The Me of Science

This is going to sound trite, but have you ever wondered about your role in Science? Really. I mean that of your consciousness in apprehending and interpreting that which is measured: the ‘Me’-ness which separates each of us from whatever we’re doing -or, rather, which joins us to it: joins us to the other?

I don’t mean to sound Cartesian here; I don’t want to get into mind-body stuff, and yet it comes down to whether or not we believe that the Mind is reducible to a bundle of interconnected neurons, or something more, doesn’t it? An emergent phenomenon -a synergism- or merely a synthesis: an entity wholly explainable in terms of its constituents.

Where, in other words, do I come in? And if I don’t, is there any proof -apart from my saying so- that I even exist?

Of course, why should I even care? I mean, cogito ergo sum, eh? I know I exist, and so I can investigate anything I want, acting in my own right as a valid agent. Science and I can look into any box and measure its contents… except, perhaps, reality itself -I can assume no God’s-eye view of that. I cannot absent myself from that box while I measure it -I am immersed in it. The box, really, is all there is.

I have to say, I was re-seduced into this type of thinking by a very perceptive essay in Aeon written as a collaboration between Adam Frank, professor of astrophysics at the University of Rochester in New York, Marcelo Gleiser, a theoretical physicist at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire, and Evan Thompson, professor of philosophy at the University of British Columbia. https://aeon.co/essays/the-blind-spot-of-science-is-the-neglect-of-lived-experience

‘In our urge for knowledge and control, we’ve created a vision of science as a series of discoveries about how reality is in itself, a God’s-eye view of nature. Such an approach not only distorts the truth, but creates a false sense of distance between ourselves and the world. That divide arises from what we call the Blind Spot, which science itself cannot see. In the Blind Spot sits experience: the sheer presence and immediacy of lived perception.’

So, ‘Elementary particles, moments in time, genes, the brain – all these things are assumed to be fundamentally real. By contrast, experience, awareness and consciousness are taken to be secondary.’ And yet, ‘We never encounter physical reality outside of our observations of it… [and] these tests never give us nature as it is in itself, outside our ways of seeing and acting on things. Experience is just as fundamental to scientific knowledge as the physical reality it reveals… The point is that physical science doesn’t include an account of experience; but we know that experience exists, so the claim that the only things that exist are what physical science tells us is false.’ Or maybe misleading.

‘Husserl, the German thinker who founded the philosophical movement of phenomenology, argued that lived experience is the source of science. It’s absurd, in principle, to think that science can step outside it.’ And Alfred North Whitehead, who taught at Harvard University in the 1920ies, ‘argued that science relies on a faith in the order of nature that can’t be justified by logic. That faith rests directly on our immediate experience… he argued that what we call ‘reality’ is made up of evolving processes that are equally physical and experiential.’ You’ve gotta love this stuff.

Anyway, I suppose the importance of all this palaver is to point out that ‘When we look at the objects of scientific knowledge, we don’t tend to see the experiences that underpin them. We do not see how experience makes their presence to us possible.’ However, let’s face it, without an observer -a measurer- the results are unacknowledged. Science is not science, if we are not there to do it and record it.

The whole subject is reminiscent of the discussions I remember from my university days when we would sit around for hours in a pub exploring our growing awareness of the world.
“I don’t know how you could say that,” somebody at the table -Brian, usually- would exclaim, throwing his arms up. “Science is about objects! It’s not at all comparable to religion…”

“And why is that?” someone else -usually Jonathan- would answer. “It just deals with reality a little differently, that’s all.”

“A little differently?” The arms again. “Religion is completely subjective! You can’t prove anything…”

“And does Science prove anything -or is it just the scientist who looks at the instruments who proves it? Somebody has to read the data. Experience them…” This was always Jonathan’s argument, I remember.

Brian was a little more excitable, and he would roll his eyes at the slightest provocation as disdain dripped unchecked from the rest of his face. “Come on, Jonathan! You don’t experience science in the same way as religion. You do science!”

“How do you read an instrument, or interpret a result without experiencing it, Brian? There has to be someone who looks at the measurement.”

Brian would always shake his head in disgust when Jonathan disagreed with him. “But the measurement was not created by the scientist, it was made by the machine, or whatever -and that’s about as objective as you can ever get.”

A little smile would always creep onto Jonathan’s face at this point. “Well, who designed the machine? Who built it for the purpose…?”

“Give me a break, eh? Once it’s built, it’s an object!”

“But the experiment -the question- which the object is built to answer, is subjectively constructed, is it not? And the results have to be formulated into a conclusion, don’t they? Accepted, or rejected, the results have to pass their way through a mind. Through consciousness… They have to be experienced!”

“And what is doing the experiencing? It’s just your brain -a physical, an objective, thing.” Then Brian would smile and sit back in his seat with his beer to deliver the coup de grace. “The brain is not a ‘who’ but a ‘what’ isn’t it?”

But Jonathan would like this part of the argument, I remember -it always took this turn. “If that which interprets data is an objective ‘what’, and if that which it is experiencing is also a ‘what’, then everything is a ‘what’ -Religion included; it’s doing the same thing… sort of like Science, eh?”

The arguments, fuelled no doubt by the effects of alcohol on inquiring minds, would go on in increasing complexity and implausibility until the pub closed, and we would all wake up the next morning with hangovers -but still friends, willing to take each other on again at the next opportunity. In a way, it makes me wonder what those authors of the Aeon essay were going on about with their questions about what role subjectivity and experience has in dealing with the world -its role as the Blind Spot. My friends and I -subjects all- don’t experience it as anything like a problem -not really. We see it simply as friendship. And that is the foundation for everything isn’t it…?

 

 

 

Lord, what fools these mortals be!

I have to admit that I’d never heard of cute-aggression until the other day. Or at least, perhaps with my ageing ears, I’d been hearing acute-aggression all this time and assumed it was just anger flaring out physically during an argument -well, something unexpected anyway. But now that it has been clarified, I feel embarrassed at my naïveté. I hate confrontations, but I fear aggression even more -be it acute or chronic. Belligerence in any form is abuse on the part of the instigator, no matter how well matched the opponent.

So I was somewhat relieved when I discovered that cute-aggression was more benign. More loving. It’s apparently the almost overwhelming urge to cuddle and caress ‘cute’ things like, say, puppies, or babies. At first glance this doesn’t seem even the least bit aggressive, but as with all reactions, there is a spectrum of responses – extremes where some of them fall on a Bell curve. The ‘aggression’ part is an attempt to describe the intensity of emotions some people feel when confronted by cuteness: wanting to squeeze, or even bite the object of their admiration.

As unlikely a subject for rigorous scientific enquiry as it sounds, there are few vacuums in research, and sure enough one of the first scientific studies would seem to have surfaced in 2013 at Yale University. The then graduate students Rebecca Dyer and Oriana Aragón actually coined the term ‘cute-aggression’. Subsequent studies have helped to define it further, including a neurological investigation by Katherine Stavropoulos at the University of California, Riverside in 2018. https://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2018/12/cute-aggression-its-so-fluffy/577801/ She discovered activity in the neural reward system in the brains of people who say they feel almost overwhelmed by seeing a cute baby or animal.

But, because the expression was only relatively recently coined, doesn’t mean that the feeling wasn’t noticed before. Languages are not perfect; some have distinct words that describe conditions that require others to resort to circumlocution. For example, Sarah Sloat, writing in Inverse:  https://www.inverse.com/article/10043-the-science-of-cute-and-why-you-want-to-bite-this-baby-red-panda  ‘[I]n English there isn’t a word for an aggressive reaction to cuteness, there is, however, one in Tagalong [sic]: gigil. This Filipino phrase essentially translates to a feeling of trembling, or the gritting of teeth, in a situation of overwhelming cuteness.’

In fact, Sloat describes an even earlier study from Japan in 2012 -this time not on the aggression associated with cuteness, but rather on kawaii (a Japanese word meaning ‘cute’) which ‘had study participants complete a fine motor dexterity task before and after looking at pictures of puppies and kittens or dogs and cats. The subjects were more successful performing the task after viewing the baby animal pictures — their attention actually became more focused after viewing the cuter pictures.’

Am I missing something here? I mean I don’t want to seem obtuse or ungrateful, but if I apply even one of the filters of critical thinking, I feel compelled to ask why it is important that I approach the subject of cuteness in this fashion. Further, are its conclusions consequential, or merely data points that have silted around the name – idiosyncratic responses like one might expect on any value-laden emotion, interesting even though they may not be representative of the majority reaction, but otherwise merely Facebook fodder?

Okay, perhaps that is a little harsh. Science is still science when it is not goal-directed -indeed, curiosity often leads in interesting and ultimately significant directions. Discoveries are sometimes more serendipitous than intended.

A few days after my chance encounter with the still puzzling concept, I happened to find myself in what I’ve come to regard as the senior section of one of the larger malls. These are the breakwater seats planted as foils in the middle of the corridor to break up the current of people flowing in either direction. Old people accumulate on them like moss on the grates of drains, and I sometimes enjoy watching the flotsam.

I noticed a middle aged woman who seemed to bubble out of her seat every time somebody pushing a stroller passed by. Dressed in a fading long red coat, a blue baseball cap, and what looked like rubber boots, she would sidle up to each stroller and inspect the contents with obvious delight. Her soprano oohing and singsong greetings ensured the hasty departure of each carriage, coupled with suspicious expressions on virtually every young mother.

But the poor woman seemed either not to mind, or not to notice the rebuffs, and she would return from each foray with a satisfied smile.

After a few of these reconnaissance missions, I decided to talk to her.

“You really seem to enjoy little children,” I started, trying to project some admiration into my voice.

At first she seemed startled that anybody would speak to her, let alone notice her fascination. Then, when she decided that I wasn’t being critical, a little smile crept across her face. “Babies,” she answered. “Mainly babies…” Suddenly, a cloud drifted across her face, and she glared at me. “Why are you asking? You the police?”

I smiled disarmingly and raised my hands in a shrug. “Far from it, ma’am. I’m simply noticing that you are fascinated by the little creatures…”

Her expression softened immediately. “I’m sorry,” she said and then added, “Some people think I’m going to hurt their child… You know, that ‘cute-aggression’ thing you read about,” she added, as if everybody was conversant with the topic.

She scanned the crowd for strollers, and then, satisfied she could continue to talk to me, she explained: “I do it for safety.”

When she noticed my raised eyebrows the smile returned. “I almost lost my baby a few years ago.” She stared at the tiles under her boots for a minute, trying to decide how much to divulge. “Well, actually they did take her away from me when they put me in the hospital.” She chanced a look at my face to see if I was really interested, and then, reassured, she continued. “But Jesse almost died…” Her eyes fluttered over mine for a second, and then returned to her face.

“I was really sick in those days, and I didn’t know it… Well, yes, I did, but…” She sighed and checked the skin on the back of her hands for some reason. “Anyway, I was wheeling Jesse along East Hastings in an old pram that somebody had lent me. She was only 7 months old then, and it was cold so I had wrapped her up good. Only her face was showing, and I remember her eyes were closed and she was quiet… Too quiet, maybe -she usually cried a lot…

“The street was pretty empty, except for the occasional drunk, so I felt pretty safe. Then, I noticed a nicely dressed woman walking down the sidewalk towards the carriage, and she peeked in at Jesse as she passed. But the thing is, she hadn’t gone more than a few steps when she turned suddenly and ran toward the carriage. I could hear her feet pounding on the sidewalk. ‘What’s wrong with the baby?’ she screamed.

“I didn’t notice anything wrong, but the woman seemed to panic and called out for someone to help her. She started to do -what’s it called? CVR?- and the next thing I knew, the ambulance was there. And the police.

“Never did find out what was wrong with Jesse, but anyway, they wouldn’t let me have her after that.”

The woman sighed again, then suddenly noticed another woman in the distance, pushing a stroller towards her through the crowd. She touched me briefly on the arm and waded into the tide of people. “So I have to make sure it never happens again,” she shouted at me over her shoulder, and disappeared in the turbulence, her head just another log being swept away in the current.

I never saw the woman again, but as I sat there, watching the ebb and flow of faces bobbing past, it occurred to me that an over-attraction to babies may not be as anomalous as I had first thought. To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven.

 

He’s mad that trusts in the tameness of a wolf

I am an obstetrician, and not a neuropsychiatrist, but I feel a definite uneasiness with the idea of messing with brains –especially from the inside. Talking at it, sure –maybe even tweaking it with medications- but it seems to me there is something… sacrosanct about its boundaries. Something akin to black-boxhood -or pregnant-wombhood, if you will– where we have a knowledge of its inputs and outputs, but the internal mechanisms still too complex and interdependent to be other than interrogated from without.

I suppose I have a fear of the unintended consequences that seem to dog science like afternoon shadows -a glut of caution born of reading about well-meaning enthusiasms in my own field. And yet, although I do not even pretend to such arcane knowledge as might tempt me to meddle with the innards of a clock let alone the complexities of a head, I do watch from afar, albeit through a glass darkly. And I am troubled.

My concern bubbled to the surface with a November 2017 article from Nature that I stumbled upon: https://www.nature.com/news/ai-controlled-brain-implants-for-mood-disorders-tested-in-people-1.23031 I recognize that the report is dated, and merely scratches the surface, but it hinted at things to come. The involvement of DARPA (the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency of the U.S. military) did little to calm my fears, either –they had apparently ‘begun preliminary trials of ‘closed-loop’ brain implants that use algorithms to detect patterns associated with mood disorders. These devices can shock the brain back to a healthy state without input from a physician.’

‘The general approach —using a brain implant to deliver electric pulses that alter neural activity— is known as deep-brain stimulation. It is used to treat movement disorders such as Parkinson’s disease, but has been less successful when tested against mood disorders… The scientists behind the DARPA-funded projects say that their work might succeed where earlier attempts failed, because they have designed their brain implants specifically to treat mental illness — and to switch on only when needed.’

And how could the device know when to switch on and off? How could it even recognize the complex neural activity in mental illnesses? Well, apparently, an ‘electrical engineer Omid Sani of the University of Southern California in Los Angeles — who is working with Chang’s team [a neuroscientist at UCSF] — showed the first map of how mood is encoded in the brain over time. He and his colleagues worked with six people with epilepsy who had implanted electrodes, tracking their brain activity and moods in detail over the course of one to three weeks. By comparing the two types of information, the researchers could create an algorithm to ‘decode’ that person’s changing moods from their brain activity. Some broad patterns emerged, particularly in brain areas that have previously been associated with mood.’

Perhaps this might be the time to wonder if ‘broad patterns’ can adequately capture the complexities of any mood, let alone a dysphoric one. Another group, this time in Boston, is taking a slightly different approach: ‘Rather than detecting a particular mood or mental illness, they want to map the brain activity associated with behaviours that are present in multiple disorders — such as difficulties with concentration and empathy.’ If anything, that sounds even broader -more unlikely to specifically hit the neural bullseye. But, I know, I know –it’s early yet. The work is just beginning… And yet, if there ever was a methodology more susceptible to causing collateral damage, and unintended, unforeseeable consequences, or one that might fall more afoul of a hospital’s ethics committee, I can’t think of it.

For example, ‘One challenge with stimulating areas of the brain associated with mood … is the possibility of overcorrecting emotions to create extreme happiness that overwhelms all other feelings. Other ethical considerations arise from the fact that the algorithms used in closed-loop stimulation can tell the researchers about the person’s mood, beyond what may be visible from behaviour or facial expressions. While researchers won’t be able to read people’s minds, “we will have access to activity that encodes their feelings,” says  Alik Widge, a neuroengineer and psychiatrist at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and engineering director of the MGH [Massachusetts General Hospital] team.’ Great! I assume they’ve read Orwell, for some tips.

It’s one of the great conundrums of Science, though, isn’t it? When one stretches societal orthodoxy, and approaches the edge of the reigning ethical paradigm, how should one proceed? I don’t believe merely assuming that someone else, somewhere else, and sometime else will undoubtedly forge ahead with the same knowledge, is a sufficient reason to proceed. It seems to me that in the current climate of public scientific skepticism, it would be best to tread carefully. Science succeeds best when it is funded, fêted, and understood, not obscured by clouds of suspicion or plagued by doubt -not to mention mistrust. Just look at how genetically modified foods are regarded in many countries. Or vaccinations. Or climate change…

Of course, the rewards of successful and innovative procedures are great, but so is the damage if they fail. A promise broken is more noteworthy, more disconcerting, than a promise never made.

Time for a thought experiment. Suppose I’ve advertised myself as an expert in computer hardware and you come to me with particularly vexing problem that nobody else seemed to be able to fix. You tell me there is a semi-autobiographical novel about your life that you’d been writing in your spare time for years, stored somewhere inside your laptop that you can no longer access. Nothing was backed up elsewhere –you never thought it would be necessary- and now, of course, it’s too late for that. The computer won’t even work, and you’re desperate.

I have a cursory look at the model and the year, and assure you that I know enough about the mechanisms in the computer to get it working again.

So you come back in a couple of weeks to pick it up. “Were you able to fix it?” is the first thing you say when you come in the door.

I smile and nod my head slowly. Sagely. “It was tougher than I thought,” I say. “But I was finally able to get it running again.”

“Yes, but does it work? What about the contents? What about my novel…?”

I try to keep my expression neutral as befits an expert talking to someone who knows nothing about how complex the circuitry in a computer can be. “Well,” I explain, “It was really damaged, you know. I don’t know what you did to it… but a lot of it was beyond repair.”

“But…”

“But I managed to salvage quite a bit of the function. The word processor works now –you can continue writing your novel.”

You look at me with a puzzled expression. “I thought you said you could fix it -the area where my novel is…”

I smile and hand you back the computer. “I did fix it. You can write again -just like before.”

“All that information… all those stories… They’re gone?”

I nod pleasantly, the smile on my face broadening. “But without my work you wouldn’t have had them either, remember. I’ve given you the opportunity to write some more.”

“But… But was stored in there,” you say, pointing at the laptop in front of you on the counter. “How do I know who I am now?”

“You’re the person who has been given the chance to start again.”

Sometimes that’s enough, I suppose…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Noceboes? How Cute.

I have always been fascinated by neologisms –new words that substitute for more commonly used ones. They can be clever, rude, or just plain silly, but often their point is to get noticed –or perhaps draw attention to their inventors. There was a time –before social media, at least- when we used to applaud people like Shakespeare for turning nouns into verbs, or adjectives into more active participants. And it was a time when elders, if they forgot the word for which they were searching, would simply come up with a new one. Of course, they still do, but it is often  lost in the ebb and flow of media utterage (pardon the neologism). I have written about this before in another context, but the subject continues to intrigue me: https://musingsonretirementblog.com/2016/05/22/what-did-you-say/

This time, however, I was more interested in the clever contrast of nocebo with the word it was replacing, placebo, that was reported in an article in the CBC health news: http://www.cbc.ca/news/health/nocebo-effect-greater-expensive-drugs-1.4358664

I suspect we’re all acquainted with the placebo effect: the ability of a harmless, inactive substitute to have a beneficial effect if it is believed to be the treatment. Again, I have covered this in a previous essay: https://musingsonwomenshealth.com/2016/04/20/rethinking-placebos/

But there seems to be no end to our ability to fool ourselves, and the concept of ‘noceboes’ is yet another illustration. ‘The opposite of the placebo effect — perceived improvement when no active medicine is given — nocebo is the perception of negative side-effects from a benign “medication” in a blind trial.’

The article reports on a study published in the journal Science, which suggests that ‘Expensive medicines can seem to create worse side-effects than cheaper alternatives.’ This particular investigation ‘focused on the pain perceptions of patients who were treated with creams they believed had anti-itch properties but actually contained no active ingredients.’ And, as one could no doubt predict from the title of their publication, Nocebo effects can make you feel pain, ‘Though the scientists ensured the temperatures applied to the two creams were consistent, those who received the expensive cream rated their pain as nearly twice as intense as those who received the cheaper cream. The study suggested that patient expectations related to price can trigger brain responses resulting in higher perception of pain, said Alexandra Tinnermann, a co-author of the study and neuroscientist at University Medical Center Hamburg-Eppendorf.

‘Tinnermann’s team used a functional MRI scanner to identify areas along the spinal cord that were activated during participants’ experience of side-effects. They also pinpointed two brain regions that were more stimulated among participants who believed they received the expensive drug.’

The ethics of using placebos –tricks- is one thing, but what about those of choosing between several recognized and approved medications where the only difference is the price? On the surface, it might seem to be a saving for all concerned. If the data hold up in further studies, why prescribe new and probably higher cost medications, if they’re more likely to have side effects?

Unfortunately the very ethics that require medical practitioners to discuss the possible side effects of any medication, are also known to influence the experience. Knowledgeable patients report more side effects than those who, for whatever reasons, are blissfully unaware of what to expect. Perhaps it’s more a question of which of Pandora’s boxes the practitioner should open -a zero sum game, no matter.

I was sitting on a park bench in the shade of a tree one sunny summer day, trying to finish a book a friend had loaned to me. It wasn’t very interesting, despite her recommendations, and although I was determined to discover what she had liked about it, I found my mind looking for excuses to put it down. My ears soon found a distraction. Two little boys had abandoned their bikes on the  grass nearby and were engaging themselves in scaling the leafy tower of what I had assumed was my own special shade tree. Hidden by several bouquets of leaves fluttering gently in the afternoon breeze, I suppose they thought they were invisible in their private redoubt.

“Thought you were sick, Jay,” one of them said, as if he wondered if he was in danger of catching whatever Jay had.

“I’m on antibiotics, Jordan,” the other answered defensively.

They were silent for a few moments, although I could hear them grunting as they climbed ever higher.

“My mother doesn’t believe in them,” a voice, probably Jordan’s, said very firmly.

“Why?” was Jay’s surprised reply.

Jordan was silent for a moment, clearly trying to remember. “She says they can make you sick.” Even from my position far beneath them, I could almost feel Jordan’s italics.

“How?”

Another, grunt-filled silence as they switched branches. “She says they can make your skin go red…” He hesitated for a minute while he combed through his memory. “And give you… make you wanna throw up.”

Jay seemed to hesitate before answering. “Well, I’m not red or anything, but… uhmm, sometimes I do feel a little like throwing up, I guess. Anyway I have to go to the toilet a lot, so it’s hard to tell.”

“She says that’s what happens with them too, Jay. It’s why I just take vitamin pills.”

“My mother says those don’t usually work… People only think they do.” Jay felt a need to defend his antibiotics. “Mom says we imagine things sometimes…”

“Like what?” Jordan sounded sceptical. For a while, I could only hear the leaves rustling, so I wasn’t sure if they’d already climbed too high to hear.

“Like… Like that vitamins can keep us from getting sick.” I could hear one of them shifting somewhere above as a branch cracked. “And she says some people won’t take antibiotics because they’re afraid of, uhmm…” He hesitated, while he searched for the right word. “…the side-stuff.”

“You mean ‘side-defects’?” Jordan pronounced the words carefully, condescension fairly dripping from his words.

“Yeah. She says if they hear about the defects, they figure they’ll get them.”

“Well my mom says doctors have to tell people about them, though, Jay… It’s the law.” He added smugly.

Jay seemed to think about it for a second. “Then no wonder, eh?” he said, as if he finally understood.

“No wonder what?”

“No wonder people get ‘em,” Jay answered, triumphantly.

From the mouths of babes.

Earthing Unearthed

Sometimes I feel disconnected. It’s almost as if I have been traveling on a highway all my life, largely unaware of the myriad roads that emanate from it. Unaware of the different coloured horizons that have been hiding out there all along. Or is skulking sometimes a better descriptor? Every so often I come across a concept so… bizarre, that I wonder how it even survived long enough to acquire a name. ‘Earthing’ caught my attention immediately.

I feel I have to explain that I don’t go looking for these things, but in the spirit of full disclosure I will confess to being a one-time member of the Skeptics Society –one time, I suppose, because the time constraints of a busy medical practice required that I relinquish at least some of my addenda. Now, retired and awash in compensatory time, I dabble once again.

‘Earthing’, for those of you as naïve as myself, is the act of walking barefoot –not just on the beach or over the soft grass of a lawn, however. It is to soak up earth’s energy fields previously denied to you –blocked, in effect- by your shoes. These energy fields apparently supply free electrons replete with many health benefits. Shoes, as disruptors, ‘[…] allegedly cause inflammation and autoimmune diseases, circadian rhythm disruptions, hormonal disorders, cortisol disorders, heart rate variability problems, arthritis, herpes, hepatitis, insomnia, chronic pain, exhaustion, stress, anxiety, premature aging […].’ http://www.skeptic.com/reading_room/bogus-claims-grounding-bare-feet-to-earth/ Uhmm…

How could I have journeyed so far along the trail of years and not heard this coming up behind me? Call me old fashioned, if you will –or just ‘old’, perhaps- but I would still feel more comfortable if there were credible, corroborative and objective evidence to substantiate assertions before I even decide to consider them -let alone examine them seriously… Anybody can claim things, but as Carl Sagan once declared: ‘extraordinary claims, require extraordinary evidence’.

Now I have to say that just because something seems counterintuitive, I don’t think it should be simply dismissed out of hand. Paradigms do shift, after all. But they still require critical analysis; it is not enough to suggest that, as in the case of homeopathy, for example, any attempt to verify it destroys the field in which it exists. Nor are statements like, ‘It may be that our connection with the earth carries information, helping align us with the greater network of intelligence of our planet.’ either provable, or refutable –the famous philosopher of Science, Karl Popper’s belief that what distinguishes science from pseudoscience is its potential for refutation. For example, to say that all swans are white, only holds until a black one is found. The assertion –if properly attested by observations- is scientific in that the demonstration of even one black swan is able to refute it.

But, academic considerations aside, there is something troubling about ‘Earthing’ and its ilk. That something like this arose at all is, I suppose, a function of the random accretion of isolated and misunderstood bits and pieces of our complex modern world that are only describable in metaphor –as in, say, electrons are the carriers of electricity. True, as far as it goes, I guess, but misleading if taken as literal. Maybe some shoes –all shoes?- may block electrons… But so what?

Just try and understand the electric fields on the earth and in the atmosphere. As an example, a description from (shudder) Wikiversity: ‘The Earth is negatively charged, carrying 500,000 Coulombs (C) of electric charge (500 kC), and is at 300,000 volts (V), 300 kV, relative to the positively charged ionosphere. There is a constant flow of electricity, at around 1350 amperes (A) [approximately 1100 A], and resistance of the Earth’s atmosphere is around 220 Ohms. This gives a power output of around 400 megawatts (MW), which is ultimately regenerated by the power of the Sun that affects the ionosphere, as well as the troposphere, causing thunderstorms. The electrical energy stored in the Earth’s atmosphere is around 150 gigajoules (GJ). The Earth-ionosphere system acts as a giant capacitor, of capacity 1.8 Farads. The Earth’s surface carries around -1 nC of electric charge per square meter’. Do you see why most of us non-experts are dependant on metaphor? And why explanations such as this about ‘constant flow of electricity’ unaccompanied by suitable annotations may lead to some unfortunate and perhaps misguided applications?

On the other hand, I think that trying to dissuade gullible adherents requires some tact. Attempts to ridicule them by referring to the authors of a book on the subject: Earthing. The most important health discovery ever? and saying ‘None of the book’s authors is a physicist— it shows.’ is just ad hominem. Or suggesting that scientific credentials are not available: ‘The studies were not published in mainstream journals. They involved small numbers of subjects and usually failed to use any controls.’ While true -and to those of us with any acquaintance with how science works, compellingly obvious- it likely fails to convince those who mistrust the scientific paradigm and its lack of certainty to start with. And it may antagonize them to the point of utter rejection of any meaningful dialogue. It becomes another us-and-them standoff.

So, what to do? Tolerate or proselytize? Divide and conquer? Provoke and legislate…?

Perhaps it’s my age, but I’ve seen many fads arise and then dissipate like waves on a beach, with any one of them having about as much individual significance. Think of alien abduction, recovered memory therapy, pet rocks… Each seems to have a brief super nova-like appearance, and is intriguing for a while, and then, when a new star is born, interest flags. Social media may extend the lifespan, perhaps, but novelty is usually trump for those attracted to the fringe belief realms. I’ve learned not to obsess on what I consider the irrational; I will attempt to educate, but not to the point of taking arms against a sea of trouble and by opposing, ending them –as Hamlet would have us decide. If they are not harmful, then they will, as certain as the tide, recede.

In the turmoil of this uncertain world I think we all try to find secure and novel refuge, and when the storm has passed, set out again. It’s what we do –Shakespeare again: ‘Wise men ne’er sit and wail their loss, but cheerily seek how to redress their harms.

Earthing, with benign neglect, may itself be unearthed…

 

Scientific Fraud

Science –whose Latin etymology denotes knowledge- started off as a branch of philosophy and gradually morphed into its present form. Recently, however, it seems to be resting on a progressively unstable foundation with the general public. By its very nature, Science accumulates its knowledge by induction: observations elicit explanations which suggest experiments designed to test these. The results are always contingent –a classic example might be that of swans: if all we see are white swans, it might be reasonable to conclude that all swans are white –until, that is, we find a black swan. So knowledge is couched in probabilities –everything is potentially refutable and our statements about it must reflect how likely it is to be a continuing truth. This is fine unless we crave certainty.

In an increasingly uncertain world one can understand the appeal of religions, if for no other reason than the assurance that the mainstream variants project. But historically, even the supposedly eternal truths revealed by religions have been contingent upon success in battle, or survival in times of environmental or social disasters. Certainty is a horizon that shifts and recedes whenever it is approached. However close we may feel we are, it is, like the rainbow, forever out of reach.

Of course, many do not agree with this; many feel that certainty is attainable and harbour a lingering suspicion of any system that cannot provide it. Why should faith be piled onto something that accepts that it is open to being refuted -welcomes it, in fact?

There are enough confusing and seemingly contradictory studies published to challenge the Public’s trust in Science. At times, its credibility seems to be balancing on a knife’s edge; the slightest puff of scandal could well be enough to destabilize the already tenuous confidence. For some people, it is already gossamer thin.

It is with this in mind that my fears often migrate to the subject of fraud in science. For me, it is not only a question of how it could happen, but rather, why it would. I was intrigued by an article in an article in the Canadian Medical Association Journal from last year entitled: ‘Scientific misconduct or criminal offence?’  (http://www.cmaj.ca/content/187/17/1273.full) The article examines whether we should be treating scientific fraud as merely naughty ill-advised behaviour, incompetence, or criminally punishable conduct. The standard of proof needed to successfully achieve a legal conviction is apparently quite stringent and so, often in the interests of limited financial resources and depending upon the seriousness of the case, lesser sanctions are frequently used. In Canada there is a Secretariat on Responsible Conduct of Research. ‘The Secretariat is a government agency responsible for implementing the Tri-Agency Framework on Responsible Conduct of Research on behalf of Canada’s major federal government granting agencies… A researcher who breeches the framework may receive letters of education or admonishment. More serious cases could merit sanctions, including withdrawal of funding or even the ability to apply for funding.’ And each year, says Susan Zimmerman, the current executive director, ‘there are about 90 breeches of the framework, but very few, perhaps three or four, would be considered serious. Even fewer would constitute a criminal offence. And if one did, the Secretariat is already obligated to notify the authorities. Instead of trying to ferret out the rare egregious bad apple, the Secretariat, as stewards of public money, focuses on reducing unacceptable results. The agency considers that approach to be a more productive use of limited resources than trying to determine if a researcher made an honest mistake or acted in bad faith.’

All fine and good, I suppose, but I still wonder about the already suspicious Public Opinion about science in general. ‘In a 2014 BMJ article, Bhutta, who has a strong interest in research ethics, argued that scientific fraud can have huge consequences on public health and clinical practice, citing the damage to global vaccination coverage caused by the “fraudulent and discredited” research of Dr. Andrew Wakefield that linked vaccines to autism. There is little risk to committing research fraud, beyond damage to reputation, and the research community is doing an inadequate job of policing itself, according to Bhutta, who wrote that “additional deterrence through punitive measures such as criminal proceedings should be added to the repertoire of measures available.”’

If the results of a study were indeed woven out of whole cloth, the lack of legal consequences would feed the worst fears of an admittedly small segment of society which mistrusted western medicine’s perceived mantle of omniscience to start with. If it were fraudulent, they would wonder, then why wasn’t the doctor prosecuted? Was it because there was some uncomfortable truth to his findings that an embarrassed Medical establishment, which had been pushing the safety of vaccines for years, was trying to cover up? How many other studies are fraudulent that either haven’t come to light, or have been quietly hidden under the covers?

The point is not so much that infractions are few and often inconsequential, nor that the naysayers and critics are few in number, but that the the condemnations are loud and insistent. Without a visible and concerted effort to rebut their arguments, allay their suspicions, and demonstrate that there are consequences for deception, their doubts will only grow larger, and their trust in the scientific approach further diminish. Already we have seen the effects of an underlying mistrust in the uncertainties of science manifesting itself in the climate change deniers.

Add fraud to the inherent uncertainties embedded in the scientific method, and we can begin to worry about the punishment of Sisyphus condemned forever to roll a massive boulder up a hill then watch it roll back down again. Consequences must suit the action. Justice delayed is justice denied.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Science of Answering

I suppose in this suspicious age, everything is open to scrutiny. But some things are examined at one’s own risk risk -like turning over a familiar log in the garden only to find unexpected and sinister-looking creatures lurking quietly beneath. This is fine, of course, but it can be hard to know what to do with the results of such investigations without some attributions -either positive, or more likely, negative. And, depending on our experience, a vacillation between the two.

Science by encouraging unbridled curiosity has often not been neutral in this. With some trusted and unsuspecting products that have been on the market for years, subsequent studies have occasionally determined similarities of structure, or function, with other, more bothersome effects. Aluminum in cookware was one famous example. Aluminum was found in some plaques in the brains of patients with Alzheimer’s disease so of course products containing aluminum went into a precipitous decline from which they never really recovered despite subsequent studies that failed to substantiate the risk. Or think of the autism scare after a since-repudiated 2004 article suggested that thimerosol, a synthetic form of organic mercury which has been used for many years as an antimicrobial agent and preservative in many vaccines, was the cause of autism spectrum disorder.

Once these doubts have been cast, suspicion often lingers that is hard to eliminate. Conspiracy theoreticians emerge from the shadows to sew their seeds, flaunting the seemingly obvious and intuitive conclusion that there must have been something that made the scientists find what they did. The fact that science actually encourages refutation -that nothing is ever known for certain and that they’re rather happy with that- escapes those who would rather believe there is a cover-up.

And now, there is another study –one among many- that suggests that even low amounts of parabens –preservatives used in, among many other things, the cosmetic industry- might increase the risks of breast cancer! Researchers from the University of California, Berkley have published a study in Environmental Health Perspectives that seems to demonstrate this: Environ Health Perspect; DOI:10.1289/ehp.1409200

‘Existing chemical safety tests measure the effects of a chemical on human cells in isolation. However, as these tests fail to consider that compounds might interact with other signalling molecules, the tests are insufficient, explained the researchers.

Using the naturally occurring growth factor in breast cells, heregulin, the researchers stimulated the HER2 receptors in breast cancer cells and exposed the cells to parabens. The chemical caused the oestrogen receptors to activate genes, which led to the proliferation of the cells. Moreover, the effect was significant: parabens in the HER2-activated cells stimulated breast cancer cell growth at concentrations 100 times lower than in cells lacking heregulin.’

Is nothing safe? It’s difficult to know what to do with information like this. Surely there is a middle ground between merely shrugging our shoulders and accepting that the world is a dangerous place, and railing against Science for trapping us here. Do we sometimes just use our indecision as a reason to worry? Change seems to spawn unintended consequences no matter how hard we try to anticipate them. As an enthusiastic user of modernity I suppose I am closer to the shrug camp, but I recognize that there are different world-views out there and I dare not gainsay them. Especially if they are first time patients who are a little wary of me to start with.

Jona did not trust me; I could tell by her eyes as soon as I introduced myself in the waiting room. While her face said hello, her eyes threatened me with silence if I so much as stepped on the boundary. The hand that shook mine was aggressively firm and it was all I could do to keep from wincing. I hate that. I’ve always felt that the first contact should be a greeting, not a contest. A sign of mutual respect, not a dare. I don’t feel at all competitive at that stage, but from her expression, I could see she felt it was a form of sport. I was surprised she let me lead her into my office.

When I was finally allowed to sit and open up my computer, I saw that her referral to me was for dyspareunia –code word for pain with sex. She sat on the other side of my desk with everything on guard: face, posture, fists… Everything dared me to ask her why she was here. So I didn’t. I just let her talk –debrief, as it were. Her eyes –at least the ones that she had trained to pin doctors to their chairs- were hovering around my face, waiting for me to provide the excuse for an attack.

“I know that Maria has listed my problems in the letter she Emailed, doctor, but before you start on me, I just want you to know that I refuse to take, insert, or inject any medications.” She proceeded to cross her arms tightly across her chest, as if something was trying to escape from under her blouse. “Maria wanted to put me on estrogens, but as you know, they can cause strokes, heart attacks and cancer. Sex isn’t worth that risk.” She glowered at me, still holding off the eye-attack until I said something. “Then, she suggested the low-dose variety that you merely put in your vagina… Merely?? It’s hardly a little thing to put an uninvited foreign body in there, doctor! She thinks my vaginal skin is too thin and that’s why it hurts.” She thought about it for a moment. “And how would she know? She couldn’t even get a speculum in there, so how could she say that? I’m 48, not 68 for God’s sake. I’m still having periods and tampons have never hurt.” She sighed theatrically and continued. “I’ve tried lubricants and stuff, but if you look at what they contain and then Google the contents, it’s like playing Russian roulette with your vagina. Some of them even print disclaimers and suggest medical consultation before using them. They can cause allergies, skin irritation, infections… Some are even carcinogens when you look up the pharmacology. And then there’s that article saying that the parabols might even cause breast cancer…”

‘Parabens,” I corrected her and then closed my mouth, smiled sympathetically and waited for permission to say something more. Anything.

“Whatever. My husband doesn’t understand, either. All he wants is something quick before he goes to sleep. Of course, he thinks I’m making up the pain stuff…”

The short pause, and a brief journey of her eyes to a picture on the wall gave me an opportunity to ask her something: “Do you talk to your husband?” I said, and waited for the eyes.

“He won’t even talk to me when we’re eating dinner…” She said slowly and looked down at her lap, caught off guard by the question, I think.

“How long has it been since you were able to talk?”

Jona withdrew her eyes and they disappeared into her face along with her anger. Then she shrugged, and a few words spilled out. “It’s been so long, I can hardly remember when…” She suddenly stopped talking and stared at me. “But why did you ask about him, doctor? Do you think our…?” she said in a whisper. “My GP never even asked…” Her expression changed from one of defence to one of curiosity. “Why did you wonder if I talked to my husband?” she repeated.

“Are you a Shakespeare lover?”

Her face tightened for a moment in puzzled irritation, but then she laughed. “Double, double boil and bubble; Fire burn and cauldron bubble,” she said, obviously pleased with herself. “The witches, in Macbeth, I believe.”

I nodded, then grinned. “Well, let me quote from the play-within-a-play in Hamlet –Gertrude answering Hamlet’s ‘Madam, how like you this play?’… ‘The lady doth protest too much, methinks.’ she answers…”

A little smile –the first real smile she’d shown me- blossomed like a flower on her lips. “Maria said you were good, doctor… You’re smarter than you look,” she said with mischief in her eyes this time, and her body relaxed into the chair. “What do you suggest I do?”

I readied my fingers over the keyboard and chuckled warmly. “I suggest we start by making sure there is nothing you need to worry about.” I thought of another memorable phrase, this one uttered by Hamlet himself: ‘There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.’ But I didn’t say anything; she’d had enough Shakespeare for now I realized.