Summer Holiday Time

Clonea

It’s one of those years in Ireland where the Summer will not settle.  Any fine day is soon blown away by a capricious wind which rips the blue from the sky and sends squall clouds scudding across the bay.

Wind; by Fannie Stearns Davis

The Wind bows down the poplar trees,
The Wind bows down the crested seas;
And he has bowed the heart of me
Under his hand of memory.

O heavy-handed Wind, who goes
Hurting the petals of the rose;
Who leaves the grasses on the hill
Broken and pallid, spent and still!

O heavy-handed Wind, who brings
To me all echoing ancient things:
Echoing sorrow and defeat,
Crying like mourners, hard to meet!

The Wind bows down the poplar trees
And all the ocean’s argosies;
But deeper bends the heart of me,
Under his hand of memory.

Advertisements

Fact or Anecdote?

How the Religious Right use Anecdotes to undermine scientific argument.

When it comes to debating issues there are two broad strategies you can employ.

  1. Use facts to prove your case.
  2. Tell a good story.

An anecdote is simply a good story, usually one that is personalised to make it highly emotional.  In many cases those who use anecdotes present them as pseudo-facts and call them by scientific sounding terms such as “anecdotal evidence”.

The human brain is programmed to relate to stories.  Behavioural economists have demonstrated how humans default to “type 1” and struggle with the “type 2” thinking that is required to correctly assess complex quantitative data (Thinking, Fast & Slow.  Daniel Kahneman, 2011).

Anecdotes play to our Type 1 thinking.  We can place ourselves in the story and empathise with a situation far more easily than we can digest a plethora of bland numbers.  Politicians have long known this.  Former US Speaker of the House, Tip O’Neill, famously told us that “all politics is local”.

Many will remember how John McCain and Sarah Palin latched onto “Joe the Plumber” as the poster boy for Republican Party credentials to serve small business.  Tony Blair led the British Labour Party to power after years in the wilderness by targeting the middle ground swing voter that they called “Mondeo Man” after the Ford car so favoured by sales teams in the UK.

Many technical professionals argue with hard facts, detailed statistics, “boring” numbers.  They bog their audience (and interviewers) down in Type 2 diatribes.  If they are in an argument with an anecdotist they will lose.  One of my favourite lines in debate, delivered by an Anecdotist to a Statistician;

Ah sure you can prove anything with statistics, I want to talk about the facts.”

The very best technical experts know that they must convert their cold, hard, impersonal statistics into a warm, engaging, human story.  This is the realm of the “Insights” professional.

 

What has all this to do with Religion?

One of the primary roles of the religious community is to take a long (very long) view of the impacts that changes have on society, societal mores, community health and general spiritual wellbeing.  This position serves a vital role in counterbalancing short term profit motivated interests.  The various churches will always drag their heels on rapid change.  Experience has shown that it takes many years to understand the full impact of a change, and their preference is to delay and postpone rather than move and regret.

HPV vaccination is a perfect illustration of this position, as it is an area fraught with ethical issues.  These are neatly summed up in this quote from Patrick Hayes MD, a Catholic Doctor.  It was originally published in Health magazine, and is also available online here:  http://www.catholic.org/news/health/story.php?id=51576

Dr. Hayes says “ …as HPV is a sexually transmitted disease (STD), the success of a ‘medicine’ that appears to remove the consequences of sin, by preventing genital warts and cervical cancer in persons who have one or multiple sexual partners who have had multiple sexual partners, leaves persons of faith and chastity questioning the motives and wisdom of governments, pharmaceutical companies and doctors.”

He also says “The vaccination should not be mandated, because in the absence of sexual contact, unvaccinated students pose no threat to others. “

Overall Dr. Hayes writes a fair and balanced piece.  The latter statement is straight out of the Catholic playbook.  Let’s face it, in the absence of sexual contact girls will never get pregnant.  This is the Catholic position on the use of contraception!

The Irish Government introduced a vaccination programme for schoolgirls from age 12/13 (first year in secondary school) using Gardasil, the HPV vaccine developed by Merck.

We are now seeing the anecdotal machine getting into gear.  Ireland is a backwater, but an important one for religious issues.  If Ireland takes a backward step on HPV vaccination this sets a precedent for pressure groups in the USA who are opposed to vaccination.  They are prepared to invest money and resources into Ireland to see such an outcome.

Some of these groups are opposed on religious grounds, others are opposed to “big government” setting up mandatory healthcare.  They all prey on the concerns of parents for the health of their children.

Their key arguments are:

  1. Here is a girl (anecdotal evidence 1) who became ill or died after receiving the vaccine.  If you give the vaccine to your daughter she will become ill or die.
  2. Pharmaceutical companies know this is a dangerous poison, but they are making big profits on it, so they are covering up the facts (conspiracy theory 1)
  3. Doctors involved in the clinical trials were bribed by the Pharmaceutical company to falsify the results (conspiracy theory 2). Here is a case of such a doctor (anecdotal evidence 2)
  4. We have given the pharmaceutical company all the information and they have ignored it (anecdote 3: the cold hearted corporate machine)
  5. The FDA (local medical approvals board) were fed misinformation on this drug by the pharma company (ergo they are incompetent fools) and certain key officials were given payoffs in the form of money or business trips or jobs (ergo they are corrupt). The bottom line is that you can’t trust government.

Let’s address these arguments one at a time:

  1. Any government sponsored vaccine must pass through a rigorous testing and selection process.  It must go through extensive and detailed clinical trials.  Every drug or vaccine carries side effects and risks.  These are detailed and quantified as part of the trials process.

In statistical terms these negative outcomes represent a tiny fraction of the population.  The benefits of the vaccine far outweighs any negative outcomes.  However, if you are the parent of one of the girls who dies then the statistics are cold comfort.

When Gardasil was rolled out in Germany two girls in the first vaccinated cohort died as a result of the drug.  That is 2 in 1.5 million, which represents 0.0001%.  The incidence is miniscule in statistical terms and devastating in personal terms to the families involved.

Yes there are cases where girls became ill due to the vaccine.  They tend to fall within the limits established by the clinical trial.

There are also many cases where girls become ill shortly after they receive the vaccine.   The anecdotists seize on these cases to boost the fear factor in relation to the drug.  Just because condition B followed condition A does not prove causality.  Anti-vaxxers don’t care about such niceties.  They don’t need to prove their points.  They simply have to throw doubt upon the opposite position.  This is classic “fear marketing”.

I am not a fan of fear marketing techniques.  It is most effective with people who worry the most, and with those who don’t have the education or intelligence to carry out proper research.  Fear marketing preys on the weak and that is not nice.  It is not Christian.

  1. The conspiracy theory that the Pharma companies are knowingly selling poison for profit.  There have been cases where pharma companies have behaved dreadfully, so I won’t apologise for them.  The Tamiflu scandal by Roche pharma is a perfect example, where they withheld information.  The drug was not a poison, it was just useless.  Merck with Vioxx, Bristol Myers Squibb with Abilify and GSK with Avandia.  They may not be selling poison, but they are manipulating the data for profit.  That is despicable.
  1. Doctors manipulating data? Yes, the evidence is there.  It happens.  Doctors, it seems, are no more immune to corruption than any other group in society.  Some manipulate results because of poor research practice, where they screen out data that does not meet with their preconceptions.  Others do it for cash.

I think we need to look at how we recruit and train doctors.  At present, in Ireland, medical schools select medical students on academic excellence.  If we selected on empathy and care for others I suspect we might attract fewer high wealth seeking individuals.

  1. The cold hearted corporation anecdote also holds true. We have all seen Erin Brokovich!  Look at the Ford Pinto scandal, where the bean counters preferred to pay death and injury damages rather than recall and fix faulty cars.  Such a cavalier attitude to the lives of humans represents a real concern about the kind of people who lead large companies.  The corporate ladder appears to reward executives who are amoral and unempathic.
  1. Incompetence and/or corruption in medical approvals officials.  Given point 2, that pharma companies manipulate the clinical trials data, it is no surprise that government officials have been caught out.  They have been lied to, repeatedly.  Also, like the doctors, they are not immune from corruption.  There are enough smoking guns out there to fill an arsenal.

So when you look holistically at the arguments put out by anti-vaxxers there appears to be more than enough smoke to suggest a fire.  When you put all the pieces of disinformation together you come up with a pretty compelling conspiracy theory.

The only way to debunk the conspiracy theory is to tear it apart, step by step, using cold hard statistics.  No audience is going to hang around for that.

The upshot of all of this is that the medical and pharmaceutical industries are personally and collectively responsible for the mess they have made.  In modern Ireland we have outbreaks of Measles and Mumps in teenagers who were not vaccinated back when the MMR was blamed for Autism.  Study after study has disproved any link existed.  The doctor who originally made the link was found guilty of falsifying his results.   https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Andrew_Wakefield  And still the story continues to spin and be believed.  Now we see exactly the same arguments being rolled out in relation to HPV vaccines.

Herostratic Fame

Artemis

On this day in 365 BCE the Temple of Artemis, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, was destroyed.  It was burned down by an arsonist named Herostratus.

He committed this heinous act in a bid to become immortally famous.

The temple was located in Ephesus (now Efes) in Ionian Greece (now part of Modern Turkey) .  The Ephesians sentenced Herostratus to death, but also passed a greater sentence on him.  They forbade anyone to use is name, on pain of death.  Their intention was to prevent him achieving the very thing that he sought.

Unfortunately the story was recorded by historians and Herostratus won out in the end.  Herostratic fame is “Fame acquired by destructive means”.

In modern society we see many examples.  School shooters are a prime example.  People like Mark David Chapman, who murdered John Lennon and said “The result would be that I would be famous; the result would be that my life would change and I would receive a tremendous amount of attention”.

Terrorism organisations have learned that they can gain notoriety through herostratic acts such that a small terror cell can dominate global media.  ISIS, Al Qaida, Hammas, Hezbollah etc all leverage this dynamic in the Middle East.

Since the destruction of the Temple of Artemis the greatest Herostratic act was the destruction of the World Trade Center in New York City on 9/11.

Ground Zero

Eye Contact

My Eyes are up Here!  (Courtesy of Arrested Development)

My Eyes are up Here!                                      (Courtesy of Arrested Development)

It is an old joke that men cannot look a woman in the eyes, especially if she is wearing a low cut top.  And let’s be honest girls, how many of you have played to the balcony and used your assets to good effect to gain the upper hand in situations?

Men do drop their eyes when they meet women.  But the reason why may come as a surprise.

Humans have the ability to make very rapid assessments of certain situations.  Malcolm Gladwell in his book “Blink” gives a good review of the ability of people to make snap “gut instinct” decisions that are very accurate.  One of the areas where we are able to make a snap decision is in mate selection.  Love at first sight may not be such a bad idea!

We don’t know all the elements that contribute to finding the “perfect” mate, but we do know of some of them.  I suspect that there is a huge body of work that remains to be done on how the human olfactory system can decode the scent of a potential partner to yield triggers to compatibility.  But that is for another day.

Today I am looking at the difference between the way men and women carry out their first visual inspection of each other.  A woman looks at a man in the eyes and scans horizontally across his face.  A man drops his eyes and looks downwards, scanning vertically.  So why the difference?

Both men and women are scanning for markers of fitness (ability to provide), health (ability to procreate healthy children).  Men are also scanning for preparedness, the signs that a woman is in the fertile point in her menstrual cycle.  The shortcuts for these markers are very different between men and women.

In men facial symmetry is a very strong indicator of fitness and health.  In both sexes facial symmetry is equated with “beauty”, but in men it carries even more powerful cues for women.  A symmetrical face is a map of good genetics, nutrition and development.  This is a kid who was born with good genes, was well fed as a child and has matured in a healthy manner to adulthood.  In practical terms this means he can run fast and catch food.  He is also likely to have a healthy sperm count.  Olympic sprinters, for instance, have very symmetrical faces.

The key elements you need to scan to assess facial symmetry are the eyes, the ears, nose and mouth.  When a woman meets a man for the first time she looks at his eyes, then scans left and right to measure the position of his nose, ears and mouth in relation to the line of his eyes.  What the man sees is a girl looking him in the eyes.

The key markers that men seek in women are different.  The first is waist to hip ratio.  Almost everywhere across the world a ratio of 0.7 waist to hip is seen as ideal.  Why?  Believe it or not women with this ratio have ideal oestrogen balance, better fertility, higher pregnancy rates and are less susceptible to diseases such as diabetes.  A woman with an ideal waist to hip ratio is more likely to give a man children.

The next important marker is spine curvature.  When the spine is curved at the ideal angle it accentuates a woman’s behind and makes it attractive to men.  What is so attractive about a prominent butt?  Studies have shown that women with a certain curvature of the spine remain mobile for longer in the later stages of pregnancy.  In primitive and nomadic societies (most of man-kinds history) they can forage for food later into their pregnancy.  They also have fewer problems in childbirth.  What is more, women with good levels of hip and buttock fat have been shown to raise children with higher IQ’s.  These qualities have become encoded in human brains over thousands of years to equate with “attractiveness”.

For a man to assess waist to hip ratio and spine curvature he simply must drop the eyes and “check her out”.  This is very obvious to women.   So if it is all about the hip area, why is he ogling her breasts?

This is where we move from “fitness” to “preparedness”.  When women are ovulating the hormonal changes in their bodies can have some interesting effects.  First off it makes your breasts more symmetrical.  Yes, every month they even up a bit better for a few days.  They also fill out a bit.  So do the lips, which become redder as a result.  Skin clears up and can develop a healthy glow and hair becomes fuller and shinier.  The cosmetics industry makes a fortune by replicating exactly these effects.

When these changes occur women feel more body confident.  They preen by exposing more flesh, wearing lower cut tops, higher cut skirts etc.  They are effectively advertising the fact that they are “in heat”.

So when a man drops his eyes, he is not ONLY ogling your breasts.  He is checking out the deeper and more telling signs that you are going to make a good mom.

When you wear that bright red lipstick and the low cut top with the push-up bra you are telling him that you are ready for a baby!

Identity strength

sumo-wrestler

Individuals who are comfortable with who they are might be said to have Identity Strength.  They are comfortable in their own skins.  They are not seeking approval for who they are from others.  This radiates from their personality as self-confidence.

People with weak self-identity can come across as trying too hard.  Go to any ad agency in the world and you will see the juniors dressed all in black, trying to look cool and arty.  Go to Harvard University MBA school and look at the students.  Those with high grade point averages will tend to be chilled out, dressed down.  Those who are struggling to make the grade scurry by in a suit, carrying a briefcase, trying hard to look important.

Identity strength does not come from personal power or influence, but they do tend to travel the same road.  You will only get a job as a CEO if you radiate self-confidence.  But a small cog in the organisation can also be a king in his own niche.  True contentment can come from finding that niche and being the best you that you can be.

It is very important in life to find and be your own true self.  After all, everyone else is taken!

Don’t change on my account ; by Shel Silverstein

If you’re sloppy, that’s just fine.
If you’re moody, I won’t mind.
If you’re fat, that’s fine with me.
If you’re skinny, let it be.
If you’re bossy, that’s alright.
If you’re nasty, I won’t fight.
If you’re rough, well that’s just you.
If you’re mean, that’s alright too.
Whatever you are is all okay.
I don’t like you anyway.

Calendar Wars

islamic-calender

One of the greatest gifts to the world from organised religions is the Calendar.  Today we don’t think so much of the calendar as a religious instrument, but that is where it originated.

At some level religions are based on augury and prophesy.  Augury is the reading of signs.  Prophesy is the foretelling of events in the future.  If a religion could correctly interpret signs, and use these to foretell events, it was able to give an advantage to its followers.

In the early days of religion the priests struggled a lot with the concepts of augury in particular.  Were two eagles flying from the west a good or a bad thing?  Was it good at sunset and bad at sunrise?  The struggle to get a handle on Augury was complicated by the natural inclination of the human brain to impose patterns on random occurrences.

As a result you get silly reactions to natural disasters, such as the sacrifice of a virgin to appease the deity who is causing the earthquakes.

As time went by some religions began to use writing systems to document their augury.  They tracked the movements of planets and stars.  They observed the patterns in the weather.  They tracked the movements of animals.  They recorded the health of the liver of sacrificed goats.

Over long periods of time certain clear and strong auguries began to emerge.  Religions came to understand the timing of seasons.  This allowed them to plant crops at the right time.    They measured tidal flows and ocean currents.  They documented the solar and lunar years and the longer periods of time measured by the alignments of stars and planets and the precession of the universe.

Weather forecasting auguries also became better.   They came to understand the patterns of regular seasonal rains and floods, such as the Indian Monsoons and the Egyptian Nile inundation.  These events have a significant influence on agriculture and hunting.  The Egyptians developed a tool, the Nileometer, to assess the annual flood.  The data from the measurements was used to calculate harvest yields and associated taxes.  They also developed sophisticated mathematical systems to underpin their calculations, such as quadratic equations.  One theory is that the command of mathematics then enabled the Egyptians to develop their monumental architecture.

Earlier calendars broke the solar year down by lunar cycles.  A lunar cycle is 28 days.  Divided in 4 it gives us the seven day week.  But the lunar and solar years do not align perfectly.  This became a major challenge for religions.  Seasons kept shifting out of alignment as time went by.

The Jewish religious calendar is a good example of this system.  It evolved from an earlier Babylonian model and was improved upon over time.

The poster boy of the calendar world is Julius Caesar.  As Pontifex Maximus (High priest) of Rome he was head of the College of Pontiffs and had authority over the other three religious Colleges; the Augurs, the Quindecimviri (who carried out rites) and the Epulones (who organised feasts and festivals).

During the Civil War the religious observances in Rome were allowed to slip.  The annual calculation of the “intercalends” was not carried out.  This was an additional month inserted periodically to bring the Lunar cycle into alignment with the Solar year.

Better calendars were already in use in Persia (Zoroastrian) and Egypt, and it is likely that Caesar experienced the Egyptian calendar personally and was able to assess it.  He introduced his new calendar in the year 46BC and had to make the year 446 days long to align correctly.

The Julian calendar was 365.25 days long, and lost only 3 days every 400 years.  This was a vast improvement over all existing calendars of the day.  It quickly became the established calendar of the Roman Empire and persists in use today in Ethiopia and amongst the Berber of North Africa.

With such an accurate calendar available one would have to question why, on this day in the year 622 CE the Muslims accepted a calendar of 354 days per year.  When Allah was talking to the Prophet (Peace be upon him) could he not have suggested that Islam adopt the more accurate model that was available at the time?

Ultimately it fell to Pope Gregory in 1582 to make a minor adjustment to the Julian calendar.  The primary motivation was to align the date of Easter correctly to Catholic dogma.  In the process the year was corrected to 365.2425 days.  Instead of losing 1 day in 128 years (Julian) the Gregorian calendar loses only 1 day in 3,226 years.

In order to remember how many days are in each month children are taught a poem or rhyme as a mnemonic device.  This is the one I learned.  Is yours any different?

The Calendar Poem

Thirty days has September,

April, June and November,

all the rest have thirty one,

except February alone,

which has four and twenty four

and each leap year gives it one day more.

Rosetta Stone

The most visited object in the British Museum

The most visited object in the British Museum

It was on this day in the year 1799 that Pierre-Francois Bouchard discovered the Rosetta Stone.  Bouchard was a new man, made up by the French revolution.  Blinded in one eye during a chemistry experiment he went on to become a military engineer.  He joined the expedition to Egypt with Napoleon.

In 1799 he was given the job of repairing an old Mameluke fort in the port town of Rosetta (modern Rashid).  During construction he noticed the inscribed stone, which had been used to build the walls of the fort.  An intelligent man, Bouchard immediately recognised the importance of the find.  A single stone bearing the same inscription in three scripts, Greek, Demotic and Ancient Egyptian Hieroglyphs.

Plaster casts of the stone were taken and dispatched to linguistic scholars for translation.

The stone itself fell into British hands in 1801 when they drove the French out of Egypt.  It was moved to London and has been on display almost continuously since 1802.

Translation of the text took somewhat longer.

The Greek text was translated by 1803.

It was not until 1822 that Jean Francois Champollion released a translation of the Egyptian elements of the text.  Even then it took many years of work before scholars could confidently translate other ancient Egyptian texts.

Egypt and France both claim rights to the stone, which is  still held in the British Museum.

The Rosetta stone had impacts beyond the translation of Egyptian texts.  The lessons learned in Egypt have helped to unlock other pictographic alphabets such as Mayan.

The term “Rosetta Stone” is now often used to signify a key to unlocking an understanding of a field of knowledge.

And death shall have no dominion; by Dylan Thomas

And death shall have no dominion.
Dead man naked they shall be one
With the man in the wind and the west moon;
When their bones are picked clean and the clean bones gone,
They shall have stars at elbow and foot;
Though they go mad they shall be sane,
Though they sink through the sea they shall rise again;
Though lovers be lost love shall not;
And death shall have no dominion.

And death shall have no dominion.
Under the windings of the sea
They lying long shall not die windily;
Twisting on racks when sinews give way,
Strapped to a wheel, yet they shall not break;
Faith in their hands shall snap in two,
And the unicorn evils run them through;
Split all ends up they shan’t crack;
And death shall have no dominion.

And death shall have no dominion.
No more may gulls cry at their ears
Or waves break loud on the seashores;
Where blew a flower may a flower no more
Lift its head to the blows of the rain;
Though they be mad and dead as nails,
Heads of the characters hammer through daisies;
Break in the sun till the sun breaks down,
And death shall have no dominion.