Doctor Science Knows

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

On the "Moral Instinct"

Amanda at Pandagon posted about the recent Steven Pinker article in the NYT on "The Moral Instinct". My comments:

You only *think* Pinker sometimes annoys you, Amanda. Just try to imagine how an evolutionary biologist feels about his slapdash theorizing.

Looking at the list:
harm, fairness, community (or group loyalty), authority and purity
from the POV of an Actual Evolutionary Biologist™, I find myself singing one of these things is not like the others. Harm, fairness, loyalty, & authority can all be described in ways that make sense for any social animal.

For instance, baboons (as in the book I recently reviewed) respect authority, in that they take careful account of status in their dominance hierarchy. Baboons also show loyalty, by forming matrilineal family alliances that rise or fall together.

But purity is different. It is not a moral principle that comes out of our natural social life, I don't see any continuity between "purity" and animal behavior. Tellingly, only situation #5 above involves people "acting like animals" -- because animals show no equivalent of this moral category alone, even though they can be fair, obedient, loyal, and reluctant to harm.

So I think the liberal moral philosophers & psychologists who don't include "purity" as a moral principle are not being arbitrary or capricious. Purity *isn't* a moral principle in the same way as the others are, it's a different category of thing.

I would imagine (at least some) animals do display a concern for “purity” in that sense by keeping their waste away from their food, yes?

Some do -- but the ones I know offhand who do are rodents (e.g. prairie dogs, but I've seen it in mice, too). Primates are natural slobs and humans haven't had permanent "nest sites" all that long by evolutionary standards, so no, I wouldn't expect "purity" to be "programmed into us" the way loyalty or compassion may be.

My biologist's spidey-sense suspects that "purity", as an obsession, may be a function of language and/or conceptualization -- that it's related to the way we create conceptual categories, "A not B". Not enough is yet known about animals' mental categories to say what the continuities are, but certainly it's not obvious in our closest relatives.

I should add that the reason many rodents are neat housekeepers is when they live all their lives in one set of tunnels or other restricted spaces, spend most of their time inside, and store food in their “houses”. Such rodents will have separate rooms for evacuation, for food storage, and for babies.

I once found that mice had been living in the back of my china cupboard, where they had very neatly been using the tea light holders for toilets, while they had filled the small vases with seeds. Freudian analysis of the mouse psyche would be fascinating.

Monday, January 21, 2008

Serendipity, Medicine, Pain

Steven Brust & his housemates have a new blog at, and kit just posted on fibromyalgia, based on a NYT article on a new drug to fight the disease, even though not all doctors believe it's "for real". My comments:

Speaking as a science writer and historian of medicine, the article is full of crap. Yes, it is always problematic when medication drives diagnosis. But it is practically dereliction of health-writer-duty to talk about the problems with fibromyalgia without even mentioning the pervasive problems modern American medicine has with chronic pain: acknowledging, diagnosising, and treating it.

Not to mention that one consequence of finding a drug that treats a mysterious condition is that you have a better chance of finding out what’s actually going on. Though I will also bet good money that “fibromyalgia” is a “lumping” diagnosis, including several very different conditions under a single name.

It could be (I’m no expert either) that some medical research is similar

O my heavens, yes. In fact, we call it "serendipity" and pretend that we meant to do that all along.

For instance, the Vinca alkaloids I mentioned above. The Madagascar periwinkle is a tropical plant, widely grown in gardens for the past couple hundred years.

It's also been widely used in folk medicine, and was first scientifically studied as a remedy for diabetes, one of its traditional uses. The scientists working with it couldn't find any effect on diabetes, but noticed that it reduced the white blood cell count in their study animals.

"Hey," they said, "if it reduces white blood cells, maybe it could help with leukemia!" About a zillion tests later, they had a collection of substances -- the Vinca alkaloids -- that were some of the first effective cancer chemotherapies.

The Vinca alkaloids had been used in chemotherapy for a while before the chemical they bind to, tubulin, was even discovered, and it was years more before scientists knew that that's what they were doing.

Yes, GWW, medicine is *incredibly* empirical -- I don't know if there's any other science that is more focused on "find me something that works, find out *why* it works later." I'm so used to this fact that I really appreciate being reminded how chary doctors are about conveying it to the general public.

I'll hop down from the soapbox with a book recommendation: The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down, by Anne Fadiman. A wonderful, heartbreaking story of culture clash and medicine.

I find it so hard to consider that scientific…

LOL! Some people have been known to say medicine is an "art" instead; others use the term "voodoo".

My experience is as a science & medical writer & historian. I think it's *necessary*, because medicine is (a) intrinsically very difficult, but (b) can't afford to wait for results.

Generally speaking, the "hard" sciences are the ones that are easy, the "soft" sciences are the ones that are difficult -- and medicine is positively squishy.

Physics is intrinsically easy because it works (by definition) with the minimum number of different kinds of things: these days we're down to a few quarks, a few leptons, a few fundamental forces. Physics seems "hard" because it's easier to get reliable results when you limit yourself so strictly, and because you can build longer trains of thought by making each thought very precise.

With medicine, though, you're working with at least at least 22,000 kinds of basic units, some of which can be modified to produce millions of useful variants

So if the intrinsic difficulty of physics (using say 20 elements) is 20!= 2.433 × 10^18, the intrinsic difficulty of medicine (with say 20,000 elements) is at least 20,000! = in the range of 10^77000. Since we don't want to wait until the heat death of the universe to shuffle all the combinations, we have to use the "empiricism first & devil take the details!" methodology. Often, it's while trying to figure out what we've done that we can see what should be done instead.

Doctors are a lot like medieval master-builders working on a cathedral: putting up a massive complex structure without being able to analyze too much beforehand, just trust to past experience, knowledge, and keen observation to adjust as you go. Yeah, a good many cathedrals fell down -- but just think of the one that stayed up, with no architect's plans or engineering feasibility studies to show that the builder knew what he was doing. He knew what worked, even if he didn't know why:

skzb @50: You’re right, every scientific discipline has serendipity stories. I wonder if serendipity is one of the signs that “science is happening here”, one of the things that distinguishes science (& engineering) from other ontological methods.

As I think about it, it seems to me that serendipity comes from the way scientists focus on the metaphoric trees instead of the forest — not just the trees, but the specific bark of this specific tree, and I never noticed those moths before, did you?

Science is anti-holistic, in that little discrepancies *do* matter. The evidence for light’s diffraction is much less obvious than reflection, and from a well-balanced Ancient Greek POV it’s kind of crazy & obsessive to make explaining diffraction (light is a wave) as important as explaining reflection (light is a particle).

It’s a real problem in medicine, because human beings in pain need to be treated holistically, but the best treatments often come out of studying their problems in a reductionistic way.

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Friday, January 18, 2008

Definitions of isms

From the comments to one of Orcinus' many recent posts about Jonah Goldberg's "Liberal Fascism":

How do we define the "left" and liberalism? How do we define the "right" and conservativism?

My theory, which is mine:

The only political ism that has a consistent definition across historical periods is "conservatism". That definition is: "maintaining the status quo of power."

That's it. What kind of philosophy or policies fall under conservatism will vary, depending on what groups have the most power in a particular society. In mid-19th century Europe, conservatives were on the side of the aristocrats; in modern America, they're on the side of large corporations.

This IMHO is why "classical liberalism" (of the 19thC) looks like modern conservatism: the bourgeois corporations served by that philosophy were not the top of the heap in the 19thC, but they are now. Philosophies follow interest groups, and it's the position of the group in the power structure that's the defining variable.

It's particularly confusing because everyone naturally tends to become conservative when they come into power -- "I support the status quo when it's *me*."

Fascism is more a pathology of authoritarianism than it is "conservative", but, as Orwell says, "rich men all over the world tend to sympathise with Fascism" -- and anything rich men sympathise with is pretty sure to be conservative by definition, because they have a lot of power.

So I'd say both: across cultures, "conservatism" means "protects the power of the powerful", and anything favored by most of the powerful is part of the local definition of "conservative".

In the English-speaking world, at least, we can even use the word "conservative" to track hierarchical status. So the fact that American conservatives are currently opposed to government regulation of business implies that business (or certain businesses) are more powerful than the government -- as is shown by the fact that they pay better.

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Monday, January 14, 2008

Sexist or Incomprehensible? You decide!

Amanda at Pandagon found an ad for the UK store Harvey Nichols -- click here to see it -- that is either incredibly sexist or makes no sense at all. Possibly both. And no-one can figure out how this is supposed to sell more shoes, either.

Do you only get the plump guy if you wear slippers? What's the correlation between the sneakers and the black guy? Or is this supposed to be a chart where you fill in your results?

Then echnidne of the snakes points out this Oliphant cartoon. What a laff riot! It has been suggested that maybe Oliphant was trying to poke fun at anyone who thinks he can ride roughshod over HRC (or that PMS is still an issue for her, given her age), but his track record argues against that.

When it comes to Chris Matthews, though, I don't think there can be two schools of thought -- he's really not that hard to understand.

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