Sunday, January 20, 2013

More on bacteria and a new way to talk about them

I find, to my amazement, that I did not make a single post here in all of 2012, although not for a lack of interesting topics. Since 2013 promises more of the same, I hope to do a little better this year.

However, I'm starting the year off by returning to a post from 2011 about the unintended consequences of our misperceptions about bacteria. Here's an excerpt from that post:

The medical profession has begun to recognize the negative consequences of trying to eradicate pathogens, such as "super-bugs" and rapidly evolving drug-resistant forms. This article describes another, less obvious but potentially more severe consequence--the permanent loss of strains of beneficial bacteria, which could contribute to the rising incidence of diabetes, bowel disease, asthma and obesity. 

Since that post, the research on bacteria has progressed significantly. We now have the term "microbiome" that encompasses the various colonies of microbes that we acquire over our lifetimes.

In a rational world, the microbiome might turn out to be the number one cover story for 2013. An October 2012 article in the New Yorker magazine notes that our bodies harbor more bacteria cells than body cells and provides ample examples of how these fundamental and balanced colonies sustain our health far more than they harm it. And the process starts right at the beginning of life:

We inherit every one of our genes, but we leave the womb without a single microbe. As we pass through our mother’s birth canal, we begin to attract entire colonies of bacteria. 

and by the time we reach adulthood:

[w]e are inhabited by as many as ten thousand bacterial species; these cells outnumber those which we consider our own by ten to one, and weigh, all told, about three pounds—the same as our brain. Together, they are referred to as our microbiome—and they play such a crucial role in our lives that scientists like Blaser have begun to reconsider what it means to be human.

This "reconsidering" will require a fundamental change in how we think about health, and I'm not sure how long it might take for that change to reach day-to-day understanding. Largely through the efforts of scientists from the past two centuries, the large majority of the world's population have finally come to thoroughly embrace the simple encomium that "bacteria are bad." Thanks to modern advertising and the impulses of capitalism, we each have access to an overwhelming arsenal of antibacterial products to protect ourselves from the relentless onslaught of rampant nature. We also have increasing susceptibility to asthma, obesity, and MRSA. The New Yorker article suggests the potential for new treatments based solely on the regulation and reintroduction of healthy colonies of microbes. It sounds quite new-age-y, but these "miracle" cures have solid science behind them

And along with the new approaches to treatment, science faces an additional challenge--how do we dial back the fears of the average human and encourage people to embrace a new paradigm in which we LOVE our bacteria and take steps to husband and protect the various health-giving commensals that inhabit every square centimeter of our bodies? Perhaps that's one benefit of the new term, microbiome. It gives us a handle that does not immediately conjure up the now-entrenched bias we acquire from our mothers along with the load of microbes.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Neuroscience: Programming the Machine

While we have seen a lot of discussion about whether we can effectively model the brain as a computer, there's plenty of evidence that brains do act like "black boxes": present a particular input and you will get a related output. How the input relates to the output may vary, but the two do seem related.

In this article from The Telegraph, we learn that an external stimuli applied to the head can produce a tic in the body that the owner of the body did not will, either consciously or unconsciously. This phenomenon is interpreted as evidence that we have no free will--if someone else can push a button and cause us to jump or dance, then we cannot have control over our own bodies. Extend this to our seemingly autonomic reaction to the verbal stimulus of an insult or a tear-jerker movie, and we do seem to devolve into the feared state of automaton.

I think this view lacks a critical dimension, namely time.

As I see it, yes, an input does produce an output, and perhaps even reliably so. But not necessarily the same every time, and certainly not the same for every person. The author quotes Professor Patrick Haggard of the Institute for Cognitive Neuroscience:

"If you see a light go green, it may mean press the accelerator; but there are lots of situations where it doesn't mean that: if the car in front hasn't moved, for example. The same stimulus sometimes makes me press the accelerator, but sometimes the horn. We are not one output-one input beings; we have to cope with a messy world of inputs, an enormous range of outputs. I think the term 'free will' refers to the complexity of that arrangement."

This seems to me to capture the heart of the issue. We condition our responses based on context. But how do we do that?

Here's where time comes into the picture, in my view. We *learn*, by trying, failing, trying, erring, trying, succeeding. Over time, we develop the black box mechanism that determines our outputs for a given input. We get programmed.

I would contend that we can reclaim free will, in part, by coming to recognize the time dimension and choosing how we become programmed. We can adjust our understanding of a situation, thus tapping a different pathway through our brains, producing a different reaction that might have otherwise occurred.

We do this by mindfully attending to the input-output process of our daily lives, by evaluating how we feel about the relation and the outcome of that relation, and by reinforcing, replacing or redefining the significance we assign to the input to modify the resulting output. Time provides us with our own personal psychology lab, if we will choose to use it.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Science and Naivete

In this blog post on the Scientific American site, writer and former chemist Cassie Rodenberg asks if we would take a risk-free version of psylocibin, "magic mushrooms", as a "mystical experience", or maybe just for the fun of it. Setting aside for the moment the different perception my generation might have on the question, I was struck by her questions about the potential ramifications:

Would we still be ourselves then? Would this be a new, improved me or an artificial version? Would my mom still be herself if she lost her narrow Southern view of religion? I’m not so sure.

My first reaction to this was "What do you mean? and How do you know?" I'm not posing a deep philosophical argument about the self and how it develops. I'm simply talking about the rigidity of abstracting these questions suggest. Do you think you have developed without outside influence up until now? Do you think your reading, interpersonal experiences, diet, medical treatments, etc, had not an "artificial" effect on your existing "self"? Do you think your mom has not changed at all from what you imagine her to be based on your child's perceptions of her?

My second reaction was "How ironic that the author responds to the potential for increased "openness" by exhibiting a certain closed-mindedness about the self and what shapes personality."

Thursday, October 06, 2011

Knowledge increases power

This article from Physorg reports on research about the effects of hypothetical questions. Juries often hear hypothetical questions before they are selected, and Sarah Moore, University of Alberta Business researcher, found that these questions can plant a bias. Jurors told ahead of time that they might hear such questions and not to let them influence opinions are far less likely to absorb the intended bias.

Thomas Hobbes said "scientia potentia est" = Knowledge is power. The more you know, the more likely you can develop your own opinion rather than adopting an opinion someone else would like you to have.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Who, exactly, made Sarah Grunfeld feel bad?

You might have heard about the recent Jewish scandal that wasn't wherein a professor at York University has been criticized for how he chose to illustrate a point that there is a difference between acceptable and unacceptable opinions in public discourse:

Reaching for an example, he settled on one that seemed beyond dispute.

"All Jews should be sterilized" is an opinion that is simply not acceptable, he noted.
A student in the class, Sarah Grunfeld, took umbrage at this "outrageous" idea (only the quoted part, apparently, not the part about how this is not an acceptable view...) and slapped the professor with a complaint of anti-Semitism.

She, and the B'nai Brith, are persisting in demanding sanctions, even though they have been told that a) Prof Johnston is Jewish, and b) IT WAS AN EXAMPLE OF AN UNACCEPTABLE OPINION!

Sadly her poor attention, flawed half-baked perception and unthinking irrational reaction are all reminiscent of the very prejudices that she claims to have suffered. She contends that her reaction was triggered by generations of inaccurate and unfair insults against Jews. So she adopts the loathsome behavior of her perceived oppressors and treats her professor to an inaccurate perception and an unfair complaint.

Rather than taking responsibility for her reaction to her own erroneous perception of his statement (um, maybe texting while listening to the lecture?), Ms. Grunfeld blames the professor for her dismay. According to the National Post article:
in a statement released wednesday evening [Grunfeld said] that it was Prof. Johnston's fault if she got the wrong impression and complaining that the university has failed to discipline him.
Alas, we have all done this at one point or another--heard with half a brain and reacted as if what we *think* we heard can "cause" us to feel pain. Some people believe that if you say something they find objectionable, it's your fault if they feel angry. Others think that if a person hears something they think is objectionable and they feel anger or shame or dismay, they produced their own reaction and could have reacted differently if they chose. As Eleanor Roosevelt once said:
Remember no one can make you feel inferior without your consent.
I might amend that to "without your direct complicity via misplaced attribution of where your feelings come from!"

Seems to me that rather than attending classes on social sciences, which are clearly beyond her ability to follow, Ms. Grunfeld might want to start with some classes on critical thinking and cognitive behavior, where she might learn that how she "feels" about what others say is not "their fault", but rather her responsibility and hers alone. She might also learn to pay attention in class and learn to check her perceptions before reaching out to smack somebody else for her foolish and faulty interpretations.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Accuracy? We Don't Need No Stinkin' Accuracy!

You gotta love journalists who can't resist making some interesting story just a *little bit* hotter for the reading public. Today's case in point: a report at GizMag about the discovery of a (pant pant) "planet made of diamond"! Now that would be news. We might even get a boost in the space budget if we could go after a "planet made of diamond", right?

Of course, the story itself tells a different story...

"With the planet likely to be made largely of oxygen and carbon, its high density means it is almost certainly crystalline, meaning that a large part of the planet may be similar to diamond." [Emphasis mine]

Oops. That's a lot of hedging, none of which made it into the headline.

Twas ever thus.

(edited to change "can" to "can't"--one of the banes of my existence is my uncanny ability to overlook the missing "n't"!

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

File Under "Unintended Consequences"

This Physorg science article about the loss of beneficial bacteria also illuminates what I would consider a language problem. Early in the discovery and development history of antibiotics, researchers and doctors immediately comprehended that these medicines could save millions of lives by vanquishing what til then were unstoppable infections. In the time between the discovery of bacteria and the discovery of ways to kill bacteria, scientists focused on the ways bacteria threaten life at the expense of understanding how bacteria support life. The critical services bacteria perform for us, in our guts, in our soil, in our immune systems, etc., were unknown and unacknowledged. The medical profession has begun to recognize the negative consequences of trying to eradicate pathogens, such as "super-bugs" and rapidly evolving drug-resistant forms. This article describes another, less obvious but potentially more severe consequence--the permanent loss of strains of beneficial bacteria, which could contribute to the rising incidence of diabetes, bowel disease, asthma and obesity.

This qualifies as a language problem because due in part to the way bacteria were described in the previous century, the vast majority of people today equate "bacteria" with "bad". This has given rise to a huge and growing market in products that offer to eliminate "99.9%" of bacteria on inert surfaces as well as on our skin. People appear to believe that killing bacteria is a completely positive act, with no negative consequences. Marketing ignores, or perhaps hides, the broader definition of "bacteria" as including a spectrum of biota ranging from deadly in all cases to positive and critical for life in all case. This leads directly to the overuse of antibacterial products, since most people would agree that if killing bacteria is unequivocally "good", then killing MORE bacteria must be better. Unfortunately, it looks like killing bacteria may be the short road to killing ourselves....

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Prepare for the Worst....

Great cartoon that kind of sums up why I practice general semantics and related thinking processes:

Try to prepare for your spontaneous reactions

I think this will become my new "elevator speech" about gs!

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

"Being" a voter motivates more than a solicitation "to vote"

Thisreport from PhysOrg presents a twist on the GS dictum we avoid identifying someone as "being an X". The researcher in the report significantly improved voter turnout in participants asked if they would "be a voter", versus those who were simply asked if they were "going to vote". Apparently people found it more appealing to imagine themselves as "a voter", while they found the idea of having to *do* something, ie, vote, less appealing. Food for thought for those of us who might want to influence the behavior of others.

Friday, June 17, 2011

Quote and comment

Where is the Life we have lost in living? Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge? Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?
-T.S. Eliot, poet (1888-1965)
We typically think of information as the source of knowledge and knowledge as the source of wisdom. But inevitably, as we process one into the next, we reduce the complexity and variety of the source to distill the product. We discard information that seems irrelevant to the knowledge we desire, and dismiss knowledge that does not seem to support the wisdom we seek.

At any given moment, we necessarily ignore far more than we attend to. We overlook far more than we observe. In many cases, we do not suffer for the oversight. But Eliot understood the critical importance of asking what we might have lost in those unattended moments.

While we physically cannot attend to every single thing in our experience, it seems likely that we can benefit simply from considering, at any given moment, what we might have missed, and ask ourselves if knowing something different might change how we act or feel or what we think we have come to understand.