Sunday, February 29, 2004

Facing Facts, or Not

Health Day News reports the findings of Australian cancer researcher Penelope Schofield in an article titled "Optimism Doesn't Prolong Lung Cancer Patients' Survival". The study found that lung cancer patients died at about the same rates within about the same periods regardless of their rating on a test of attitude and level of optimism. In fact, the research suggests that placing too high an importance on the patient's optimism may add to their overall emotional burden.

While I find these results of interest, what comes next in the article struck me as a glaring example of how much most people resist factual evidence when it contradicts their hopes and beliefs. The researcher "is quick to add" that her study focused only on lung cancer, a notoriously deadly disease, and that patients with other more treatable cancers might well benefit from a more positive attitude.

Following that comes this sentence:

What's more, the findings shouldn't prompt lung cancer patients to give up hope, American cancer experts say, because keeping faith often enhances a patient's quality of life.

To me, this statement directly contradicts the results of the study. I think the article included the sentence because somebody, the author or the editors or management at HealthDay, felt a need to soften the facts of the study with some totally unwarranted optimism of their own.

In ancient Greece, hope dwelled in Pandora's box of evils and remained behind when all the other evils escaped. Many view this with a Westerner's conception of hope, as something that gives strength and enables triumph. That hope remained in the box meant that we can as humans use it to triumph over the evils at large in the world. The Greeks, by contrast, considered hope the ultimate evil, because it blinds us to the reality of our situations and prevents us from taking the steps necessary to meet the demands life puts on us.

I admit that I find this interpretation of hope quite appealing. Having helped two of my dearest family members through the process of dying from lung cancer, I feel somewhat qualified to assess the effects of pressure for optimism on the patient's mental state. I found my loved ones most peaceful and lucid when they felt most free to express their comprehension of impending death. In each case, we came to a moment when they said in effect, "I know I will die soon and I accept it." In that moment, we all, patient and family alike, found a comfort that hope could never provide.

It seems to me that those who believe in an afterlife fear death most intensely. I always wonder--if heaven promises so much, why resist the necessary step through the door? On the other hand, people who have found no reason to assume that anything survives death seem to have the easiest time letting go. In my experience.

What Do You Know, and How Do You Know It?

In this interesting article by the "Public Editor" at the New York Times, Daniel Okrent, the author provides a newspaper journalist's assessment of the journalistic behavior of a magazine writer. The magazine article, by Peter Landesman, writing for the Times Magazine, exposed an apparent epidemic of sex slavery trafficking in New Jersey, California and other states around the country. When it appeared in the magazine last month, the article generated a wave of skepticism and outcry from readers and other journalists alike, for its extreme conclusions and inflammatory language.

In his critique of the article and its writer, Okrent starts with an elegant demonstration how two people can "accurately" describe the same scene with completely different "facts". The rest of the article focuses more on the different standards on fact-checking generally accepted by newpaper and magazine journalists. He shows that how a journalist feels about an issue can directly influence the tone of the resulting article and more importantly, the depth of the research on which the article rests.

I found the article a valuable analysis of how journalism works, but also found Okrent's emphasis on the effect of the personal on the professional quite illuminating and relevant to gs concerns.

Tuesday, February 24, 2004


In science it often happens that scientists say, "You know that's a really good argument; my position is mistaken," and then they would actually change their minds and you never hear that old view from them again. They really do it. It doesn't happen as often as it should, because scientists are human and change is sometimes painful. But it happens every day. I cannot recall the last time something like that happened in politics or religion.
-Carl Sagan, astronomer and writer (1934-1996)

Wednesday, February 11, 2004


Finish every day and be done with it. You have done what you could; Some blunders and absurdities crept in; Forget them as soon as you can. Tomorrow is a new day; You shall begin it serenely and with too high a spirit to be encumbered with your old nonsense.
-Ralph Waldo Emerson, writer and philosopher (1803-1882)

Tuesday, February 03, 2004

The Noun--Mightier than the Sword?

Whatever you may feel about the issues between Israelis and Arabs, I believe you will find this article from the Jerusalem Post interesting. The author, Lewis Glinert, discusses the subtle but powerful connotations that words carry and how the choice of one term over another can draw listeners opinion in a particular direction without them necessarily perceiving the effect.

Of course, every word uttered creates the possibility for misunderstanding, or worse still, understanding of only what the speaker wishes to reveal. Since, as we in the gs world contend, words don't "carry" meaning but rather trigger it in the listener, one can never guarantee that the "same" meaning will occur to the listener as to the speaker. Trying to maintain awareness of the possible problems can help, but I suggest that we must do more if we want to improve our ability to withstand efforts to influence our opinions.

Recently I started reading George Lakoff's "Metaphors We Live By". Lakoff identifies a number of fundamental language concepts that color everyday language and yet remain unknown or unacknowledged by most speakers. Even more striking to me, Lakoff verbalizes these metaphors in the simplest of language--"Better is UP" "Less is DOWN" "Argument is WAR" etc etc. These nearly universal metaphors (at least within a given culture) subtly but inexorably determine which words "work" and which fail to appeal. For example, one cannot expect much success with a phrase like "Small is beautiful" when talking about growth and progress. This contradicts our unspoken metaphor that "More is UP" plus "Better is UP".

With this new perspective in mind, we can evaluate both the arguments others present and the words they choose to express their arguments. This may give us some better chance at reacting rationally rather than reflexively.