Nobody in Particular

Why do we believe something? How do we know that we are right? When I was a child, I was certain that the Fleetwood television set my parents had just purchased, was the best. So was the make of our car -and our vacuum cleaner too, come to think of it. But why? Was it simply because authority figures in my young life had told me, or was there an objective reality to their assertions? For that matter, how did they know, anyway? Other parents had different opinions, so who was right?

I was too young to question these things then, but gradually, I came to seek other sources of knowledge. And yet, even these sometimes differed. It’s difficult to know in what direction to face when confronted with disparate opinions. Different ‘truths’. Everybody can’t be right. Usually, in fact, the correct answer lies somewhere in the middle of it all, and it becomes a matter of knowing which truths to discard -choosing the ‘correct’ truth.

Despite the fact that most of us rely on some method like this, it sounds completely counterintuitive. How many truths can there be? Is each a truth, or merely an opinion? And what’s wrong with having a particular opinion? Again, how would we know? How could we know?

Nowadays, with social media algorithms selecting which particular news they report on the basis of our past choices, it’s difficult to know if we are in an echo chamber unless we purposely and critically examine whatever truths we hold dear -step back to burst the bubble. Canvas different people, and sample different opinions. But, even then, without resorting to mythology, or a presumed ‘revealed’ truth that substantiates a particular religious dogma, is there an objective truth that somehow transcends all the others? Conversely is all truth relative -situationally contextualized, temporally dependent, and ultimately socially endorsed?

Should we, in fact, rely on a random sample of opinions to arrive at an answer to some questions that are only a matter of values, but not about realistically verifiable facts -such as the height of a building, say, or maybe the type of bacterium that causes a particular disease? Would that bring us closer to the truth, or simply yet another truth?

Well, it turns out that the average of a large group of diverse and even contrary opinions has some statistical merit: http://www.bbc.com/future/story/20140708-when-crowd-wisdom-goes-wrong  ‘[T]here is some truth underpinning the idea that the masses can make more accurate collective judgements than expert individuals.’ The Wisdom of Crowds ‘is generally traced back to an observation by Charles Darwin’s cousin Francis Galton in 1907. Galton pointed out that the average of all the entries in a ‘guess the weight of the ox’ competition at a country fair was amazingly accurate – beating not only most of the individual guesses but also those of alleged cattle experts. This is the essence of the wisdom of crowds: their average judgement converges on the right solution.’

But the problem is in the sampling -the diversity of the members of that crowd. ‘If everyone let themselves be influenced by each other’s guesses, there’s more chance that the guesses will drift towards a misplaced bias.’ Of course ‘This finding challenges a common view in management and politics that it is best to seek consensus in group decision making. What you can end up with instead is herding towards a relatively arbitrary position. Just how arbitrary depends on what kind of pool of opinions you start off with. […] copycat behaviour has been widely regarded as one of the major contributing factors to the financial crisis, and indeed to all financial crises of the past. [And] this detrimental herding effect is likely to be even greater for deciding problems for which no objectively correct answer exists. […] All of these findings suggest that knowing who is in the crowd, and how diverse they are, is vital before you attribute to them any real wisdom.’

This might imply that ‘you should add random individuals whose decisions are unrelated to those of existing group members. That would be good, but it’s better still to add individuals who aren’t simply independent thinkers but whose views are ‘negatively correlated’ – as different as possible – from the existing members. In other words, diversity trumps independence. If you want accuracy, then, add those who might disagree strongly with your group.’

Do you see where I’m going with all this? We should try to be open enough to consider all sides of an argument before making a considered decision. Let’s face it, you have to know what it is that you’re up against before you can arrive at a compromise. And perhaps, the thing you thought you were opposing is not so different from your own view after all.

Even our values fluctuate. Unless we are willing to be historical revisionists, it’s obvious that people in the past often assigned values differently to how we do today -sexual orientation, for example, or racial characteristic and stereotyping. And who nowadays would dare argue that women are not the equal of men, and deserve the same rights?

There are some things about which we will continue to disagree, no doubt. And yet, even a willingness to listen to an opposing opinion instead of shutting it down without a fair acknowledgment of whatever merits it might have hidden within it, or commonalities it might share with ours, is a step in the right direction.

I’m not at all sure that it’s healthy to agree about everything, anyway, nor to assume we possess the truth. It’s our truth. I think that without some dissenting input, we’d be bored, condemned to float in the increasingly stagnant backwater we chose, while just beyond our banks, a creek runs merrily past, excited to discover another view that lies beyond and behind the next hill.

After all, remember what happened to Caesar after Shakespeare had him boast: “I am constant as the northern star, of whose true-fix’d and resting quality there is no fellow in the firmament.”

Just saying…

 

Advertisements

Places that we’ve come to trust

 

When I was a child, the world was an even stranger place than it is now. I knew so much less then, and the boundaries of almost every experience were unexplored and mysterious. I suppose that’s to be expected when the menu is large, and the stomach limited. So, with no internet to answer each question, and teachers who, despite their qualifications and zeal, were unable to fill in more than a decidedly modest number of the blanks, children my age migrated to the Delphic Oracle of the era: the library.

Although sometimes an imposing stone-and-pillared structure in the middle of a large city, in more modest towns it was often only a converted cottage, or a tiny building that housed the books. But however it was dressed, it was the library with all those answers on the shelves, all that magic in the musty perfume of the books. And yes, there was the reigning priestess, the keeper of the tomes, who seemed to know just how to organize our questions and then lead us directly to the shelf where the answers lay.

It was an enchanted place, the library, and one we children got to know even years before we started school. A place where we would gather each Saturday morning in a little circle on the floor to hear someone read stories to us of faeries that danced on little flowers, of kings and queens who disguised themselves as people just like us, of bears who spoke, and fawns that cavorted through the woods all day then slept in beds of moss each night.

Later, of course, we began to read things for ourselves, and to decide what made sense and what to believe. We would read a book the librarian recommended, and then another that she hadn’t -just to check. I sometimes thought I’d wandered alone and secretly through the new ideas, but then she’d smile and congratulate me on my journey when I saw her at her desk.

I suppose we’re never really on our own when we have a book, though. It is the world, or at least its a door that opens inwards. The book is the sacred space, not the shelf on which it is forced to sleep. And I have long suspected that many things are similar to that -a school, for example, or a yoga class, a police officer, or a program on the radio -they each represent an expertise we cannot all possess. A knowledge so extensive we must partition it out in little bits to make it work. It is what a civilization does; it is what constitutes a society.

I found an incredibly insightful article entitled Truth is also a place in the online magazine Aeon on the subject that helped me to set things in context: https://aeon.co/essays/labs-courts-and-altars-are-also-traveling-truth-spots  It was written by Thomas Gieryn, a sociologist at Indiana University Bloomington, who suggests that ‘Some places make people believe.’ He describes the aura of wisdom ascribed to the ancient Oracle at Delphi. It was in a place so remote that even getting there was a struggle, and hence no doubt augmented the reliability of whatever advice was proffered. Other places, he argues, are similarly sacred: law courts, churches, laboratories, and so forth. The very stability of their location, and their often unique and recognizable architectures, lends an almost sacred air to their functions. ‘Ordinarily, truth-spots stay put over time, and those who seek believable knowledge must travel to them – not the other way around.’

But he wonders if the reliability and permanence of the location is still really necessary to perpetuate the authority. ‘[…] is longevity in a particular location always needed in order for a place to make people believe? Some truth-spots travel: they inhabit a place only temporarily. Sometimes a portable assemblage of material objects might be enough to consecrate an otherwise mundane place as a source for legitimate understandings – but only for the time that the stuff is there, before it moves on. But if a church or lab or courtroom can be folded up like a tent and pitched someplace else, can it really sustain its persuasive powers as a source for truth?’

In the abstract, that seems like an unlikely possibility. After all, part of the solace of religion, say, is in the majesty of the venue -the comfort of the pew, the quiet place that is a refuge from the busy street outside. Or, at other times it may lie in the reverberations of the organ, or the echo of a choir singing somewhere hidden in a large cathedral.

But Gieryn illustrates his thesis with examples of how the authority, if not the venue is transportable. Travelling justices can set up a court in the most unlikely of locations -a small village in China, for example, with ducks and geese waddling past. Justice can be fairly meted out to the satisfaction of villagers who might otherwise never be able to travel to a big city courtroom. Religion, too, could be promulgated outside of the boundaries of a church so long as those ceremonial symbols seen as sacred and important, accompany the duly recognized religious official.

But I suppose these things are so common nowadays, with our internet connections and social media flurries, that the very idea of immutability has become a myth. With the possible exception of religious structures, buildings permanently dedicated to a particular purpose, seem anachronistic. Atavistic. Time itself is out of joint.

Surely we are not so shallow that we think that it is the edifice that contains the authority, so naïve that we confuse the vehicle with the driver. It’s not the library that contains the book, nor even the book itself we need -it’s the ideas, the perspectives, and the wisdom travelling in an ever-expanding ripple that we should attempt to grasp…

And yet… I’d miss the smile of that wonderful lady with the dirty glasses, who sat behind the library desk and watched with motherly pride as I carried out an armful of books for another week. Call me sentimental, or just an old man trapped in reverie, but I think there is still something sacred in a place where a person like her could sit and watch -and smile encouragingly- as we struggle past.

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. http://www.bbc.com/news/health-35282764

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. https://openparliament.ca/bills/41-2/S-201/ 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.

Scientific Gynaecology

Damn! They did it again –just when I thought I’d finally got it straight about why HDL was the ‘good’ cholesterol and how beneficial it is, they changed it on me. Well, modified it, I guess. Lipoproteins are molecules that carry fats (lipids like cholesterol and triglycerides) to and from cells in the body. HDL (High Density Lipoprotein), however, transfers these fats away from artery walls and so helps to decrease the accumulation in arteriosclerotic plaques that can cause heart attacks and strokes.

Okay, good. Eat foods rich in HDLs and Bob’s your uncle. Right? Uhmm, not so fast. At the 2015 annual meeting of the North American Menopause Society (NAMS) some scientists from the University of Pittsburgh studied 225 healthy women in their mid and late forties for almost 9 years. ‘The study revealed that elevated HDL levels during menopause were associated with increased atherosclerosis. “These findings suggest that the quality of HDL may be altered over the menopausal transition, thus rendering it ineffective in delivering the expected cardiac benefits”, said study author Samar Khoudary.

Researchers hypothesize that the hormonal changes may be associated with the modified effect of HDL, especially estradiol reduction’.

Great! Now what am I going to tell my patients? A lot of them are already confused by the plethora of conflicting data in the scientific literature to which Dr. Google so readily directs them. Don’t we know anything for certain anymore? For that matter, did we ever deal in certainties? It’s a question written in their eyes –a silent reproof for my previous dicta, a withering acknowledgement that doctors may not speak ex cathedra.

Well, the very nature of Science, is that it uses Inductive Logic to derive general principles from observations. So, as the usual example goes, if we only ever see crows that are black, then it seems reasonable to conclude that all crows are black –until, that is, someone sees a white crow. Or -my favourite: ‘absence of evidence is not necessarily evidence of absence’. As Karl Popper insisted, Scientific knowledge should always be able to be falsified with contrary evidence. Hence, it is usually couched in statistics to reflect the probability of its truth.

It’s also why the world is so exciting: there are always surprises.

But Juna was unimpressed. For her, the purpose of Life was to hunt for certainty and then cling to it like a parental hand. She seemed resistant to any prescriptive opinion that I offered although she would always listen politely and smile at the appropriate times. Then she would offer her personal assessment of where she felt her problem lay as if it were a debate that required equal time for rebuttal. Equal consideration for the opposing side.

“That’s very interesting, doctor,” was how she would start her counter-argument. Then would come the pause. “But, isn’t it possible that there could be another way of looking at the same issue?”

And then she would have me; there’s always another way of looking at something.

She’d notice my expression, smile mischievously and continue the attack. “I mean, how can we say for certain that diet doesn’t play a major role in yeast acquisition?” And she would sit back in her chair, cross her arms like a prosecuting attorney and challenge me to counter that.

Whenever I apprise my colleagues of what goes on in my office, they always tell me that I shouldn’t run it like a courtroom, but I have to admit that I’m often curious to hear the opinions of the other side.

Juna was always delightfully provocative; she seemed to sense where the boundary was and although she’d sometimes reach across it, she never stayed for long. “You guys always seem to get it wrong, doctor,” she volunteered one time with a twinkle in her eyes. She had recently crossed the threshold into menopause and was intrigued both by the changes and the variety of opinions as to what to do about it.

I raised one eyebrow -our signal that I was willing to engage- and smiled. “I mean, look at the fiasco over hormone replacement…” she said, pretending confusion.

“We still use them occasionally.” I felt I had to defend them for some reason, although I hadn’t prescribed them for a long time. But the look of disbelief on her face –a mother listening to her son’s feeble defence- demanded an explanation.

“Knowledge is constantly expanding, Juna. What we believe today may be superseded by additional knowledge tomorrow.”

It was her turn to raise an eyebrow –she loved the gesture. “Then is it knowledge that is expanding, or simply conjecture?”

I rolled my eyes –the necessary next step in the process. “Science is conjecture in a way. It gathers together observations and tries to make sense of them with a general principle –a conjecture, if you will.”

She shook her head slowly –a teacher confronting a slow pupil. “If things are always subject to change, then how am I to decide? What am I to believe?”

I sighed politely. Philosophers have been wrestling with the same problem for millennia and Juna wanted a definitive resolution in the thirty minutes I had allotted in my busy day for her appointment. Things were getting out of control. “Using current knowledge…” I started slowly, choosing my words carefully as I tip-toed through the minefield she had set in front of me. “… is sort of like a buying a car. Despite how advanced the current model is, there are usually improvements in a new one… So, even if you need it, do you never buy one because it will soon be out of date?”

Her face stayed neutral as she thought about it. Sometimes even a desperately conceived metaphor can accomplish what erudition finds difficult.

“You mean like Ovid’s All things change; nothing perishes?”

I have to admit I’d never heard that one before, but it sounded sort of like a concession.

“What’s past is prologue,” I tried to reply in kind, quoting Antonio from Shakespeare’s Tempest, but it was a feeble attempt -I’m just a gynaecologist after all. But she smiled nonetheless: a truce.

The Black Sewing Box

I love mysteries, and if they involve finding buried treasure, so much the better. Thoughts of treasure chests used to conjure up maps and pirates hiding valuable things in faraway and largely inaccessible places. I suppose that shows my age, because nowadays, the more likely proxy for a treasure chest in the popular imagination is a flight data recorder –a black box- submerged beneath thousands of meters of ocean or buried under rocks on the side of a faraway mountain. Hidden wealth for sure.

The myth of faraway, or at least elusive, treasure is an ancient one; think of the Greek myth of Jason in quest of the Golden Fleece -the golden wool of a ram which symbolized authority. There is something enticing about that which we do not have, but might obtain with sufficient diligence. And information seems to be the treasure most prized in the modern era. Information is Power. Information is Knowledge.

And yet, despite the cache of data contained in the almost magically endowed black box, and despite its reputation as the only solution to an otherwise insoluble problem, we forget its other, earlier, and less forthcoming incarnation –its perhaps even more obscure aspect. In computational and engineering models, a black box is something we can use, but don’t understand. For every input, there is an output, but like a magician’s sleeve, we don’t know why. The brain is still a black box. You and I are, for all intents and purposes, black boxes. And that is what is so appealing to me: that none of us are completely knowable. Predictable. We are all magician’s hats…

A short article in an August 2015 Canadian Medical Association Journal stirred the coals of my easily invoked imagination: http://www.cmaj.ca/content/187/11/794.full  It likens the measured parameters in an aviation ‘black box’ to a research project involving operating rooms at a Toronto hospital. ‘The technology involves several cameras and microphones, along with sensors to document physiological data and key aspects of the environment, such as temperature.’ But this foray into the sacred chambers of the OR is not merely another frivolous time-and-motion study, so beloved of factories and corporations everywhere. No, as the article puts it: ‘The intent of the new technology is to enhance health team performance, pinpoint errors and missteps (human and otherwise), and subsequently identify ways to prevent and address those issues.’

Having spent a good part of my career as a surgeon in the OR, I appreciate the need to improve performance and prevent mistakes. In a teaching hospital, much of our time in surgery goes to passing on our skills and honing the competence and judgement of the resident doctors in the program. We become the monitors. But, as hinted in the old fable of mice deciding that the best way to detect the approach of a cat would be to hang a bell around its neck, who will bell the cat? In other words, how do we know that the surgeon –or whoever- is not passing along bad habits? Faulty techniques in need of improvement?

One way tried in recent times, has involved having another surgeon in the OR as an observer. A later meeting to debrief and discuss opportunities to modify identified issues then helps to improve performance. Unfortunately not all of us are open to suggestions about our skill-sets, and other opinions are sometimes seen as criticisms. Ego and the fear of loss of reputation likely figure prominently in the equation even though the findings are kept private. Only if this practice of observation and subsequent discussion were made universal would it have a chance of thriving as a learning tool, however.

Another, although for some, equally uncomfortable method of improving performance in the OR, would be the practice of having a more junior surgeon, say, scrubbing with another more experienced colleague as part of a mandated hospital policy for quality assurance -much as hospitals now require yearly performance and outcome reviews for hospital reappointment. Personally, I like this approach. It is an easy way to learn and see new techniques in a less stressful environment than if I were in charge of the case. And I think we can also learn from the residents we are teaching who have studied in other hospitals and with other surgeons. There are many ways to improve our skills if we don’t allow ourselves to become encased in habit and focussed only on our own clothes. As Isaac Newton might have put it, ‘If I have been able to see as far as others, it is by standing on the shoulders of colleagues.’ Well, okay, perhaps he said it better, but our options to improve seem to be either carrot or stick.

There is a trend creeping into public media of assessing and rating doctors on their outcomes. How many patients benefitted from the surgery? How many had complications? How many surgeries has the doctor performed? What about her colleagues? The publication of these data sets may seem reasonable, but unfortunately they leave many contributing factors in the shadows –or even unreported. Unconsidered. For example, perhaps the surgeon in question has a high complication rate because, as the most experienced, she gets the most difficult cases -maybe the ones that have failed other treatments.

All things considered, perhaps the black box approach has more compelling merit than first meets the eyes. If the public were assured that procedures were monitored and recorded this might go a long way to assuaging their suspicion of incompetence or malpractice. And as the article suggests, ‘Data recorded by the black box system could well speak for patients unable to speak for themselves because they were under anaesthesia or unfamiliar with hospital procedures and protocol.’ Let’s face it, ‘black box’ monitoring certainly helps to instill a level of confidence in airplanes: just knowing that after a difficult or problematic flight, experts could discover what actually happened and correct it for the future.

There is a problem with the black box method, however –an obvious one for surgeons: ‘the data in an operating room black box could be used as evidence in medical malpractice suits unless precluded by legislation — in much the same way morbidity and mortality assessments made by hospitals and staff for the purpose of quality assurance and improvements are exempt from being used in court.’ We all learn from our mistakes –and from the mistakes of others. We must, otherwise the errors will be repeated. And most of these issues are not the result of malpractice or incompetence. They are potentially teachable moments, if you will.

In fact, one lawyer commenting on the black box idea, felt that ‘the data could also help surgeons who are being sued. “With the black box, critical procedures and techniques could be objectively assessed by peer surgeons when a poor outcome occurs. From the surgeon’s point of view, the data would be confirmation that all was done right but the poor outcome was beyond their control.”

So, in a way, it’s prudent to swallow unsweetened medicine now to ward off disease down the road. In the words of Tolkien, ‘It will not do to leave a live dragon out of your plans, if you live near one.’

Why do we Know something?

Knowledge is interesting. But what is it, exactly? What does it mean to say you know something? Plato defined it as being justified true belief, but is it? Take Bertrand Russel’s famous thought experiment: the ‘stopped clock case’, for example. Alice looks at a clock and says it is two o’clock. Well, because the clock does indeed confirm that it is two o’clock, it seems justified; and because it is, in reality, two o’clock, it also seems a true belief. She could therefore be said to know that it is two o’clock… But, unknown to Alice, the clock had actually stopped working exactly 12 hours previously, so did she know that it was two o’clock? Or was it a fortuitous guess and not knowledge?

All this is a little out of my comfort zone to say the least, so I’m not even going to attempt straying into such philosophical realms as the ‘Gettier Problem’ (whether something that happens to be true but is believed, as with Alice, for incorrect or flawed reasons should be counted as knowledge). It is truly thought-provoking, though, isn’t it?

But Knowledge is not just a list of facts that happen to be true –whatever truth is- nor a compilation of disparate evidentiary items. It is not only an encyclopedia, it is a diary as well: the story of why it exists. There is often a purpose to it –or at least in its acquisition there may have been a reason, even if you stumbled upon it by accident.

In other words, there is another way of approaching the concept of knowledge other than how we know something to be true –the Scientific Method, for example- and that is why we know it. And I don’t mean to stir the lid of Pandora’s box with the ‘why question’, nor to intimate some sort of heterodox Creationist linkage, but merely to introduce something that I learned from a patient a few years back -a professor of philosophy at one of the local universities.

Nancy was a thin, forty-seven year old woman who had been sent to me for a recent episode of irregular menstrual bleeding. She was otherwise healthy and somewhat embarrassed at having to see me for something her mother and aunt had managed to work through without having to seek medical advice. Her family doctor had ordered an ultrasound of the pelvis and it had not revealed anything suspicious. In fact it had stated that no abnormalities had been seen to explain the bleeding.

I suggested it would be a good idea to sample the uterine cells with an office endometrial biopsy as a final reassurance that nothing had been missed. But I could see that she was uncomfortable with the idea.

“What are you hoping an endometrial biopsy will find, doctor?” she said suspiciously.

“Actually, I’m hoping to find nothing,” I said in my best, confident voice. “The ultrasound didn’t see anything to worry about…”

An eyebrow slowly crawled up one side of her forehead. “I realize that; my GP showed me the result.” The other eyebrow shot up to join its sister. “So… Why would you want to do a biopsy?”

I get asked this a lot. “Well, the ultrasound is not a microscope. It can’t tell anything about the type of cells that are in there.” She still looked unconvinced, I have to say, so I pulled out another of my usual analogies. “I suppose it’s something like trying to make a diagnosis from a shadow. You can guess a person’s height and perhaps her weight from her shadow, but even if you could tell she had long hair, you would have no idea of its colour. Nor would you know anything about her heart.”

Nancy was quiet for a moment, obviously thinking it through. I could tell from her face that she thought it was a rather clumsy explanation -not well conceived, and not terribly illustrative of her problem. “So,” she finally said, looking up at the ceiling for help, “The ultrasound is normal, the blood tests my GP did suggest I’m in the menopausal transition now, the abnormal bleeding only occurred in one menstrual cycle a few months ago, and I’ve been doing well since then…” She dropped her eyes onto my face and left them hovering there for a moment as she shook her head. “Tell me again why you think a biopsy would be a good idea.”

I have to admit that when she put it like that I had second thoughts, but nevertheless I pushed on, regardless. Was I just trying to save face, or was there truly a principle at stake? “Well… clearly there are different ways of approaching your bleeding… But if we do the biopsy, and it is normal, then at the very least we will have a baseline that reassures us that if it happens again in the near future, we can probably assume the cells are still normal…”

Nancy was good; she could read the hesitation in my voice. She smiled gracefully, but it was a polite smile. “Wouldn’t it make equally good sense to wait and see if it starts to happen more frequently and then do the biopsy?”

She had me. “Yes, I suppose that is an equally acceptable option.”

She sat back in her chair, crossed her legs, folded her arms across her chest and stared at me –not unkindly, not aggressively, but curiously, like a mother might watch a mischievous child. “I won’t ask you how you came to that conclusion, or how you know that a biopsy might be justified. Those are all fairly standard medical teachings, as I understand…” Her face wrinkled in concern. “But I’d be curious as to why you know that.”

I returned her stare. Why I knew that? Why does anybody know something? Because they read it, or were taught it, or figured it out… Why indeed?

“We all have options in our learning,” she continued. “There are many opinions to which we are exposed, rival paradigms, competing theories. And they all promise success; they all answer the questions differently. Like a hundred people crossing a single bridge, it’s not the same bridge for any of them. It’s a hundred bridges…”

Her face softened, like a teacher that realizes she has confused her pupil. “From all that reality has to offer, we have to decide what to privilege. There are just too many routes to the truth to take them all. We have to choose…

“But why do we choose one view, one approach instead of another? That’s what I’m asking.” She sighed, as if even the question, let alone the answer to it, was hopeless. “Why do you know one thing and not something else?”

Her question still troubles me. I had no answer for her then; nor do I now. I still wallow in the permutations and combinations of perpectives I confront daily and wonder how I manage to choose my direction without getting lost. Maybe it’s a confirmation bias: I have come to believe in the correctness of a particular viewpoint over the years and so only consider the evidence that confirms it. The diagnosis that points that way. And if the results don’t justify the approach? Well, there’s always rationalization to light the path I’ve chosen.

But do I really know why I know what I do, believe what I believe, think what I think? No, not so far… and yet the fact that I’m even aware of the discrepancy, and see the signs to other roads, is a good start isn’t it? As Marcel Proust wrote: The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new lands but seeing with new eyes.

Kegel Exercises in Pregnancy

Okay, okay, I was wrong! It happens. Sometimes the brain gets in the way of scientific studies –prejudges them. Alters them in little ways so they do not conflict with its own opinions. Or, worse still, is influenced by a confirmation bias that precludes even the perusal of any information that makes it uncomfortable. The brain can be its own editor, redacting reams of otherwise useful knowledge, recusing itself inappropriately. None of us readily admit guilt in this respect, of course. In a sense, we are blind to it… or want to be.

I’m a gynaecologist as well as an obstetrician, so I have long been aware of the value of strengthening the pelvic floor muscles to prevent urinary incontinence amongst other things. There are a set of muscles –the levator ani muscles- that act as a kind of pelvic platform and help support the various organs that transit through the area, notably the bladder, uterus, and rectum. Exercising them was proposed by a Dr. Kegel in 1952, albeit to strengthen their ability to narrow the vagina and hence the ease of orgasm. I think a more frequently admitted use, is to reduce urinary incontinence, however. Indeed, to discover  the correct muscle for training, the woman need only attempt to stop her urinary stream and she has identified the correct one.

Prominent among the levator ani muscles is the pubococcygeus muscle. (The name merely describes where the muscle starts –the pubic bone, and where it ends- the coccyx, or tail-bone. On its journey, it wraps around, first the urethra –the tube that empties the bladder-  and then the vagina, and finally the rectum, like a series of hammocks). The fact that strengthening it can constrict the vaginal diameter when contracted, has always been a kind of two-edged sword for those of us who deliver babies. On the one hand, there is some fairly longstanding and convincing evidence that it can indeed help to prevent the involuntary loss of urine (urinary incontinence). But remember that it not only helps support the bladder and its opening, it is also a hammock that supports and constricts the vaginal canal. Well, that’s what the baby has to squeeze through… So, does the one benefit become a detriment to the other? Are you robbing Petra to pay Paula?

I have to admit that I was one of the exercise skeptics; it made sense to me that the stronger the muscles that surround the vagina -the greater their bulk- the narrower and more difficult the passageway for the baby to pass through at delivery. At the very least, I reasoned, it would take a greater effort on the part of the mother to force her baby through. And all this at a time when she is already exhausted from her labour. Maybe it would make more sense to work on strengthening those muscles in the weeks and months after delivery. Everything in the area was stretched or torn from the effort of actually pushing the baby’s head out, so perhaps the benefits would accrue if those muscles were strengthen then –a sort of postpartum rehabilitation.

In other words, would strong pelvic floor muscles increase complications in either labour or birth? Would there be a higher incidence of Caesarian Sections, for example? Or the need for episiotomy (cutting the skin at the opening of the vagina) to allow more room for the baby’s head to descend? Would there be a greater need for so-called operative delivery (forceps or vacuum extraction)?

Well, here’s where the information from large studies are more helpful than personal experience. Each of us carries a bias –acknowledged, or buried deep within our own reminiscences of similar situations. If I, for example, believe that the Kegel exercises are a hindrance to normal delivery, I am more likely to remember any episodes in my career where that might indeed have played a role –unaware, or maybe conveniently forgetting  (or not even asking about) times when it didn’t. Confirmation bias again. Limited, or selective, observations are not necessarily a valid reflection of the collective reality. They amount to opinions, not proof, and carry only as much weight as the prestige of the propounder allows. In my case, it was never very much…

The benefit of Kegel exercises in pregnancy remained somewhat controversial in the obstetrical community –at least amongst us iconoclasts- until some Norwegian researchers, notably Kari Bo at the Norwegian School of Sport Sciences, decided to investigate it in a large group of women (18,865 primiparous women) who practiced Kegel exercises at various frequencies per week during pregnancy. The group then looked at the outcome and complications of their labours and deliveries. http://www.ncbi.nlm.gov/pubmed/19461423 There was no difference in outcomes between those who did Kegels religiously in pregnancy, and those who did not. Presumably, the pelvic floor muscles –as strong (and bulky?) as they had become- were able to relax enough to allow normal passage of the baby.

I learned a lot from that paper –and a lot about the way my beliefs interpret my experience. A lot, too, about the way many of us travel through our lives, influenced as we are by only limited familiarity or exposure to events, and drawing perhaps unwarranted –or at least unproven- conclusions from them. And although it is inductive reasoning with all of its inherent uncertainty, deriving conclusions that are reliable and from sufficient observations can be a problem. Generalizing, in other words: probabilistic forecasting from limited available data. An example sometimes given is: all the swans I’ve ever seen have been white, so therefore it would seem reasonable to conclude that all swans must be white… until, that is I see a black swan. Obviously, any one person’s experience must be limited, so any conclusions derived from them, must also be limited.

All generalizations are false, including this one, as Mark Twain famously observed. I’m not sure I’d go that far, though. I think George Bernard Shaw was closer to what I have learned about depending on one’s own experience to the exclusion of competing views: Beware of false knowledge; it is more dangerous than ignorance.