an autodidact meets a dilettante…

‘Rise above yourself and grasp the world’ Archimedes – attribution

Posts Tagged ‘health

Covid 19: hopes, failures, solutions

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under pressure

Covid-19 continues to be devastating, especially in the USA, where there are vastly more cases than anywhere else, and vastly more deaths, though the picture there is complex. The hardest-hit region, the New York area, is seeing devastation in poorer districts such as Queens, where the Elmhurst public hospital is inundated with uninsured, critically ill patients. New York has suffered almost half of US deaths. Some other states and regions, especially physical outliers such as Alaska, Hawaii and the Virgin Islands, have very low numbers, and it would be hard to explain why the spread of cases across the mainland has been so uneven. Of course it’s obvious that there has been no federal leadership on the pandemic.

Here in Australia, where the numbers seem to be improving (we’re 33rd on the list of total cases, down from 18th when I first started paying attention to the list about three weeks ago, and 52nd on the list of total deaths), our conservative federal government is keen to open up the country again, and has released modelling to the effect that the virus will be eliminated from the mainland if we maintain current physical distancing measures, though it’s likely to take weeks rather than months:

The model suggests that every 10 people infected currently spread the virus to five more people, on average. At that level, the virus would eventually be unable to circulate and would die out within Australia.

Sydney Morning Herald, ‘Australia in course to eliminate Covid-19, modelling shows’

Australia’s current reproduction number (R0) is just a little over .5. A maintained R0 of 1 or less will eventually eliminate the virus. Of course, there will be fluctuations in that number, so it will be difficult to project a time when things are ‘all clear’. Another difficulty with modelling is that the number of infected but asymptomatic people is unknown and difficult to estimate. For example, recent Covid-19 testing of the entire crew of the aircraft carrier Theodore Roosevelt found that a substantial majority of those who tested positive were asymptomatic, casting doubt on previous estimates (already worrying for transmission) of one in four cases being asymptomatic.

The asymptomatic/presymptomatic transmission issue was addressed by Bill Gates in this article back in February. It’s what makes SARS-CoV-2 a much more serious threat than the previous SARS and MERS viruses. Gates, in this very important article, also provides an outline of what needs to be done globally to fight this pandemic and to prepare for inevitable future ones. If only…

It’s worth comparing Gates’ call for national and global co-ordination, and more expenditure, in the fields of epidemiology and disease prevention, with another more recent article, also published in the New England Journal of Medicine, which tells a tale of Britain and its NHS, gutted by years, in fact decades of ‘reforms’ and budget cuts:

Thanks to government “reforms” of the NHS, it has become highly decentralized, with over 200 commissioning groups in England that can make independent decisions about staffing and procurement of equipment — far from the monolithic “socialist” health care system it is often assumed to be. The devolved governments in Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland have substantial health system autonomy. At a time when central management of staff and resources might be most helpful, the decentralized decision-making structure leads to competition for resources and inconsistent policies.

One can hope that the travesty of this virus, especially in places like the US and the UK, will lead to a rethinking of the importance of a well-funded, centralised, co-ordinating and interventionist government in modern states, with particular emphasis on the healthcare system. But I suspect that, in the USA at least, things will go the other way, and the government-hating and government-blaming will only intensify. I’d love to leave this topic and look at solutions – that’s to say I’d love to focus more on the science, but I’m barely equipped to do so. Still, I like to have a go. A very technical and comprehensive review review of pharmacological treatments has been posted recently on the JAMA website, which includes an account of how SARS-CoV-2 enters host cells and utilises those cells for reproduction.

The review claims that currently the most promising therapy is the antiviral drug remdesivir. So what is it and how does it work? I’ll try to answer that question next time.

References

https://www.news.com.au/world/coronavirus/global/epicentre-of-the-epicentre-this-queens-ny-hospital-is-coronavirus-ground-zero/news-story/6d0213ab9d5dd82fa12339f551be99ce

https://www.theguardian.com/world/ng-interactive/2020/apr/16/coronavirus-map-of-the-us-latest-cases-state-by-state

https://www.smh.com.au/national/australia-on-course-to-eliminate-covid-19-modelling-shows-20200416-p54kjh.html

https://www.nejm.org/doi/full/10.1056/NEJMp2005755?query=recirc_artType_railA_article

https://www.nejm.org/doi/full/10.1056/NEJMp2003762

https://jamanetwork.com/journals/jama/fullarticle/2764727

Written by stewart henderson

April 18, 2020 at 1:18 pm

the science of Covid-19: possible treatments, herd immunity

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Australia is now 22nd in the list of total COVID-19 cases and dropping down. There are still of course new cases every day, but far fewer than many countries below us on the list. Experts are now talking about a flattening curve, but they also warn that the virus is ‘here to stay’. Here in South Australia, there were no fatalities when I last posted, but there have been three in the last couple of days. There are a large number of cases recently linked to our Barossa wine-growing region, a popular tourist destination.


So let me take a closer look at the SARS-CoV-2 virus. It’s a positive-sense single-stranded RNA virus. RNA is generally single-stranded in nature, though apparently can be double-stranded on occasion. The positive-sense term refers to the polarity, or sense, of the RNA. It’s also called ‘positive-strand’, facing 5’ to 3’, which means it acts as mRNA and can be translated into viral proteins in the host cell.

These types of virus are very common. They include common cold rhinoviruses as well as the SARS and MERS coronoviruses. SARS-CoV-2 is genetically similar to bat coronaviruses, causing virologists to believe that it was transmitted from bats to humans through an intermediate species such as a pangolin. The reproduction number of the virus (R0) is currently ranged from 1.4 to 3.9, in a scenario of no immunity and no preventive measures taken.

It has often been repeated that a vaccine will take 12-18 months, if not longer, to be safe, ready and effective. Science communicators such as the ABC’s Dr Norman Swann are telling us that stay-at-home orders may need to stay in place until that time, which is surely alarming economists and the business community. So, unsurprisingly, people are looking to short-cuts and desperate remedies. Perhaps the most publicised of these is the anti-malarial drug hydroxychloroquine, aggressively promoted by the US President. It turns out, also not surprisingly, that he has some financial interest in the French company that has branded the drug, according to the New York Times. There doesn’t appear to be any clear evidence on the benefits of the drug. Best reports speak of ‘mixed results’.

There are reports also of the benefits of blood plasma from people who have recovered from Covid-19. A small Chinese study involved 10 severely affected patients being given a few hundred millilitres of ‘convalescent plasma’ containing viral antibodies, and results were described as promising. The approach is being tried in the US, with the Red Cross and the American Association of Blood Banks seeking to recruit suitable ‘fully recovered’ donors.

As people continue to be alarmed and frustrated at the massive disruption to their working and social lives caused by Covid-19, some world leaders (e.g Boris Johnson and his chief science adviser Patrick Vallance, and Netherlands PM Mark Rutte) have come up with not-so-encouraging solutions, such as allowing the virus to run its course so that the population can build up herd immunity. This would actually be a disastrous policy in the case of a virus with a high (but not precisely known) fatality rate, involving millions of severe cases requiring intensive care treatment at any one time.

Herd immunity occurs when enough people have antibodies to the virus that it has nowhere to go. This can occur through the work of our immune systems or through antibodies created by effective vaccination. The former obviously comes at a much greater cost in terms of lives lost, in the case of a highly infectious (the R0 is now estimated – the data changes as I write – at between 2.0 and 2.5), high-fatality virus. Also, because Covid-19 is new, we don’t have sufficient data as yet about the degree of immunity it confers upon recovered patients, or whether it is able to mutate to any degree. Experts are generally counting on low or no mutation, but none of them see relying on herd immunity to be a humane solution to the problem. Suppression is the name of the game at the moment (even though it will reduce herd immunity). That’s to say, the R0 mentioned above (which might be higher) is the figure without the application of physical distancing or other containment measures. The R0 number, if it can be ascertained, gives an indication of the percentage of immunity required to ‘protect the herd’. An R0 number of 2 will require about 50% immunity. If the R0 number is 3, some 66% immunity will be required. Measles has a very high R0 of 12, requiring 90% immunity, which explains why anti-vaccination movements can imperil whole communities.

So it’s a trade-off. Physical distancing measures will reduce the possibility of herd immunity – the production of antibodies. Going back to business as usual will increase infection rates – ok for those who recover, not so much for those who don’t. The cost of the second option, most will agree, is just too great.

References

https://www.technologyreview.com/2020/04/08/998700/blood-plasma-taken-from-covid-19-survivors-might-help-patients-fight-it-off/

https://www.technologyreview.com/2020/03/17/905244/what-is-herd-immunity-and-can-it-stop-the-coronavirus/?itm_source=parsely-api

https://www.worldometers.info/coronavirus/

Bloomberg news interview: Dr Josh Sharfstein (video)

Written by stewart henderson

April 9, 2020 at 9:14 pm

My current health condition 3: nerves

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I’ve been to see a physiotherapist/sports medicine specialist, on the advice of a couple of people, and I’m happy with the result. It won’t mean an immediate cure, but the session has provided me with hope and a pathway to recovery.

Today and yesterday, the pain has been fairly minimal, after an excess of pain the day before. It seems to be about managing the medication.
So, to the physio. I described my situation in minute detail, describing as best I could the type of pain I felt, its sudden onset, how it responds to head movements and so forth. He very quickly conjectured that it was a nerve problem, which in fact had been my first intuition before I began researching the problem. He described the ‘queerness’ of nerve injury, or nerve impingement as it’s often termed – how damage in one place can be felt in another seemingly unrelated region. Interestingly, it was my description of how, since this condition has struck me, I’ve had difficulty moving my head back (this causing my shoulder pain to increase), and so not being able to gargle with mouthwash – which I do because of my bronchiectasis – it was this description which made him feel more certain that it was a nerve problem. He could be wrong but I think he’s right.

He did a lot of physical manipulation of the shoulder region and gave me advice. Keep up the medication, maintain activity of the shoulder and arm regions – not too much but not too little – and keep the area warm. He gave me some shoulder exercises to do, and assured me things would come good in time. I’ll revisit him next week.
Now, on this concept of impingement. It’s a term that comes up in the literature, and it was used by the physiotherapist today, so I asked him about it. He obliged by giving an explanation that was complex and difficult to follow, much like the material I’ve been reading online about the subject. So I’ll have a go at explaining it to myself.
Nerve impingement is one term among many (e.g pinched nerve, nerve compression, nerve entrapment), which indicates the trickiness of the condition and its description. In my case the suprascapular nerve is probably involved. As Wikipedia puts it ‘the nerve passes across the posterior triangle of the neck parallel to the inferior belly of the omohyoid muscle and deep to the trapezius muscle.’ I don’t know exactly what this means, but it seems to explain the pain at the back of my neck, left side, when I throw my head back.

The posterior triangle of the neck is a technical term with its own Wikipedia page. Here’s an image of it. As can be seen, it connects the omohyoid muscle and the massive trapezius which goes well down the back.
So nerve impingement/compression/entrapment is what it implies – something is impinging on the nerve, entrapping it, compressing it, pinching it. It could be bones, muscles, tendons, ligaments, cartilege, and that just about exhausts the possibilities. Carpal tunnel syndrome, for example, generally involves a pinched nerve in the wrist. The causes of course, are various. It could be a particular injury – but I can’t trace my own sudden onset to a particular injury (which doesn’t mean that no injury occurred) – or physical stress from repetitive work or sports activity, or some rheumatoid problem (which presumably would’ve shown up as some sign of inflammation, and I’ve never shown any signs of rheumatism) – or obesity.

The possibility that this was caused by lawn bowling remains real, if remote. Fascinatingly, when I told the physiotherapist that the only sports activity I’d taken up in recent times was lawn bowling, he asked me if I played at Walkerville – it turns out that he recognised me as he played in the competitions there too – out team had thrashed his only a few weeks ago! He agreed that bowling as a cause seemed unlikely – but being a bowler himself, he would say that, wouldn’t he?

But whatever the cause – and I won’t be bowling again for a while, if ever – the diagnosis and cure are the things, and it’s amazing what a seemingly effective diagnosis can do to calm the – nerves! I feel I can cope much better now, and I’ve had the humbling experience of knowing what severe pain is like. This is important as I’ve tended to be dismissive of the pain of others, with thoughts of ‘low pain threshold’ and ‘get over it’. So, it’s a lesson.

I’ll be returning to the physiotherapist next week, hopefully for the last time. His feeling was that just one more session would be enough, that if I simply followed the light exercise regime he suggested, things would come good. The pain has risen and fallen since then, but there’s been no relapse into anything agonising. I worked at Eynesbury yesterday, a relief day, but hopefully there won’t be any work for a while. In any case Covid-19 means we probably won’t be getting many, if any, students coming in from overseas over the next few months.

Of course, it’s not all back to normal, though I’ll try to get back to regular reading, writing and the like. Here’s a final quote from the Mayo Clinic on my situation:

If a nerve is pinched for only a short time, there’s usually no permanent damage. Once the pressure is relieved, nerve function returns to normal. However, if the pressure continues, chronic pain and permanent nerve damage can occur.

We’ll have to wait and see.

References

https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/pinched-nerve/symptoms-causes/syc-20354746

https://www.healthline.com/health/nerve-compression-syndrome

https://orthoinfo.aaos.org/en/diseases–conditions/cervical-radiculopathy-pinched-nerve/

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Suprascapular_nerve

Written by stewart henderson

March 18, 2020 at 2:02 pm

My current health condition 1: it’s bizarre

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I can bear any pain as long as it has meaning

Haruki Murakami

stuff to learn about

I haven’t written for a while because I have a new health problem which flared up last Saturday, February 29, 2020. I had been feeling mild pain in my shoulder and I was lying on my bed reading when I tried to get up. Shooting pain from my shoulder down my left arm was so excruciating that I fell back on the bed and and lay down for a while before trying to get up again. Again I couldn’t get up because of the pain. I called for help but even with two of us it was difficult. I may have had a panic attack and exaggerated the pain of rising – I was gasping a lot. To cut a long story short Sarah called an ambulance (and the paramedic got me into a sitting position easily enough). I spent the next few hours in emergency at the Royal Adelaide Hospital.

Due to being given Panadol in the ambulance, and a long wait in reception while the painkiller took effect, by the time the friendly, efficient and strikingly beautiful (oh dear) young intern saw me, the pain, my only symptom, had much reduced. She found that, yes, I could move my arm above my shoulder, flex my elbow and my wrist, and no, I couldn’t precisely describe the nature or location of the pain. She checked my arm for swelling or redness (none), and asked about any recent history of injury to the region (none). I was beginning to feel like a fraud, a malingerer, a milquetoast.

So after some more prodding and questioning and advice from higher authorities, I was released with a report for my local doctor.

I’m very left-handed, so this left arm pain is quite a problem for me. I was due to work on the Monday and I needed some pain relief. It would have to be over the counter at first. The report’s only solid conclusion was ‘skeletal-muscular pain’. Since I needed to work on Monday and Tuesday I could only get to the GP on Wednesday. So on Sunday I started doing what research I could. I’ve never taken regular medication for anything, and I’ve never experienced regular pain like this. The only over-the-counter treatments for pain are ibuprofen and paracetamol as far as I know. Only ibuprofens is an anti-inflammatory. Paracetamol works on pain centres in the brain. Which one would work best? Was it all in my mind? But don’t we always feel pain via the brain? Isn’t that how the nervous system works?

I obtained both medicines. Over the next day or so I experimented with both, singly and in combination, and I got through Monday and Tuesday’s work. The pain never went completely away, though the teaching days, when I had to concentrate on and interact with my students and other teachers, helped to distract me from it, which gave me that guilty ‘it’s all in the mind’ feeling.

Even so, on Wednesday (March 4), the pain came roaring back. My subjective sense told me that the paracetamol was much more effective than the ibuprofen, another surprise. I visited my GP, who smiled at the hospital report, saying, ‘yes, they wanted you out of there as soon as possible – they’re there for acute, intensive care stuff, it’s understandable – a GP can refer you to a specialist, and we can go from there’. So he filled out a referral form for St Andrews Hospital, for an x-ray and an ultrascan. I rang them and organised an appointment, for Friday, March 6 at 11am.

I was still in pain, though. The OTC medication had reduced the pain to more bearable levels, but I still hadn’t worked out which worked best. Unlike me, Sarah was on many medications, for pain and other problems, including Prodeine (paracetamol plus codeine) and a set of tablets which combined paracetamol and caffeine. I was taking the tabs at the upper level of what was recommended, and beyond. I was trying to monitor the pain, what it felt like. It was always a low-level throbbing, which increased and became a shooting pain if I used the arm too much. It was a strange delayed pain – I would engage in a flurry of physical activity, such as preparing a quick meal, and then lie down, knowing that the pain would rise up as a result of the activity, then slowly subside. I had difficulty sleeping, and I dreaded dressing myself in the morning. Typing this is giving me an ache, and I’m experimenting with dictation – I find the Apple dictation system a pain (mentally speaking). I have to learn more about how to use it effectively.

Stupidly, I hadn’t asked my GP about stronger prescription medication. The day after the consult (Thursday, March 5) I had Sarah ring the surgery – I was experiencing bouts of serious pain, and was finding it hard to track what medication was working, or not. The doctor wrote a prescription, which Sarah collected and had made out at the pharmacy around the corner. It was for ibuprofen (200mg) and codeine phosphate hemihydrate (12.8mg). I was skeptical about the efficacy of ibuprofen, and I had been researching anti-inflammatories, and inflammation generally.

What, exactly, is inflammation? There are, supposedly, five signs of it, remembered under the acronym PRISH – pain, redness, immobility, swelling and heat. My only symptom was pain. There was certainly no redness or swelling. Immobility wasn’t a real problem either. I could move my arm above the shoulder, I could flex my elbow, etc, but some pain would come afterwards. Heat wasn’t something I could measure, but it didn’t seem an issue. Only pain. And I hadn’t pinpointed any cause of all this. I remembered what I’d said, quite often (or at least I thought I did – maybe I was mostly saying it to myself) to the intern at emergency: ‘It’s bizarre!’

Anyway, I’ll wind up this piece, and start on a new one, dealing with my time at St Andrews Hospital, the x-ray and the ultrasound.

Written by stewart henderson

March 8, 2020 at 12:43 pm

coronavirus – a journey begins

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this is an electron micrograph of 2019-nCoV – ref JOHN NICHOLLS, LEO POON AND MALIK PEIRIS/THE UNIVERSITY OF HONG KONG. The cell is infected with the virus (the little black dots), which migrates to the cell surface and is released

Lots of information and disinformation around the recent outbreak of coronavirus, and my own occasional workplace, a college that teaches academic English to overseas, predominantly Chinese students, is naturally affected by the precautionary procedures and the possibly OTT concern.

This is a new strain of coronavirus, first detected late in 2019. It hasn’t been given a specific name, as far as I’m aware (apart from 2019-nCoV,  which I doubt will catch on) so lay people tend to think this is the one and only coronavirus, since most have never heard the term before. These viruses are zoonotic, transmitted between animals, from bats to humans. My interest is most personal, because when I read that the signs are ‘respiratory symptoms, fever, cough, shortness of breath and breathing difficulties’, I recognise my life over the past several years. I wouldn’t go as far as to say I have a fever, but all the other signs are just features of my life I’ve become inured to over time. I’m reluctant to even talk to people lest my voice catch in my throat and I have to give myself up to hideous throat-clearing, which I do scores of times a day. I’m also afraid to get too close as I assume my breath smells like rotten meat. I should probably wear a face mask at all times (hard to get one for love or money at this point). My condition has been diagnosed as bronchiectasis, possibly contracted in childhood, but I’m fairly sure it was exacerbated by a very severe bout of gastro-enteritis in the late eighties, which left me bed-ridden for several days, too weak to even get to the toilet. When I eventually recovered enough to drag myself to the doctor, she arranged for me to go to the hospital next door for blood tests. It was unspoken but obvious to me she thought I might have AIDS, which I knew was impossible given my non-existent sex life and drug habits. It seems to me, but I might be wrong, that my life of coughing, sniffling and raucus throat-clearing took off from that time.

All this by way of explaining why these types of illness catch my attention. WHO advice is for people to, inter alia, wash hands regularly, cook meat and eggs thoroughly, and keep clear of coughy-wheezy-sneezy people like me. 

Coronaviruses are RNA viruses with a long genome, longer than any other RNA virus. According to Sciencealert they’re so called because of the crown-shaped set of sugar-proteins ‘that projects from the envelope surrounding the particle’. This one is causing perhaps a larger panic than is warranted, when you compare its fatalities (and the numbers should be treated with skepticism at this stage) with those associated with regular flu season. Of course, the difference is that this coronavirus is largely unknown, in comparison to seasonal flu, and fear and wariness of the unknown is something naturally ‘programmed’ into us by evolution.  

There’s an awful lot to be said about this topic, biochemically, so I’ll write a number of posts about it. It’s not only of great interest to me personally, but of course it fits with my recent writings on DNA and its relations, including RNA of course, and to a lesser extent epigenetics. I’m becoming increasingly fascinated by biochemistry so it should be an enjoyable, informative journey – for me at least.

References

Cases of the new coronavirus hint at the disease’s severity, symptoms and spread

Updated: Your most urgent questions about the new coronavirus

https://www.who.int/health-topics/coronavirus

Written by stewart henderson

February 8, 2020 at 10:57 am

Posted in coronavirus, health, RNA, viruses

Tagged with , , ,

some thoughts on regression to the mean and what causes what

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Regression effects are ubiquitous, and so are misguided causal stories to explain them. Daniel Kahneman

Canto: So here’s an interesting thought, which in some ways is linked to the placebo effect and our attributing recovery from an illness to something we ate, drank or did, rather than to the silent and diligent work of our immune system. You know about the regression to the mean concept?

Jacinta: Of course. It’s a statistical phenomenon that we tend not to account for, because we’re always looking for or imagining causal effects when they don’t exist.

Canto: Well, they do exist but we attribute the wrong causal effects – we don’t account for ‘bad luck’, for example, which of course is caused, usually by factors we can’t easily uncover, so for convenience we give it that name. For example, a golfer might be said to have had an unlucky day with the putter because we observe that she she went incredibly close to dropping a number of difficult long putts, but none of them went in, so she made five over par instead of even. Of course every one of those failed putts was caused – one because her aim wasn’t quite true, another due to a tuft of grass, another because of a last moment gust of wind and so on… 

Jacinta: And some of those causes might be deemed unlucky, because on a less windy day, or with a better maintained green, those putts might’ve gone in.

Canto: Okay okay, there is such a thing as luck. But luck, I mean real luck, like the effect of a sudden gust of wind that nobody could’ve factored in, tends to even itself out, which is part of regression to the mean. But let me get back to illness. Take an everyday illness, like a cold, a mouth ulcer (which I suffered from recently)…

Jacinta: Or a bout of food poisoning, which I suffered from recently…

Canto: Yes, something from which we tend to recover after a few days. So the pattern of the illness goes something like this – Day 1, we’re fine. Day 2, we feel a bit off-colour. Day 3 we definitely feel much worse. Day 4, much the same. Day 5, starting to feel better. Day 6, definitely a lot better. Day 7, we’re fine. So it follows a nice little bit of a sine wave – two peaks and a trough – as shown above. 

Jacinta: So you’re saying that getting back up to the peak again is regression to the mean?

Canto: Well, sort of, but you’re getting ahead of me. Maybe it isn’t precisely, because a mean is the midpoint in a fluctuation between two extremes. Sort of. Anyway, let me explain. When you’re ill, you can choose to ride it out, or you can go to a doctor, or take some sort of medication, or some concoction recommended by a friend, or a reflexologist, whatever. But here’s the thing. You’re not likely to go to the doctor/acupuncturist/magus on day 2, when you’re just starting to feel queasy, you’re much more likely to go when you’re at the bottom of the trough, and then you’ll attribute your recovery to whatever treatment you’ve received, when it’s really more about regression to the mean. Sort of.

Jacinta: Hmmm. I agree that we’re unlikely to rush to the doctor or even the medicine cabinet when we’re just feeling a bit queasy, but that’s probably because experience tells us we’ll feel better soon – that maybe we’re already at the bottom of a little trough. But when we start going into a deeper trough, naturally we start getting worried – maybe it’s pneumonia, or tuberculosis…

Canto: Or diphtheria, malaria, typhoid, cholera, bubonic plague, acute myeloid leukaemia….

Jacinta: Don’t mock, I’ve had all of those. But it’s interesting to think of illness and wellness in this wave form. I’m not sure if it works as regression to the mean. Because wellness is just, well, feeling well. Feeling ‘normal’ or okay. We don’t tend to feel super-well – do we?

Canto: You mean you don’t believe in biorhythms? So you think the line pattern would be like, a straight horizontal one with a few little and big troughs here and there, and then finally off the cliff and straight down to death?

Jacinta: Well, no, isn’t it a slow decline into second childhood and mere oblivion – sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything?

Canto: Haha well not so much with modern medicine – though my hearing’s starting to go. But one of them-there invisible implants should fix that, at a price. But you’re probably right – what we call wellness at sixty is a lot different from the wellness we felt at twenty, but we’re probably lucky we can’t feel our way back to that twenty-something feeling. But getting back to the case of the person who applies a treatment and then gets better, there are, I suppose, three scenarios. The treatment caused the improvement, the treatment had no effect (the person improved for other reasons – such as our super-amazing immune system), or the treatment actually had a detrimental effect, but the person got better anyway, probably due to our wondrous immune system.

Jacinta: So that’s where the placebo idea comes in. And our tendency to over-determine for causality. You mention something like a cold, which is generally a viral infection, and mostly rhinoviral. The symptoms, like a runny nose and a sore throat, are actually caused by a mixture of the virus itself and the immune system fighting it, but mostly the latter….

Canto: Yeah, is that about antigens, or antibodies, I always get confused…

Jacinta: Well, it’s very very complicated, with T cells, immunoglobulin and whatnot, but essentially antigens are the baddies which trigger an antibody response, so antibodies are the goodies. So, if someone has a cold then unless they know their immune system is compromised in some way, the best thing is to let their immune system do its job, which might cause a few days’ discomfort, like extra phlegm production as the system, the antibodies or whatever, attempts to expel the invaders.

Canto: Yes, but the immune system is invisible to us, and is vastly under-estimated by many people, who tend to like to see something, like a big bright red pill, or a reflexology foot massage, or a bunch of needles needling their chi energy points, or unblocking their chakras…

Jacinta: Can they see their chakras?

Canto: No, but the magus can, with his various chakra-probing methods, and aural and oratorical senses developed over a lifetime – that’s why he’s a magus, dummy.

Jacinta: Yeah, and I’m sure we can all feel when our chakras are unblocked. It’s sort of like body plumbing.

Canto: So, getting back to reality, there is definitely something like this regression to the mean, to our own individual ‘normal’, but maybe ever-declining physical and mental state, that our wonderful immune system helps us to maintain, a system we rely on more than we realise….

Jacinta: Yes, but you know, it’s good that we don’t realise it so much, because think of all the acupuncturists, Alexander technicians, anthroposophicalists, antipharmaceuticalists, aromatherapists, auriculotherapists and ayurvedicists whose jobs might be on the line – and that’s just the A’s! Then we have the baineotherapist, the bead therapists and the bowen therapists, not to mention the chakra scalpel weaponmasters… can you imagine all those folk not being able to make a living?

Canto: Okay, that’s enough. It truly is a sad thing to think upon, but never fear, your horror scenario will never eventuate, my faith in human nature tells me….

The statin controversy

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Never edit your own writing! Brian J Ford.

one thing thing you can be sure of – this claim (posted by a British chiropractor) is meaningless bullshit

I read Ben Goldacre’s quite demanding book Bad pharma some years ago, and that’s where I learned about statins, but I don’t recall much. I do recall that, not long after I read the book, I was at a skeptics meet-up when Dr Goldacre’s name came up. The man next to me started literally spitting chips at the mention – he was eating a massive bowl of chips and was grossly overweight (not that I’m assuming anything from this – just saying, haha). He roolly didn’t like Dr Goldacre. What went through my head was – some people may be really invested in having a magic pill that allows them to live forever and a day no matter what their diet or lifestyle.

I’ve just discovered that Goldacre has a new book out, entirely on this topic, which I intend to read, but my current decision to explore the issue is based on listening to Dr Maryanne Demasi’s talk, ‘statin wars – have we been misled by the evidence?’, available on YouTube. I very much recall the massive Catalyst controversy a few years ago, when a two-part special they did on statins led finally to the demise of the program. Without knowing any details, I thought this was a bit OTT, but when I heard Dr Norman Swann, a valued health professional and presenter of the ABC’s Health report, railing about the irresponsibility of the statin special, I frankly didn’t know what to think.

So statins are lipid-lowering medications that come in various flavours, including atorvastatin, fluvastatin, lovastatin and rosuvastatin. Lipitor, a brand name for atorvastatin manufactured by Pfizer, is the most profitable drug in the history of medicine. I’ve never taken statins myself, and I’m starting this piece as a more or less total beginner on the topic. I’ve read the Wikipedia entry on statins, which is quite comprehensive, with a very long reference list. Of course it’s not entirely comprehensible to a lay person, but that’s not a criticism – immunobiology and related research fields are complex. It’s also clearly pro-statin. It includes this interesting sentence:

 A systematic review co-authored by Ben Goldacre concluded that only a small fraction of side effects reported by people on statins are actually attributable to the statin.[63]

It’s interesting that Goldacre, and nobody else, is mentioned here as a co-author. It makes me wonder…

My only quibble, as a lay person, is that the positive effects of these statins, and their relatively few side-effects, seems almost too good to be true. I speak, admittedly, as a person who’s always been ultra-skeptical of ‘magic bullets’.

Which brings me to issues raised in Dr Demasi’s talk, and not addressed in the Wikipedia article. They include the idea, promoted by an ‘influential group’, that statin use should be prescribed for everyone over 50, regardless of cholesterol levels. Children with high cholesterol levels are being screened for statin use and Pfizer has apparently designed fruit-flavoured statis for use by children and adolescents. Others have suggested using statins as condiments in fast-food burgers, and even adding statins to the public water supply. It’s easy to see how such ‘innovations’ involve making scads of money, but this isn’t to deny that statins are effective in many if not most instances, and we should undoubtedly celebrate the work of the Japanese biochemist Akiro Endo, who pioneered the work on enzyme inhibitors that led to the discovery of mevastatin, produced by the fungus Penicillium citrinum.

But Demasi made some other interesting points, firstly about how drug companies like Pfizer might seek to maximise their profits. One obvious way is to widen the market – for example by lobbying for a lowering of the standard level of cholesterol in the blood considered dangerous. From the early 2000s in the US, ‘high cholesterol’ was officially shifted down from as high as 6.5 down to below 5, moving vast numbers of people onto having a ‘need’ for these cholesterol-lowering drugs. Demasi points out that this lowering wasn’t based on any new science, and that the body responsible for these decisions, the National Cholesterol Education Program (NCEP), was loaded with people with financial ties to the statin industry. To be fair, though, one might expect that doctors and specialists concerned with cholesterol to be invested, financially or otherwise, in ways of lowering it. They might also have felt, for purely scientific reasons, that the level of cholesterol considered dangerous was long overdue for adjustment.

Another change occurred in 2013 when two major heart health associations in the US decided to abandon a single number in terms of risk factors for heart disease/failure. Instead they looked at cholesterol, blood pressure, weight, diabetes and other factors to calculate ‘percentage risk’ of cardiovascular problems. They evaluated this risk so that if it was over 7.5% in the next 10 years, you should be prescribed a statin. A similar percentage risk system was used in the UK, but the statin prescription started at 20%. Why the huge discrepancy? Six months later, the Brits brought their threshold down to 10%. The US change brought almost 13 million people, mostly elderly, onto the radar for immediate statin prescription. The method of calculation in the US was independently analysed, and it was found that they over-estimated the risk, sometimes by over 100%. Erring on the side of caution? Or was there a lot of self-interest involved? It could fairly be a combination. The term for all this is ‘statinisation’, apparently. It’s attributed to John Ioannidis, a Stanford professor of medicine and a noted ‘scourge of sloppy science’. If you look up statinisation, you’ll find a storm of online articles of varying quality and temper on the issue – though most, I notice, are five years old or more. I’m not sure what that signifies, but I will say that, while we’ll always get the anti-science crowd baying against big pharma, vaccinations and GM poison, there’s a clear issue here about vested interests, and the need to, as Demasi says, ‘follow the money’.

This brings up the issue of how trials of these drugs are conducted, who pays for them, and who reviews them. According to Demasi, the vast majority of statin trials are funded by manufacturers. Clearly this is a vested interest, so trial results would need to be independently verified. But, again according to Demasi (and others such as Ioannidis and Peter Gotzsche, founder of the nordic Cochrane Collaboration) this is not happening, and ‘the raw data on statin side-effects has never been released to the public’ (Demasi, 2018). This data is held by the Cholesterol Treatment Triallists’ (CTT) collaboration, under the Clinical Trial Service Unit (CTSU) at Oxford Uni. According to Demasi, who takes a dim view of the CTT collaboration, they regularly release meta-analyses of data on statins which advocate for a widening of their use, and they’ve signed agreements with drug companies to prevent independent examination of research findings. All of this is described as egregious, which might seem fair enough, but Elizabeth Finkel, in a long-form article for Cosmos magazine in December 2014, takes a different view:

.. [the CTT] are a collaboration of academics and they do have access to the raw data. It is true that they do not share that data outside their collaboration and are criticised by other researchers who would like to be able to check their calculations. But the trialists fear mischief, especially from drug companies seeking to discredit the data of their rivals or from other people with vested interests. Explains [Professor Anthony] Keech, “the problem with ad hoc analyses are that they can use methods to produce a particular result. The most reliable analyses are the ones done using the methods we published in 1995. The rules were set out before we started.” And he points out these analyses are cross-checked by the academic collaborators: “Everything is replicated.”

As a regular reader of Cosmos I’m familiar with Finkel’s writings and find her eminently reliable, which of course leaves me more nonplussed than ever. I’m particularly disturbed that anyone would seriously claim that everyone over fifty (and will it be over forty in the future?) should be on these medications. I’m 63 and I take no medications at all, which I find a great relief, especially when I look at others my age who have mini-pharmacies in their homes. But then I’m one of those males who doesn’t visit doctors much and I have little idea about my cholesterol levels (well yes, they’ve been checked and doctors haven’t raised them to me as an issue). When you get examined, they usually find something wrong….

In her talk, Demasi made a comparison with the research on Tamiflu a few years ago, when Cochrane Collaboration researchers lobbied hard to be allowed to review trial data, and it was finally revealed, apparently, that it was certainly not as effective and side-effect free as its makers, Roche, claimed it to be. The jury is still out on Tamiflu, apparently. Whether it’s fair to compare the Tamiflu issue with the statin issue is a matter I can’t really adjudicate on, but if Finkel is to be believed, the CTT data is more solid.

There’s also an issue about more side effects being complained of by general users of statins – complaints made to their doctors – than side effects found in trials. This has already been referred to above, and is also described in Finkel’s article. Many of these complaints of side-effects haven’t been able to be sheeted home to statins, which suggests there’s possibly/probably a nocebo effect at play here. But Demasi suggests something more disturbing – that many subjects are eliminated from trials during a run-in period precisely because the drug disagrees with them, and so the trial proper begins only when many people suffering from side-effects are excluded. She also notes, I think effectively, that there is a lot of play with statistics in the advertising of statins (and other drugs of course) – for example a study which found that the risk of having a heart attack on statins was about 2% compared to 3% on placebos was being advertised as proving that your heart-attack risk on statins is reduced by a third. This appears to be dodgy – the absolute percentage difference is very small, and how is risk actually assessed? By the number of actual heart attacks over period x? I don’t know. And how many subjects were in the study? Were there other side-effects? But of course we shouldn’t judge the value of statins by advertising guff.

Another interesting attack on those expressing doubts about the mass prescription of statins has been to call them grossly irresponsible and even murderers. This seems strange to me. Of course doctors should be all about saving lives, but they should first of all be looking at prevention before cure as the best way of saving lives. Exercise (mental and physical) really is a great form of medicine, though of course not a cure-all, and diet comes second after exercise. Why the rush to medicalise? And none of the writers and clinicians supporting statins are willing to mention the financial bonanza accruing to their manufacturers and those who invest in them. Skepticism is the lifeblood of science, and the cheerleaders for statins should be willing to accept that.

Having said that, consider all the life-saving medications and procedures that have preceded statins, from antibiotics to vaccines to all the procedures that have made childbirth vastly safer for women – who cares now about the pharmaceutical and other companies and patentees who’ve made their fortunes from them? They’re surely more deserving of their wealth than the Donnie Trumps of the world.

So, that’s my initial foray into statins, and I’m sure the story has a way to go. In my next post I want to look at how statins work. I’ve read a couple of pieces on the subject, and they’ve made my head hurt, so in order to prevent Alzheimer’s I’m going to try an explanation in my own words – to teach myself. George Bernard Shaw wrote ‘those who can, do, those who can’t teach (it’s in Man and Superman). It’s one of those irritating memes, but I prefer the idea that people teach to learn, and learn to teach. That’s why I love teaching, and learning…

By the way, the quote at the top of this post seems irrelevant, but I keep meaning to begin my posts with quotes (it looks cool), so I’m starting now. To explain the quote – it was from a semi-rant by Ford in his introduction to the controversial dinosaur book Too big to walk (I’ve just started reading it), about writers not getting their work edited, peer reviewed and the like, and being proud or happy about this situation. This, he argues, helps account for all the rubbish on the net. It tickled me. I, of course, have no editor. It’s hard enough getting readers, let alone anyone willing to trawl through my dribblings for faults of fact or expression. Of course, I’m acutely aware of this, being at least as aware of my ignorance as Socrates, so I’ve tried to highlight my dilettantism and my indebtedness to others. I’m only here to learn. So Mr Ford, guilty as charged.

References

Dr Maryanne Demasi – Statin wars: Have we been misled by the evidence?

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Statin

https://cosmosmagazine.com/society/will-statin-day-really-keep-doctor-away

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Ioannidis

https://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/what-is-the-nocebo-effect-5451823/

http://www.center4research.org/tamiflu-not-tamiflu/

Written by stewart henderson

September 9, 2019 at 9:44 pm

bronchiectasis once more – resistance, viruses, treatment

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Having fallen ill again, for the first time really in a few years, with debilitating dry coughing, breathing problems and fatigue, and having had no great relief from a first course of broad-spectrum antibiotics, I think it’s a good time to review the condition I suffer from – bronchiectasis.

I’ve tried to put it in the back of mind and have been mostly successful, except now and then to marvel that it hasn’t come roaring back for a year, then two years, then three years. Still, I’ve never quite gotten rid of a niggling cough, and every time I have a sneezing fit my mind turns, however briefly to what might finally await me…

Bronchiectasis literally means ‘widened or widening airways’. The airways leading to the lungs have become permanently distended and develop ‘cul de sacs’ in which bacteria gather as in a stagnant backwater. The increased bacterial load means that those with the condition are easier prey for bacterial and viral pathogens. The causes of this condition are various, including genetic conditions such as cystic fibrosis, or a general immunodeficiency. In my case it was most likely an early childhood infection, the cause in about a third of all adult cases. The sad thing is that with each new flare-up the damage to the airways is increased, the condition worsens, and there’s no cure, but it can be contained through specific exercises designed to clear the airways, postural drainage and other techniques. Above all (he adonishes himself) always get regular flu and pneumococcal jabs. I was diagnosed with this condition about four and a half years ago, but I think I’ve been suffering from it for much longer. Like many stupid men I’ve tended not to go to the doctor till I’m at death’s door. I’ve improved a little in that area in recent years, but not enough.

The recent flare-up has been traced to a relatively common virus, called respiratory syncytial virus (RSV). My doctor sent me for a virology swab after my second visit. On my first visit I presented with my severe cough, and I explained my bronchiectasis, which he knew something about as I’d had my records transferred to him from a previous establishment. Although I expressed concern about antibiotics, having experienced what I presumed to be resistance to erythromycin previously, I was prescribed a broad-spectrum antibiotic called roxithromycin GH. Desperately wanting to get rid of this debilitating and spirit-weakening cough, I got the set of ten tablets – a five-day dose – together with a repeat dosage. I’m currently two tablets away from finishing the repeat. It was also recommended that I get a bottle of Bisolvon®, which ‘thins, loosens, clears mucus from the chest’ and ‘helps clear stubborn chest congestion’.

This first consultation was on a Friday. I was contracted for a two-day work week at Eynesbury College starting the following Thursday, and I really wanted to be fit by then. However, by Monday-Tuesday I was worried. The antibiotics, I felt, had been initially successful but then my condition seemed to deteriorate. On Wednesday I had my second consultation. I explained my amateur theory that the antibiotics had an immediate impact, but then the resistant strain of the bacteria continued to multiply, took over the territory of the non-resistants, and the illness came sweeping back. Classic evolution, in a sense: from random variation the environment of my body selects the stronger, resistant strain. The doctor agreed, or said he did, but pointed out that the problem was that my infection was probably viral rather than bacterial. In my enthusiasm for my own cleverness I hadn’t thought of this. And this probably explained the ineffectiveness of the erithromycin in the past. Maybe I’m not resistant at all.

So I was sent to the nearest Clinical Labs testing centre for a swab. I was also advised to continue with the antibiotics. The swab is applied by means of a long needle-like instrument wrapped in something like cotton wool at one end. This material is soaked in a virus-detecting solution and inserted fairly deeply into the nasal cavity. I visited the testing centre more or less immediately after the consultation, and received word the next day that the results were out. On Friday, I think, I attended my third consultation and was given the read-out. Ten viruses tested for were presented, including influenza A and B, and types 1 to 4 paraainfluenza, all undetected. The other undetected viruses were adenovirus, rhinovirus and metapneumovirus. RSV, an RNA virus (as are most viruses), was the only one detected.

So, progress has been made, and I was prescribed one more medication, a Turbuhaler® called Symbicort®, often used for symptomatic treatment of asthma. Instructions are to inhale two doses a day of the oral powder, which consists of budesonide and eformoterol fumarate dihydrate. There are 120 doses in my inhaler.

Budesonide is a corticosteroid, commonly used in this inhaled form for long-term treatment or management of asthma and COPD. It’s been around for a while, having been patented in 1973, and in commercial use as an asthma medication since 1981. It’s also on the WHO list of essential medicines. According to Wikipedia, ‘common side effects with the inhaled form include respiratory infections, cough, and headaches’, and at the moment I have a headache, and have suffered from severe coughing fits.  I’m also producing quite a lot of mostly clear mucus, through the nose. I’ve attributed these symptoms to the virus, not the medication, but who knows?

Eformoterol is a more recent addition to the arsenal of anti-asthma type medications. This 1997 article in Australian Prescriber describes it as ‘a long-acting beta2 adrenoceptor agonist’ – a type of beta-blocker. Here’s some further interesting info from this site:

After inhalation of eformoterol powder, bronchodilatation begins within 3 minutes. This effect lasts for 12 hours with a peak effect within two hours of inhalation. These properties make eformoterol suitable for twice daily inhalation in patients who require regular, long-term treatment of reversible airways obstruction. It is not recommended for use in acute asthma. Patients should have a short-acting agonist, such as salbutamol, available to help deal with acute attacks.

Unfortunately my airways problems aren’t reversible, though particular obstructions and their causes may be treated effectively.

So what I have in my little Turbuhaler is a combo of a corticosteroid and a long-acting betaagonist (i.e. a bronchodilator). According to Wikipedia ‘combinations of inhaled steroids and long-acting bronchodilators are becoming more widespread’.

It doesn’t seem as if there’s much I can do but wait for my condition to slowly improve. It’s been nine days since my first consultation, and I’ll be revisiting my doctor in a day or two. Mucus still flows freely and the distinctive, whistling wheeze I developed about a week ago is still present (I’ve never experienced this before). Physical exertion quickly makes me exhausted, but I’m hoping I can soon be sufficiently recovered to consider specific exercises to improve my condition and support me against further setbacks. Don’t want to end up slowly drowning in my own phlegm.

Written by stewart henderson

July 30, 2018 at 3:13 pm

what to do with a serious problem like Trump: part one

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When I first encountered Trump, I suppose a couple of decades ago now, I quickly felt an intense, visceral loathing and disgust. He struck me as tasteless, vulgar, ignorant, vain, an exemplar of the absence of all humane values. A boorish, blustering, bigoted, bragging blundering, bullying, bullshitting buffoon, not to put too fine a point on it. And then, when those he demeaned and belittled began acting as if they deserved it, I began to wonder – who is worthy of more contempt, Trump, or those who take him seriously for more than a second? How could anyone with an ounce of sense not see that he was a walking advertisement for abortion?

But then, when you start thinking everyone’s a fuckwit except yourself, you know something’s going wrong. Okay, you do start listening around and find that in many circles Trump’s a laughing-stock. But then he’s somehow super-rich, and people like to hob-nob and ingratiate themselves with the super-rich no matter how obnoxious and boring they are.

So why was Trump super-rich? I have to say that, having lived mostly below the poverty line in one of the world’s richest countries (that’s to say I’ve rarely come close to going hungry), I’ve never really associated with rich people, never mind the super-rich. They’re like alien beings to me. But it stands to reason that there are two types of super-rich people; those who inherited wealth, or those who gained it by their own talents and efforts – legitimate or illegitimate.

So which of these was Trump? He struck me as flamboyantly imbecilic, far removed from the Bill Gates and Steve Jobs types. And I have to say it wasn’t a burning question for me. Naturally I was far too superior to concern myself with such riff-raff, and yet…

Information fell into my lap over the years. He’d inherited oodles of wealth from his father, a ‘business tycoon’. He’d never done a day’s work, in the general sense, in his life. He’d been bankrupted many times. His net worth was anything from negative infinity to positive infinity. His principal business was real estate, which was as hazy to me as scalar field theory. But his principal interest was self-promotion, which I felt a bit more cluey about. It seemed he was little more than a ‘big noise’.

So that was it, until he began to run for President, and shocked almost all pundits, including this pseudo-pundit, by winning quite well on an electoral college basis, though losing the popular vote.

Of course during the run-up to these ludicrously long US presidential elections, especially in the final months of 2016, we were pretty well forced to learn more about Trump than many of us ever wanted to know, and it’s been an ongoing ‘reveal’ throughout the last eighteen months or so. But I return to my initial response to Trump, and my feelings of contempt, and easy superiority.

How did Trump become what he is? How did I become what I am?

How free are we to form ourselves?

I think the answer is clear, though clearer when we look at others than when we look at ourselves. We didn’t get to choose our parents, our genes or our upbringing, we didn’t get to choose or influence our experience in the womb and in our earliest formative years, which the Dunedin study, inter alia, reveals as more character-forming than any other period in our lives.

More questionably I didn’t get to choose a character that loathes someone like Trump, any more than Sean Hannity and many others got to choose a character that finds Trump appealing, refreshing and admirable, assuming that I’m reading more or less accurately Hannity’s mind.

So am I saying we’re all blameless when it comes to our flaws, and unpraiseworthy when it comes to our virtues? Further, am I saying that moral judgment is inappropriate?

I hope not. After all, humans are the most social of all creatures – vertebrate creatures at least. We’re interested in getting along, in minimising harm and maximising advantage, for us all. We shouldn’t turn a blind eye to any person, or policy, or activity, that threatens that well-being. So we should discourage, and sometimes punish behaviour that harms or demeans others, while at the same time recognising that the bully or aggressor is acting under the sway of traits she has less control over than we might think.

So we should judge behaviour as immoral when it damages others or damages the institutions or activities that tend towards the general well-being. And we should check or punish those who commit those faux pas, which we might call crimes, misdemeanours, or bad behaviour, to the extent that they understand that resistance of the general will is futile – that’s to say, that continual commission of those faux pas will be counter-productive to their own well-being.

Let me return then to the case of Trump. In watching and listening to him, I find him, as President, consistent with the person I loathed decades before, though I also realise, as I did then, that there is something unfair and slightly unseemly about my contempt, for reasons described above. Trump is the product of a background and influences which are clearly far removed from mine. I was also, like many, somewhat fascinated by him as a specimen who revealed, more effectively than most, how infinitely variable human experience and character can be.

However, though I recognise that he is what he is and can’t help but be, I’m also alert and alarmed that he is now the President of the USA – a shocking development, considering the man’s character.

For, though nobody should be blamed for his own character, there are some characters that the general society needs to be protected from, because of the damage they are capable of doing, or incapable of not doing, given certain powers and opportunities.

Trump came to his current position with a reputation which, I feel, was deserved, given everything I observed of him, and everything I learned. That reputation was one of dishonesty, self-aggrandisement, wilful ignorance and anti-intellectualism, and indifference to the feeling and suffering of others, with possibly a few exceptions, and leaving aside his children, whom he would see as extensions of himself to a large degree.

There are some characters who are so pathological, so damaging to themselves and/or others that society needs to be protected from them, unless of course their pathology can be identified, treated and cured. In the case of Trump, the terms psychopath, sociopath, malignant narcissism and narcissistic personality disorder have been given an airing. It’s surely not coincidental that these claims about Trump have been much more frequent since he has become President. His power to damage the wider society is at its zenith.

When I first heard the term narcissistic personality disorder directed at Trump, it was in a discussion with a mental health professional, early in the Presidency. That professional was critical, even angry, that the term was used to describe Trump, because, he felt, this term described a real and debilitating pathological condition which was far too serious to be used for political purposes against Trump. His words gave me pause, but now I think it’s time to look at this matter more closely.

First, before actually looking more closely at the ‘mental disability’ terms described above, I should say this. As Stormy Daniels’ impressive attorney Michael Avenatti has said, Trump’s behaviour, especially his constant self-promoting and self-protecting lies, should concern all Americans regardless of their political persuasion. Trump’s behaviour in office is essentially not a political issue, in spite of its massive political consequences. One pundit recently described Trump as a ‘lifelong Democrat’ before switching to the Republican party a few years ago. It’s my contention however that Trump was never a Democrat and has never been a Republican. He has never been interested in politics in the usual sense – that of believing in and promoting policies and practices for the most effective running of a state. He has little interest in or knowledge of political history, political philosophy or international affairs, and no knowledge whatever of science, or history in general. He doesn’t read or have anything like an enquiring mind. He has expressed very little compassion for others, except when it may benefit himself, and his concept of truth is not something that anybody seems to be capable of recognising or describing.

This description of Trump is not a political one. It’s a description which most sensible people would broadly agree with. It’s a description of a person so singularly ill-equipped to be the President of the world’s most powerful military and economy, that the question of how he came to be in that position and how he can be removed from it before further damage can be done, should be paramount.

Before I go on, I should address those outliers who say that Trump has been a successful and impressive President. They would cite the booming economy and the administration’s tax legislation, the only major piece of legislation enacted thus far. On the tax legislation, I will not consider its fairness or unfairness, or the effect it has had on the US economy. I will simply say that Trump recently claimed more or less sole responsibility for this legislation, a claim that was demonstrably false. Trump did not participate in the writing of this legislation, and he most certainly hasn’t read it. He simply presided over a Republican congressional majority responsible for its production. As to the US economy, that is a massively complex area, full of winners and losers, which, of course, I’m not competent to comment on, any more than Trump would be. Suffice to say that the reasons for an economy’s success are manifold and generally historical.

So there is a problem with Trump as President. In my next post I will go into more detail about what the problem is, and why there is no easy solution.

Written by stewart henderson

May 5, 2018 at 11:33 am

Why science?

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why is it so?

Ever since I was a kid I was an avid reader. It was my escape from a difficult family situation and a hatred or fear of most of my teachers. I became something of a quiet rebel, rarely reading what I was supposed to read but always trying to bite off more than I could chew in terms of literature, history, and occasionally science. I did find, though, that I could chew almost anything – especially in literature and history. And I loved the taste. Science, though, was different. It certainly didn’t come naturally to me. I didn’t know any science buffs and in fact I had no mentors for any of my reading activities. We did have encyclopaedias, though, and my random reading turned up the likes of Einstein, Newton, Darwin, Pasteur and other Big Names in science. Of course I was more interested in their bios than in the nature of their exotic researches, but in my idealised view they seemed very pure in their quest for greater understanding of the material world. I sometimes wished I could be like them but mostly I just dived into ‘literature’, a more comfortable world in which ordinary lives were anatomised by high-brow authors like Austen, Eliot and James (I had a fetish for 19th century lit in my teens). I took silent pride in my critical understanding of these texts, it surely set me above my classmates, though I remember one day walking home with one of the smartest kids in my class, who regaled me with his exploration of the electronics of a transistor radio he was pulling apart at home. I remember trying to listen, half ashamed of my ignorance, half hoping to change the subject to something I could sound off about.

Later, having dropped out of my much-loathed school, I started hanging out, or trying to, with other school drop-outs in my working-class neighbourhood. I didn’t fit in with them to say the least, but the situation worsened when they began tinkering with or talking about cars, which held no interest for me. I was annoyed and impressed at how articulate they were about carbies, distributors and camshafts, and wondered if I was somehow wasting my life.

Into my twenties, living la vie boheme in punk-fashionable poverty among art students and amateur philosophers, I read and was definitely intrigued by Alan Chalmers’ unlikely best-seller What is this thing called science? It sparked a brief interest in the philosophy of science rather than science itself, but interestingly it was a novel that really set me to reading and trying to get my head around science – a big topic! – on a more or less daily basis. I was about 25 when I read Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain, in which Hans Castorp, a young man of about my age at the time, was sent off to an alpine sanatorium to be cured of tuberculosis. Thus began a great intellectual adventure, but it was the scientific explorations that most spoke to me. Wrapped up in his loggia, reading various scientific texts, Castorp took the reader on a wondering tour of the origin of life, and of matter itself, and it struck me that these were the key questions – if you want to understand yourself, you need to understand humanity, and if you want to understand humanity you need to understand life itself, and if you want to understand life, you need to understand the matter that life is organised from, and if you need to understand matter…

I made a decision to inform myself about science in general, via the monthly magazine, Scientific American, where I learned at least something about oncogenes, neutrinos and the coming AIDS epidemic, inter alia. I read my first wholly scientific book, Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene, and, as I was still living la vie boheme, I enjoyed the occasional lively argument with housemates or pub philosophers about the Nature of the Universe and related topics. In the years since I’ve read and half-digested books on astronomy, cosmology, palaeontology and of course the history of science in general. I’ve read The origin of species, Darwin’s Voyage of the Beagle and at least four biographies of Darwin, including the monumental biography by Adrian Desmond and James Moore. I’ve also read a biography of Alfred Russell Wallace, and more recently, Siddhartha Mukherjee’s The Gene, which traces the search for the cause of the random variation essential to the Darwin-Wallace theory. And I still read science magazines like Cosmos on a more or less daily basis.

These readings have afforded me some of the greatest pleasures of my life, which would, I suppose, be enough to justify them. But I should try to answer the why question. Why is science so thrilling? The answer, I hope, is obvious. It isn’t science that’s thrilling, it’s our world. I’m not a science geek, it doesn’t come easily to me. When, for example, a tech-head explains how an electronic circuit works, I have to watch the video many times over, look up terms, refer to related videos, etc, in order to fix it in my head, and then, like most people, I forget the vast majority of what I read, watch or listen to. But what keeps me going is a fascination for the world – and the questions raised. How did the Earth form? Where did the water come from? How is it that matter is electrical, full of charge? How did language evolve? How has our Earth’s atmosphere evolved? How are we related to bananas, fruit flies, australopithecines and bats? How does our microbiome relate to obesity? What can we expect from CRISPR/Cas9 editing technology? What’s the future for autonomous vehicles, brain-controlled drones and new-era smart phones?

This all might sound like gaga adolescent optimism, but I’m only cautiously optimistic, or maybe not optimistic at all, just fascinated about what might happen, on the upside and the downside. And I’m endlessly impressed by human ingenuity in discovering new things and using those discoveries in innovative ways. I’m also fascinated, in a less positive way, by the anti-scientific tendencies of conspiracy theorists, religionists, new-agers and those who identify with and seem trapped by ‘heavy culture’. Podcasts such as The Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe, Skeptoid and Australia’s The Skeptic Zone, as well as various science-based blogs like Why Evolution is True and Skeptical Science are fighting a seemingly never-ending fight against the misinformation churned out by passionate supporters of fixed non-evidence-based positions. But spending too much time arguing with such types does your head in, and I prefer trying to accentuate the positive than trying to eliminate the negative.

And on that positive side, exciting things are always happening, whether it’s battery technology, cancer research, exoplanetary discoveries, robotics or brain implants, more developments are occurring than any one person can keep abreast of.

So I’ll end with some positive and reassuring remarks about science. It’s not some esoteric activity to be suspicious of, but neither is it something easily definable. It’s not a search for the truth, it’s more a search for the best, most comprehensive, most consistent and productive explanation for phenomena. I don’t believe there’s such a thing as the scientific method – the methods of Einstein can’t easily be compared with those of Darwin. Methods necessarily differ with the often vast differences between the phenomena under investigation. Conspiracy theories such as the moon landings ‘hoax’ or the climate science ‘fraud’ would require that scientists and their ancillaries are incredibly disciplined, virtually robotic collaborators in sinister plots, rather than normal, questing, competitive, collaborative, inspired and inspiring individuals, struggling desperately to make sense and make breakthroughs. In the field of human health, scientists are faced with explaining the most complex organism we know of – the human body with its often perverse human mind. It’s not at all surprising that pseudo-science and quackery is so common in this field, in which everyone wants to live and thrive as long as possible. But we need to be aware that with such complexity we will encounter many false hopes and only partial solutions. The overall story, though, is positive – we’re living longer and healthier, in statistical terms, than ever before. The past, for the most part, is another country which we might like to briefly visit, but we wouldn’t want to live there. And science is largely to be thanked for that. So, why not science? The alternatives do nothing for me.

The SGU team – science nerds fighting the good fight

Written by stewart henderson

October 7, 2017 at 6:18 am