For the days and days since I've started this blog, I've wanted to put that headline up.
And now I have an excuse.http://www.livescience.com/humanbiology/060630_placebo.html"People who take their medicine regularly, even if it's a placebo, have a lower risk of death than those who don't..."
It seems to be more than positive thinking, but also a tendancy to comply with their health care practicioner. They are more likely to take care of themselves better, apparently. The experts are also saying that the give and take of someone caring and someone being cared for may also influence it.
But we can't take this as an excuse to say "anything goes". Obviously, the fact that doing something
is better than doing nothing is why control groups need bogus pills or treatments to really be equalized with their legitimately treated comrades. But understanding why placebos work is equally important, since this will help us improve treatments that are proven to provide benefit.
Every Kid a Scientist
During an online discussion once many years ago, I mentioned that I thought that babies were natural scientists. One person slammed me for that remark, informing me that it was insulting to scientists who had had many years of education. There was no way a baby could be doing the same thing a scientist was doing. That attitude may stem from the competition that naturally arises among scientists, that leads to a sense of exclusivity of the title, but it is an unfortunate one.
Why can't we think of babies as little scientists? It doesn't matter if what they are discovering isn't exactly pushing forward the edge of knowledge. They are still employing the scientific method:
Then do it over and over and over again.
Certainly this isn't the only way that babies and young children learn, but it is a key method they utilize. I would say they use it a lot with speech, for instance. They do not know how the sounds of words are made, and must learn for themselves.
This natural way of learning can be thought of as the first steps towards scientific literacy and critical thinking? Can it be developed educationally in the same way that math and reading skills are developed?
I think early critical thinking may already be well integrated into early education. "What is wrong with this picture" types of games, sorting, pattern recognition, put the pictures in order – these are all activities which are the foundation of early critical thinking skills. But often these kinds of activities disappear once reading and arithmetic have been established. Such a curriculum could easily continue to be integrated with reading comprehension as well as science. I was surprised at how poorly my 5th grader's accelerated class understood finding, evaluating, and citing their sources when doing a report on a state. This is basic stuff. Why has it been neglected?
In high school, I think it would be appropriate to have a critical thinking skills course mandatory.
As a parent, I can do something, though. There are plenty of opportunities to help my growing children evaluate the world around them in a more rational manner. I try to ask my kids "Why?", and "How do you know that?" "How did you come to that conclusion?" I ask them this even if I agree with what they've said. We criticize commercials regularly not just for being stupid, but for manipulation and errors. We do the same thing with mail advertisements. We talk about how lab scientists, paleontologists and archeologists, and historians discover things and why or why not those discoveries can be thought of as reliable.
Certainly, I'm not as good as this as I'd like to be. What parent meets their own expectations? But I do try to think of my children as scientists, discovering their way through this world. I hope they never stop trying to discover.
A Little Bit of Coconut: the granola Speculates about Big Boobs
Since posting about Public Breastfeeding
on my other blog, I've been thinking about why breasts are an object of sexual attraction, and why we have tissue that supports the mammary glands so that they are perky. They don't have to be to function, and usually aren't despite good support after pregnancy and breastfeeding. Besides, bras are a recent invention.
So is birth control.
Women of childbearing age used to spend most of their time either pregnant or nursing. I suspect breastfeeding, since it was far more exclusive and there was overall poorer nutrition, bestowed a much bigger interval between pregnancies than it does in modern women who nurse. I think it would be reasonable to say that except for a young woman who had never been pregnant, a woman of childbearing years who wasn't pregnant was nursing.
And her breasts were likely to be full at least during some points in the day.
So what if perkiness is meant to simulate full breasts, thus telling the prospective mate that here was a woman who provides plenty of milk for her offspring?
Large breasts, of course, aren't necessary for good milk production but they do signal being well fed as well also simulating the full breast of a nursing mother. Being well fed would be a good signal for having robust offspring who would not only benefit in utero, but also from her skill as a food gatherer.
So, two things: ability to produce milk (full breasts) or simulated ability (perky or large breasts) and ability to eat well (large breasts).
Bill Moyer's new series on PBS
I don't watch TV much, so this is probably not news to some of you, but I found a cool series running on PBS: Bill Moyer's On Faith and Reason
Colin McGinn said an interesting thing that I pretty much agree with. Criticism is not persecution.
Also, a plug for PBS - Content like this, and the science shows I loved growing up is one of the reasons PBS needs to stay alive. Discovery channel is good, but a lot of their programming is redundant and/or dumbed down or controversied up.
It's Hard to Change a Human's Mind
Recently I found myself in a debate with homebirth advocates that reminded me why I gave up debating several issues in the first place. I realized that very few people ever debate in order to get to the truth, but in order to support their own position. They seemed to enjoy the debate, and it often seemed to me as if it reinforced their beliefs no matter what information was being put out there. This seemed to be true across the board: democrats or republicans, theists or atheists, evolutionists or creationists.
There is an article in Scientific American
about an interesting study by Drew Westen (not published yet, but soon will be) on political bias where self described strong democrats or republicans were shown several statements by Kerry and Bush while undergoing an fMRI scan
. Each candidate contradicted themselves. The subjects would come down hard on the candidate that did not represent their party, and let their party's man off the hook. It was the emotional and conflict resolving areas of the brain rather than the reasoning dorsolateral prefrontal cortex that were involved.
If the study proves valid, it only substantiates what we've known for a long time:
We are biased, and we prefer data which supports our bias to an amazing degree, sometimes. The study also showed reward centers being activated once the subject had processed the information and come to a conlusion that agreed with his political leanings. So we feel good when we conform to our own bias.
I speculate that the advantage of this would be to cement social bonds in order to cooperate more, insuring the survival of more members of the clan. It was a strategy that would work with limited information and a need to act. Conservatism (not the political kind, but the slow to change kind) would also protect from taking chances that are too risky. It looks like safe courses of action are rewarded in the brain and as well as in social circles.
It is a strategy that is turning out to be difficult in a more varied society, with so much more information out there that needs to be weighed carefully and less need to act for our own survival.
I especially liked the conclusion of the article: politics needs to be peer reviewed with skepticism being rewarded.
Anyway, remind me to tell the story of how I think I broke my own confirmation bias. One can never really be sure about those things, though, can they?
My Trip to the Chiropractor as a Teen
When I was a teen I got teased. I'm sure it had at least something to do with my less than stellar social skills, but there were also two things that made me a target for a trip to the chiropractor as well.
My rear end was a little too much rearified (Okay, my butt stuck out), and I ran funny. My parents worried that these things might cause problems so they took me to the chiropractor. One had previously treated my mom for severe, recurrent migraines rather successfully.
At the office, I recieved several x-rays. The chiropractor determined that I had moderate scoliosis. He then informed my parents that scoliosis has a high likelyhood of getting worse over time. However, if I went there 3 times a week and then 2 times a week for six weeks, he could reduce the likelyhood of it getting worse to 20%. (Remember that number) All together, it would cost $2000 (in the 80s.)
Of course, my parents agreed to it. They really couldn't afford it, but what else was there to do? They couldn't let that scoliosis get worse and cause me pain and start squishing all my organs.
But what about what had caused us concern in the first place? Well, the treatments would take care of that too. But I still felt like he kind of brushed that problem aside, even though it was the main complaint.
While there, as well as undergoing adjustments to the neck and spine and a bunch of leg yanking, I also got ultrasound treatment on my neck. Oh, yeah... my neck didn't have a proper curve. I was never given any exercises to do.
Anyway, I endured six weeks of this. I rode my bike to the chiropractor and back three times a week. My lower back often hurt after the treatments. I don't remember if I reported this or not. I do remember thinking: this is supposed to help me - why are things worse? A friend of mine at the time, also with scoliosis diagnosed by her chiropractic uncle told me that he said to come in only if it bothered her, for a single adjustment.
About a year later, I was in the school library reading Discover magazine when I came across an article about scoliosis. 80% of diagnosed cases never worsened and were typically asymptomatic. Remember what the likely hood of me getting worse with
treatments was? 20%. Yeah.
As for my big butt and funny running: those reported symptoms which the chiropractor brushed aside did end up causing me pain as I grew older. I have abs of steel now and wear shoes designed to correct overpronation during my runs.
There is an upshot to this story. It was the beginning of my skepticism regarding alternative medicine.
Old World Theories of Disease
My mother in law, who recently immigrated from Moscow, berated us over the phone tonight for bringing my toddler child up and down the stairs. It made him hot and cold and that caused his pneumonia, which he has thankfully recovered from quite quickly.
While she lived with us over the winter and spring she constantly scolded us for not wearing shoes if we took one step outside. We would get very sick.
Also, we were to massage toddler child's earlobes daily. If we do that, it will make his immunity strong and he will never get sick. She talked a lot about immunity. Some of it made sense, like stress weakens it. But it seems to me from her descriptions that it was more of a psychic entity within her than the multitude of processes we understand it to be.
Another interesting activity I saw her engage in was dressing for the season. This sounds reasonable, except that in this case it was governed by the calendar. She would wear a thick coat and take toddler child out in his furred snowsuit when it was 50F outside before March 21. At 60F, his lighter coat was okay. After March 21, she rarely used the lighter coat at the same 50F temperatures, and herself just a sweater or nothing.
I had heard of this kind of strict calendar adherence, but had thought it was not practiced anymore.
Various other activities have demonstrated to me that she has a very poor idea of germ theory.
This extremely fastidious woman has wiped my child's face with the cloth she just used to wipe the floor. Now, I know it won't kill him. I'm the mom who let him play with a worm, and lets him play in the dirt while I garden. But it still bugged me. I've seen her wash out a toilet a child was sick in, with her bare hands and a rag in the water, with an illness that had already proven to be contagious. The toilet brush was inches away. Not suprisingly, she got sick 24 hours later. It was her poor immune system, from being stressed out, she told us.
Bleach is for making things beautifully white, she has purposefully demostrated to me with the cleaning products I purchased. But it apparently doesn't need to be used on the counter that just had raw chicken juice all over it. A swipe with the three day old sink rag will fix that problem.
Okay, I've vented a little bit. There are a lot of good things about this woman, but her supersitions have driven me slightly batty.
The milk and I both agree that his mother, who we talk to much more regulary now, won't be hearing a lot about our children's illnesses. There is not much she can do about them but worry much more than is necessary (thus depleting her immune system), talk about it incessantly with my brother in law (thus depleting his immune system), and berate us for some strange negligence that doesn't make any sense.
A Remedy for Homeopathy
Once upon a time, I used a homeopathic remedy.
My oldest child was cutting her first teeth, and there in the baby aisle was something called teething tablets
. I read the ingredients and it seemed like an herbal remedy. Cool. (That's a post for another time.)
They were little white tablets that I was to rub on baby's gums when she cried because of teething. I forget exactly how often, but I think I could use 1 or 2 every two hours.
And they worked!
When I learned what homeopathy really was, I wondered for a bit why those little tablets had worked. After all, babies don't have a concept of 'take a pill, heal an ill' so the placebo connection probably wouldn't be the answer.
The answer: the lack of herbs are in a lactose base. And sugars have been proven to cut down pain.
I imagine the effect doesn't last long, but long enough to distract a child while you draw their attention somewhere else - also a proven pain reducer.
The striking thing about the whole homeopathy problem is that these useless remedies are sold right next to ones that actually do what they say. In drug stores
, even. This is authority enough for the very great majority of people. It was authority enough for me at the time, and I'm not a stupid cookie. I'm granola.
So how do we combat this kind of quackary?
Before people are ever consumers.
I strongly believe that critical thinking and scientific method should be taught in our schools from kindergarten on up. And I believe that the already standard health classes everyone has to take should include a chapter on how to detect quackary.
Teaching our kids to think for themselves and giving them the tools they need to detect scams is going to be one of the themes for this blog.
Fresh, Homemade Granola Now Available
A recent exchange between the granola and the milk.
"Tell me something interesting," said the milk as he lay down in bed.
"Like what?" asked the granola.
"I don't know. I like to hear your voice, it helps me go to sleep."
"Oh, so I'm boring," replied the granola.
The milk couldn't find a way to back out of that one.
Fear and Ultrasounds at the Senior Center
I got a letter the other day from Life Line Screening.
Apparently, I could just drop dead from stroke at any moment now, nevermind that I'm just 35 years old. A painless 10 minute screening will help me avoid this terrible occurance. Not only that, but doctors can't help me, because they usually can't order diagnostic tests without symptoms.
An alarm goes off, but not the one they hoped. You see, I've just had my annual checkup. I have no symptoms of cervical cancer or HPV, but I had a Pap smear done. I have no symptoms of high cholesterol, but because there is a personal and family history of it, I had my cholesterol checked. In fact, the whole physical was about checking me for diseases that I haven't reported any symptoms for!
Life Line Screening can give me three ultrasound tests in 10 minutes for only $135. But wait, add on an ultrasound Osteoporosis screening for $170. But wait! There is a special price package: all four for only $129! Come to the LocalTown Senior Center on Date.
So, if these tests are so inexpensive and would save so many from stroke, then why isn't it a standard screening test?
I ran to my trusty oracle
and asked, "Ultrasound screening stroke"
This is the first thing it told me: http://www.nurseweek.com/features/99-1/stroke.html
The problems? The skill of the technician is questionable. Speed scans are a dubious way to pick up problems. There can be too many false negatives. And these tests are likely to lead to a visit with the doctor, scary results in hand. Doctor, of course, will be obligated to order more, expensive tests that will serve only to tell the patient that "yes, you are old and your arteries show it, but there isn't much we can do at this point but what we were already doing: regular checkups".
It's telling that one of the few professionals who thought these speed scans might not be bad had a different idea for venue: hospitals could offer them up for free and then profit from the additional tests any positives would generate.
"I shudder to think what would happen to me if I didn't have preventative health screenings. Pick up the phone now and call Life Line Screening...to make an appointment for you and your loved ones," says Olympic champion and breast cancer survivor, Peggy Fleming just before she closed the letter by wishing me the best of health. She was a figure skater who went to the Olympics in 1968, for those who don't know, like I didn't before I consulted the oracle again.
I wonder how much money she got from putting her name on this letter?