Thursday, August 14, 2008

The science of economy

The process of learning necessarily implies that any held opinions and concepts need to be continually examined, re-examined and -in light of new information- often modified or expanded upon to better fit a larger picture of understanding. This takes time, leads to many twists & turns and can frustrate a lot of people!

For example, it can put one at complete odds with a "faction" of people and yet alternatively, at other times, in solid agreement with that same crowd. This goes for a plethora of 'categorized' groups- many of whom are polar opposites of each other! Granted, there are always those folks with whom the only thing you ever find in common with is the air that’s breathed!

On the one hand, we need to acknowledge and consider solid reasoning while, on the other hand, take issue with hubris & bullshit no matter the origin- be they liberals, conservatives, independents....neocons, neosocialists, neoluddites, isolationists, consumerists, comunalists,...theocons, fundies, dogmatists, apologists... bioluddites, nihilists, primitivists, anarchists, globalists, anti-globalists, corporatists, anti-corporates...yadda… yadda…

Obviously, categorizing ourselves in these ways is quite arbitrary anyway and is really only marginally useful if you think about it a while. In fact, I find even the most stalwart extremists I know succeed only in fooling themselves much of the time.

The reality is we are quite schizophrenic when it comes down to it and can be described -at one moment or another in varying degrees- with any of the spectrum of descriptive adjectives we've come up with so far. We are Narcissus and Goldmund blended -a bizarre fusion of tangled humanity. On the other hand, many of us strive to reach out for that “candle in the night” in a search for the truer nature of things.

In that vein, I've been following a variety of economic topic threads with the goal of trying to understand the bigger economics conversation a little better…Short take so far is nothing new. That is, 'purism' of any sort doesn't work and striving for a smeared and messy, yet transparent and educated participatory "middle" seems most realistic -even with its concurrent complexities. Here the gorilla in the room -whatever it is for you- becomes a more benign presence and allows for more 'humane' versions of free market (& capitalist) economies of scale.

Anyway, thought you might be intrigued with this economics book list I'm building up. It's proving useful as a data base for the so called "dismal science" and offers tools to differentiate between the "wheat & the chaff" and what's already right & what's not.

Though my keenest interests lie elsewhere -actually waaaay elsewhere- I guess it's important to have some working awareness of a topic that so affects us all. If you have any favorite economy book, lectures, or other suggestions, please send them along!

Economics book list (partial):

Game Theory: Analysis of Conflict

Economics and the Theory of Games

The Worldly Philosophers


New Ideas from Dead Economists

Naked Economics: Undressing the Dismal Science

The Undercover Economist

The Race Between Education and Technology

The Mind of the Market

Poverty Traps

Inequality in America

Social Movements: Identity, Culture and the State

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Astronomy lectures and climate change

From the Silicon Valley Astronomy Lectures...a very interesting talk:
Take an entertaining and enlighting journey with astronomer and popular author Dr. David Grinspoon through the history of our solar system, discovering run away greenhouses and snowball planets. Compare the evolution of Venus, Earth, and Mars over the years and learn how studying the evolution of other planets can help us understand and predict climate change on Earth.

Labrador love

Doesn't get much better...

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

On occasion, I will be passing previous posts relating to evidence and science based veterinary medicine, complementary and alternative veterinary medicine and other pertinent skeptical issues to the Vetskeptics blog.

This is an attempt at consolidating veterinary & other medical information relating to skeptical information about CAM/CAVM that may prove useful and interesting in a more focused venue. Time permitting, some of these posts will be expanded upon. As always, posts from anyone interested in contributing (see vetskeptic blog) are welcome.

The Beyond the illusion post touches on some of the factors that confound and fool practitioners and others into thinking ineffective therapies work when they really don't.

End of life: Jasper and Karen

How does one walk in a world where joy and pain are inseparable...where fullfillment and utter despair embrace in an impossible trist...and where saying goodbye becomes confused with saying hello...?

The relationship between Jasper (the dog) and Karen (the human) reflects an authenticity and profound acknowledgement of life as it is....brief, harsh, contradicting, brief, beautiful, resonant, incredible, brief.

For a veterinarian, walking down the path between life and death with a person and their beloved companion is always different. Jasper had an untreatable malignancy (throat cancer) that was literally and quickly choking away his life...what he needed and what I could give him was a good death...

....this is a part of our world.

Never let them see your fear...

A tale -in some version or another- most veterinarians have lived through...

Integrative medicine and hat tricks

So many times the devil really is in the details. So it seems, time after time,
I and many others find ourselves confronted with the same tired and increasingly tenuous arguments from Complementary and Alternative Medicine proponents.

Sadly, it doesn't seem to slow the creep of medicine back towards a far more
dangerous era -one of "curative anarchy"- that society wisely decided
to collectively walk away from a hundred years ago.

How quickly we forget...

These modalities continue to find fertile ground with the credulous by insiduously blanketing and confounding themselves with a false legitimacy. By appropriating and altering innocuous sounding concepts such as 'freedom of choice',
'teaching the controversy' and having a 'balanced' discussion (where none exists) -all for the sake of an ideology- many CAM supporters succeed only in weakening and degrading the pillars of reason and critical thought.

A colleague, Dr. Novella writes a sharp and clear post regarding one of CAMs
more succesful hat tricks...the bait & switch.

Excellent reading.

Carl Sagan: A thousand years of darkness

The importance of questioning not just the permanence of the stars, but also the justice of slavery can not be overstated...

...only then will history not -once again- be damned to repeat itself.

Monday, August 11, 2008

on choosing humanity over magic

Good article on how taking into account 'provenance' helps us ellucidate -even with our limited capacity - truer realities. Though we can never completely escape our biases nor should we (pattern seeking social primates that we are), we can sure strive for balance between -not magic and reality- but humanity and reality.

The article talks about 'woo' which is a catch phrase -as most of you are aware- for a broad collection of credulous mind sets. Here is a brief primer of what 'woo' is (thanks Orac):

Beliefs that clearly demonstrate magical thinking, uncritical acceptance of things for which no good evidence exists. This includes, but is not limited to, psychic phenomenon, ghosts, the paranormal, "energy healing" and a wide variety of other mystical and pseudoscientific beliefs.

Woo is resistant to reason. Indeed, woo has a double standard when it comes to what it considers to be good evidence. It is very accepting of a wide variety of fuzzy, mystical ideas, but is often incredibly distrustful and skeptical of anything having to do with "conventional" science or "conventional" medicine. Woos tend to be very quick to react to defend their particular brand of woo and very unforgiving of its being questioned.

StevenPinker: on the decline of violence

....or it helps to continually learn, listen & understand -as best we can- when trying to affect change in the ways of the world.

In that regard here is an interesting review of Steven Pinkers lecture (& upcoming book) with respect to the study of human violence from a historical perspective...important to "consider as one considers".

Of course regarding violence, things can easily go to hell in a hand basket -and often do- for a variety of reasons...still, teasing out these observable phenomena can prove very useful in understanding human collaboration.

Steven Pinker on the decline of violence

"Steven Pinker, a professor of psychology at Harvard, begins his presentation with an image of corpses on a truck, being taken from Auschwitz concentration camp. The image is one of many characteristic of the 20th century, a century that included brutality under Stalin, Hitler, Pol Pot and the genocide in Rwanda. The 21st century, which has barely started, already includes the brutality of Darfur and the daily destruction in Iraq.

These sorts of images can lead us to thinking that modernity brings terrible violence. Perhaps native people lived in a state of harmony that we’ve departed from.

This, Pinker tells us, is bullshit. “Our ancestors were far more violent than we are.” We’re probably living in the most peaceful time of our species’s existence, a statement that seems almost obscene in light of Darfur and Iraq.

The decline of violence, he tells us, is a fractal phenomenon - we see it over the centuries, the decades and the years. That said, we see a tipping point in the 16th century - the age of reason - particularly in England and Holland.

Until 10,000 years ago, all humans were hunter gatherers. This is the group that some believe lived in primordial harmony - there’s no evidence of this. Studying current hunter-gatherer tribes, the percent of male adults who die in violence is extraordinary - from 20 to 60% of all males. Even during the violent 20th century, with two world wars, less than 2% of males worldwide died in warfare.

Moving slightly further forward, we can see that violent punishment was common in the Bible - Moses tells his followers to kill all the men and married women of a village and rape the virgins. The death penalty was used for murder, idolatry, disrespecting your parents and “collecting sticks on the sabbath”.

The Middle Ages were filled with mutilation and torture as routine punishments for trangressions we’d punish with fines today. This was merely another charming feature of a time that featured passtimes like “cat burning”, dropping cats into a fire for entertainment puposes… Some of the most creative inventions of the Middle Ages were fantastically cruel forms of corporal punishment.

One on one death has plummeted through the middle ages, with an “elbow” of the curve in the 16th century. Despite a slight uptick in the 1960s - “perhaps those who thought that rock and roll would lead to a decline in moral values had it right” (joking) - we’ve seen two orders of magnitude fall in one on one violence from the middle ages to today. State sponsored violence has also fallen sharply - we’ve seen a 90% reduction in genocide since the end of the cold war. State on state conflicts are dropping every decade.

So why do we so mispercieve the violence of our society? For one thing, our reporting is better. AP is more likely to cover a war somewhere on the planet than a 16th century monk. We’re subject to a cognitive illusion - memorable events (brutal murder) are judged to be more probable than they actually are. Finally, our standards tend to change faster than our behavior. We may be offended by capital punishment today because it no longer fits with our vision of ourselves, but it’s worth remembering that not long ago, that sort of punishment was exceedingly common and there wasn’t strong protection of rights in the courts to prevent it from taking place.

So why is violence becoming less common? He offers four explanations:

1) Hobbes got it right. “Life in the state of nature is solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.” In anarchy, there’s a temptation towards pre-emptive violence, hurting the other guy before he hurts you. But with the rise of the Leviathan - the State - there’s a monopoly on violence. This helps explain why we still see violence in the absence of the state - zones of anarchy, failed states, street gangs.

2) In the past, we had a widespread sentiment that life was cheap. As we’ve gotten better at prolonging life, we take life more seriously and are more reluctant to take life.

3) We’re seeing more non-zero sum games, as people discover forms of cooperation that can benefit both parties, like trade and shared peace dividends. These zero-sum games come with technology, because it allows us to trade with more people. People become more valuable live than dead - “We shouldn’t bomb the Japanese because they built my minivan.”

4) Finally, Pinker leans on Peter Singer to speculate about “the expanding circle”. By default, we empathize with a small group of people, our friends and family. Everyone else is subhuman. But over time, we’ve seen this circle expand, from village to clan to tribe to nation to other races, both sexes and eventually other species. As we learn to expand our circles wider and wider, perhaps violence becomes increasingly unacceptable."

A non-zero sum game of human to human interaction makes the most intuitive sense to me and is reminiscent of aspects of evolutionary game theory, though the "expanding circles" notion is intriguing. However, Peter Singer goes way too far in other writings where he or at least some of his readers manage to confound unrelated ideas into a bizzaro house of cards version of 'animal rights' mindlessly parroted, overused and abused by 'animal rights' activists.

It’s likely, that a combination of Pinkers’ hypotheticals blend together –possibly along with other intangibles- to affect this fascinating fractal phenomenon observed as a general reduction in human on human violence.

What is going on that is right is as important to know as all that is going wrong. All in all this presentation offers some interesting food for thought.

Saturday, August 9, 2008

Acupuncture: still no point to the point...

This has been a summer full of distractions and challenges needing a lot of attention. Add to that a touch of blog writer “blues” and you get a dry spell regarding postings. Consequently, this blog –not to mention the new blog baby - has been neglected and hungry for forward movement and novel discussion.

Hopefully, this little post will get things going again. All in all, this is a fun and gratifying way of expressing ideas and thoughts and helps to keep the mind sharp and attentive.

The following is a comment on my “Veterinary acupuncture” post that, although friendly and thoughtful, latches on to a few canards and fallacies in order to defend the concept of acupuncture as a viable medical therapy. Obviously, I disagree and felt compelled to write a quick response which follows the commentators blurb.

"Unfortunately there are far too many veterinarians, physicians and researchers who dismiss acupuncture as a hoax or as in this case lacking adequate scientific and clinical proof to warrant its use. Clearly the problem has been that clinical and scientific studies of acupuncture have lacked adequate controls. Without proper controls study results are nothing more than hearsay. However more recent scientifically controlled studies would argue that perhaps acupuncture therapy has merit. In this regard recent studies using microarray technology to examine acupuncture effects on gene expression in peripheral blood are no less than fascinating. For example Shiue et al (2008) have shown that acupuncture therapy significantly reduced allergic rhinitis symptoms, including nasal symptoms, non-hay fever symptoms, and sleep in human patients and this was accompanied by and alteration in the balance between T-helper 1 and T-helper 2 cell-derived proinflammatory versus anti-inflammatory cytokines in the blood. Such studies are paving the way for a more scientific explanation of acupuncture's effects. One only has to examine the recent fMRI studies of acupuncture effects on brain activity in humans and animals to conclude that acupuncture point stimulation has remarkable effects on brain activity compared to non-acupoint stimulation (see for example Napadow et al., Hum Brain Mapp, 2005). These are real effects and whether they underlie the ability of acupuncture to alter pain sensation in humans and animals remains to be proven with certainty, but nonetheless acupuncture has the capability to change brain activity. In our own studies we have found that acupuncture can prevent tumor growth if given at the very early stages of tumor cell proliferation. Conversely if acupuncture is applied later on after a tumor begins to grow, it significantly enhances tumor growth, which is why acupuncture is typically not recommended as a treatment for cancer. On the other hand acupuncture provides clear relief of pain in animal models of neuropathic pain and inflammatory pain. These effects are real folks and I have seen them first hand, so I refuse to believe that acupuncture is of no value in the medical community, be it veterinary or human medicine. There is evidence that acupuncture does not work in certain individuals and works well in others, so there is clearly individual variation in the ability of acupuncture therapy to work effectively. Taking all of this into account, I would argue that you shouldn't dismiss acupuncture until you have tried it!”

The real unfortunate issue is not that acupuncture is dismissed as a hoax, but that – even with a preponderance of disappointing evidence- this modality continues to expect unearned acceptance.

Though plagued with poorly designed studies that are often replete with equivocal results or laced with regional geographic bias, better designed acupuncture studies are out there. However, the news is not good for any real acupuncture effect. The infamous placebo –among other problems (i.e.; expectation, suggestion, counter-irritation, operant conditioning, and other psychological mechanisms) - continue to confound even “modern” acupuncture technique (that is to say; those acupuncture practices that use needling and claim no association with the ‘elam vital’, points, or meridians).

The studies you mention do not address a critical issue with respect to acupuncture- whether or not its putative effects exist. The attempt to correlate a claimed acupuncture effect to epigenetic influence puts the cart before the horse (and is reminiscent of what ‘nutritional supplement support’ advocates claim for a favorite herb, vitamin, or tonic du jour) and purported brain responses apparently observed by fMRI are interesting but it seems apparent that any mechanical puncturing of the dermis –on points or no points, shallow or deep- will effect changes.

There is little or no evidence that acupuncture is effective for any real medical disease (i.e.; neoplasm) nor, for that matter, for less well defined symptoms (including chronic pain, depression, allergies, asthma, arthritis, bladder and kidney problems, constipation, diarrhea, colds, flu, bronchitis, dizziness, smoking, fatigue, gynecologic disorders, headaches, migraines, paralysis, high blood pressure, PMS, sciatica, sexual dysfunction, stress, stroke, tendonitis and vision problems). Interestingly, promising and plausible mechanisms –if any- seem associated with completely different modalities that are confused with acupuncture (i.e.; TENS, psychosomatic, placebo).

Seeing acupuncture effects “first hand”, no matter how impressive, is simply anecdotal testimony and adds nothing to a scant evidence and science based foundation supporting acupuncture. In short, the accumulating evidence suggests most of the perceived beneficial effects of acupuncture are probably due to the power of suggestion and forms of the ‘placebo effect’.

Whether or not acupuncture is of any value to the medical community might be better discussed in a philosophy of science course. For example, acupunctures place might be better off in the realm of personal belief or preference (i.e.; priest or shaman) and well outside of medicine (If you believe in it, it will make you think you feel better – that’s your business).

As for having tried acupuncture…been there done that. I’ve also extensively observed its use in animals by certified veterinary acupuncturists.

Not impressed.