As I Age

As I age, it becomes increasingly clear to me that Life is far more complicated than I could ever have suspected. It is like a stew where I keep finding new ingredients –some to my liking, and some… Well, let’s just characterize them as unexpected -mysterious strangers that surface from time to time, wreak havoc, then disappear again like shadows on a moonless night.

Social movements are often like that –or, rather, social solutions. Society changes over time and it has been the fashion of late, to see this as an evolutionary adaptation to underlying conditions –the slow but steady metamorphosis of caterpillar into butterfly. And yet, sometimes the change is more abrupt -a mutation- and we are forced to deal with the consequences. When things around us change, we attempt to keep up –or at least, like the Red Queen in Carroll’s Through the Looking-Glass, find ourselves running faster and faster to stay in the same place.

And one manifestation of this is the need to preserve a thin weft of values as a template during the inchoate and often thread-bare interregnum. I’m thinking, of course, about the age-old philosophical conundrum of whether we should tolerate the intolerant –and if so, then how? And at what price the compromise? One example from many: the need to establish special female-only transportation in the city of Zhengzhou in eastern China to help women feel safe from sexual harassment. To guard them.  Of course, the problem is by no means unique to China -other countries have discovered the same need and arrived at similar solutions.

But it seems to me that the issue is far more complex than these solutions might suggest. This gender issue, in some ways is not dissimilar to the racial problems that surfaced so violently in the last century in America. To think that having different buses for people of colour would salve the problem was proven to be naïve, and in itself discriminatory.

It comes down to the difference between toleration and acceptance: putting up with something that might not actually be approved of –enduring it: ‘toleration is directed by an agent toward something perceived as negative. It would be odd to say, for example, that someone has a high tolerance for pleasure’; versus  Acceptance: acknowledging and welcoming something as itself; permission versus approval. A power struggle either deferred, or shared.

To equivocate for a moment, should we tolerate mere tolerance, or accept it…? As an interim solution, of course. In other words, is it better to have the segregated buses for women, say, than groping and intimidation on more inclusive public transit? To say that there should not be sexual harassment is all well and good, but it ignores the present reality –there is, and to ignore it would therefore be akin to tolerating it. So are we  trapped in a never-ending game of chase-your-tail, forever condemned to wander the Mobius strip looking for an exit?

Perhaps it might be helpful to distinguish the component parts of the issue (I have adapted some principles from the peer-reviewed Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy:  It seems to me that there is a difference between the more superficial and emotional response to whatever is being tolerated (Let’s call this the Reactive Stage) –the need to separate the aggrieved from the aggressor, for example- and the Rational Stage: the more dispassionate and reasoned analysis of the problem –if indeed such an analysis is feasible, or could even be rationally justified. In other words, on what grounds does the prejudice in question continue to exist? Is it remediable, or inevitable? Should we be forced to retreat behind our own societal boundaries and accept the relativistic excuses proffered that we simply can’t superimpose our own values on those who are not like us? That we, in fact, do not understand –nor likely ever will, since we are other?

Or, closer to home, can we ever hope to change attitudes such as disrespect and insensitivity to aspects of personal autonomy that have been entrenched –and indeed accepted- for countless unquestioning generations -that, until recently, were not even considered problems requiring solutions?

Well, societies do alter as time and members change; I’m not sure we could characterize the alterations as necessarily evolutionary, or teleologically driven, but certainly the initial reactive and then the more rational stages can often be discerned. The societal attitudes towards Gay rights, for example, have undergone major shifts within the past few years –even the initial toleration, which was rare in past decades, is now remodelling itself as acceptance.

So what -if anything- has Age taught me? What has the passage of years and the successive unfolding of events disclosed? Well, it has become clear that in the long run, our enemies become our friends; that we seek and find compromises satisfactory to each –bargains that in due course cease to be seen as concessions by either party, but rather as amicable balance; that Force only suppresses while it is being applied; and that discussion is inevitable and infinitely preferable to confrontation. We may not be able to evince our much-touted rationality in all things, but we are all eventually susceptible –amenable even- to accommodation.

Omnia vincit amor, I suppose.



Barbie in the Mirror

As an Ob/Gyn specialist I have been, I suppose, more than a passive observer of women over the years. But society has not been passive, either. Depending on where you live and in what cultural milieu, issues such as our sizes and shapes have become sources of real anxiety. Unrealistic expectations of morphology no doubt arise from multiple origins, but the end result is often the same -many of us don’t even come close to meeting them.

And as if that worry wasn’t enough, there has now been added the perhaps more troublesome issue of health. Despite the euphemism ‘plus-sized’ there is no disguising the stigma of the special term for many women –particularly when it comes wrapped with innuendoes of obesity and diminished well-being… not to mention beauty. Shakespeare would have us believe that ‘Love looks not with the eyes but with the mind.’ But does it? Once again, morphology rears its stilted head.

But we are a curious lot, we humans, influenced as we are by fashion and culture. Fickle in our choices, mercurial in our attitudes to those who fall outside the norms, we deride those who fail to satisfy the arbitrary boundaries –temporal though they may be.

Some have argued that one of the barometers of expectation is the shape of dolls –Barbie dolls in particular. They become, after all, the matrix of imaginary play and serve as proxies for the roles the children are trying to understand.

A fuss seems to have been engendered by the release of three new types of Barbies: curvy, petite and tall. There are also skin colour differences, presumably to reflect the diversity in modern societies. But also, one could argue, to deflect the criticism of pandering to the thin, blond phenotype so prevalent in their models up to now. ‘Mattel [the makers of the doll] argues Barbie shouldn’t be expected to represent average proportions in the first place. “Barbie is a doll. She is not meant to reflect a real woman’s body,” says Sarah Allen from Mattel UK. “The purpose of introducing three new bodies into the range is variety and differentiation. When you look at the dolls collectively you can see the range in relationship between the dolls. “’ It’s a start, I suppose.

Therein lies the problem, of course, and it seems to me that it is hydra-headed. On the one hand to portray a doll that is truly representative of the reality that the child sees around her, would be to normalize –legitimize, really- the scourge of the 21st century: obesity and all of the health risks that entails: ‘[…]were Mattel required to accurately reflect the average British and American woman across all ages, the dolls would be overweight or obese.’ And yet, from a more modulated perspective, ‘Lenore Wright, from Baylor University, Texas, conducted a study in 2003 that explored the role of Barbie. She found Barbie’s shape didn’t really matter to children – her function was more important.’ Dolls, in other words, are just pretend –they’re substitutes that are merely assigned the role the child is exploring. The child knows they are not real.

But ‘Wright adds that Mattel’s new line has been criticized by some feminist scholars for reinforcing an old stereotype – that women are defined by their bodies.’ As I suggested, there are many divergent perspectives but remember that a Minotaur waits at the center of the labyrinth. We must be careful not to wander too far in our approach; we must not let our zeal mislead us.

It seems to me that children have always played with dolls and represented them according to their needs. To criticize a stick-doll, for example, or to confuse it with the reality the child apprehends is to stray dangerously far into revisionism. We are not children and we do not think as children. In a world where dolls are doctors, and dogs are patients, we are now strangers. Adults. Other… Forgive me for referencing Corinthians, but I think its advice was prescient: ‘When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things.’

Amen to that.






Is there really Something in a Name?

What’s in a name? That which we call a rose, by any other name would smell as sweet.

So said Shakespeare’s Juliet. And yet even then –especially then- it mattered. Tribes have always mattered; we have always been known by our tribes: we are all either us or them aren’t we?” And little has changed despite the agglutination of the numberless tribes into tightly knit societies; there are still passwords.

I suspect I have lived in a bubble somewhere all these years; I really did think things were improving –that we were becoming less prejudiced- but I suspect it is just one more of those parochial shadows obscuring our vision here in Canada. Names, religions, skin colours, gender –appearance– all are code words for acceptance or rejection. We may fantasize that we live in a meritocratic land where Justice is blind and deaf, where we are all judged by our abilities and not our backgrounds, but alas we are deceived –or, rather, we deceive ourselves.

And so, more thoughtful societies have cast about for solutions to those biases so deeply ingrained, and often so hidden that we scarcely notice them anymore. The idea of ‘blind recruitment’ might offer one way to help resolve unconscious (or not) biases that plague many employers. Symphony orchestras were among the first to try it as the following CBC news article points out: -‘When the Toronto Symphony Orchestra began to audition musicians blindly in 1980, putting them behind a screen, the result was profound. While the hiring committee could hear an applicant’s performance, they not see what he or she looked like. They even put down a carpet so high heels couldn’t be heard. Now the orchestra — which was made up almost entirely of white men in the 1970s — is almost half female and much more diverse.’ Another news article, this time in the BBC News echoes this:

Talent will out, if that is the sole criterion; but it isn’t. Unfortunately, our judgments are not entirely determined by merit; we sometimes are distracted by other, unrelated issues. Gender, seems an obvious one, but topping the list, is race. Foreign-sounding names seem to discourage interest in the further exploration of a CV: ‘Studies in the U.S. and Canada reveal that job applicants with ethnic-sounding names are less likely to get a response than more Anglo-Saxon names, despite having the same experience and credentials.’ So, unless ‘name blind’ applications are mandated, applicants with foreign-sounding names are at a distinct disadvantage in the job market. This is such a blatant waste of talent and opportunity that –at least anecdotally- some career advisers have suggested that their clients harmonize the names they use on job applications to more societally acceptable ones. Or more pronounceable: ‘Luxshiani Ganeshalingham says her friends automatically change their names when they’re looking for jobs. “We shorten our names to get a better response, or more responses.”’

Hiding things on the initial application may allow people the chance for an interview, but it is obviously far from the solution to racial, gender, or religious bias in hiring, however. ‘”… the reality is that people carrying out interviews, at the next stage on from applications, are humans,” says Azmat Mohammed, director general of the Institute of Recruiters. “The thing is for them to be able to analyze their own biases. Everybody has them and businesses are working to address this issue.”’

And nowadays in most Western countries, where discrimination is prohibited by law, or even discouraged by popular media, the biases have been driven underground. ‘”Modern prejudice is the transformation of our biased attitudes,” says the students’ professor Michael Inzlicht. “[About] 40, 50 years ago, one could express overt hostility or antipathy toward a group — ‘No, I’m not going to allow a black person into my golf club,'” he says. “You politically can’t say that any more.” Modern racism is less overt, Inzlicht says, but we see “very clear” biases. “It’s more dangerous … if you’re not aware of it,” he says.’

I can remember sitting on a rather crowded bus last year and feeling grateful that I had found the last unoccupied seat. A young woman with sparkling brown eyes in the adjacent seat seemed to be absorbed in reading and writing notes on some loose papers in a folder, and as she read I could see her sigh, or at times, chuckle at their contents.

Although I tried to be discreet, she obviously noticed my interest and turned to me with a smile. “Students nowadays are so funny,” she said, glancing first at my face, and then back at one of the papers. “They think they are inventing the wheel each time they answer… But, you know, sometimes they come to the question with such an innocent perspective, they really are… The world is different for them –new, exciting… They’re not muddied by the old methods we bring to questions -the old thoughts that channel us like pipes.”

I looked at her more closely when she said that. She was a young woman, in her late twenties perhaps, with dark hair, and a nut-brown complexion. She was actually excited by what she was reading. I smiled at her enthusiasm and, as strangers will, we began to talk of other things as the bus honked and jolted its way through rush-hour traffic. Just before the journey’s end, we exchanged names. Hers was Alice. I smiled at the name –it has always been one of my favourites and I told her so.

She returned the smile. “I have always liked it, too,” she said, almost wistfully. “Maybe it was Lewis Carroll’s influence –sorry, I mean Charles Dodgson’s,” she corrected herself academically with an embarrassed grin. “My mother always read to me in English at night when I was a little girl growing up in Tehran, and I used to ask for Alice in Wonderland all the time…”

“So you mean Alice was a name you chose for yourself? It’s not your birth-name?”

Again, she seemed embarrassed. “No, my real name is Aza; Alice is pretty close though, don’t you think?” The almost childish delight returned to her face and she smiled so brightly, her teeth seemed to sparkle in the sun coming through the window.

“But…” I was confused. “But Aza is such a beautiful name. Why would you want to change it?”

Her expression changed for a moment and she looked puzzled. She tried to disguise it, but her eyes inspected me to determine if I was patronizing her. As if I, of all people, should know why she’d changed her name. For that brief moment, I was one of her less gifted students. But it passed like a cloud and suddenly her smile returned.

Her stop was coming up so she reached up and pulled the cord. Then, in an effort to atone for her doubts about me perhaps, she touched my hand. It was a gesture of friendship at the very least. “Names, not credentials, get you interviews,” she said with a sad smile as she stood up to leave. “And I wanted to teach…”


The itsy bitsy teenie weenie?

I am no longer simply bemused at the secular paranoia that seems to be growing like Topsy in the Western world; I am becoming irritated; I am becoming annoyed that it is now even conflating fashion with politics and spreading like blight in a deliberately monocultured crop. Pick your battles, folks –this is a demeaning one.

Or is it just silly: burkini -coined merely to suggest the word ‘burka’ and also contrast it with its other ‘ini’ cousin the bikini? An attempt to denigrate opposites? Have we grown so accustomed to less being more on the beach, that more is now less? Have we already forgotten how shocking the bikini was when it first appeared in the middle of the last century? How it was banned from many beaches then, and declared sinful by no less an authority than the Vatican?

Admittedly, the bikini reveals considerably more of the female anatomy and no doubt arouses different sorts of… well, passions, shall we say, than the iteration I’m discussing. But some of the burkini styles and colours are quite beautiful and, at least from my prairie -and admittedly male perspective- far more attractive than the burka parent. It is, for all intents and purposes, a tempest in a teapot.

Terrorist events in France have undoubtedly kindled a controversy over an issue that would otherwise have been merely a dispute over aesthetics –“Why would anybody want to wear something like that, on a beach? It must be so hot…” And that would have been that. Except for the resistance of some governments to clothing with even a hint of religious affiliation, the burkini would have quietly slipped into normalcy – become as obvious as nose-rings or purple hair. A barely noticeable mise-en-scène.

Of course there was that skirmish on a Corsican beach in August between some villagers and three Muslim families:  But, interestingly, it was not at all certain whether any of the women were wearing burkinis at the time… The mayor decided to ban them anyway.

I can understand the reason… sort of. The idea, presumably, was to defuse tensions -not draw attention to cultural or religious differences in a time of us and them. Even when, in fact, they are actually us. The problem, I suspect, is that we are living in an inter regnum –a time when differences, no matter how picayune or superficial, may assume larger than life proportions –a significance that, when viewed years hence, might seem recondite –if not puerile. But it’s all very confusing, not to mention counterproductive, even now.

Surely inclusivity engenders familiarity and acceptance –on both sides. Banning something often breeds resistance and anger. And banning an innocent article of clothing is both capricious and inflammatory. If there were ever anything that could engender feelings of separation and non-acceptance, it is the belittling of the honest attempts of a culture to adapt to something that so enamours the population in which it is enmeshed -something that allows Muslims to visit beaches while letting them adjust their customs to what may never have been envisioned as a desirable or even feasible activity by their ancestors.

I remember a patient of mine that had a different take on the issue. Fatima was a devout Muslim woman who had nonetheless adopted many of the dress codes, so familiar on our streets. I was seeing her and her husband for antenatal care in their first pregnancy and once they both realized that I was nothing to be feared, we were able to talk openly about many things other than her pregnancy.

At the beginning, for example, she would always arrive wearing the more inclusive covering of a niqab –albeit a colorfully patterned one. Then she began wearing a hijab to our visits. I asked her why.

I remember she looked at me and her eyes twinkled as her mouth wrinkled into a shy smile. I noticed her husband was smiling, too.

She immediately shrugged, as if it was an unimportant observation on my part. “I wanted you to know when I was smiling,” she said mischievously. Then, her eyes suddenly became the interrogators –gentle inquisitors- and hovered about my face for a moment. “And quit looking at him,” she giggled. “He’s terrible at choosing clothes anyway…” It was a good-natured rebuke; Fatima evidently disliked our western stereotypes.

Although it was her husband that was the reason for her presence in Canada –he was doing some post-doctoral research in oceanography- Fatima was also fluent in English and more observant about our own vagaries than I was.

It was a hot summer that year, and conversation naturally turned to Vancouver’s love of its beaches.

“I really don’t understand Vancouverites,” she said with a laugh. “They flock to the beach and strip down so they can lie on the hot sand like wieners on a barbecue…” We all laughed. “I think it’s just a fad, though,” she added, her face turning serious for a second.

I nodded. “Maybe someday, someone will design beach clothing that is comfortable and cool, but still protects them from the sun…” I said it without thinking, I have to admit.

“We already have,” she said and winked.

How parochial we can be in this country, despite the vaunted cultural mosaic of which we are so demonstrably proud.

Cultures change –but more slowly than fashions. Maybe the rest of us will someday find ourselves covering up more of our skin on beaches to prevent UV damage; mothers are already dressing up their toddlers as they muck about in the sand… Beaches themselves are a fashion, after all. There was a time not so long ago when people feared the sea and –at least in Britain- only aristocrats seeking the putative benefits of both spa and beach for reasons of health were able to afford the areas where this was offered. In time, of course, the rabble followed and now we merely view beaches as de rigueur. But given the fickleness of contemporary life, perhaps this too shall pass, as the adage has it.

Fortunately, however, France’s highest court has allowed us to breathe deeply again, and step back a few paces for now -it has decided to suspend the ban on burkinis: Sadly, the issue has not yet been put to bed; there is still considerable resistance among politicians and elements of the population who fear an upheaval of the status quo, and a slide into the morass of sectarianism. Several mayors have even threatened to ignore the ruling.

French law notwithstanding, it seems to me that the noticeability of an article of clothing like the burkini should not merit more than a transient raising of an eyebrow –if that- and certainly not a clash of Civilizations. Its proscription will not discourage terrorism, but perhaps its approval might. Who knows what a welcome might do to a culture so long viewed as other: strangers in a strange land…?


The Obstetrical Celibate

Celibacy seems so counterintuitive and aberrant to me that I’m constantly amazed how close to the surface it seems to float. Its etymology comes from a Latin word meaning ‘unmarried’ and that, in turn, is an amalgam of two proto-Indo-European words meaning ‘to live alone’, but its exact definition seems contextually influenced. For example, despite the fact that it is not the exclusive prerogative of one sex, we tend think of male Catholic priests as the prime examples, even though nuns –their female counterparts- also live a celibate life.  It is also variably regarded as being either the condition of living alone and being sexually abstinent, or merely sexually abstinent. In the Catholic church, although it was only mandated for priests in 1130 A.D., it included both lack of partner and sexual gratification of any kind.

Celibacy is usually seen in a religious context, but it need not be. A more contemporary view tends to focus on the sexual abstinence aspect or on the lack of a regular partner. It may be a temporary phenomenon and not one that is intended to be pursued, or a lifestyle choice. It is seldom related to the condition of asexuality in which the reason for the abstinence is one of indifference or lack of sexual drive –as I have discussed in a previous essay:

Now I don’t wish to sound so dismissive as to reject the concept of celibacy out of hand. We all make decisions based on our wants and needs, often guided by doctrines or beliefs which make sense to us at the time. In a free and open society, what the rest of us may think of the decisions should be of little consequence so long as adhering to them has no adverse effects on any except the participants. Witness the spate of publicity surrounding the late Pope John Paul II and his relationship with the married Polish-born philosopher Anna-Teresa Tymieniecka, before and during his papacy:  That a very human side was able to successfully coexist with his deeply religious beliefs is both touching and laudable –especially in a pope.

But this prologue was by way of an introduction to Ann, a patient of mine shortly before I retired.

As she sat in my office that first time, she seemed unusually nervous. She had short brown hair and was smartly dressed in a white blouse and grey pant suit. Ann seemed the perfect model of a corporate executive on her lunch break –which indeed she was. But she was perched bolt upright on the edge of her chair like a bird about to launch from a branch. Her face was taut and unnaturally shiny; her lips were frozen in a straight line as if she were trying, unsuccessfully, to fabricate a smile. Only her eyes betrayed a profound mistrust, bordering on aggression.

“You seem rather nervous, Ann,” I said with a smile of my own to break the ice.

She nodded politely, but remained silent. Only her proximity to the edge of her chair changed. I wondered how long she’d be able to stay balanced on it.

I have to say that the laptop screen on my desk is a wonderful tool. It not only provides me with information –consult letters, lab data, and so on- it also gives me something to hide behind when the patient has sent her eyes on a predatory mission. It is a type of blind, I suppose. I pulled up the consultation note from her GP on the screen more for something to do than for information –the day sheet from my secretary had already disclosed the secret: Ann was pregnant.

The note from the GP was rather terse I thought: ‘Pregnant. Angry’. I took a deep, albeit disguised, breath and peeked out from behind the screen. “So, your family doctor says you are pregnant, Ann. Congratulations!” This initial praise for the achievement usually disarms patients -well, confuses them, anyway. But it did nothing to Ann but harden her expression. She mouthed the obligatory ‘thank you’ silently and with barely a movement of her lips. This wasn’t the easiest consultation I’d ever been sent.

I decided to be more direct. “Are you angry about being pregnant, Ann? Or are you angry with me?”

That obviously caught her by surprise, because she suddenly dropped her eyes onto the table –her armour had been chinked.

Then, she broke her fast of silence. “Doctor, I have to explain something to you,” she said, slowly and disdainfully, again with lips that barely moved. I began to wonder if they’d been botoxed, or something. “I am 37 years old, unmarried, and unattached!” She said the last word carefully and slowly, lest I misunderstand. I could feel the exclamation mark from right across my desk. “Further, I am not in a lesbian relationship, nor am I ever intending to be dependent upon a partner for assistance.”

At this point her face actually narrowed and I could sense its muscles trying to avoid spasm. She liberated the predatory falcons of her eyes once again. “I am a celibate by choice, not necessity, doctor,” she said, this time between obviously clenched teeth. “My career is paramount…”

Her minute pause emboldened me to ask the obvious: “And the pregnancy isn’t…?”

It was not intended to be a profound rejoinder, merely an question, but her eyebrows immediately jumped up as she recalled the falcons to their home roost. They watched me from the shadows of their cage as her face gradually softened. An embarrassed smile crept slowly across the once angry lips and I thought I even detected a blush.

“I’m sorry, doctor,” she said, after a rather reluctant sigh. “It’s just that the men at work have been giving me a hard time.” She stared up at a picture hanging on the wall for a moment. “Word somehow got out that I was considering becoming pregnant…” She closed her eyes briefly to decide how to explain. “Men don’t seem to understand that…” She glanced at me quickly, and then corrected herself. “Many people –not just men- don’t seem to understand that wanting a baby is not the same as wanting sex, or a partner, or even a calculated one-night stand.” She retreated inside herself again to pick the words she wanted. “I don’t hate men, and I don’t disparage relationships, I have simply chosen to live my life differently from most: a celibate life…”

She took a deep and stertorous breath before continuing. “You wouldn’t believe the whispering in my office when the rumour spread that I was going to pay for IVF when there were so many willing donors around… The men would wink suggestively whenever I passed by, the women would get that silly smile on their faces…

“Anyway, I decided to take a few weeks off for the in vitro fertilization process, only half expecting it to succeed on the first cycle. But when it did, I didn’t know if I could stand the censure that most men would exhibit when they hear that I did it voluntarily -in other words, without them.” She shrugged and looked out of the window behind me for a minute or two. “So, I asked my GP if she knew of any female obstetricians she could send me to, but for some reason she chose you.

I hate this kind of situation –being blamed for something over which I have no control. A false negative, as it were. I linked eyes with her for a moment. “Sorry,” I said, smiling innocently. “I can probably find you a female Ob if you’d like.”

She sat back in her chair and thought about it. It almost felt like I was at a job interview and my CV was being inspected. After a few seconds, she smiled –warmly, for a change- and sent out her eyes again –this time rather than circling for a kill, however, they perched softly on my face. “After all that anger, would you still be willing to see an obstetrical celibate?”

I nodded. “I’ve always been nonpartisan.”

Prove it!

If there’s one thing that a long life has taught me, it is that most of us seldom stray far from the path. Once launched, our trajectory is largely predictable. I suppose this is necessary for co-existence –that there are societal norms is, after all, what binds us together as a group. Knowing what people want –what they are comfortable with- makes it possible to plan ahead with a reasonable expectation of success.

And yet, what if circumstances change? Even Science admits it runs on statistical probabilities. Nothing is forever the same, despite our expectations; despite the hopes of even the most enlightened that it will not deviate too much from that to which we have become accustomed. But progress depends on change, depends at least on altered perspective. That someone can look at the same data and interpret it differently –see different patterns in it, perhaps, or even apply it to something entirely different- is what we have come to expect of our modern world.

But there is often an inter regnum, that can be confusing -a time before the paradigm shift is complete; when wisdom, -no, expectations– demand that we judge the results of whatever investigations we have done, in the light of what the past, or experience, has taught us. And as a consequence, not only do we limit our inquiries to those things that seem to prop up those views, but we discard, or criticize data that fail to validate them. Same information, different eyes. It’s often called the Confirmation Bias and I’ve written about this in one form or another before:

The problem is that it seems to be a Mobius strip, and the same data are used to prove opposite contentions. There are rules that can be applied, of course –methodologies that help to sort out interpretive biases:  but it’s all too easy to fall back on what seems natural to us: to assume that what has been found either substantiates what we believe it should, or to criticize it for its presumed deficiencies or mistakes if it does not.

There seems to be no end to the variations on that all too familiar theme. It’s certainly not unknown in Medicine, and a recent example springs to mind.

I remember Jerra -partly because of her unusual name, I suppose. When I saw it on the office day sheet, I assumed it was a typo and thought I would correct it as I introduced myself to her in the waiting room. She was the first patient booked for the day and none of the few other early-risers in the room looked anywhere near 62.

“Jerri,” I said with a smile, walking directly over to a thin, grey-haired woman sitting bolt upright in the only chair by the window. Her first reaction was to assess me from head to toe with hostile green eyes that, had they not been restrained, might have attacked me as I approached.

“It’s Jerra,” she said, ice congealing on the words as they approached my ears.

I blushed. “I’m sorry, Jerra,” I stammered, embarrassed at my rash decision to modify it.

“And it’s Mrs. Tandill…” she added haughtily, refusing –or perhaps not deigning– to shake my extended hand.

The waiting room went quiet, all eyes on us, as she followed me reluctantly across what now seemed a long hike over the floor and down the corridor to my office.

Once inside, she glanced quickly at the sculptures, and plants, and repositioned the chair further from my desk. She did not want to be here, and was letting me know in the bluntest possible way.

“You seem uncomfortable, Mrs. Tandill,” I said when she seemed settled in her seat. “I’m sorry we got off to a rather rough start…”

“So am I, doctor,” she said, still glancing around disapprovingly at the art work hanging on the walls. “I am only here at the behest of my GP, you understand.”

I smiled, hoping to diffuse the tension, but her face didn’t change. She was an attractive, if severe looking woman. Dressed in a loose black silk dress that brushed the tops of her shoes when she walked, tiny silver hoops in her ears, and a matching silver brocaded scarf that hid her neck, she carried herself like royalty. Even her short, greying hair sat regally on her head like a tight-fitting crown, not a curl out of place.

And me? I was still dressed in my OR scrubs –albeit freshly changed- after an unscheduled 8 AM Caesarian section that made me late for the office. The stark contrast with her apparel and the thwarted expectations of how a new specialist should present himself may have stoked her anxiety with the visit.

“My GP says I need a hysterectomy,” she said, suddenly glaring at me like a vexed mother with her child.

I checked the very thorough history her GP had sent with the consultation note. Jerra had presented to her with postmenopausal bleeding, years after her periods had finished. She had sent her for an ultrasound which had confirmed that there was a thickened lining in the uterine cavity, and had even done a biopsy of the tissue. The pathology report of the biopsy did not find cancer, but rather an overgrowth –hyperplasia- that can be a precursor to cancer.

Jerra was still staring at me when I looked up from the computer screen. “Dr. Hannah gave me a copy of the pathology report, doctor,” she said, sternly. “And I researched it further.”

“And what did you find, Mrs. Tandill?” I needed to know what she had read before I could put the results into some sort of context for her.

Her body seemed to relax at being given an opportunity to discuss it, but I could see her face was still wary. On guard. “First of all, that there are several types of hyperplasia” –she pronounced the word very carefully- “… and that some types are further along the spectrum towards cancer.”

I nodded slowly, not wanting to challenge her interpretations unless warranted.

“The type that seems most predictive of cancer, is the abnormal hyperplasia…”

Atypical,” I interjected, just so she’d know I was listening carefully, I suppose.

She managed a rigid, if fleeting smile. “Atypical. Thank you.” She referred to some notes she’d folded into her purse. “That word was not mentioned in the report, and I even showed it to a friend of mine -who is a nurse- and she agreed.” When I didn’t object, she lashed out at her GP. “I’ve been going to Dr. Hannah for several years now, and I usually trust her judgement, but I think she’s made a mistake here… I’ve never been on hormones,” she added as a kind of preemptive rebuttal of an accusation she expected to hear. “She says the biopsy may have missed a more… atypical area and so to be safe, I should have my uterus removed. You doctors always seem to want to remove things.” She settled back in her chair having made her case, and prepared to fend off the denial.

I took a deep breath while I decided how to approach the problem. I agreed with the concerns of her GP -at her age, there shouldn’t be much of a lining in the uterus at all, let alone one that was sufficiently thick to bleed. Something must have caused the hyperplasia. And yet, I could also understand Jerra’s anxiety. “I suppose our problem in cases like this is one of certainty, isn’t it? On the one hand, the pathology results as they stand could explain the bleeding and the ultrasound, but not with complete certainty. There could be some even more abnormal tissue hiding in a corner of the uterus that was not sampled with the endometrial biopsy…” I’m sure her GP had already gone over this with her, but it needed to be repeated. “And if that were the case, and we left the abnormal cells in place, we might all regret the decision later.”

She sat straight up in her chair shaking her head the whole time I was speaking. “Dr. Hannah kept saying the same things, doctor.” She sighed and stirred restlessly on the chair. I could see her clasping and unclasping her hands on her lap. “Let me be clear -as far as the pathology report is concerned, there is no cancer. I have…” she referred to a copy of the report in the bundle of papers again carefully folded in her purse. “… I have ‘simple hyperplasia’ –which, as I understand it, is far removed from the cancer end of the spectrum. I find it reassuring, and I fail to understand why you do not.” At this point she actually crossed her arms tightly across her chest and nailed me to my chair with an angry glare. “You’re looking at the same data as I am, and yet you are interpreting it totally differently,” she added, as if she were paraphrasing something she’d read online.

I smiled, again, but it did nothing to diffuse those eyes that searched for a permanent foothold on my face. “I suppose I’m just being careful, Mrs. Tandill. Experience teaches me that…”

Medical schools teach you, doctor!” she interrupted angrily. “Mentors that have been through the same system instruct you how to think about these things.”

I sighed, and I’m afraid I was not very successful at disguising it from her. “Have you had any more bleeding –since the biopsy, I mean?” She shook her head dismissively, and I sat back a little on my chair, all too aware I had also been revealing my discomfort at her anger. “Would you feel better if I did another biopsy…? To confirm the first one?” I added this in hopes of walking the middle road between her wishful thinking that the biopsy was indeed reassuring, and at least not denying the possibility that it may have missed something worse.

At that point she got to her feet, still scratching at my cheeks with her eyes. “No, I would not feel better! You would probably continue to recommend biopsies until you found the result you anticipate, doctor, and I will simply not play that game with you.”

And with an angry shake of her head she turned and walked out the door.

But maybe she was on the right track; maybe compromise -the middle ground- only re-routes the problem and detracts from whatever the data purport to demonstrate. No matter the number of repetitions, an interpretation of the results is still required. And if the data warrant it, a stand on one side or the other must be taken and we must live with the consequences. I think there comes a time when we must disagree with Macbeth when he says to MacDuff ‘Damned be him that first cries, “Hold, enough!”’

Do We Really Understand?

Okay, call me a cynic, or maybe even a curmudgeon, but I sometimes wonder just how much we understand about Information –and by extension, it’s relationship to Knowledge.

Information can be construed as the answer to a question or, seen from a different perspective, as that which has the potential to resolve uncertainty. Numbers, for example, are not information unless they pertain to something. And when we think of information in the form of data, it doesn’t necessarily require someone to receive it, but can stand alone, unwatched and unprocessed until summoned. Knowledge on the other hand can be thought of as the reception, collation, and subsequent processing of that data –requested, in other words. Whether that which stands in isolation, unprocessed and unused constitutes Knowledge is an interesting, but tricky issue –likely of the same ilk as ‘If a tree falls in the woods with no one around to hear it, does it still make a noise?’ that we all puzzled over in Philosophy 101 in University. Because data –information- has the potential to answer a question, does that automatically qualify it as knowledge even if there is no question? Even if it might not resolve any uncertainty?

I raise these issues not to transition into a discussion of information theory, but to ask how much we are furthered by information about issues that are incompletely understood –known?- even by experts in the field. I’m referring, of course, to our own DNA.

Scientists are accumulating more and more data about genes and their codes and loci on specific chromosomes. They are beginning to link particular code changes in these genes to specific conditions, and the process is just beginning. Progress seems to increase logarithmically. The promise of this information is enormous in terms of diagnosis and perhaps eventually, treatment.

I do wonder, however, whether it is valuable or premature to offer personalized genotypes as a commercial venture to anyone who asks for them. Clearly, there are situations when the information would be helpful when questions are asked of it: risks of a genetically-carried disease, hereditary lineage, or even paternity, as examples. But do we really know more about ourselves because some company has mapped our chromosomes? Without a question being posed to which the genetic sequences are the answer, is what is received useful, or pap? At this stage of our investigation of the genetic code, is an undirected map of base-pairs on a chromosome anything other than simply that: a small scale map of largely unnamed streets of a mysterious city that happens to have the label of the requester on it? A hieroglyph?

Undoubtedly, as the data accumulate, this mapping will progress to the stage where it becomes an essential guide to a city we wish –or need- to explore. And perhaps the store of information acquired will allow retrospective analysis of things whose importance we have yet to understand. Answer questions we don’t yet have –or at least can’t yet formulate in a way that could be solved.

In the meantime, however, I worry about that very personal and private information being made available against our wishes and perhaps to our detriment. Insurance companies, for example, employers –or maybe even an untrammeled government worried about threats of terrorism or contagion may request, or perhaps legislate that the genetic information be provided –especially if it has already been obtained. Unfortunately, at least at the time of this writing, there is no protection in Canada against discrimination based on genetics. There is, however, some legislation under review (Bill S-201) that addresses this. One hopes that its adoption will be soon, but it is a concern that certainly needs resolution before widespread adoption of personalized DNA should be considered. Once Pandora’s box has been opened, it might be too late, so we must think long and hard about what we decide.

Well considered safeguards are essential in advance -both for governments as well as for industry that may be tempted to oversell the potential. I stand with Hamlet in this: one may smile, and smile, and be a villain.