxify” or “heal” its function?

Most of these products contain the active ingredients from Silybum marianum (known as milk thistle) and Taraxacum officinale (known as dandelion). Many of the formulations also contain other ingredients such as selenium, phosphatidylcholine, amino acids, artichoke leaf, green tea leaf and turmeric root, to name a few.

Several companies produce a range of liver detox or liver cleanse products with varying quantities and ingredient compositions. But how strong is the evidence to show these active ingredients actually help with liver repair?


Some popular liver detox brands.
Screenshot, Chemist Warehouse

Milk thistle

Milk thistle extract (standardised to 80% silymarin) is the most commonly marketed herb claimed to “detoxify” the liver. Silymarin is the active ingredient in milk thistle. The use of milk thistle for treatment of various diseases dates back to Dioscorides, the first-century Greek physician.

In more recent times, it has been used to treat liver disease. However the majority of studies that have been conducted are of low-quality study design, so its purported efficacy is still questioned.

There is some evidence to suggest milk thistle (usually accompanied by other substances) is beneficial for improving blood cholesterol, insulin resistance and inflammatory markers in the body. There is no evidence, however, to suggest milk thistle “detoxifies” the liver – which many of these products claim.


Caruso’s liver detox active ingredients as per their website.
Screenshot, Caruso’s

Dandelion

Dandelion’s therapeutic use dates back to the tenth century for liver and spleen disorders.

Since then, the medicinal use of the plant has been tested for a range of diseases. But the evidence is contradictory, or based on poor study design with incomparable results.

Of greater relevance is that the majority of research investigating the efficacy of this flower extract has been tested only in animals. Similar to milk thistle extract, there is no evidence to suggest it helps to eliminate toxins or detoxify the liver, and hence serves no benefit for such a proposed indication.

A healthy liver

To have a well-functioning liver you simply have to eat healthy foods and limit your consumption of substances, such as alcohol, that cause it to work harder. Excessive consumption of any one particular food may contribute to an increased load on the liver.

Therefore, a healthy, well-balanced diet based on national guidelines is the best liver “cleanse” available, rather than spending disposable income on over-the-counter products that are not backed by scientific literature supporting such claims.

Complementary medicines are one of the largest growing markets in the world. Governing bodies must continue to incentivise companies to conduct innovative research to support the specific claims accompanying their products. It’s imperative companies are transparent in their advertising claims so consumers know what they are spending their money on from both an efficacy and safety point of view.

Evidence for approved ingredients should not be generalised from product to product. This is because the evidence supporting one such product is made up of a unique combination of ingredients and dosages. The most recent review of the regulatory framework for complementary medicines is available on the Department of Health website.

The ConversationNick Fuller, Research Fellow, Clinical Trials Development and Assessment, University of Sydney

This article was originally published on The Conversation. (Reblogged by permission). Read the original article.

 

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Where Do We Go Next? — I

Footnotes to Plato

The future[for a brief explanation of this ongoing series, as well as a full table of contents, go here]

“Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.” (Søren Kierkegaard)

Philosophy has been declared dead by a number of people who have likely never read a single philosophy paper or technical book, and philosophers themselves have at times been the worst critics of their own field (Chapter 1). The discipline is vast, with a very long history marked by traditions so different from each other that one can reasonably question whether they can meaningfully be grouped under the same broad umbrella (Chapter 2). The field has seen internal revolutions as late as the middle and late part of the 20th century, with some philosophers going so far as claiming that major branches of their discipline ought to be handed over to the natural or social sciences (Chapter 3).

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Guide to the classics: The Histories, by Herodotus

The Conversation

Julia Kindt, University of Sydney

It is easy to see why Herodotus’ Histories may seem overwhelming. Too much is going on, right from the start. We have only just embarked on the Histories’ central theme – the origins of the conflict between Greeks and barbarians in the fifth century BCE – when the narrative suddenly changes tack and we find ourselves in a boudoir tale of nudity, intrigue and murder, only to veer off again when a dolphin saves the singer Arion from drowning. A wild ride!

Herodotus, a Greek from the city of Halicarnassus in Asia Minor (today’s Bodrum in Turkey), published his Histories sometime between 426 and 415 BCE. His principal aim was to explain the unlikely Greek victory against the much stronger Persian army in the so-called Persian Wars that ravaged the Greek world between 500 and 449 BCE.

Statue of Herodotus
Wikimedia Commons

For his pioneering critical enquiry into the past he was named “father of history” by Cicero. His love of stories and storytelling, however, was notorious already in antiquity: Plutarch called him the “father of lies”.

Most of the tales have no clear link to the main story. They seem peripheral, if not entirely unrelated, to the account of the Persian Wars and their pre-history. Many characters appear only once, never to be seen again. To the reader accustomed to a stable cast of characters and a straightforward plot with a clear beginning, middle and end, Herodotus’ Histories read like a digression from a digression from a digression.

Yet as soon as one pauses and appreciates the stories for what they are one cannot but marvel at the events Herodotus relates. There is the conversation between King Croesus of Lydia and the Athenian statesman, reformer and poet Solon, on the true nature of human happiness. The moral is, in a nutshell: call no man happy until he is dead.

That same king consults the Delphic oracle and learns to his delight that he will bring down a great empire. Certain of victory, he wages war against the Persians; as the oracle foretells, Croesus duly ends up destroying an empire – his own.

Herodotus’ ingenuity emerges most clearly when considered in relation to Homer, who had set the benchmark and provided all writers to follow with a model for talking about the past.

Consider for example his opening statement in the beginning of the book:

Herodotus of Halicarnassus here displays his inquiry, so that human achievements may not become forgotten in time, and great and marvellous deeds – some displayed by Greeks, some by barbarians – may not be without their glory.

Unlike Homer, Herodotus no longer claims to be inspired by the Muses. Yet his opening lines still pay homage to the world of the Homeric hero and his perpetual striving for kleos (“glory”). After all, Homer, too, reported great deeds by Greeks and non-Greeks alike and preserved them for posterity.

Herodotus combined the two major themes of Homeric epic – travel and warfare – into a single whole. Travel and the insights they yield are as dominant a theme in the ethnographic sections of the Histories as expansion, warfare and conflict are in the historical sections. Herodotus uses the gradual expansion of the Persian Empire to delve deeply into the cultures of those who came under its influence in the century preceding the war. In his account the historical and the cultural influence each other.

While Herodotus does not dismiss the Iliad and the Odyssey, he openly takes a swipe at Homer at least once. Helen, he claims, never made it to Troy: she was diverted to Egypt due to bad weather. Homer – so runs Herodotus’ accusation – simply changed the course of the story to make it fit the genre of epic poetry. This shows an awareness of the particular demands of the kind of account Herodotus hoped to write as being different from Homeric epic.

The father of history

What specifically sets Herodotus and his enquiry apart, then, is the proto-scientific way he explores the inner workings of the world. The question “why” drives this inquiry in all its aspects. It brings together the different strands of Herodotean investigation: Why did the Greeks and the barbarians go to war with each other? Why does the Nile flood? Why do the women of Cyrene abstain from eating beef?

Herodotus frequently finds the answer to these questions by looking at origins and beginnings. He takes the military conflict between Greeks and barbarians back to its roots in mythical times. In a similar vein he enquires into the source of the river Nile and traces the names of the twelve Olympians – the major deities of the Greek pantheon – back to their origins in ancient Egypt.

The quest for origins and beginnings runs deep in the Histories. It introduces a form of explanation which links the disparate strands of Herodotean enquiry by presenting them as part of an ordered cosmos. The world Herodotus outlines in the Histories ultimately and profoundly makes sense.

His efforts to establish himself as a credible researcher and narrator are tangible throughout. He is careful to tell his reader from where he derived his information on foreign lands, whether he witnessed personally or learnt from a reliable source:

As far as Elephantine I speak as an eye-witness, but further south from hearsay.

My own observation bears out the statement made to me by the priests…

Of the Pelasgian language I cannot speak with certainty…

Frequently, he gives us all the different explanations sourced from others. In the case of the flooding of the Nile he adds why he favours one (incidentally, the wrong one) over all others. By presenting views other than his own, Herodotus gives his readers the chance to form their own opinion.

The same striving for precision, exactness and authority also explains his diligence when it comes to numbers, distances and measurements.

From Heliopolis to Thebes is a nine days’ voyage up the Nile, a distance of eighty-one schoeni or 4860 states. Putting together the various measurements I have given, one finds that the Egyptian coastline is, as I have said, about 420 miles in length, and the distance from the sea inland to Thebes about 714 miles. It is another 210 miles from Thebes to Elephantine.

Why does this level of detail matter, and do we really need to know it? We do! This kind of accuracy and precision bolsters Herodotus’ authority as a credible source of information (even though some of his data verge on the fanciful).

To Herodotus, at least, measuring the world, mapping new territory, noting the features of distant lands and territories are all part of the process of “sense-making”, in which the new and unknown is related to the well-known and familiar:

The difference in size between the young and the full-grown crocodile is greater than in any other known creature; for a crocodile’s egg is hardly bigger than a goose’s, and the young when hatched is small in proportion yet it grows to a size of some twenty-three feet long or even more.

At the same time, Herodotus shows a profound interest in names and naming and the translation of words and concepts from one language into another. He tells us that the name Egypt applied first to Thebes, and that the name of the Asmach people of Egypt means those who stand on the left hand of the king.

Being able to name things in the world is part of being able to explain them. Herodotus was not just pioneering critical enquiry; along with the world he discovered, he had to invent a method and a language.

Figuring out the fantastic

Occasionally the strive for authority and exactness falters and the reader is left wondering whether the narrator has been unreliable all along, such as when Herodotus’ observations truly defy credulity.

Take the gold-digging ants of India, “bigger than a fox, though not so big as a dog”; the winged snakes of Arabia that interfere with the frankincense harvest; the Arabian sheep with tails so long they need little wooden carts attached to their hindquarters, preventing the tails from dragging on the ground.

A fragment from The Histories on Papyrus dated to the early second century AD. Wikimedia Commons

All these are instances in which Herodotean inquiry – despite his own claims to the contrary – slip beyond the realm of the authentic, credible and real.

But it would be a mistake to make too much of these examples. They are memorable only because they stand in such marked contrast to the accurate pictures Herodotus sketches elsewhere of the world.

And who can say for sure that the gold-digging ants, the long-tailed sheep and the flying snakes did not, in fact, exist? Some have argued that the gold-digging ants of India were actually marmots and Herodotus applied a Greek word for ant to a creature unknown to him but reminiscent (albeit faintly) of an ant.

Other creatures, however, take the reader fully into the realm of the fantastic. In his description of Libya, Herodotus says emphatically:

There are enormous snakes there, and also lions, elephants, bears, asps, donkeys with horns, dog-headed creatures, headless creatures with eyes in their chests (at least, this is what the Libyans say) wild men and wild women and a large number of other creatures whose existence is not merely the stuff of fables.

Some of these beings belong to a different, more archaic world, where the boundary between man and beast was fluid and uncertain. We can see a whole spectrum of more or less fantastic creatures, whose ranks included the Cyclops and Sirens of the Odyssey.

Herodotus accommodates such creatures in the absence of better information, but at the very least he feels the need to explicitly confirm their place in the new world of critical inquiry.

A special category is reserved for the most startling aspects of the world. In the Histories, the concept of the wondrous (thaumastos/thaumasios) is applied to those aspects of the world which at first defy explanation and seem to fall outside the laws of nature.

A floating island is a wonder; lions who attack camels but no other creature in Xerxes’ entourage – another wonder; the complete absence of mules in Elis – again a wonder. Ultimately, many of the phenomena Herodotus considers wondrous ultimately have a rational explanation of cause and effect. Others turn out to be divinely inspired.

Eternal themes of power, greed and fate

Beyond the question of whether any (let alone all) of the Histories’ events occurred as Herodotus relates, his stories share a common humanity. The examples of all-too-human foibles and traits like overconfidence, greed and envy but also of fate, luck and fortune reverberate down the ages. Through these stories the Histories still speak to us, 2500 years later.

Traditionally, the Histories were dismissed as anecdotal. Herodotus was seen as lacking gravitas and not on par with Homer, Euripides, Thucydides, Cicero and their like. Consequently, the Histories were not considered central to the humanist canon. Over the last three decades, however, this has changed; Herodotus’ Histories are now widely regarded as a foundational text in the Western historiographic tradition.

Classical scholars have discovered that the work has a coherence after all. Unity between the digressions and the main narrative emerges on a level other than plot: by theme. Many stories in the Histories are case studies in the nature of power.

It is not Everyman who makes history in the Histories: the focus is squarely on those at the top of the game. Yet in most instances the rise to power is followed by a sudden and catastrophic fall.

The reasons are always similar: power leads to excess. Blindness to the limitations of human action incurs the downfall of mighty kings like Candaules, Croesus, Cambyses and Xerxes. The condition they suffer from – the Greek word is hybris – is depressingly modern and familiar.

Jacques Louis David’s painting of the Spartan king Leonidas at Thermopylae – an event described by Herodotus. 
Wikimedia Commons

The Histories are a compilation of stories packed into each other like nesting Russian dolls. Successive stories share with each other – and the larger historical narrative of which they are part – the same insights, themes and patterns.

Once you can read one, you can read them all. New insights emerge from the way individual stories play with the formula, highlighting different aspects of the theme.

As tales of the nature of human power, the “digressions” speak directly to Herodotus’ core theme: the rise and fall of all empires, in particular the Persian Empire and its spectacular defeat by the much smaller Greek contingents in the Persian Wars.

Yet the Histories are not merely a historical source for the Persian Wars. Herodotus dwells extensively on the pre-history of the conflict and touches on the cultural and ideological issues at stake.

All this is set on the broader stage of the ancient world and includes geographical references, climatic observations, flora and fauna as well as notes on differences in the customs and lifestyle of Greeks, Persians and other peoples.

Thanks to this broad focus, it is not hyperbole to say that, in a profound sense, the Histories are about the entire world as it came to be understood and mapped out towards the end of the fifth century BCE.

Wonder and discovery

The Histories stand at the transition from an older, mythical worldview – that of the heroic or archaic age as represented in Homeric epic – to a new, classical outlook that manifested in the exacting mode of enquiry into the workings of the world.

The name for this form of investigation – historia – did not yet mean “history” as we know it; it simply meant, in a general sense, “critical enquiry”. Herodotus occasionally mentions consulting written sources, but he does so mainly to distance himself, his method, and information from other authors, notably Homer and the poets.

The most subtle feature of the Histories, perhaps, is the profound sense of balance that pervades all aspects of the cosmos. In the world of Herodotus, any excess is ultimately corrected: what goes up must come down. This applies to individuals, to empires and to peoples.

The divine is central to Herodotus’ view of the world: the gods guarantee a perpetual historical cycle. This dynamic ensures that imbalances of power or greed – the too-much and the too-little – ultimately level each other out.

The traditional gods of the ancient Greek pantheon are still very much alive in the Histories. Yet in contrast to Homeric poetry, they no longer intervene directly in the world. They have receded to a transcendental distance from which they oversee and steer the workings of the world.

We may no longer share Herodotus’ view of the past, yet we delight in the richness of the world he sketched. Its stories, landscapes, characters, and insights into human nature linger long after the reading. What makes the work stand out above all is the Histories’ sense of wonder and discovery. Herodotus’ Histories remain a classic testament to the pleasures of researching and learning.


All translations are from: Marincola, J. (1996) Herodotus: The Histories. Revised edition. London. Penguin Books.

The ConversationJulia Kindt, Associate Professor and Chair of the Department of Classics and Ancient History, University of Sydney

This article was originally published on The Conversation. (Reblogged by permission). Read the original article.

 

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HorganGate: The troll pretends to answer his critics

Why Evolution Is True

Well, I’m trying not to get too deeply sucked into the fracas about John Horgan’s Admonition to Skeptics, so I’ll just note that there are two good critiques, one by Orac on Respectful Insolence and the other by Steve Novella on Neurologica.  They’re similar, but both worth reading, and both make the point that Horgan’s complaints about skeptics’ neglect of “hard targets” like medicine and physics (and war!), while concentrating on “soft targets” like religion, homeopathy, and opposition to GMOs, are completely misguided. As I noted before I read these two critiques, skeptics have been dealing with those hard targets for years, but only informed people have the chops to analyze stuff like string theory or the multiverse notion (which they have criticized). I’ll let Orac’s peroration stand for all the pushback Horgan has gotten:

Of course ending war is important, but so what? As Loxton puts it, almost everything skeptics do is…

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Progress in Philosophy — V

Footnotes to Plato

philosophy[for a brief explanation of this ongoing series, as well as a full table of contents, go here]

But is it useful? On the difference between chess and chmess

“Philosophy is garbage, but the history of garbage is scholarship,” said Harvard philosopher Burton Dreben, as quoted by Dennett in chapter 76 of his often delightful and sometimes irritating Intuition Pumps and Other Tools for Thinking (2014). One could reasonably wonder why an illustrious philosopher approvingly quotes another illustrious philosopher who is trashing the very field that made them both famous and to which they dedicated their lives. But my anthropological observations as a relative newcomer (from science) into philosophy confirm that my colleagues have an uncanny tendency to constantly shoot themselves in the foot, and often even enjoy it (as we have seen in Chapter 1).

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