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…

 

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The Feminist Egg

Once upon a time, I suppose that one of the characteristics of Age was its hubris. After a certain age, it was easy to dismiss most new things as mere variations on time-tested themes –additions, clever perhaps, intriguing even, but still accretions. Ecclesiastes lived in old minds: The thing that hath been, it is that which shall be; and that which is done is that which shall be done: and there is no new thing under the sun. And yet nowadays, even the quickest peek over the shoulder calls that into question. Maybe it always did, but without the publicity it now entertains.

New things –truly new things- are often the hardest to accept, especially if they fly in the  face of cherished beliefs sufficiently entrenched as to be regarded as not merely true, but obviously true -common sense, in fact. It took generations to accept evolution –and now it seems only sensible that the random acquisition of those traits that help survival will be the ones selected for in the next generation. It was not an upwardly purposeful spiral that inevitably led to homo sapiens; evolution doesn’t change cows to humans –it just eventually creates cows better able to survive in whatever milieu they find themselves. And randomly –the unfit are still granted existence, but if they are not suited, they pass on little benefit to their progeny.

It’s true that animals –mammals, especially- do attempt to influence desirable traits in their offspring by choosing healthy partners exhibiting those characteristics. Hence various mating rituals and dominance contests amongst the males; hence elaborate male bird plumage, presumably a proxy, recognizable by a receptive female, as indicative of a primus inter pares. And yet it was probably regarded as curious in premodern societies that a female would be accorded any important choice, let alone that of selecting what she wanted in a partner. Although there has always been a cadre of women who have made their marks throughout recorded history, the examples are sadly limited –curtailed no doubt, because it was usually men writing about what they felt was important to document.

Fortunately, times are changing, as is the realization that each side of the gender divide is equipotent. Just how fluid the roles are is a constant source of wonder to me. Even in these days of Darwin, I am amazed at the still unsuspected porosity of the envelope. And while it no longer seems unusual or unlikely that an information-processing organism like, say, a bird might be able to select an appropriately endowed mate based on observable clues, it is still surprising –to me, at least- that selection duties might be conferred on a more microscopic scale: on an egg, for example.

I first encountered this idea in an article from Quanta Magazine: https://www.quantamagazine.org/choosy-eggs-may-pick-sperm-for-their-genes-defying-mendels-law-20171115/  I have to say it reminded me of Hamlet’s rejoinder to the sceptical Horatio on seeing Hamlet’s father’s ghost: ‘There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.’

The competition in sexual selection was thought to be pre-copulatory –‘After mating, the female had made her choice, and the only competition was among the sperm swimming to the egg. This male-oriented view of female reproductive biology as largely acquiescent was pervasive, argued Emily Martin, an anthropologist at New York University, in a 1991 paper. “The egg is seen as large and passive. It does not move or journey but passively ‘is transported’…along the fallopian tube. In utter contrast, sperm are small, ‘streamlined’ and invariably active,” she wrote.

‘Beginning in the 1970s, however, the science began to undermine that stereotype. William Eberhard, now a behavioural ecologist at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute, documented all the ways that females can affect which males fertilize their eggs even after mating.’ For example, ‘Internal fertilizers have their own methods of what Eberhard dubbed “cryptic female choice.” Some female reproductive tracts are labyrinthine, complete with false starts and dead ends that can stymie all but the strongest sperm. Some females, including many species of reptiles, fish, birds and amphibians, that copulate with more than one male (which biologists estimate are a vast majority of species) can store sperm for months, even years, altering the storage environment to stack the odds to favor one male over another. Many female birds, including domestic chickens, can eject sperm after mating , which lets them bias fertilization in favor of the best male.’

The plot thickens. These strategies seem only to select whose sperm to allow access to the precious as-yet unfertilized eggs. But even sperm from the same individual can vary. So, are things just left to chance? Are we still talking Darwin here? And are the combination probabilities proposed by Mendel that depend on randomness still in the picture?

It would seem that the egg itself may have a say in which sperm it uses, and that unlike the voting system in many democracies, it may not be just the ‘first past the post’ -the marathon winner- who gets the prize.

The article presents several theories as to how the egg may be able to ‘choose’, but as yet there seems to be no clear indication as to whether it always happens, or whether it is just able to weed out some potentially damaging or clearly unsuitable ones by the signals they emit –or fail to emit… Sometimes, anyway. Mistakes clearly occur; abnormal genes do manage to slip through, leading to abnormal embryos –some of which are unable to develop enough to survive.

But that there may be yet another layer of protection built into the system –another unsuspected surveillance system- is what intrigues me. And that, once again, it seems to invest the power of a truly critical decision with the female is a cautionary tale for those who cling to the shredding coattails of androcentrism. It is simply another piece of evidence, if more were needed, that Life and all that it enables, is not a zero sum game. It is not a contest between genders, but a journey together. Still…

Let there be spaces in your togetherness.                                                                                      And let the winds of heaven dance between you.
Love one another, but make not a bond of love.
Let it rather be a moving sea between the shores of your souls.
Fill each other’s cup but drink not from one cup.
Give one another of your bread but eat not from the same loaf.
Sing and dance together and be joyous, but each one of you be
alone – even as the strings of a lute are alone though the quiver
with the same music.
Give your hearts, but not in each other’s keeping.
For only the hand of Life can contain your hearts.
And stand together yet not too near together:
For the pillars of the temple stand apart,
And the oak tree and the Cyprus grow not in each other’s shadows. –Kahlil Gibran –

I couldn’t resist.

 

 

 

 

 

Sweet Flowers are Slow

 

 

It never ceases to amaze me what unfettered minds can discover. Sometimes I wonder how they do it. How they set out 180 degrees from the target and still end up hitting it. Of course, the world is full of answers scattered like flowers in a field, in plain sight for anybody who has learned to see them. It’s not the answers that are hidden, just the appropriate questions. But maybe that’s the point –questions are often like detours pointing away from where you think you want to go, and yet arrive you do, having learned unexpected things along the way –Frost’s Road not Taken.

Socrates, although he initially disavowed the Delphic Oracle’s apocryphal pronouncement that he was the wisest man in Athens, knew that Truth, like Wisdom, was slippery. He realized he didn’t possess all the truth and so he asked many questions, whereas others -those who never thought to investigate- were complacent about their knowledge, unpuzzled by what they experienced, content with their grasp, however tenuous.

Maybe that’s just the way we’ve been taught to interrogate reality, though: if A equals C, and B also equals C, then we need look no further –A, B and C are equivalent, or at least interchangeable and otherwise individually uninteresting. Perhaps it takes a Socrates to ask why that is –or at least why we are satisfied with our assessment.

An article in the BBC News about an unusual approach to decreasing the spread of malaria brought this to mind: http://www.bbc.com/news/health-40495958  While researchers are trying desperately to engineer a vaccine, there have been many interesting attempts to ameliorate the prevalence of the disease. Some are relatively high tech –like genetically altering mosquitoes to produce genes to prevent the development of the malarial parasite within themselves and therefore stop its transmission to people when they bite; some are more humble methods, more attainable in the short term -such as pyrethroid-treated mosquito netting around beds. I suppose the boundaries between discovery and invention are fluid, but even so, either of them can lead to uncharted territories. New possibilities.

Still, until we do have an effective and safe vaccine, we need to use as many other methods to decrease the ravages of the female Anopheles mosquito as possible –however indirectly they may achieve this. Sometimes you just have to try stuff. Sometimes, you have to think inside the garden.

‘Gardening could be a powerful weapon against malaria, culling mosquito populations by cutting off their food supply, say researchers.’ The idea is to starve the mosquitoes before they get a chance to pass on the malarial parasite. A pilot project in Mali, West Africa, found that ‘Removing flowers from a common shrub appeared to kill off lots of the older, adult, female, biting insects that transmit malaria. Without enough nectar the “granny” mosquitoes starve, experts believe.

‘These Anopheles mosquitoes carry the malaria parasite in their salivary glands and pass it on to people when they bite and draw blood. The infected person can then infect other younger, biting, female mosquitoes – which are looking for a rich blood meal as they become fertile and make eggs – because their blood now contains the parasite. It takes about 10 days for a newly infected young female mosquito to become contagious to humans. By the time she can transmit malaria, she’s pretty old. Although she will feed on blood, she also relies on flower nectar for energy to stay alive.’

So, ‘Experts in Mali, along with researchers from the Hebrew University of Hadassah Medical School, Israel, and the University of Miami in the US, set up a horticultural experiment to see if removing the flowers from this plant might help kill off local mosquitoes. […]Villages where they removed the flowers saw mosquito numbers collected in the traps fall – the total number of mosquitoes across these villages decreased by nearly 60% after removal of the flowers.’

Admittedly, as the researchers concede, although it was an appropriate technique in a place like Mali, ‘it might not work so well in lush tropical regions where nectar-rich plants are in abundance.’

I suppose one of the reasons why this approach intrigued me so much, was that it seemed like a rather simple –albeit laborious- technique for mosquito control. Much like removing standing water that has collected in puddles or old tires where the mosquitoes can lay their eggs, it could be a community-led project that requires no additional external resources. But even more than that, as Professor Jo Lines, from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, has observed, ‘”It appears to show that by changing the landscape, not using insecticides or drugs, we can make a difference.”’

What a thought –changing, not destroying something to achieve an aim. Being clever and asking the right questions about what was already in front of the eyes of anyone inquisitive enough to actually notice. Curious enough to ask ‘what if…?’

So, back to Socrates who, in the end, conceded that perhaps the Delphic Oracle had been right all along about him being the wisest man in Athens. He was still searching for knowledge, still questioning the completeness of what others had already decided was necessary for them to understand. He was still unprepared to pretend that he knew something he didn’t. To the end, he refused to accept that there weren’t always more questions to ask.

After all, it’s not what you look at that matters, it’s what you see; it’s not what you hear, so much as what you understand… The rest, as Hamlet said, is silence.

How Ethical is Ethical Compromise?

What to do with a minefield? Once it is there, is it sufficient to avoid it while we investigate and map it –mark it off as terra incognita- or must we act immediately to attempt to remove all mines even if we do not fully understand their distribution or destructive capabilities? Even if we may miss some and our initial enthusiasm was deemed naïve?

This is an admittedly inadequate metaphor when applied to ethics, to be sure, but in many ways is illustrative of the pitfalls of being too quick to judge; or, alternatively, of assuming there is only one approach –and that the one chosen is perforce the correct and appropriate one.

Unfortunately, majority opinion often quietly assumes the mantle of indisputability in a culture, no matter its importance or suitability elsewhere. And even to question the legitimacy of the assertion is to question the legitimacy of the social norms to which its members unconsciously adhere. It may not necessarily intend to negate them, or overtly dispute them, but by subjecting them to investigation, it may seem to disparage their sanctity.

It is difficult to step out of our societally condoned patterns of thought and our long-hallowed mores; it is troubling to observe customs that seem to violate what to us are ingrained standards of morality. It is difficult indeed, to accept that we may not be in sole possession of moral rectitude –that there may be alternate truths, alternate moralities, even alternate equally valid perspectives.

I raise this with regard to the increasing awareness and condemnation of female genital mutilation (FGM). To be clear from the start, I do not condone FGM nor feel that it should be perpetuated; indeed I have to confess that I have great difficulty viewing it as anything other than a culturally-imposed abomination -misogyny writ large. I was, however, intrigued by a paper published in the Journal of Medical Ethics that sought to assess the issue in a more critically constructive fashion than I have seen before: http://jme.bmj.com/content/early/2016/02/21/medethics-2014-102375.full  It is really a very thoughtful and enlightening paper and I would strongly suggest that it is worth reading –if only to learn more about FGM and its cultural significance stripped of any pre-loaded societal baggage.

I was impressed by several things in fact. They sought to classify the procedures in terms of degree, medical issues, the ethical underpinnings of FGM, cultural sensitivity, and whether or not any form of the procedure would constitute gender discrimination or the violation of human rights. I will let the reader judge how thoroughly these fields were covered, but caution against our usually self-imposed wall of confirmation-bias that often precludes a dispassionate consideration of views that don’t fully accord with what we ‘know’ to be the correct ones… http://www.cbc.ca/news/health/female-genital-mutilation-legal-1.3459379 -this brief article from the CBC is perhaps a more assimilable and balanced –albeit nuanced- summary of the arguments.

I suppose the issue is not so much whether the practice should ever be acceptable –although neonatal male circumcision seems to have made it through the gate- as whether by outlawing it, the procedure will be driven underground as seems to be happening currently. If it is so important to a culture –whether justified by mores, or religion- that there seems to be an imperative to have it performed to allow an individual’s acceptability to be confirmed in the community, then wouldn’t it be better to acknowledge this, but mitigate the harm?

The authors have attempted a classification of FGM into 5 categories, the first two of which are thought to have minimal if any permanent effects on the girl -no effects on sexual pleasure, functioning, or reproduction. And, of course, if accepted, could be done under an anaesthetic, rather than by test of courage. Its acceptance could serve to assuage the cultural imperatives while essentially eliminating the greater severity and mutilating effects of the more complicated forms of the practice. It would be an intermediate –and hopefully temporary- step on the road to complete elimination of the procedure.

To be sure, the objection raised is often the one of argumentum ad temperantiam –the fallacy of assuming that the truth –the resolution- can be found in the middle ground between the two conflicting opinions. The problem, of course, lies in the validity of the opposing claims. Should one really be looking for the middle ground between information and mis (or dis) information? Sometimes the distinction is easy, but sometimes it is the minefield I discussed above. Primum non nocere –first of all do no harm- is the guide. As the authors state: ‘… analysis of issues in medical ethics generally regards principles as being prima facie in nature, rather than absolute. Therefore, important emotional and social considerations can trump minor medical considerations.’ In fact, because of the extreme and negative connotations of the term female genital mutilation, the authors even propose an alternative, less pejorative name: FGA (female genital alteration).

Without trying to push the concept and its acceptance too strongly, let me quote the summary of their intent: ‘Since progress in reducing FGA procedures has been limited in states where they are endemic and the commitment of people from these cultures to these procedures has led to their persistence [even in] in states where they are legally discouraged, alternative approaches should be considered. To accommodate cultural beliefs while protecting the physical health of girls, we propose a compromise solution in which liberal states would legally permit de minimis [a level of risk too small to be of concern] FGA in recognition of its fulfilment of cultural and religious obligations, but would proscribe those forms of FGA that are dangerous or that produce significant sexual or reproductive dysfunction.’

Compromises are always difficult; no one gets all they want, and yet each gets something. I raise the issue of female genital mutilation/alteration mainly for information but also for discussion. Sometimes, we need to know something about what we oppose. Always, in fact…