Category Archives: Social issues ( be civil ! )

The peculiar blindness of the highly intelligent

This is not a scientific post. While at Graduate Alumni day last April at Harvard, I listened to the main speaker go on and on about how irrational (translation: stupid) people were when it came to risk, particularly that of flying after 9/11. In terms of miles traversed, flying is far safer than driving. The speaker was Louise Richardson
PhD ’89, government, presently Principal and Vice-Chancellor of the University of St Andrews. Her topic was “Terrorism: what have we learned?”

Here’s who she is and what she’s done. In the years after 9/11, in addition to her teaching and management roles, Professor Richardson gave over 300 talks and lectures on terrorism and counter-terrorism to educational and private groups as well as policy makers, the military, intelligence, and business communities. She has testified before the United States Senate and has appeared on CNN, NBC, the BBC, PBS, NPR, Fox and a host of other broadcast outlets. Her work has been featured in numerous international periodicals.

Clearly, she’s listened to. As I sat there I wondered how her advice for society could be any good, given her contempt for the way most of its members think. I’m sure in the several hundred of so listeners there were some adamantly opposed nuclear power. Two years previously we heard professor Daniel Schrag talk on a geologist’s perspective on global warming, saying there was no such thing as ‘clean coal’ and how slowly carbon dioxide is cleared from the atmosphere. Clearly, nuclear power is cleanest mode of energy production, with the lowest risk etc. etc. Why are some highly educated (and presumably intelligent) people against it?

Which brings us to the mind set of Professor Gruber. Amazingly, Howard Dean (a man of the left) had the following to say about Professor Gruber and Obamacare on MSNBC

First Gruber: “The problem is not that Gruber said it– the problem is that he thinks it”

Then ObamaCare “The core problem under the damn law is that it was put together by a bunch of elitists who don’t fundamentally understand the American people. That’s what the problem is”

How could free health care be so unpopular.

The common delusion of the highly intelligent is that since they think so well, everyone should think like them, and if they don’t their behavior and institutions should be directed by their intellectual betters. Nothing much has changed in Cambridge in 54 years. This mindset was just as common then as it is now. You can see how well it’s working.

Well, probably most readers of this blog are highly educated (technically at least), and years away from dealing with the mass of humanity. Most doctors in practice see the full spectrum of the populace, because everyone gets sick.

Here’s what’s out there. Part of the neurologic examination is the mental status examination. One assesses a variety of things — orientation, speech, affect, calculation, memory etc. etc. One part often used to assess higher cognitive function is the ability to abstract. People are asked things like, what’s similar about an apple and an orange, a table and a chair. What’s different about a river and a lake. They can be asked for the meaning of familial proverbs “a stitch in time saves nine, people who live in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones. The point of the mental status is to separate the normal from the abnormal.

I pretty much had to abandon similarities and differences because so many normally functioning people thought extremely concretely. For the apple/orange similarity I’d get back they’re both round, or (worse) one is red the other is orange (not a similarity), or the proverb would be repeated back verbatim. I’d guess that 1/3 of people think this concretely.That table and chair were both furniture or that apples and oranges were both fruit was only the response about 60% of the time. You can either call the 1/3 abnormal (which means you need to redefine normal) or decide that the test is useless for picking up pathology. I chose the latter.

This is why I’ll only interview high school students for my Ivy league alma mater (Princeton). Princeton needs them as much as they need Princeton. They bring a dose of reality to a very cloistered environment.

Maybe it is the system after all

This is a totally NONscientific post.

My late father and his brother had the classic liberal conservative argument for the 60 years or so I was intellectually conscious enough to register it (and probably longer). His brother would say ‘it’s the system’ – all we have to do is change it and things would be better. My father would say people will corrupt any system.

Our family was full of people of the left, and my mother recalls someone arguing in all seriousness that Finland had attacked Russia in WWII. I can well recall the gloom pervading a family gathering after Eisenhower beat Stevenson, and the imprecations of disaster to follow.

Based on decades of medical practice, I tended to agree with my father. Now I’m not so sure.

But first 3 examples:

The Veteran’s Administration system: The original impetus for a system was to care for injured soldiers in peacetime. Who could possibly object to that. Yet as a resident in the 70’s our acute ward was so filled with very chronic patients (20 year paraplegics) that we had to turn away the truly acutely ill. We also had one paraplegic young man shot while robbing a convenience store (he was on active duty at the time, so this was considered service connected). I’m not even mentioning the current scandal about falsified wait times, while those in charge gave themselves performance awards.

Workman’s compensation: Who could argue with compensating an honest workman for a disabling injury suffered on the job? Read “The Jungle” by Upton Sinclair about life in the Chicago Stockyards a century ago if you don’t agree. Then there was the Rerat law firm (no kidding) specializing in suing the Burlington Northern Railway for injuries. This leads into example #3

Disability: Disabled people should be supported by the society at large. Who would disagree. I got an early taste in the service from ’68 – ’70 doing medical boards. No problem for the war injured to get disability. But then there were the general officers about to retire, whom the system somehow found barely able to function. Then look at the scandal at the Long Island Railroad, where for a time, a corrupt group of union officials and docs made sure nearly 100% of retirees were 100% disabled. See http://www.nytimes.com/2008/09/21/nyregion/21lirr.html?_r=0

The real problem is with Social Security Disability payments. Here the frauds and grafters were basically stealing from my disabled MS, muscular dystrophy, stroke patients. These are people who truly need the money. I thought the system would bankrupt from them. But apparently it hasn’t.

There are 3 excellent systemic ideas which have been significantly corrupted by the people using it.

So my dad was right and my uncle, a man of the Left was wrong.

They’re both gone now, my dad at 100, my uncle at 94. Uncle Irv wouldn’t like why I’m now coming around to his position — it is the system (at least in some cases).

What changed my mind? Venezuela. This is a country sitting on the largest proven reserves of oil, which has begun to import oil. It should be fabulously rich, now that the leader is ruling by decree for the poor and downtrodden. It is one of 3 countries in the world rationing food. There is no excuse for this — no US embargo (Cuba), no war fought on its soil in the past 100 years (North Korea).

It must be the system there. Sorry uncle Irv, it’s your system not dad’s.

Conservatives sometimes bash the left for being unpatriotic. Not uncle Irv — he was at the battle of Kasserine pass in North Africa, and the battle of the Bulge in Europe, and is at rest in a military cemetery.

Another financial piety bites the dust

If only businesses looked past the next quarterly earnings report all would be well. Productivity and profits would increase if CEOs would think long term. Investors hunger for such thinking.

Well, a large firm with earnings that beat analysts estimate by over 5% did that exactly yesterday and the stock dropped 6% today, Revenue rose 59%, but costs rose 41%.

The head, a brash youngster spoke saying that the ‘company’s long-term goals stretch more than a decade into the future and require “investing aggressively”.

Yes, this happened to Facebook. So much for the long term view

Who said this?

“You have to take care of all the sectors in —- as much as you can,” he said, “and if it’s entirely a numbers game and numeric representation, then obviously you would be talking to half of the people in —– who earn less than $1,800 a month.”

The present system serves to “insulate candidates from popular pressure to create a welfare state, and would allow the city government to follow more business-friendly policies.”

Clue: It is not a Republican dinosaur or the Koch brothers.

No it’s the Beijing-appointed leader of Hong Kong, Leung Chun-ying as reported 2 days ago in the New York Times — http://www.nytimes.com/2014/10/21/world/asia/leung-chun-ying-hong-kong-china-protests.html?_r=0

Amazing isn’t it? Well, perhaps not. In March 2013 my wife and I saw Bentley dealerships in Beijing. In the Causeway Bay area of Hong Kong, there appeared to be one high end jewelry store (Cartier, etc. etc.) per block.

What’s a fellow-traveller to do?

An experiment of nature

Yesterday’s post https://luysii.wordpress.com/2014/10/15/ebola/ concerned the fact that 2 nurses taking care of a patient in Texas had been infected (presumably even after taking all the recommended precautions). Given that, I was concerned about the possibility of airborne spread.

Bryan wrote in to say the following:

“It seems doubtful airborne spread was involved. Remember, the Texas patient was initially sent home after showing symptoms, yet none of his family members were infected. Only those health workers directly involved in his care (and thus exposed to infected bodily fluids) have been infected, consistent with the idea that the disease can be transmitted only though contact with infected bodily fluids.”

I certainly hope he is right.

In something right out a novel, the possibility of airborne spread is now going to be empirically tested, as one of the two infected nurses flew to Cleveland, and then back to Texas in the 24 hours prior to her diagnosis. She apparently had a slight fever on boarding. So 100+ people were in a confined space with her for a few hours.

It’s why I don’t read fiction — reality is far more fantastic than anything writers can produce.

One more bizarre development. Here in Massachusetts, legislators today are scheduled to hear about the readiness of the state’s hospitals to handle Ebola. Amazingly, they will only get input from hospital CEOs. No nurses, thank you. Naturally the nurses are pissed as they should be (and so should you if you live in the state). If there were ever a time to hear from boots on the ground about Ebola readiness, it is now.

Addendum 17 Oct ’14

The Obama administration has just appointed a former chief of staff for former vice-president Gore and present vice-president Biden as the “Ebola czar”. Presumably, not for his medical expertise but for his ability to coordinate various governmental agencies, which was hardly the problem in the CDC’s response to the Texas cases. Hopefully, this will not be another case of “Brownie, you’re doing a heck of a job,” but I’m not optimistic — http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Michael_D._Brown

Now for some molecular biology. The genome of Ebola is RNA which mutates much more rapidly than DNA genomes. It does this so quickly that at death from AIDS (another RNA virus), there are so many viral variants present that the infecting ensemble is called a quasiSpecies. With a large population infected in Africa there is more Ebola virus extant than at any time in the past. There is some reason to hope that natural selection for a more transmissible form of Ebola in the large infected human population will not occur (the AIDS virus hasn’t become more infectious over the years). This is only a hope.

Ebola

This morning (15 October) it was announced that a second health care worker at the Texas hospital where an ebola patient died has ‘tested positive’ for it. If ebola can spread in a hospital environment where presumably precautions were taken, once it gets out into the populace at large it can spread much faster. This had to be human to human transmission — no other animal vector is involved (as it probably is in Africa).

How does it spread? We don’t know, but the two Texas cases probably imply that airborne spread is possible.

What to do?

In our case it means not getting into a confined space with over 100 people we don’t know from all over the world for an 8 – 16 hour period (e.g. an international flight). Have you ever been on a flight where no one had a cold?

For the USA, it should mean banning all flights from endemic countries. This has been the case in the past. My cousin’s wife has a lot of relatives in Brazil, because the people on the boat had lots of pink eye, and the boat was simply turned away over 100 years ago.

It should mean caring for Ebola patients in specialized facilities where only they are cared for –e.g. not in a general hospital since we don’t know how it spreads.

The greatest way to spread the disease (the Hajj — millions of people from all over the world crowded together for days followed by worldwide dispersal) has mercifully just ended before the disease escaped Africa to any extent.

Will ISIS or Al-Qaeda try to bring Ebola to the USA? Of course.

We live in a society where children have supervised play dates, and where walking unattended to school is almost considered child abuse. What will happen to such a risk-averse society when there is actual risk to going out to (the mall, the school, to work)?

Maryam Mirzakhani

“The universal scientific language is broken English.” So sayeth Don Voet 50+ years ago when we were graduate students. He should know, as his parents were smart enough to get the hell out of the Netherlands before WWII. I met them and they told me that there was some minor incident there involving Germans who promptly went bananas. They decided that this wasn’t the way a friendly country behaved and got out. Just about everyone two generations back in my family was an immigrant, so I heard a lot of heavily accented (if not broken) English growing up.

Which (at last) brings us to Maryam Mirzakhani, a person probably not familiar to chemists, but a brilliant mathematician who has just won the Fields Medal (the Nobel of mathematics). Born in Teheran and educated through college there, she came to Harvard for her PhD, and has remained here ever since and is presently a full prof. at Stanford.

Why she chose to stay here isn’t clear. The USA has picked up all sorts of brains from the various European upheavals and petty hatreds (see http://luysii.wordpress.com/2013/10/27/hitlers-gifts-and-russias-gift/). Given the present and past state of the middle East, I’ve always wondered if we’d scooped up any of the talent originating there. Of course, all chemists know of E. J. Corey, a Lebanese Christian, but he was born here 86 years ago. Elias Zerhouni former director of the NIH, was born in Algeria. That’s about all I know at this level of brilliance and achievement. I’m sure there are others that I’ve missed. Hopefully more such people are already here but haven’t established themselves as yet. This is possible, given that they come from a region without world class scientific institutions. Hitler singlehandedly destroyed the great German departments of Mathematics and Physics and the USA (and England) picked up the best of them.

Given the way things are going presently, the USA may shortly acquire a lot of Muslim brains from Europe. All it will take is a few random beheadings of Europeans in their home countries by the maniacs of ISIS and their ilk. Look what Europeans did to a people who did not physically threaten them during WWII. Lest you think this sort of behavior was a purely German aberration, try Googling Quisling and Marshal Petain. God knows what they’ll do when they are actually threatened. Remember, less than 20 years ago, the Europeans did nothing as Muslims were being slaughtered by Serbs in Kosovo.

Not to ignore the awful other side of the coin, the religious cleansing of the middle East of Christians by the larger Muslim community. The politically correct here have no love of Christianity. However, the continued passivity of American Christians is surprising. Whatever happened to “Onward Christian Soldiers” which seemed to be sung by all at least once a week in the grade school I attended 60+ years ago.

These are very scary times.

Among the castrati

Yesterday being my wife’s birthday, we drove to an art museum. While there I glimpsed homo castratus, a rare and delicate species seen only in such places, art galleries and Whole Foods. They are very easy to spot by their plumage, posture and mate. He is invariably clad in short pants of drab coloration in most seasons. His mate (always female for although he is quite correct politically, he is not gay) is invariably wearing pants, usually jeans. He usually is slumped forward, particularly about the head and neck which, when combined with his expression, makes him resemble a basset hound. His mate invariably walks erect, shoulders back, head forward looking at all comers directly. This affords another clue as to the species. Look him in the eye and he turns his head and looks away. Look her in the eye, and she’ll try to stare you down. I’ve been in several amusing contests of this nature, which can be won by smiling pleasantly.

My wife says that this is reaction formation, as I was forced to wear short pants to grade school until the 5th grade. Perhaps.

Since most readers of this post are techies of one form or another, here is some fatherly advice. Marry a non-techie, or if you must, someone far outside your field. You’ll learn a lot and life will be more interesting, and perhaps you’ll be as well.

Watch this space

I know far more about head trauma than any neurologist should. For three and a half years I worked with two active neurosurgeons covering a huge area of an eastern state. Our drawing radius ranged from 35 to 125 miles depending on direction. I was on first call every other night and weekend, and covered all the patients (including the neurosurgical ones) during those times. It’s amazing what you’ll do to get your kids through college. I was the first to see any head trauma cases that came in whether our service admitted them or not (multiple trauma cases usually went to general surgery and/or orthopedics, with out group following them as consultants).

So it’s time to talk about orbital (eye socket) fractures. This has great relevance for the case against Darren Wilson, the cop who killed Michael Brown. As far as I can tell, whether Wilson did or not sustain an orbital fracture is extremely controversial, with statements and denials all over the internet (most of them 5 -6 days old).

The truth of the matter will be very easy to establish once his X-rays (and CAT scans) are available. If Wilson sustained any head trauma at all, it is inconceivable to me that he didn’t have X-rays and CAT scans out the gazoo (technical term).

Some orbital fractures are very easy to see with a CAT scan, which shows bone beautifully. The orbit is adjacent to sinuses (air filled spaces) below and toward the nose. Fractures bleed. Normally the sinuses are filled with air which doesn’t stop X-rays, so they normally look black. Bone stops X-rays so they look white on CAT scan. Blood (or mucus) is very easy to see in a sinus on a CAT scan.

There is always a question about how old a fracture is, but if blood is found in a sinus adjacent to the fracture, you can conclude that the fracture is new.

Sometimes there is a sinus (the frontal sinus) above the orbit, but not always. The side of the orbit toward the ear is just bone.

So the data is out there somewhere. Watch this space for more interpretation should Wilson actually have sustained one.

The only other data available for all to see, are the convenience store videos, which show how Brown was acting shortly before he was killed. It isn’t pretty. I’m sure there are better links to it, so ignore the right wing chatter, and just look at the data. http://www.breitbart.com/Big-Government/2014/08/18/Michael-Brown-Allegedly-Bum-Rushed-Officer-Punched-Him-in-Face-Grabbed-Gun-Taunted-Him

Brown was big (reportedly 6′ 4” and 300 pounds), and the video shows him pushing a clerk who doesn’t even come up to his shoulder, when the clerk (who also appears to be a person of color) confronts him.

A Troublesome Inheritance – IV — Chapter 3

Chapter III of “A Troublesome Inheritance” contains a lot of very solid molecular genetics, and a lot of unfounded speculation. I can see why the book has driven some otherwise rational people bonkers. Just because Wade knows what he’s talking about in one field, doesn’t imply he’s competent in another.

Several examples: p. 41 “”Nonethless, it is reasonable to assume that if traits like skin color have evolved in a population, the same may be true of its social behavior.” Consider yes, assume no.

p. 42 “The society of living chimps can thus with reasonable accuracy stand as a surrogate for the joint ancester” (of humans and chimps — thought to be about 7 megaYears ago) and hence describe the baseline from which human social behavior evolved.” I doubt this.

The chapter contains many just so stories about the evolution of chimp and human societies (post hoc propter hoc). Plausible, but not testable.

Then follows some very solid stuff about the effects of the hormone oxytocin (which causes lactation in nursing women) on human social interaction. Then some speculation on the ways natural selection could work on the oxytocin system to make people more or less trusting. He lists several potential mechanisms for this (1) changes in the amount of oxytocin made (2) increasing the number of protein receptors for oxytocin (3) making each receptor bind oxytocin more tightly. This shows that Wade has solid molecular biological (and biological) chops.

He quotes a Dutch psychologist on his results with oxytocin and sociality — unfortunately, there have been too many scandals involving Dutch psychologists and sociologists to believe what he says until its replicated (Google Diederik Stapel, Don Poldermans, Jens Forster, Markus Denzler if you don’t believe me). It’s sad that this probably honest individual is tarred with that brush but he is.

p. 59 — He notes that the idea that human behavior is solely the result of social conditions with no genetic influence is appealing to Marxists, who hoped to make humanity behave better by designing better social conditions. Certainly, much of the vitriol heaped on the book has come from the left. A communist uncle would always say ‘it’s the system’ to which my father would reply ‘people will corrupt any system’.

p. 61 — the effect of mutations of lactose tolerance on survival on society are noted — people herding cattle and drinking milk, survive better if their gene to digest lactose (the main sugar in milk) isn’t turned off after childhood. If your society doesn’t herd animals, there is no reason for anyone to digest milk after weaning from the breast. The mutations aren’t in the enzyme digesting lactose, but in the DNA that turns on expression of the gene for the enzyme (e.g. the promoter). Interestingly, 3 separate mutations in African herders have been found to do this, and different from the one that arose in the Funnel Beaker Culture of Scandinavia 6,000 yers ago. This is a classic example of natural selection producing the same phenotypic effect by separate mutations.

There is a much bigger biological fish to be fried here, which Wade doesn’t discuss. It takes energy to make any protein, and there is no reason to make a protein to help you digest milk if you aren’t nursing, and one very good reason not to — it wastes metabolic energy, something in short supply in humans as they lived until about 15,000 years ago. So humans evolved a way not to make the protein in adult life. The genetic change is in the DNA controlling protein production not the protein itself.

You may have heard it said that we are 98% Chimpanzee. This is true in the sense that our 20,000 or so proteins are that similar to the chimp. That’s far from the whole story. This is like saying Monticello and Independence Hall are just the same because they’re both made out of bricks. One could chemically identify Monticello bricks as coming from the Virginia piedmont, and Independence Hall bricks coming from the red clay of New Jersey, but the real difference between the buildings is the plan.

It’s not the proteins, but where and when and how much of them are made. The control for this (plan if you will) lies outside the genes for the proteins themselves, in the rest of the genome. The control elements have as much right to be called genes, as the parts of the genome coding for amino acids. Granted, it’s easier to study genes coding for proteins, because we’ve identified them and know so much about them. It’s like the drunk looking for his keys under the lamppost because that’s where the light is.

p. 62 — There follows some description of the changes of human society from hunter gathering, to agrarian, to the rise of city states, is chronicled. Whether adaptation to different social organizations produced genetic changes permitting social adaptation or were the cause of it isn’t clear. Wade says “changes in social behavior, has most probably been molded by evolution, through the underlying genetic changes have yet to be identified.” This assumes a lot, e.g. that genetic changes are involved. I’m far from sure, but the idea is not far fetched. Stating that genetic changes have never, and will never shape society, is without any scientific basis, and just as fanciful as many of Wade’s statements in this chapter. It’s an open question, which is really all Wade is saying.

In defense of Wade’s idea, think about animal breeding as Darwin did extensively. The Origin of Species (worth a read if you haven’t already read it) is full of interchanges with all sorts of breeders (pigeons, cattle). The best example we have presently are the breeds of dogs. They have very different personalities — and have been bred for them, sheep dogs mastifs etc. etc. Have a look at [ Science vol. 306 p. 2172 ’04, Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. vol. 101 pp. 18058 – 18063 ’04 ] where the DNA of variety of dog breeds was studied to determine which changes determined the way they look. The length of a breed’s snout correlated directly with the number of repeats in a particular protein (Runx-2). The paper is a decade old and I’m sure that they’re starting to look at behavior.

More to the point about selection for behavioral characteristics, consider the domestication of the modern dog from the wolf. Contrast the dog with the chimp (which hasn’t been bred).

[ Science vol. 298 pp. 1634 – 1636 ’02 ] Chimps are terrible at picking up human cues as to where food is hidden. Cues would be something as obvious as looking at the containing, pointing at the container or even touching it. Even those who eventually perform well, take dozens of trials or more to learn it. When tested in more difficult tests requiring them to show flexible use of social cues they don’t

This paper shows that puppies (raised with no contact with humans) do much better at reading humans than chimps. However wolf cubs do not do better than the chimps. Even more impressively, wolf cubs raised by humans don’t show the same skills. This implies that during the process of domestication, dogs have been selected for a set of social cognitive abilities that allow them to communicate with humans in unique ways. Dogs and wolves do not perform differently in a non-social memory task, ruling out the possibility that dogs outperform wolves in all human guided tasks.

All in all, a fascinating book with lots to think about, argue with, propose counterarguments, propose other arguments in support (as I’ve just done), etc. etc. Definitely a book for those who like to think, whether you agree with it all or not.

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