I think I have to stop reading Scientific American!
Each month I’m lured in by heroic quantum advancements or dramatic new insights into the brain but more often than not, as with the February 2012 issue, I leave with a profound feeling of despair. It’s a little like a Nicholas Cage movie.
There is an undeniable fascination surrounding all enquiries detailed within the magazine, and some heartening surprises, for example about the role of the placenta in brain formation – an idea so new there is not even a name for it yet. On the other hand the admission that tracing the complicated feedback loops governing dust on the ecosystem is, so far, a losing battle, and that we have only tenuous ideas about saving the world’s supply of chocolate, and are still mystified about understanding diabetes and despair at ever getting rid of bedbugs or even how to fix the NIH’s apparently built-in bias against non-mainstream research, all point to the idea that nobody seems to have a clue what’s going on.
After reading about the reluctance of some doctors to admit that kicking the head repeatedly can cause brain damage, or that pointless (though highly profitable) medical interventions should be avoided not just for doctors in the know about their toxicity and appalling success rate but for us peasants in the street, and then have it all topped off with an infantile stab at religious genius using an argument as sharp as a ping pong ball, I start to ask: is there any hope?
NFL Brain Dollars
One of the most interesting of the many articles dealt with repeated concussions in NFL players creating symptoms of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), or Lou Gehrig’s disease. This disease up to now has no known cause, and no cure.
The mystery centres on the known fact that the NFL cases all do have a clearly understandable cause: repeated blows to the skull. The confusion has become so great that someone made the puzzling suggestion that even Lou Gehrig may not, in fact, have had Lou Gehrig’s disease.
Needless to say, medical specialists are used to dismally slow progress and could reasonably expect a long drawn-out dispute unlikely to affect their status for the forseeable future. So they are understandably up in arms as the rapid pace of progress by keen-sighted individuals analysing the destroyed brains of deceased NFL stars, and the mounting pile of alarming evidence, is forcing things to a head faster than they or the NFL would like.
Unlike that of many brain conditions involving complex dances of neurotransmitters, the disastrous progress of the NFL cases is easy to understand. The one hundred billion neurons encased behind several layers of protective devices are the main functioning agents within our brain. They communicate with each other via axons, effectively cables extending in a myriad number of directions from every neuron towards possibly hundreds of others. These cables have structural supports presumably to give them predictable curve parameters and torsional rigidity.
These internal wires are formed by highly structured tubules, each held together by rows of tau molecules, which hold all the endlessly repeating spiral walls in place, stopping the tubule itself from unravelling. When the brain is given a good bashing, enough to cause concussion, dizziness or flashing lights, the internal tubules are stretched along with the neurons, and disintegrate in the process. These tau molecules are let loose, and tangle up with each other like once-useful staples becoming a hazard after a document is shredded. Thus, a high state of order is reduced to chaos, and the results are pretty bad for the neuron.
It’s all highly organised in its construction, but then it has to be: it’s hugely complicated. Smashing it repeatedly with heavy objects was always going to be a bad idea. Whoa, hey, not so fast buddy, say some scientists. Where’s your proof, and control groups?
It will not surprise any thinking person that the introduction of more protective helmets, especially in the junior leagues, only made things worse: players felt immune to damage, overriding even further the natural instinct to protect the head at all costs, and creating worse injuries than before. I wondered why nobody thought to stop smashing the skull? A quick look at decreasing NFL revenue sufficed to make this clearer.
But returning to the freshly hammered brain we find, typical of self-inflicted problems, things get even worse. Along with the neuron stretching chaos, TDP-43 proteins get jolted out of the nucleus (where they are thought to regulate gene function) and into the cytoplasm of the neuron, where they behave more like a spanner in the gearbox: the brain is now in serious trouble.
And thus we see how the priceless neurons (carefully arranged, fed and maintained by the placenta while protected in the womb, delicately supported by the placenta during birth, protected by the cerebro-spinal fluid shock absorber, surrounded by a tough, sealed leather jacket, and again by layer after layer of protective membranes, housed inside a tough, intricately sealed skull, dome shaped for extra protection, fed by an automated, uninterruptable blood supply via fault-tolerant pressure sensitive devices, and finally covered with a matting of woolly hair for protection from heat, cold and bumps) ..are kicked to the kerb for our amusement.
The aggregate group into which both ALS and Lou Gehrig’s are included is called chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE. Lou Gehrig specialists, of course, object to their expertise being revealed as flawed, but some seem to be objecting for other reasons.
The pioneering work in studying and revealing the mechanisms behind ALS and possibly Lou Gehrig’s disease is being carried out by Ann McKee, a neuropathologist at Boston University. It is heartening that individuals devote their energies to this kind of research. But how dismaying to find that the NFL – bolstered either by paid-for or ignorant scientists (much the same way that cigarette companies had their own cancer-denial experts in their pockets as far back as 1950, a time at which overwhelming evidence already existed to link smoking with cancer) has denied that repeated blows to the skull can cause this kind of disorder. “It’s all coincidence,” they say.
Some scientists still doubt or deny that former NFL players are suffering severe depression, memory loss, erratic or aggressive behaviour and early dementia because of repeated blows to the head.
..Scientific American, Feb 2012, [p 59]
The real reason for this tepid “scientific doubt” is probably pressure from the NFL, which must have a large budget to cover such things. The $8,000,000,000 revenue per year it still generates is evidence of the temptation to pay off a few dodgy scientists, and recent trends explain the desperate measures required to keep permanent decline as far away as possible:
Other disappointing news includes a review of the prostate cancer tests which have caused tens of thousands of men to undergo painful and crippling procedures to avert cancer spread that very likely would never actually have happened.
The case is given of a “Mr H”, a client of Marc Garnick, the article’s writer, who refused advice for prostate surgery every year for sixteen years, because he took the time to read the research and concluded that his chances were terrible after the science had been applied, but pretty good if he just did nothing.
Without a trace of irony, Garnick relates how every year he advised this otherwise healthy man to endure rectal bleeding, impotence and incontinence as science waved its magic wand – and how every year this mentally sturdy individual refused. He is still healthy, and his tumour remains confined to his prostate gland: as Garnick himself admits: he made a reasoned decision and avoided trading almost certain harms for uncertain benefits.
In the sharpest minds of all, why this strange blind spot covering damaging surgery? Probably because private practices take a cut of the action. In fact, in response to changes in payments by Medicare, one industry observer noted:
Health Affairs just published an evaluation of the results of Medicare’s change in payment methods on the web. The article was briefly mentioned in the New York Times June 26, 2010. The researchers reviewed Medicare claims data for over 200,000 patients with the diagnosis of lung cancer.
The results are stunning. In the context of these payment cuts, physicians prescribed chemotherapy to more patients (18.9% got treatment within a month of diagnosis, compared to 16.5% before the payment changes and dramatically increased the use of one medicine, docetaxel, where price decreased by just 8% and where a high price means that the 6% margin represented a larger profit for the oncologist.
..when physicians face a fee cut that will have a large impact on their income, they increase use. On the other hand, when there is a fee decrease that impacts merely a small share of physician income, the affected services [still] have lower use.
So who makes amends for the needless surgeries and side effects of what were largely useless practices? Where are the solid ethics promised in secular humanist manifestos, and the legal remedies for when it all goes wrong? We were scientists, we meant well. And we made lots of loot, too! Aw, well that’s alright then!
Many private practice oncologists have made a substantial portion of their income from the “markup” on chemotherapy they administer in their offices. The GAO calculated that oncologists were paid six times the acquisition cost for the chemotherapy agent Paclitaxel in 2004.
The bottom line is ignorance. The public, as Garnick admits, never realised the flimsy nature of the evidence for screening or the damage done by these expensive treatments. They soon found out, as it was lying in wait for them.
Other surgeons openly admit that medical staff often insist on “No Code” (one medic even had it tattooed on her chest) to prevent their resus via CPR, because they know that CPR, done correctly, splinters ribs and causes horrific problems for the patient to deal with when they finally come around. Their feeling about chemo – a product freely handed out left and right to the public – is even worse.
I have known three people go through chemo and they all have one thing in common: they died very quickly and in misery. Not a big test group, but big enough to convince me. Be that as it may, Ken Murray, professor of family medicine at the University of Southern California last month published an essay in the online Zocalo Public Square arguing that most practising doctors would not put themselves through ‘life-saving’ interventions that are big on promises and small on success, because they involve great pain and distress.
Fair enough, smart thinking. But how odd doctors don’t tell this to their patients. Instead, they encourage them to take the treatments. On February 14th, Martin Scurr, a GP for the Daily Mail, wrote:
With pancreatic cancer, for example, which is often diagnosed late, the average length of time between diagnosis and death is usually less than six months.
If I had the disease, I would not attempt any of the treatments for it, such as chemotherapy, because it can be gruelling and misery-making, and the success rate is extremely low. I would rather have painkilling palliative care, which can do great things in helping to make you feel comfortable while you are dying.
I can think of only one doctor among all my medical acquaintances who has had cancer and fought it with medicine all the way to their death.
Medics’ scepticism about the worth of their own ‘lifesaving’ interventions has long been suspected. In one poll, around half of German specialists admitted that they would not undergo the operations they recommended to their patients.
Dr Eckart Fiedler, of the German health insurance company Barmer Ersatzkasse, said the 1996 survey showed that doctors felt many patients would be better off foregoing operations and instead taking their chances without the surgeon’s knife.
In similar fashion, a survey of nurses at a Massachusetts hospital found that nearly half of them would refuse treatment if they developed a serious illness at the age of 85 after having been in good health.
I smell money.
If anyone thinks that scientific research often just tells us the obvious, but in a much more expensive way, they need to think again! A superb observation comes from SciAm’s probability column: “Pro basketball players are much more likely to try another shot after making one than after missing one.” Wha – ?! Get Olsen in here! Olsen – hold the presses!
But the best all-round advice has to be from David Pogue, Emmy award winning CBS writer, dealing with the thorny problem of people predicting things that don’t come true and then looking stupid as a result. The Future is For Fools contains this unmissable advice:
“So the first rule of making tech predictions is this: make predictions about things that will come to pass, not about things that won’t.”
Let us be in no doubt as to how this man won an Emmy! I predict he may or may not win another one!
Of course, like so much slick patter, it’s actually not even true: the future is not for fools. On the evidence of the entire magazine we can also say the future is not for intellectuals; the future is for genius. Genius predicts it by observing and acting on its own powerful sentiment: while “Mr H” relied on his sturdy natural instincts to preserve his quality of life against the protests of Big Pharma, it was genius – present in Logie Baird who believed in TV, Charles Babbage in computers, James Lund in citrus fruits as a cure for scurvy, Edison in electric light, or the Wright brothers in powered commercial flight – which predicted the future by creating it.
All faced stiff criticism from the prevailing intellectuals. Turning to the subject of mystical experience, it was no different in Jesus’ day: the intellectuals had secured an understanding of their little puddle of wisdom, were happy splashing about in it and making a good living thank you very much, and they were damn well not about to give it up and let someone else play in it. Which is why relying on people like that to make the future is such an awful idea.
The Skeptic Tank
Which leads me to the last section, concerning spiritual genius. Jesus’ words and high moral example transformed the backbone of western spiritual thinking; it was devout families who gave birth to the first wave of scientists, reformers and advanced thinkers to a man, working for the wellbeing of mankind; how strange then to read one of the magazine’s last articles, Michael Shermer’s Skeptic.
The skeptic is a useful fellow. When a restaurant charges you £60 for a piece of overcooked steak, when you’re told by the local council that something will be done soon, or that your call will be answered shortly, this is the fellow to have around, though admittedly this kind of scepticism can be generated by us laymen from experience. Perhaps a few years waiting is enough to tell us that the council isn’t really going to do anything, or one look at energy profits shows the electricity board isn’t really going to bring prices down, or a little history assures us that the 160th UN resolution against Israel isn’t going to make any more of a difference to the world’s most criminal nation (judging only by UN resolutions against them) than the previous 159, and that the new president of the US is going to be as happy to push very expensive (and fiendishly clever) weapons onto problems crying out for peaceful solutions as the last one. So far, so skeptical. I like it.
But Shermer is also no fool. He isn’t about to waste his energy on these modern problems which might invite a furious backlash from some of his own kind – involved as they might well be in devising Hellish nuclear ovens to cook entire cities alive, skinning men, women and children in the process – or in pushing deadly and useless chemo onto disposable peasants, or in denying that continually smashing the skull can harm the NFL – ah, I mean, the priceless human brain.
Not for him the potential embarrassment of a moving target. Far better to spray noxious clumps of effluent at a static one.. perhaps something annoyingly immune to the ravages of time: let’s see, a Fabergé egg.. the Sistine ceiling.. hmm – little tricky with the curves and angles – or – wait, I know! A spiritual genius! Oops, hang on – is this one dead? ..you sure?! Ha ha! Ok, let ‘er rip, boys!
So in this tragic piece he unloads a blast of his skeptic tank at the idea of Jesus being the son of God, citing it as classic self-deception, a condition he knows well. In nimbly dodging the self-deceptions littering his own kind, his opening gambit refers not to the Bible, or the work of scholars painstakingly researching the original Aramaic, but to Lloyd Webber’s musical, Jesus Christ Superstar.
I like Lloyd Webber as much as anyone – in fact a good friend of mine played the Phantom in the London show for some time, and other friends sang in the Cats booth. I have a true anecdote involving the grid over the orchestra pit and a woman unfortunately caught short in a very bad way. On that night, Shermer’s skeptic tank would have come in very handy indeed.
All well and good, but there a credibility gap begins to yawn open when citing catchy lyrics as a religious argument. One might as well burst into a cheery song from Ian Fleming’s Chitty Chitty Bang Bang to those sleepless souls living under the Heathrow flightpath, to better impress them with the need for an extra two runways.
The late Christopher Hitchens cited convincing proof that Jesus actually existed by explaining why the telling of his early movements had to be shifted slightly into a cleaner geographical route. Hitchens did this, understandably, to set up a genuine target for his criticisms, but never insinuated that Jesus’ words were all made up. From his words alone there is no doubt that Jesus was a genius; whoever wrote the Lord’s prayer or the Sermon on the Mount was an exceptional man, a conclusion which time has honoured. But until the age of 30, he was seen as a carpenter’s son, so much so that those who knew him were “much offended” that he later began to preach.
It took a brave man to try and dislodge centuries of religious thinking: his anger, hunger, thirst, tiredness and even impatience show him to be a normal human being physically, but one whose brain was gifted with immense genius, traceable to an event taking place around his 30th year. This fits well with what we know now, that the brain and nervous system mature usually in the early 30’s, with the margin of a few years this way and that. Buddha was said to have reached illumination around the same age, and Mohammad began receiving revelations in his late 30’s.
The idea of Jesus being the “son of God” arose from his feeling that a vast natural intelligence, detection of which is mankind’s next major evolutionary step, was of a benign and infinitely wise character best described as a father to humanity. This created a link between God and all mankind, marking a change in perception which would soon take place among the wider mass of mankind.
The same sentiment has been forcefully expressed in a hundred different ways by writers and thinkers who also had a taste of this same experience – some only momentary, some mystified by it – the details of which, and evidence of its uniform biological nature, would need another entire post to detail. Dr Richard Maurice Bucke, the Canadian doctor whose classic work, Cosmic Consciousness, has never been out of print for the past one hundred years, had a momentary flash of the experience which permanently changed his view of the world. Other witnesses to the reality of this experience were William Blake, Robert Browning, Edward Carpenter, Francis Bacon, Walt Whitman, Dante, Mohammad, Nuddha, St Paul, John Yepes, Jacob Behmen, and Honoré doe Balzac, and in the last century we also have the late Gopi Krishna.
Lesser or imperfect cases included Wordsworth, Thoreau, Pushkin, Tennyson, Pascal, Socrates, Spinoza, Gardiner, Ramakrishna, Jefferies, Lloyd, Traubel, Tyner and Swedenborg. The evidence of mystical experience is so overwhelming, and so bolstered by modern research on the brain and nervous system that had Shermer only poked his nose a few yards into the local library, he would have come across writings dealing with it by names he would have known since his schooldays. Of all this mystical experience, Jesus’ seems to be the strongest and most complete, and the most productive, of which there is recorded evidence. It only seemed to desert him while on the cross, a time when his nervous system would have been under huge strain to maintain life in his body. The constant nature of his experience until then is supported by his bewildered question:
“Eli, Eli, lambach sabathani?” or “My God, my God, why hast thou deserted me?”
Ok, perhaps this is specialist stuff and we know from the NIH that science deals exclusively with the mainstream. Fair enough. But even allowing for such a massive hole in his knowledge about a subject he chose to pillory while puffing his feathers and touting his latest book, Shermer would have been much better off quoting the Lord’s Prayer – a remarkable spiritual document surviving more than two thousand tumultuous years – which begins with the intentionally humbling, and uniting:
His impending rejoinder would probably be that with all the translations, how could anyone be sure what Jesus was really supposed to have said? If that were the case, Shermer’s grounds for criticising anything to do with Jesus would be thrown out of any court for lack of proof one way or the other. But as to mistranslations distorting Jesus’ meaning, let’s let Shermer himself be the judge:
Aramaic Bible in Plain English (©2010)
I have said, “You are gods; you are all children of The Highest!”
GOD’S WORD® Translation(©1995)
I said, “You are gods. You are all sons of the Most High.
New International Version(©1984)
“I said, ‘You are “gods”; you are all sons of the Most High.’
New Living Translation(©2007)
I say, ‘You are gods; you are all children of the Most High.’
English Standard Version(©2001)
I said, “You are gods, sons of the Most High, all of you;”
New American Standard Bible(©1995)
I said, “You are gods, And all of you are sons of the Most High.”
King James Bible (Cambridge Ed.)
I have said, Ye are gods; and all of you are children of the most High.
King James 2000 Bible (©2003)
I have said, You are gods; and all of you are children of the most High.
American King James Version
I have said, You are gods; and all of you are children of the most High.
American Standard Version
I said, Ye are gods, And all of you sons of the Most High.
I have said: You are gods and all of you the sons of the most High.
English Revised Version
I said, Ye are gods, and all of you sons of the Most High.
Webster’s Bible Translation
I have said, Ye are gods; and all of you are children of the Most High.
World English Bible
I said, “You are gods, all of you are sons of the Most High.”
Young’s Literal Translation
I have said, ‘Gods ye are, And sons of the Most High — all of you..’
John 10:34 Jesus answered them, “Is it not written in your Law, ‘I have said you are gods’?
You get the picture. But so could Mr Shermer have done, since clearly Jesus – considered no more than an ordinary workman until his experience of cosmic consciousness around the age of 30, and under no illusions about his origins (as he had at least seven brothers and sisters, and lived a perfectly normal life for three decades among them) considered himself on the same level as all human beings, and this is why Our Father is stated first in his prayer, and one reason Christianity represented such a reformation of spiritual thought.
Whether we talk about maths, physics, chemistry, genetics, farming, astronomy, electronics, manufacturing, mining, teaching, warfare, politics, racing, plumbing, dining, art, music, literature, language, medicine, printing, geography, meteorology, athletics, architecture, dancing, psychology or even shoes and fashion – each field has had its toilers, thinkers and geniuses, along with their critics, and were accepted or rejected by the human mind over time. Spirituality, a beloved concept of so many people – including, it has to be said, the most creative lights society has ever known – had its evolutions and its own geniuses, and Jesus was without doubt one of them.
This simple idea of God as loving father was expressed through the evolving brain of genius, and ushered in a reformation of the concept of divinity into a benign source of love and wisdom – one which was not the property of a few, something various religious authorities have tried to claim. The Lord’s Prayer is still used today in times of crisis, to bolster the spirit in discouraging circumstances. When an innocent person, kidnapped, tortured and incarcerated in one of America’s black prisons recites to themselves a chapter of The Believing Brain to keep their spirits up and convince themselves that such prisons only exist in the minds of crazed conspirators, then Shermer should enter the discussion of spiritual texts with pride.
Until then, he could make a handsome career pointing out the self-deceit of the psychopaths alive today and badly in need of a morally sound, fearless global voice to shame them and shout them down. To waste such a pulpit by turning it to vandalism seems like getting up on stage in front of 250,000 open minds and instead of inspiring them with action and courage, preening oneself in a mirror, or blowing raspberries. This evasion is what I find so reprehensible about skeptics who snigger at what they have no ability to understand, like a mischievous schoolboy with a peashooter at the ballet, but fail to utter a murmur of protest at the creation of obscene nuclear weapons or the starvation of a billion kindred spirits on our own planet.
Shermer’s other arguments are not worth repeating in detail: when you’ve seen one poorly drawn circle, you’ve pretty well seen them all. But they hinge on the idea that since phoney morality is easily exposed in small social groups, it must therefore have transformed itself into genuine morality. It’s hard to know where to start criticising this. Firstly, morality has been shown to arise from mirror neurons, and these have been proven in the lab as being active in rats and monkeys, and by observation in other life forms. Dolphins, for example, have been known to rescue lost swimmers, to guide them to the shore or protect them from sharks, and even to detect the differences present in pregnant women, according them more gentler treatment. Clearly sensitivity is part of altruism, and insensitivity part of its opposite.
All of which shows that altruism relies on natural mechanisms which must – like all other bodily systems – rely on biological principles, and which were undoubtedly present in early man. Studies of oxytocin, a supremely beneficial molecule produced in floods by generosity and gratitude, point to even more complex natural mechanisms relying solely on altruism, which are enshrined in all mankind’s ancient scriptures. As I pointed out in Of Phrenologists, Planets, Big Pharma, and Phoneys, it may have even been the suppression of cholesterol by Pfizer’s much-touted Torcetrapib – an experiment in which a number of patients were killed – which caused system failure because along with one form of cholestoerol, a binding protein on which oxytocin relies was also wiped out.
So his inexplicable confounding of fake morality – a product of a brain wired for crooked, manipulative greed – with the biological parent to genuine altrusim beggars belief. This might be the single most important factor in human society, outweighing intelligence by a long way. So to blithely say that one state magically turns into its complete opposite for no other reason than being an expediency to succeed in cheating is like claiming a complete blockhead morphs into an Einstein without any need for their brain to follow any genetically law-bound, biological progression, if they will simply pretend to be a genius, perhaps by mussing up their hair, affecting a german accent and writing illegibly in all directions with chalk.
The last time I felt this offended was on reading a Scientific American Mind supplement in which the writer suggested mental illness must assist the genius – presumably in the same way that broken legs are a boon to skiers, and shredded tendons the single best way forward for Olympic weightlifters.
Shermer observes that truth requires considerably less energy than lying. This is not treated as particularly noteworthy, and only mentioned to support his idea that conning people is damn tough. And he should know. In fact it shows the brain is geared towards truth. Why? He doesn’t tell us. Shouldn’t it actually be easier to tell a lie than to tell the truth, and run the risk of self-incrimination, rejection and other inescapable penalties? And yet without this quality, all the edifices of knowledge and research, of education, discussion and philosophy, and of religion and science, of law and order, and even of justice, along with the predictability and all reliance on humanity, would crumble into dust. But I notice they haven’t.
The very institutions which Shermer lumps in with charlatans and frauds – blatantly obvious hucksters like Sai Baba and Solomae Sanandae – have survived for thousands of years. He may as well confuse the Teletubbies with the Beatles, seeing as the counts of both groups seem to number four members. How exactly is such long-term survival possible, when brains are naturally configured, as Shermer himself admits, towards truth?
In fact, traces of spirituality exist from as long go as two hundred thousand years and can easily be extrapolated the same distance again before that; they are cited not as delinquent aberrations but evidence of cultural sophistication by no less than James Watson in his study of the investigation into Neandertal DNA. The fact that a separate species apparently independently formulated its own spiritual rites further bolsters the case for spirituality’s presence in the normal brain, and further discredits Shermer’s rantings.
Despite the magazine itself showing there are plenty of directions for the skeptic to investigate in their own world of medical profiteering or NFL paid-for scientists, or, looking out the window, with big business, psychopathic presidents and other maniacs, Shermer focuses on mystical experience, something he knows full well he is hopelessly unqualified to write about. His article illustrates only one single thing about truth – the inability to distinguish it from fraud, or to tell a lunatic from a saint, easily passes for wisdom even in a reputable researcher’s magazine. Perhaps it is not surprising, with one’s head firmly in a steaming, well-insulated skeptic tank. And yes, he does have some dismal new book to push.
In the once-respected Scientific American, I find this the most depressing fact of all.