Wednesday, May 09, 2012

Three Theories

Interesting theories show up all the time.  They seem plausible to us, or not, largely because they fit with other ideas we have.  They are toys, and we play with them.  Sometimes playing with toys can lead to great new advances in thought.  It is largely because people like playing with ideas that we have advances in thought. 

Still, most of it is still just play, and remains that way, with no productive advances whatever.  The damage comes in when we treat these toys as if they already had become important serious thoughts, or were on the verge of same. Someone discovers that in the autopsies of people with disease X, there are very low levels of mineral Y.  That’s a new toy, and the first game we are going to play with it is pretty predictable: Well then, that probably means that if people took supplements of mineral Y, hell, megadoses of Y if necessary, then disease X wouldn’t be so bad.  It would prevent it, or treat it, or lessen the symptoms.  So lets all go down to GNC and buy honking big bottles of Y, especially if we can find it in some natural form, like glacial milk or something.  Problem solved. Three years later, magazines in the alternative medicine press will have ads for the stuff, replete with testimonials from Kevin L of Omaha, assuring us that they used to have disease X but now that they’ve been taking these glacial milk pills that have oodles of mineral Y, they are symptom-free and haven’t felt so good in years.  Or if we’re in really deep, there will be problematic studies showing that 64.1% of people taking Y felt some relief, and 23.7% had total relief of symptoms.

Or, George Bush cancelled a trip to speak in Switzerland after a group threatened to disrupt the conference with protests.  They think he is a war criminal and should be arrested.  Therefore, George Bush is afraid of going to Switzerland because he risks being arrested as a war criminal.  This may seem insane, but it was carried in the Huffington Post (okay, not good counterevidence). 

I lied. That link is really to some fringe left-wing outlet called ABC News.  I just put HuffPo's name on it to throw you off. Of course, they did also carry the story the same way.
That’s an extreme, but how different is it from everyday media speculation, journalists reading the tea leaves of Why did Barack cancel that speech to hispanic teachers in GA?  Does that mean he has given up on winning the hispanic/education/Georgia vote? Am I saying that journalism is a lot like alternative medicine, then? No, of course – well, actually, that’s exactly what I’m saying. Their entire careers are built on spinning plausible-sounding theories whether they have anything behind them or not.  Therefore we should expect them to be plausible, and to have an excellent intuitive grasp on what their audience is likely to believe.  They are, ultimately, traders in social knowledge rather than scientific (or even logical). 

Is there no hope, then?  Are we never allowed to play with anything?  Unless we are going to put in the effort ourselves, must we forever foreswear this marvelous entertainment which some of us are clearly hardwired to do without even trying?  Let us hope not. 

First, so long as we are clear in our own minds whether we are playing versus trying to show off that we know something special that others don’t and you-heard-it here-first, we are on more solid ground.  This is not so easy and obvious as it looks.  The desire to appear knowledgeable before others is remarkably sweet, and the temptation to inflate how solid the theory is, is great.

Second, we have more justification for such play within our own field.  However, we are also in considerably more danger of deceiving ourselves in our own field.  Our very strengths work against us here.  It’s like playing chess against yourself. We focus on the receiving end of our expertise, rather than the sending.  We think we know enough real information that we aren’t going to be fooled by weak theories.  Yet if we have biases toward certain ways of seeing things, we can take new information and use it to fool anybody.  Because we’re experts.  So yes, you will fall for it, because the guy tricking you is also an expert: you.  It just doesn’t feel that way while it’s happening.

All in all, you do have the right to speculate in your own territory, so long as you slap yourself silly that you don’t know very much every once in a while. Of the three theories below, one of them is solidly in my field, one not, one perhaps tentatively. 

Third, and relatedly, be more suspicious of theories that fit what you think you already know, and more tolerant of ideas that go against what you want to hear.  This is usually a mixed picture, with any new theory fitting the conventional wisdom in some ways, contradicting it in others.

I haven’t gotten to the theories yet, rather like Anne Elk.   

Time to load them up

For the third time in a month, I encountered the theory that allergies, or perhaps allergic reactions, have some protective effects against cancers.  Tigerhawk linked for other reasons to a story about a researcher who had put this forward in the 1980’s.  Observe how some people responded by positing a possible mechanism of how this works, while others respond by researching whether the association is indeed present, and if some of the cause vs. effect questions can be answered empirically.  As you may have observed, I find the former response a lot more fun, but loaded with problems.  The latter approach, of acquiring data, is much superior.  Theories as to how this might work are fairly easy to generate – it could be a cocktail party game, if anyone still went to cocktail parties.  The latter requires actual effort. But I don’t play with this theory.  I have nothing to offer.

Nicholas Wade, on the basis of    has suggested that some of our junk DNA may not be junk.  A lot of it may be usable stuff that simply has not been called for by the environment.  In the context of a different developmental track – had we been born in Nairobi instead of Akron, exposed to fever trees instead of ragweed – those genes might have expressed, rather than sitting around uselessly like unemployed adolescents.  As most of the human genome is junk DNA by current definition, one wonders how deep this goes.  Do we have a lot of stuff on board that only expresses if we are born with gills, or need to grow flagella?  Or is it even junkier than that?  I puzzle over this because there is some outside chance that the reponses we have to emotional stress, or trauma, or certain mental illnesses might be more hard-wired than we suspected.  I don’t study the genes, but I can at least look at the people who have had varied unusual* experiences, current or historical, and guess whether they seem to be learned, developed, responses, or something tied much more tightly to our neurology.  Over the course of my career there has been a sea-change in such thinking about PTSD and Borderline Personality Disorder. Rather than describing responses as something the person chooses to do, however unconsciously, in the face of trauma or neglect, we are more likely to see symptons as automatic responses, which may differ between individuals for reasons of inheritance as well as environment.  Resilience is related to observable environmental factors, such as social support and religious faith; we might also be born, hobbit-like, with constitutional features.

Theory three.  It is widely accepted, though from no research that I can find documented, that victims of crime or trauma can be helped by knowing about, or even participating in, bringing their perpetrators to justice.  The word “closure” gets used here a lot. We say it about families of murder victims.  Victim advocates encourage people to press charges as a way of “empowering” them, though there is a lot of acknowledgement that it can be emotionally difficult to keep stirring the pot and being reminded of the trauma. But once someone has been exposed/convicted/punished, everyone rushes to express how this will now help the victim finally put it behind them.

I don’t know that this is true at all.  Getting over something, or getting past it, whatever those mean, may be entirely unrelated to whether the perpetrator was brought to justice or not.  At the point of contact I most frequently observe, sexual victims, especially incest victims seeing their relatives being convicted - I don’t see a correlation.  Of course, my sample is going to be highly skewed toward those who have not “gotten past” the trauma. Still, we see victims who go on to have productive lives even though perpetrators appear untouched and unconsequated, while others who have seen perpetrators incarcerated are still immobilised.  A dozen explanations of what has or has not been done in intervention might be offered that explains the difference, but that doesn’t touch the main point: I don’t see a correlation, even though I can make a logical connection.  I hear victims express bitterness that the offender is still at large and employed/married/popular, and this must certainly be extremely painful.  I just don’t see that it otherwise affects the recovery of the victim. I hear people say they are happy that there will be no further victims because the offender is in jail, but that is still a subjective impression. From my POV, worrying about the patient in front of me and his going on to function in the world, I want to know what is really going to help and what is going to be a distraction that gives an illusion of solution.

*Or not unusual.  Violence, starvation, neglect, and disease are the norm for humans.


Sam L. said...

If the medias' wild&crazy speculations were identified as such--they might (5% confidence) do a little less (2-3%) of it.

As for the getting over/past some traumatic event, it can and does happen, and usually takes a lot of time. But like old war wounds, hurt when the weather changes, or some obscure coincidence triggers it. Sometimes on schedule, sometimes where-did-that-come-from.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

A great analogy. I may use it with a patient. Relating any psychological or emotional condition to a physical one is often quite instructive.

james said...

Modeling is not just easier, it is cheap. Data costs lots of time and money.

Sam L. said...

Feel free, AVI. It's what happened to me, as I interpret it, and told to my sister-in-law when her husband died, and annually since. And a couple other people, too.