Tales of Elderly Spouses

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Spring might be just around the corner but winter is still lurking nearby waiting to pounce. Before you let your guard down, I thought I’d offer some advice to keep you safe and warm – advice gathered from the stories of elderly spouses.

Don’t go out in the cold without enough warm clothing; especially don’t go out with wet hair as you lose 25% of your body heat through the top of your head. And the cold can make you sick. True? Only a little bit. As it turns out, getting cold can lower your immune response (as well as help you lose weight) but, as long as you don’t come in contact with a virus, you can’t catch a cold from the cold. Hypothermia is another story. But that won’t come about from a bare head – there simply isn’t enough blood flow up there to make a difference (for some less than others, I might add). Besides the colder you get, the more your body concentrates your warmth in the torso. Still, you could freeze your ears off if you’re not careful.

If you do catch that cold, chicken soup is a sure fire cure. Oddly enough, there is some truth to that – though chicken soup probably helps the flu more than a regular cold. The flu leads to dehydration (sweating, vomiting, the runs) and depletes your electrolytes. Chicken soup is liquid filled with salt and easily digested fats. At the very least it will make you feel less sick. And since chicken soup is almost always served to you by someone who cares, the emotional support actually will boost your own immune system.

Which brings us to hugs. We’ve all known those people who want to hug you all the time. Some of them are a bit creepy but no more so than some other members of the medical profession. It turns out that hugs also boost your immune system and, as well, when given with affection rather than from sexual predation, boost serotonin levels and alleviate mild depression. Human contact is important – without it infants wither and die, even when provided with other physical necessities. But these have to be genuine hugs, not the A-frame arms and shoulder pats that pass for them among the English.

Of course, a lot of the other nostrums spouted by elderly spouses are simply nonsense. Ginseng – unless laced with Viagra as is often the case – will not improve sexual functioning. Nor will rhino horn or anything else from nature that happens to resemble a penis. Otherwise bananas would be sold on the black market.

You can’t tell the sex of a baby from whether it is carried high or low – unless you have a portable ultrasound in your pocket. Nor can the weather be predicted by the behavior of squirrels (they long ago stopped being sensitive to nature as they adapted to an urban human environment). While red sky at night might be a decent suggestion of a fair day on the morning – even that is not a hundred percent in the face of an eastern wind.

My real point is that there is wisdom in folklore but a lot of it is trapped within nonsense and superstition. All the effective measures listed above – they were proven by science. Better to listen to a young white coat than a white haired spouse.

And that’s ten minutes.

The Nature of Evidence

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I tell this joke (which has recently been borrowed by Robert J. Sawyer for his excellent new novel, Quantum Night).

What is the difference between a psychopath and a homeopath? Some psychopaths do no harm.

That pretty much sums up my view of much of what is called alternative medicine – or what I call ‘not-medicine-at-all.’ I’ve said all this before so I won’t go on but I raise it because of a story done on CBC’s The Current yesterday.

The trigger for the segment was the decision of Health Canada not to approve homeopathic medicines for children unless they had been proven effective through double-blind scientific testing. In effect, they banned these substances.

Of course, the homeopaths and their organizations are outraged. In a gentle friendly kind of way. They were represented by a nice doctor who is a real M.D. but who also uses homeopathy. I was not surprised to learn that he practices on Denman Island in BC. Anyone who has ever been there will understand what I’m saying. He talked about his ‘experience’ giving homeopathic ‘medicines’ to children with colds. It was as effective (or more so, he claimed) than other remedies and helped avoid their side-effects or the excessive use of antibiotics. And, I’ll grant, that’s not a bad thing.

But only because other remedies are not any more effective than letting the cold run its course. And antibiotics don’t have any impact on viruses (the source of a cold) and lead to drug-resistant bacteria.

All well and good. The doctor uses placebos to calm the nerves of kids and especially their parents.

The host then interviewed a researcher who used to be a homeopath but gave up when tasked with reviewing the research into the practices he himself followed. The host asked why he stopped believing in homeopathy. He responded: the research showed it didn’t work. Yes, the host said, but why did you stop believing in homeopathy? It was at that point I blew my top. Which is the whole point of this blog.

The vast majority of journalists have no clue what science is. They think it a belief system and that a theory is just a darn good guess. Trained to think that every side has an equally valid point of view, they fail to understand that science is not a point of view, it is an evidence based form of inquiry designed to test the validity (or falsity) of a thesis. That is, I think this vial of agitated and highly diluted liquid (diluted to the point that there is nothing there) will immunize you against diseases. Let’s test that proposition. Oh my, there is no evidence to support it. Oh my, it doesn’t work.

The researcher turned away from homeopathy because the evidence proved it didn’t work. Really quite a simple concept. Yet, media outlets continue to give climate change deniers (though some have dropped those guys), anti-vaxers and homeopaths a platform to promote not only incorrect ideas but dangerous ones. People will actually suffer and die because of these ideas.

Just maybe, if you don’t understand science, you shouldn’t report on it. Oh, and that joke I started with? The researcher in question had to give up his work and retire early because he kept getting death threats. From gentle friendly homeopaths.

And that’s ten minutes.

Science Fiction

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Unless you are a Republican congressman for whom the declaration that “I am not a scientist,” seems like a sad badge of honour, most people think they have a grasp on basic science. After all you can’t get through high school without at least one science credit. Back in the day, you even needed one to get your Bachelor of Arts – just as science guys like me needed at least one arts course. Still, I suspect most of my peers got no more grasp of science from their Biology 101 than I understood world history from my Plato to NATO survey course.

As they say a little knowledge is a dangerous thing. The average North American gets by on very little information. Most, I suspect would flunk a grade ten general science quiz.

The people I tend to spend most of my time with – policy analysts and science fiction writers – tend to do a little better. Some of them even have degrees in one science discipline or another. But even we can make colossal blunders when we forget the basics tenets of the reasoning system that underpins most of modern civilization.

Perhaps no one can be blamed for losing track – there is after all more science out there every day, a lot of it reported in simplified memes or grotesque news headlines. And then we have the image of the scientist portrayed in fiction and the movies. Few get it right. Even The Martian, which was better than most films at portraying science, got it wrong in a way. When the hero says he is going to ‘science the shit’ out things, he’s really talking mostly about using technology.

There is a huge gap between those who use tools and those who actually make them and an even bigger gap to those who figure out the processes that make those tools work.

But we live in a sea of technology. I’m typing on a laptop while my smart phone counts down the ten minutes. I live in a building with thermostats and air circulation systems that would have seemed like magic two hundred years ago. Outside my windows, people are driving cars with more sophisticated computers than those that landed on the moon.

But science is not technology and, moreover, science is not done in isolation by single people working in labs or in front of whiteboards filled with math. Science is not about Eureka moments or brilliant men or women overturning the laws of nature in one fell swoop.

Science is a slow tedious process, mostly consisting of running the same experiment over and over again until you get consistent results, of reading and analyzing other people’s work rather than doing your own. It consists of endless calculations and often frustrating consideration of what results mean.

But that’s not very exciting and not very conducive to funny memes.

To many people, a theory is nothing more than a guess; to a scientist it is a rigorous set of proposals based on extensive evidence and used to make predictions about the world. Theories get strong if those predictions work out in reality and are weakened or even disproven if they don’t. It is a slow iterative process but the longer a theory has been around and more often it has been tested the stronger and more useful it becomes. The process is collaborative and tentative.

All too often we lose sight of that and leap on some reported result that hasn’t been repeated – that has in fact been refuted. I made that mistake earlier this week when I jumped the gun on the science of the Zika virus. And that’s how we misunderstand the world – whether it is climate change or vaccines: by selecting only those results that confirm our own prior beliefs. But that’s not science, that’s religion.

And this is a little more than ten minutes.

Fantasy

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So apparently Antonin Scalia didn’t die of natural causes; he was sacrificed in a pagan ritual by Barrack Obama. Wait, there’s more. Leonard Nimoy faked his own death and participated in the process.

I’m not sure what is more perplexing. That someone feels that people dying in their late seventies or early eighties is unnatural and needs some bizarre explanation or that somehow, someway, President Obama is not only to blame but an active participant. Nimoy (as Spock) is involved, I suppose, because the President is a well-known Star Trek fan.

Based on that thinking, we should expect Andre the Giant to come back from the dead to crush the head of Donald Trump in aid of Ted Cruz – who is, quite creepily, a big Princess Bride fan – to the point that he does imitations of the actors during political speeches.

I shudder to think what will happen if it becomes known that Bernie Sanders is a fan of Freddie Kruger. You didn’t know that? That, my friend, is because it is part of the cover-up. I mean, it could be true, right?

This is the world we increasingly live in. As you know, the Internet has changed a lot of things, many for the better, but its impact on such valuable things as evidence or sanity has been less than ideal.

We all know by now that thanks to Amazon (among others) that anybody can publish a book. Sadly, many take advantage of the opportunity. As one wag put it, in the 21sy Century everyone is publishing novels but no one is reading them.

But fiction that nobody reads is not a danger to society or social order. It is the ability of anybody to set up a ‘news’ site and then claim to be legitimate journalists that has really played havoc with modern discourse. When a large number of people are getting their ‘news’ from their Facebook accounts or Twitter feeds, we run a real risk of descending into a fantasy land where everything anyone opines becomes the truth.

Never mind the facts, free speech means that my opinions are as valid as anyone else; my propaganda is better than the news because it is, to quote one Conservative activist, more true. Well, it feels truer and that’s all that really matters, right?

And before you think this is another attack on the right, the left is increasingly engaged in the ‘truthiness’ debate. When the majority of health professionals tentatively linked microcephaly in Brazil to the Zika virus, a few doctors disagreed and said it was caused by a larvacide designed to shrink the larvae of mosquitoes. Makes sense right? Shrunken larvae equals shrunken heads. Never mind causal factors or anything resembling proof. We have the link and the enemy was Monsanto!

I don’t know what is causing this terrible rash of birth defects. It could be a virus, a chemical pollutant, a concentration of flawed genes – the evidence one way or another doesn’t exist. But who cares? If the fantastical narrative fits our fantasy life, just go with it. After all, reason and evidence – there’s so last century.

And that’s ten minutes.

Mystery

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Everyone loves a mystery, right? The search for the unknown is often more satisfying than the final discovery of the truth. And that’s a good thing. The quest to discover the unknown isn’t simply a feature of crime novels – or for that matter the criminal justice system. The hunt for the mysterious guides most of science (and is therefore a prominent feature in science fiction).

Like all things in life, the love of mystery almost always gets carried too far. I’m not talking about the obsessive reading of James Patterson (who with 16 books last year must be feeding somebody’s habit) but rather the fascination with the mysterious in human life.

One of the great pleasures of romance is the slow unveiling of the object of desire. The gradual removal of layers – whether of clothing or of secrets – is enticing and arousing. We seek that which is unknown in the other. Mere physical revelation is lovely but ultimately not what we are looking for. We seek the intimacy that only can come from the revelation of the ‘true person’ beneath the persona. Some people resist – preferring to maintain the mystery. They may have good reasons; they may have been betrayed before. Having revealed their deepest depths they may have then had their secrets spread far and wide.

Women are particularly familiar with this though I suspect men are equally or more vulnerable and thus even more reluctant to be open about their true feelings. Shrouded in mystery for so long they might well be particularly sensitive to the light of day.

Of course, entire religions (and every imaginable conspiracy theory) have been built around the idea of mystery. The great mystery is what happens after we die. For an atheist, the answer is simple: we quickly succumb to bacterial decay and insect predation. Leave a body in the sun for three days and you would be lucky to be able to recognize your closest friend (making them a perfect case for the TV mystery show, Bones),

But it is the immortal soul that concerns most people. Again not an issue for me. But still, look at the vast edifices that have been built all around the world in honour of the quest.

And of course, ask any priest – no matter what the religion – why some inexplicable thing could have happened under God’s watch, whether a child with cancer or a massive earthquake killing tens of thousands and they will invariably say: It’s a mystery.

For myself, I’ll stick to the mysteries found between the covers of a book. I find nothing more relaxing than contemplating the evil of man and the vagaries of justice while watching Archie and Nero, or Travis Mcgee, Temperance Brennan, Sam Spade, Sherlock Holmes and Miss Marple ply their trade.

It’s almost as pleasant as reading about the discovery of gravity waves or the potential cure for cancer in a simple virus – the mysteries of science revealed in the only world that matters, the real one.

And that’s ten minutes.

The Weapon of Doubt

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As I’ve said before, doubt is a marvelous thing. It saves us from foolishly following causes or leaders who are mostly interested in leading us astray. It serves as a key part of our moral compass, leading us to question whether our thoughts and actions are right. Doubt is also the linchpin of science. Without doubt, we simply accept the status quo as the way it must be; without the questions that come from our doubts of scientific theories, there can be no progress.

There is no question that doubt can be a powerful tool. I was raised to doubt whatever was presented to me – which eventually led me to being both an atheist and a scientist of sorts.

I often have to remind myself to question ideas and other people. It is easy to go along with the world as presented. Constant skepticism can be a tiring thing. To question everything may lead to cynicism and even despair. Sometime you have to say – close enough. I can live with that, for now at least.

As useful as doubt may be as a tool, it can also be used as a weapon. It is presented thusly. You – and your gang (of scientists or bureaucrats) claim xyz is true but I have my doubts. I have questions. Shouldn’t I be allowed to have questions or should I just take what you say on faith? Which of course is the proper stance of the skeptic.

But when you say: what questions do you have and they present them and you provide evidence based answers to those questions, the real intent is revealed. The person doesn’t accept that the answers are valid. You only, they say, provide me with data that supports your views. There are things we don’t know that might prove you wrong. Well, yes, there might be, do you have any examples? This persistent request for more than simple questions may be met with anger. You think I’m stupid, they might say. Or, you want to suppress any questioning of your position. Or you simply made that stuff up.

What can you really say to that? Whether is on the topic of vaccines, GMO foods, climate change or whether the moon landings were faked, some people don’t want evidence; they don’t want their questions answered. They want to cling to their positions. Or, to put it in the best possible light, they want to retain the role of devil’s advocate – pushing for absolute proof of matters that are always only probably true. In science, any theory that cannot ultimately be disproven by additional evidence isn’t a theory at all. It is a statement of faith.

Doubt that can never be resolved by evidence is not a tool to ensure progress; it is a weapon to stop action. When you can continue to express doubt – asking questions that have already been answered to everyone’s satisfaction but yours – it does inevitably lead to people throwing up their hands and moving on. Eventually people realize that you are not interested in improving things or even in being convinced. You’re only interested in being the iconoclast who holds on to disproven theories or ideas – simply because you can.

And that’s ten minutes.

What You Don’t Know

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It is a commonplace expression that what you don’t know can’t hurt you. This is patently false and a little bit foolish. If you don’t know that Lyme disease is spread by the bite of ticks, you can easily turn a walk in the woods into a very long and painful illness. If you don’t know that malaria and dengue fever are spread by mosquitoes, you risk death when all you wanted to do is photograph lions.

Ignorance is often fatal yet many embrace it like their long-lost brother. People take comfort in not knowing things. There are those who publicly take pride in being ignorant of the facts, in not being experts in anything, in not being scientifically literate. Sadly many of these people are political candidates.

Things get worse. There are those who are happy to tell big lies in service of what they see as a bigger truth. Someone might think that a certain behavior is evil and offensive or just too damn titillating (so many of the liars get caught on film in tawdry bathrooms), so they make up things to make it look even worse. They make up lies to make innocent people look like villains and evil people look like heroes.

No one can stop people from lying. As soon as we learn language we learn how to use it to get what we want. Everybody does it a little. Makes things up to make themselves look better. Sometimes the only way they have to make themselves look better is to make others look worse. So maybe it is in our natures to lie.

But why are so many people willing to believe those lies? Usually it is because it is too hard not to believe them. If we don’t believe that climate change is a conspiracy of scientists to pry money out of the taxpayer, then we have to believe that maybe it is a real thing. A real thing we are contributing to.

And that, one presumes, would mean that we would have to change. And most people are averse to change. The joke on them is that by refusing to change a little today, they will have massive change forced on them later on. Ha, ha, very funny.

When that happens – and you can pick your own set of lies to believe or truths to be ignorant, about race, or economic inequality, or women or refugees or vaccines – they will be angry. And they will do everything they can to cling to the lies that political or religious or corporate leaders blithely tell for their own self-interested purposes. Like shoot people at women’s health clinics. Or beat up protesters at political rallies. Or set off bombs at mosques. Or any number of evil acts.

Of course they didn’t do it because of the lies they were told or because they were ignorant. They will have done it because they were deluded. But who fed their delusions?

Don’t ask me. I prefer not to know.

But that’s ten minutes.