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Your brain on pseudoscience: the rise of popular neurobollocks

The “neuroscience” shelves in bookshops are groaning. But are the works of authors such as Malcolm Gladwell and Jonah Lehrer just self-help books dressed up in a lab coat?

An intellectual pestilence is upon us. Shop shelves groan with books purporting to explain, through snazzy brain-imaging studies, not only how thoughts and emotions function, but how politics and religion work, and what the correct answers are to age-old philosophical controversies. The dazzling real achievements of brain research are routinely pressed into service for questions they were never designed to answer. This is the plague of neuroscientism – aka neurobabble, neurobollocks, or neurotrash – and it’s everywhere.

In my book-strewn lodgings, one literally trips over volumes promising that “the deepest mysteries of what makes us who we are are gradually being unravelled” by neuroscience and cognitive psychology. (Even practising scientists sometimes make such grandiose claims for a general audience, perhaps urged on by their editors: that quotation is from the psychologist Elaine Fox’s interesting book on “the new science of optimism”, Rainy Brain, Sunny Brain, published this summer.) In general, the “neural” explanation has become a gold standard of non-fiction exegesis, adding its own brand of computer-assisted lab-coat bling to a whole new industry of intellectual quackery that affects to elucidate even complex sociocultural phenomena. Chris Mooney’s The Republican Brain: the Science of Why They Deny Science – and Reality disavows “reductionism” yet encourages readers to treat people with whom they disagree more as pathological specimens of brain biology than as rational interlocutors.

The New Atheist polemicist Sam Harris, in The Moral Landscape, interprets brain and other research as showing that there are objective moral truths, enthusiastically inferring – almost as though this were the point all along – that science proves “conservative Islam” is bad.

Happily, a new branch of the neuroscienceexplains everything genre may be created at any time by the simple expedient of adding the prefix “neuro” to whatever you are talking about. Thus, “neuroeconomics” is the latest in a long line of rhetorical attempts to sell the dismal science as a hard one; “molecular gastronomy” has now been trumped in the scientised gluttony stakes by “neurogastronomy”; students of Republican and Democratic brains are doing “neuropolitics”; literature academics practise “neurocriticism”. There is “neurotheology”, “neuromagic” (according to Sleights of Mind, an amusing book about how conjurors exploit perceptual bias) and even “neuromarketing”. Hoping it’s not too late to jump on the bandwagon, I have decided to announce that I, too, am skilled in the newly minted fields of neuroprocrastination and neuroflâneurship.

Illumination is promised on a personal as well as a political level by the junk enlightenment of the popular brain industry. How can I become more creative? How can I make better decisions? How can I be happier? Or thinner? Never fear: brain research has the answers. It is self-help armoured in hard science. Life advice is the hook for nearly all such books. (Some cram the hard sell right into the title – such as John B Arden’s Rewire Your Brain: Think Your Way to a Better Life.) Quite consistently, heir recommendations boil down to a kind of neo- Stoicism, drizzled with brain-juice. In a selfcongratulatory egalitarian age, you can no longer tell people to improve themselves morally. So self-improvement is couched in instrumental, scientifically approved terms.

The idea that a neurological explanation could exhaust the meaning of experience was already being mocked as “medical materialism” by the psychologist William James a century ago. And today’s ubiquitous rhetorical confidence about how the brain works papers over a still-enormous scientific uncertainty. Paul Fletcher, professor of health neuroscience at the University of Cambridge, says that he gets “exasperated” by much popular coverage of neuroimaging research, which assumes that “activity in a brain region is the answer to some profound question about psychological processes. This is very hard to justify given how little we currently know about what different regions of the brain actually do.” Too often, he tells me in an email correspondence, a popular writer will “opt for some sort of neuro-flapdoodle in which a highly simplistic and questionable point is accompanied by a suitably grand-sounding neural term and thus acquires a weightiness that it really doesn’t deserve. In my view, this is no different to some mountebank selling quacksalve by talking about the physics of water molecules’ memories, or a beautician talking about action liposomes.”

Shades of grey

The human brain, it is said, is the most complex object in the known universe. That a part of it “lights up” on an fMRI scan does not mean the rest is inactive; nor is it obvious what any such lighting-up indicates; nor is it straightforward to infer general lessons about life from experiments conducted under highly artificial conditions. Nor do we have the faintest clue about the biggest mystery of all – how does a lump of wet grey matter produce the conscious experience you are having right now, reading this paragraph? How come the brain gives rise to the mind? No one knows.

So, instead, here is a recipe for writing a hit popular brain book. You start each chapter with a pat anecdote about an individual’s professional or entrepreneurial success, or narrow escape from peril. You then mine the neuroscientific research for an apparently relevant specific result and narrate the experiment, perhaps interviewing the scientist involved and describing his hair. You then climax in a fit of premature extrapolation, inferring from the scientific result a calming bromide about what it is to function optimally as a modern human being. Voilà, a laboratory-sanctioned Big Idea in digestible narrative form. This is what the psychologist Christopher Chabris has named the “story-study-lesson” model, perhaps first perfected by one Malcolm Gladwell. A series of these threesomes may be packaged into a book, and then resold again and again as a stand-up act on the wonderfully lucrative corporate lecture circuit.

Such is the rigid formula of Imagine: How Creativity Works, published in March this year by the American writer Jonah Lehrer. The book is a shatteringly glib mishmash of magazine yarn, bizarrely incompetent literary criticism, inspiring business stories about mops and dolls and zany overinterpretation of research findings in neuroscience and psychology. Lehrer responded to my hostile review of the book by claiming that I thought the science he was writing about was “useless”, but such garbage needs to be denounced precisely in defence of the achievements of science. (In a sense, as Paul Fletcher points out, such books are “anti science, given that science is supposed to be  our protection against believing whatever we find most convenient, comforting or compelling”.) More recently, Lehrer admitted fabricating quotes by Bob Dylan in Imagine, which was hastily withdrawn from sale, and he resigned from his post at the New Yorker. To invent things supposedly said by the most obsessively studied popular artist of our age is a surprising gambit. Perhaps Lehrer misunderstood his own advice about creativity.

Mastering one’s own brain is also the key to survival in a dog-eat-dog corporate world, as promised by the cognitive scientist Art Markman’s Smart Thinking: How to Think Big, Innovate and Outperform Your Rivals. Meanwhile, the field (or cult) of “neurolinguistic programming” (NLP) sells techniques not only of self-overcoming but of domination over others. (According to a recent NLP handbook, you can “create virtually any and all states” in other people by using “embedded commands”.) The employee using such arcane neurowisdom will get promoted over the heads of his colleagues; the executive will discover expert-sanctioned ways to render his underlings more docile and productive, harnessing “creativity” for profit.

Waterstones now even has a display section labelled “Smart Thinking”, stocked with pop brain tracts. The true function of such books, of course, is to free readers from the responsibility of thinking for themselves. This is made eerily explicit in the psychologist Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind, published last March, which claims to show that “moral knowledge” is best obtained through “intuition” (arising from unconscious brain processing) rather than by explicit reasoning. “Anyone who values truth should stop worshipping reason,” Haidt enthuses, in a perverse manifesto for autolobotomy. I made an Olympian effort to take his advice seriously, and found myself rejecting the reasoning of his entire book.

Modern neuro-self-help pictures the brain as a kind of recalcitrant Windows PC. You know there is obscure stuff going on under the hood, so you tinker delicately with what you can see to try to coax it into working the way you want. In an earlier age, thinkers pictured the brain as a marvellously subtle clockwork mechanism, that being the cutting-edge high technology of the day. Our own brain-as-computer metaphor has been around for decades: there is the “hardware”, made up of different physical parts (the brain), and the “software”, processing routines that use different neuronal “circuits”. Updating things a bit for the kids, the evolutionary psychologist Robert Kurzban, in Why Everyone (Else) Is a Hypocrite, explains that the brain is like an iPhone running a bunch of different apps.

Such metaphors are apt to a degree, as long as you remember to get them the right way round. (Gladwell, in Blink – whose motivational selfhelp slogan is that “we can control rapid cognition” – burblingly describes the fusiform gyrus as “an incredibly sophisticated piece of brain software”, though the fusiform gyrus is a physical area of the brain, and so analogous to “hardware” not “software”.) But these writers tend to reach for just one functional story about a brain subsystem – the story that fits with their Big Idea – while ignoring other roles the same system might play. This can lead to a comical inconsistency across different books, and even within the oeuvre of a single author.

Is dopamine “the molecule of intuition”, as Jonah Lehrer risibly suggested in The Decisive Moment (2009), or is it the basis of “the neural highway that’s responsible for generating the pleasurable emotions”, as he wrote in Imagine? (Meanwhile, Susan Cain’s Quiet: the Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking calls dopamine the “reward chemical” and postulates that extroverts are more responsive to it.) Other recurring stars of the pop literature are the hormone oxytocin (the “love chemical”) and mirror neurons, which allegedly explain empathy. Jonathan Haidt tells the weirdly unexplanatory micro-story that, in one experiment, “The subjects used their mirror neurons, empathised, and felt the other’s pain.” If I tell you to use your mirror neurons, do you know what to do? Alternatively, can you do as Lehrer advises and “listen to” your prefrontal cortex? Self-help can be a tricky business.

Cherry-picking

Distortion of what and how much we know is bound to occur, Paul Fletcher points out, if the literature is cherry-picked.

“Having outlined your theory,” he says, “you can then cite a finding from a neuroimaging study identifying, for example, activity in a brain region such as the insula . . . You then select from among the many theories of insula function, choosing the one that best fits with your overall hypothesis, but neglecting to mention that nobody really knows what the insula does or that there are many ideas about its possible function.”

But the great movie-monster of nearly all the pop brain literature is another region: the amygdala. It is routinely described as the “ancient” or “primitive” brain, scarily atavistic. There is strong evidence for the amygdala’s role in fear, but then fear is one of the most heavily studied emotions; popularisers downplay or ignore the amygdala’s associations with the cuddlier emotions and memory. The implicit picture is of our uneasy coexistence with a beast inside the head, which needs to be controlled if we are to be happy, or at least liberal. (In The Republican Brain, Mooney suggests that “conservatives and authoritarians” might be the nasty way they are because they have a “more active amygdala”.) René Descartes located the soul in the pineal gland; the moral of modern pop neuroscience is that original sin is physical – a bestial, demonic proto-brain lurking at the heart of darkness within our own skulls. It’s an angry ghost in the machine.

Indeed, despite their technical paraphernalia of neurotransmitters and anterior temporal gyruses, modern pop brain books are offering a spiritual topography. Such is the seductive appeal of fMRI brain scans, their splashes of red, yellow and green lighting up what looks like a black intracranial vacuum. In mass culture, the fMRI scan (usually merged from several individuals) has become a secular icon, the converse of a Hubble Space Telescope image. The latter shows us awe-inspiring vistas of distant nebulae, as though painstakingly airbrushed by a sci-fi book-jacket artist; the former peers the other way, into psychedelic inner space. And the pictures, like religious icons, inspire uncritical devotion: a 2008 study, Fletcher notes, showed that “people – even neuroscience undergrads – are more likely to believe a brain scan than a bar graph”.

In The Invisible Gorilla, Christopher Chabris and his collaborator Daniel Simons advise readers to be wary of such “brain porn”, but popular magazines, science websites and books are frenzied consumers and hypers of these scans. “This is your brain on music”, announces a caption to a set of fMRI images, and we are invited to conclude that we now understand more about the experience of listening to music. The “This is your brain on” meme, it seems, is indefinitely extensible: Google results offer “This is your brain on poker”, “This is your brain on metaphor”, “This is your brain on diet soda”, “This is your brain on God” and so on, ad nauseam. I hereby volunteer to submit to a functional magnetic-resonance imaging scan while reading a stack of pop neuroscience volumes, for an illuminating series of pictures entitled This Is Your Brain on Stupid Books About Your Brain.

None of the foregoing should be taken to imply that fMRI and other brain-investigation techniques are useless: there is beautiful and amazing science in how they work and what well-designed experiments can teach us. “One of my favourites,” Fletcher says, “is the observation that one can take measures of brain activity (either using fMRI or EEG) while someone is learning . . . a list of words, and that activity can actually predict whether particular words will be remembered when the person is tested later (even the next day). This to me demonstrates something important – that observing activity in the brain can tell us something about how somebody is processing stimuli in ways that the person themselves is unable to report. With measures like that, we can begin to see how valuable it is to measure brain activity – it is giving us information that would otherwise be hidden from us.”

In this light, one might humbly venture a preliminary diagnosis of the pop brain hacks’ chronic intellectual error. It is that they misleadingly assume we always know how to interpret such “hidden” information, and that it is always more reliably meaningful than what lies in plain view. The hucksters of neuroscientism are the conspiracy theorists of the human animal, the 9/11 Truthers of the life of the mind.

Steven Poole is the author of the forthcoming book “You Aren’t What You Eat”, which will be published by Union Books in October.

This article was updated on 18 September 2012.

This article first appeared in the 10 September 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Autumn politics special

Stuart Ramson for Lumos
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“It’s probably the thing of which I am most proud”: J K Rowling in conversation with Eddie Redmayne

The Harry Potter creator talks to the star of Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them about her work with the Lumos charity and the urgent need to end the institutionalisation of children.

EDDIE REDMAYNE: Good evening, good evening ladies and gentlemen.

I am so excited that you are excited! Welcome to Carnegie Hall and – thank you! – Welcome to a very what I hope is a very special evening. More than 25 years ago, an author put pen to paper and created one of the most extraordinary stories that the world has ever seen. Her astounding imagination continues to thrill us, it captivates us, it enthrals us, it moves us, and it leaves us wanting more. And tonight ladies and gentlemen. . . there will be more.

But ten years ago, an unimaginable image and an unthinkable story propelled her down a very different path – where the lives of millions of voiceless children would need saving. The author is J K Rowling, and the path is Lumos.

Tonight, we will cast a light on eight million hidden children around the world who desperately need our help. 

FILM – NARRATED BY J K ROWLING: A child’s life is so much more than the sum of its parts ‐ and the love a family brings holds everything together. From the very beginning, a child thrives on individual care and attention. A baby quickly forges a bond with loving parents – and because of this bond the brain develops with remarkable speed and complexity. Within a safe, secure and stimulating environment a child gets the most out of life; in play, education and friendship their personalities develop freely within safe bounds. But this picture of childhood can be a fragile one. Conflict and disaster can destroy the foundations of family life. When countries suffer the effects of extreme poverty, the bond which holds families together can easily be broken apart. In these circumstances, families can feel they have no choice but to place their child into a so-called orphanage, especially if the child is disabled and needs care the family cannot afford. Community support alternatives may not even exist. That orphanages do exist locally may convince desperate parents that there is no alternative. But once a child enters an orphanage, a very different picture of childhood can emerge. A child must now compete for the unique attention they crave. A lack of individual care harms babies and affects their infant brains at a critical stage. Any schooling they receive is no compensation for the parental love they are denied, and children can become cut off from the world. Ill-prepared for life outside they have very poor life chances, and they are much more likely to fall victim to abuse and crime once they leave an orphanage. And we know there are at least 8 million of these children worldwide. But there is hope ‐ and it lies at the very heart of the problem. 80 per cent of children in orphanages are not in fact orphans but have parents or extended families who could care for them, given some support. And by better channelling of existing donations, we can support these vulnerable children at home. By directing funds away from so-called orphanages we can transform systems of care; we can establish community‐based services and prevent these places from ever taking root. Community‐based services are a better investment for donors: they are more cost efficient than residential care and reward children and communities in the long run. Placing children into orphanages is a choice and not a necessity; it is preventable and reversible. And by giving communities options in how they support families, we can change the lives of millions of children and give them strong beginnings ‐ and the futures they deserve.

ER: So now to hear more about Lumos and its life-changing work, please welcome to the stage its founder. Ladies and gentlemen, the extraordinary J K Rowling.

JKR: Thank you, thank you very much.

ER: So here we are!

JKR: Here we are!

ER: This is a big deal. We’re playing Carnegie Hall!

JKR: We are, yes. It’s actually my second time!

ER: Really? Alright, so in a short while we get to show these people our little movie.

JKR: Yeah, which is exciting and a little bit terrifying.

ER: And we will get onto talking about that in a little bit. But first, the reason we’re all here. So we’ve just seen this film – this is clearly a massive humanitarian issue, and a gigantic undertaking. I wondered: why this issue? Why is it so close to your heart?

JKR: Well, I think Eddie said it really well in his introduction – truth is that I saw a newspaper story about a very small boy, he was seven years old and he was effectively being kept in a cage. And I was pregnant at the time and I saw this image in the newspaper, and it was such a shocking image of this child – holding onto wire and screaming – that I went to turn the page. I went to turn the page because it was painful to look at, and I felt very ashamed. As I went to the page, I thought: No, no, you have to read the story, and if it’s as bad as it looks, you gotta do something about it. So I read the story, and it was even worse than it looked.

So to cut a very long story short, I pulled out the news story – which was all about an institution in the Czech Republic where very young children were being kept in appalling conditions. I went home the next day, Monday, [and] I started to write letters to anyone I could think of – MPs, and MEPs, and the president of the Czech Republic. I wrote to everyone I could think of, and that led me to connecting with experts in this field, and the creation of Lumos.

ER: And so there are eight million children living in orphanages worldwide –

JKR: That we know that we know of! See, I think what’s staggering with. . . what was amazing to me when I first began finding out about this these issues, you think how could eight million children be going through this and we don’t know? But a very small amount of thought shows you they are – as you just said – so voiceless. They are literally hidden from sight. So in fact eight million may be a conservative estimate – there may be more children who have been taken from families that we don’t know about, because record-keeping tends to be poor, which is one of the problems.

ER: And they are institutions that we are saying are harmful to children – I suppose, I imagine, not everyone agrees?

JKR: Absolutely so it is completely understandable that we – and by ‘we’ I mean wealthy Westerners – we may have an idea that institutions are kind. Kind in that otherwise perhaps the child will be on the street, or the child is alone. That’s completely understandable. We tend to have that image in our minds from movies, like Annie, that orphanages can be kind of fun! Actually, that’s not true – even the well-run ones are proven, as we saw in that short film, to do often irreparable harm. You will know, because he has – you have a baby now, who is five months old?

ER: Yup.

JKR: And you will know, as I know as all of us who have anything to do with small children know: that they are hard-wired to demand love. They just come out looking for it, because that’s what they need for brain development. And as was shown in this movie, we know that children who are raised in institutions suffer developmental delays, they tend to be physically stunted, they normally have psychological trauma… it is just not what nature intended for children to be herded together, and not given individual love and care.

ER: And are there sort of studies and statistics which support [this]?

JKR: Absolutely, so I’m not just saying this – plucking this out of the air to tell you. We have 80 years of research now that shows very, very clearly – all the research agrees – that this is very harmful. And in fact Lumos works with scientists in the field who can show you brain scans, showing the difference between a child that’s come from an institution and a child has been raised in a family.

As the movie showed, one large recent study shows that children who come out of institutions were six times more likely to have been abused;

10 times more likely to enter prostitution; 40 times more likely to have a criminal record.

And they were 500 times more likely to kill themselves. So you see we do have this enormous bank of research telling us that we are allowing or even inadvertently causing children to be harmed.

ER: For me, one of the complicated things get my head round – and, I suppose, for people in developed countries like the US or the UK in which institutionalisation is a thing of the past – one of the things we struggle with is there’s this sort of disconnect in terms of how we view orphanages.

JKR: I completely agree. I think a small amount of thought shows us if you imagine what would happen – God forbid – were a terrible natural disaster to hit New York tonight, everyone I think would immediately think “Well, the important thing is I keep my loved ones close to me, we stay together and we get the support we need to rebuild our business, find ourselves a home”… When we put ourselves and our families in that in that mentally in that position we understand. However, what’s happening across the developed world is disaster hits and families are immediately pulled apart: “we’ll take those children from you.” Now, imagine that, in the wake of the disaster, people come to you and say: “that child will get fed only if you give me that child.” And we keep propping up the system, and it’s causing a huge amount of damage.

ER: And so is that why families are being torn apart? Why do parents give them up?

JKR: Right, exactly – for many people, that’s the key question. So when I tell people [that] 80 per cent of these children have parents, then an understandable reaction is “what loving parent could give up their child to one of these places?” But we know that there are three main drivers into institutions. The biggest one, the overwhelming one, is poverty.

So parents who make themselves literally be starving are told “if you want to feed that child, we will take it to the institution – the child will get food in the institution.” So they literally believe “that’s how my child will be fed and survive – I’ll have to give the child.” The other one is disability. We find in the developed world, and certainly this was the case in Eastern Europe, where we’re doing a lot of work, children with disabilities were not integrated. And so parents again were told “if you want medical assistance for a disabled child, or if you want that child educated they have to go into the institution.”

And then the third driver is natural disaster, and this is where a very nasty aspect of institutionalisation comes in. It is often the case in the developed world, the so-called orphanages are run as businesses, and that effectively children are trafficked for profit because we Westerners are generous and we can we give a lot of money to these orphanages. And unfortunately there are very unscrupulous people, who in the wake of disasters use it as an opportunity to get children and corral children as a magnet for foreign money, rather than putting the money into systems of care that would keep families together. So since 2010, there has been a 700 per cent increase in children in institutions in Haiti. 

ER: So, for me. . . what’s the solution? How does one go about it?

JKR: Obviously this is this is a massive issue, a massive issue. And, as you would imagine, the solution is complex but – I bring you hope! This is an entirely solvable issue. This is entirely solvable, and we know how to do it. Doesn’t mean it’s easy – but we know how to do it. So it’s a two-part problem: first of all we have these children, some of them living in truly appalling conditions, whom we need to rescue.

The other part of the issue is we need to stop children going into those institutions in the first place, ever again. Lumos’ ambition – and we believe it’s achievable – is that by 2050 we will have ended institutionalisation globally. Now, that’s going to be a huge amount of work, clearly, but a lot of us are really up for that. So, first thing is we need to put into place different systems of care, and some very good news is institutions are very, very, expensive to run. And if we just redirected the funds that are being pumped into institutions, that alone would enable better systems of care to be set up.

But you also need a lot of expertise, and what we do with Lumos is, we work with people in country who are already trying to change these systems. So that’s the point I always really like to get across, we are not moving into countries and saying: “let us show you how it’s done.” We are walking into countries because in all of these countries there are experts, who know the system’s wrong, but they don’t have the money and they don’t have the clout, and they aren’t connected with the kind of people who can help them change systems. We can go in and help them do, that so that’s what we do. We go in and we try and affect the change.

We also do things like – I mean, we’ve provided urgent medical assistance to children we’ve found in very, very bad situations and so on. So it’s multi-layered, and then the other thing we do is advocacy, so we work with places like the UN and the EU to change policy, to stop this being the default position when disasters happen.

ER: I think I read that every year, particularly in this country [the US], millions of dollars are being given to orphanages.

JKR: That’s right. I have these notes because I want to get the figures right – because normally I just make it up out of my head, like people say “how many house elves are in the Hogwarts kitchen?” and I just [gestures]. But this is really important – I’m not saying house elves aren’t important, they clearly have been massive in my life, they mean a lot to a lot of people. . .

But I want to get this right because this is this important. So, this is an incredible figure: this is how much Americans give to charity annually – how awesome are Americans? – The answer is $375bn. So I mean that is phenomenal, that’s phenomenal and just warms ones heart to think about the generosity. Now, that money was given with the absolute best possible intentions. There’s not one person here tonight, I know, of any age, that does not want to help a child in trouble. It’s a human instinct that we all have.

We know that that money drove a lot of children into orphanages who probably didn’t need to be – well, no child needs to be in an orphanage. But we know that it created a drive-in. And, so what I would like, even if you never give us another penny – I’m so grateful for what you have given us tonight, we will always be able to use money very effectively because these children have very complex needs.

But even if you never give us another penny, if you just walk out of here tonight and explain to people that donating to orphanages or volunteering and orphanages is sometimes propping up some very corrupt people making a lot of money, and if you give your money to community-based services you can actually help ten times as many children. Just checking my notes – ten times as many children.

ER: You mentioned Haiti – that is somewhere that is obviously in our minds of the moment.

JKR: It is, hugely in our minds. In my mind a lot at the moment because, we know and I have more figures here – these are new figures to me, because obviously there’s recently been an absolute catastrophe there. So we now know that there are 30,000 children institutionalised, and the same statistic I keep quoting still applies: the overwhelming majority of those children have at least one parent, and these are families whose livelihoods have been swept away, these are families who were so desperate that they thought that was the only way they were going to keep that child alive. Which is an absolutely heart-breaking thing to me and I know it will be to you also.

There is a lot of corruption in Haiti, and we know that there are people who are called child finders – not childminders – these child finders are out there persuading parents to give up their children to orphanages, and making lots of promises to them about what they can do for that child in terms of protection and care. And those children are not receiving protection and care – rather the reverse.

We know that a lot of child trafficking is going on, and we also know that for each child in an orphanage in Haiti, currently each child is attracting six thousand dollars’ worth of foreign aid, and that’s why it is becoming a business. So people with the best possible intentions are giving money, and I think they might be horrified to see what’s going on. So what I’m saying to you is, for God’s sake don’t stop giving money, but give it right. Give it to NGOs that are working to give people back livelihoods and to support communities, not to institutions.

ER: And Hurricane Matthew has exacerbated that…

JKR: Hurricane Matthew was, as we all know, an absolute nightmare: half a million people lost their livelihoods, we have 900 dead, and it will – unless we intervene in the correct way – continue to prop up this very damaging system. And I will say this because I would like you all to know, that I put my money where my mouth is: I gave a million pounds last week to Haiti to support community-based services. And I’m not saying it for that reason – I kind of cringe slightly as I even say that – because I’m not saying it for that reason. I’m saying that I’m not asking anyone to give where I’m not already giving, but Haiti is a particular catastrophe and I wanted to give extra funds to Haiti right now through Lumos, because Lumos is on the ground right now affecting this kind of change, and really looking out for those children in those institutions.

ER: And recently Bonnie Wright and Evanna Lynch – so Ginny Weasley and Luna Lovegood from the Potter films – who we love! And I think Bonnie is here this evening – but they are two incredibly dedicated Lumos ambassadors, who visited Haiti, and they not only saw the horrific conditions but also they saw the solution that you’ve been talking about Jo and we actually have some footage from the trip here:

FILM – NARRATED BY BONNIE WRIGHT AND EVANNA LYNCH: “Hi, my name is Bonnie Wright and I’m an actress and director. You may know may know me as Ginny Weasley from the Harry Potter films. But today I am here in Haiti with Evanna Lynch, who you may know as Luna Lovegood. We decided to come to Haiti because we’re concerned about the 30 thousand children living here in orphanages instead of at home with their families. 80 percent of these children have families who would care for them but cannot. I was incredibly shocked and upset to find the conditions at the first orphanage we visited. I’ve heard so much about the work that Lumos was doing and from some of the workers here about what these institutions were like, but I think out of this first visit just highlighted how incredibly important Lumos’ work is here in Haiti. The most important thing that I took away from today is that children really need to grow up in families.”

“Without family and without love, children can’t be children. The most important thing as a child is to be with your family, and you have to do everything you can to keep that family unit in place.”

ER: Those are pretty profoundly powerful images.

JKR: They are, they are but you know… we’re obviously doing a lot of work in Latin America now, it’s an area that does have a problem with institutionalisation. But we are very hopeful at Lumos that we could reach a tipping point in five years or so, where we can we can change policy. We are very hopeful that by 2035 – if we can get the funds – we will be able to stop institutionalisation in Latin America. We believe that.

ER: So it’s solvable?

JKR: It is solvable. It sounds overwhelming when you think of that number of children, and the complexity – I’m not denying the solutions are complex. But Lumos is working with absolute experts in this field. They know what they’re doing, they know how to make it work, and what they need are the funds and the support. And the last thing I would say – particularly to young people in the audience today – I would reiterate: we need to change minds.

We need to change minds, because while people are putting money into these orphanages and while people are volunteering in orphanages, a lot of corruption flourishes around those institutions. There is a sense that we are, as ever with the best intentions, propping up something that’s very damaging. Those children should be with their families, and if they can’t be with families, foster care, or adoption, or supported living in small family-style units are all proven to be the best possible alternatives.

ER: What can we do? Tell us what we can do!

JKR: I think its two-part as I say so number one, I am going to firstly say I could not be more grateful all of you being here tonight. You’ve already done the most enormous amount for us to raise money for us and thank you, thank you. So fifty percent of what you can do: if you want to fundraise for us, I will be forever in your debt.

The other half though as I say is, if everyone who is here tonight walked out of here and said: “I get the issue! I know that institutionalisation is wrong, and in future when I donate, when I hear a friend donating, and saying they want to give some money away at Christmas, I will say “not the orphanages.”” But look, if you want to give it to a child in the developing world, look at community-based services. We’re not the only NGO working in the field, we are one of several, so do a little bit of research and make sure that you are supporting families to stay together.

ER: We will spread the word, we will spread the word. That is our job, to spread the word. And I’ve got to say, having known so little about it before, it’s an extraordinary thing and it’s a complicated thing, but as you say solvable. And you must be incredibly proud of the work that Lumos are doing.

JKR: I am – it’s probably the thing of which I am most proud.

This conversation took place on 12 November 2016 at Carnegie Hall, New York City.

This December, the New Statesman is joining with Lumos to raise money to help institutionalised children in Haiti return to family life. In the wake of Hurricane Matthew, funds are needed to help those who have become separated from their families. Please consider pledging your support at bit.ly/lumosns

Thanks to Lumos’s 100 per cent pledge, every penny of your donation goes straight to the programme. For more information, see: wearelumos.org