Thursday, November 27, 2008

The Good, the Bad, and the Positive

Enron collapsed when it did for a reason. The business had the unfortunate luck of rising to power during the bull market of the 90’s. The company subsequently hid its ever mounting debt behind a rising stock price. So long as it looked legit on the outside, and investors continued to invest, it could smooth over massive losses – a strategy that was uniquely tailored to a bull market, but which threatened to crumble should the market falter. The company finally fell when after the internet bubble popped. Underlying its falling stock price was the fact that investors’ heads were no longer in the clouds. The public finally saw the company for what it really was - a sham. During bear markets, investors are more scrupulous and exacting - their minds are screwed on tighter.

Bad times are categorically different from good times. Negative news is more informative than positive news. Positive psychology doesn’t make sense. And this all needs to be taken with stride, as it’s easy to criticize without offering any solutions. In sum, we have more to learn from when things go wrong than when things go right.

This principle can teach us a lot. It’s obvious in some regards, but not in others. The best place to start is positive psychology, a field hell-bent on violating this principle.

Positive psychology is not so much a field as it's a movement. It’s the sort of movement that, in a funny way, could only happen in modern America. In the words of some of the movement's biggest supporters:

The science of psychology has made great strides in understanding what goes wrong in individuals, families, groups, and institutions, but these advances have come at the cost of understanding what is right with people. (Gable & Haidt, 2005)

…at the subjective level [positive psychology] is about valued subjective experiences: well-being, contentment, and satisfaction (in the past); hope and optimism (for the future); and flow and happiness (in the present). At the individual level, it is about positive individual traits: the capacity for love and vocation, courage, interpersonal skill, aesthetic sensibility, perseverance, forgiveness, originality, future mindedness, spirituality, high talent, and wisdom. At the group level, it is about the civic virtues and the institutions that move individuals toward better citizenship: responsibility, nurturance, altruism, civility, moderation, tolerance and work ethic. (Seligman & Csikszentmihalyi, 2000)

That should give you a sense of positive psychology, it’s a feel-good science. Hopefully just reading that made you feel a little good.

The impetus for positive psychology is that we live in such a negative world: We’re surrounded by negative news. All too often people focus on others’ bad qualities, particularly psychologists. So they’re hoping to turn that trend around, and show the world – through scientific study – about the sunny side of humanity.

I can sympathize. We define ourselves by our positive qualities, not our negative ones. We accomplish more when we focus on the positive skills of ourselves and those around us. There’s something to be said for making a point of holding back unnecessary negativity and truly enjoying your time on this earth.

But inevitably positive psychology begs the question why are we so focused on the negative?. There’s actually good reason.

It teaches us more. It’s more urgent. At the very least, you have to admit that in life, the negative and positive are categorically different: The negative is not just the polar opposite of the positive, as it is in mathematics.

Examples abound, perhaps the most telling is that of Phineas Gage, the railroad worker who suffered a spike blown through his brain (in the frontal lobes) in 1848. His survival – how he was functional, but newly irritable, forgetful, and obstinate for the rest of his life – is often credited with kick-starting modern brain science, a field that has benefited more from such brain lesions than from any other modern experimental manipulation.

We’re quicker to notice when things are wrong than when they’re right. This lesson was painfully drilled into me during summers when I waited tables. When you’re waiting tables, many things can go wrong, and patrons are quick to verbally (or nonverbally) point them out to you. Indeed, a good job waiting an individual table is not so much defined by an outright acknowledgment of such but rather by the lack of any complaint.

But there’s something else that annoys me about positive psychology. It’s not merely a flawed scientific approach, it’s the assumption that the positive side of life is worth spending so much time on, that it needs to be understood - indeed, that it can be understood - and that such a science can truly improve people's lives.

In this world, there are infinite different ways to succeed. But there’s a limited number of ways to fail. People don’t just randomly fail to thrive; they generally fail in some sort of systematic way. They fall into categorizes of sickness or mental disorders – categories that, granted, are man-made, but which still, I’d argue, genuinely represent the state of nature. Just like waiting tables, the best way to improve others’ lives is to prevent things from going wrong. Under those circumstances, mankind can thrive – we have for over 100,000 years.

The positive psychologist might retort that focusing on positive areas such as happiness is the best buffer against negative consequences like say depression or anxiety. Yet this is still interpreting the import of happiness from the perspective of the negative. Nonetheless, buffer has become a buzzword in positive psychology, with studies concluding that various positive traits “buffer” people from negative consequences. The word protect is used in a similar manner.

Take a study on emotional intelligence - an interesting construct in itself, which, unnecessarily, is for some reason tied up in positive psychology. The 2004 study found that male participants' emotional intelligence predicted negative behaviors such as drug use and social deviance. Concluded the authors, “Our findings suggest that emotional intelligence may protect males from engaging in potentially harmful behaviors.” The causal implication in the wording is high emotional intelligence prevents these behaviors, not low emotional intelligence leads to those behaviors. But once again, the positive side of something – in this case, high emotional intelligence – is often qualitatively different from its negative side – which here is low emotional intelligence. For instance, say you run a longitudinal study showing that depression at time one predicted suicide at time two. Would you suggest that a lack of depression buffered participants from suicide? Does a lack of depression prevent suicide? No, it would be more reasonable to interpret your results along the lines of depression causing suicide. Once again, there are many ways to be not depressed, and there are many ways to not commit suicide, but there are only a few ways to be depressed and to kill yourself. Another parallel can be found in cognitive psychology under Spearman’s law of diminishing returns, it holds that the construct of intelligence is empirically more sound for people who are less intelligent than for people who are more intelligent. In other words, there are a few tangible and quantifiable ways to be dumb, but there are many more ways to be smart.

The increased role of negative things in life is manifested in all sorts of ways, and in a sense it’s in who we are. We have more to lose from negative things than we have to gain from positive things. No one would ever publish a medical case study of an exceptionally healthy person. Sad music is almost always the more beautiful. Dante’s Inferno is incredibly stirring and moving. His Paradisio is a bore-fest.

This disconnect between the positive and negative in life is manifest on the national level as well. Socialists often take the role of the positive psychologist, with the goal of determining what’s best for people. It seems simple enough, but it fails by oversimplifying man's happiness. Just as case studies of things gone wrong are integral in medicine, examples of disastrous policy decisions can teach us much about economics. Sowell writes about Lenin’s early transformations in his approach towards implementing communism. At first, Lenin oversimplified human prosperity, not unlike positive psychologists. The result was an overwhelming lack of prosperity, which even Lenin was able to attribute towards his initial shortcomings.

On the eve of the Bolshevik revolution, V. I. Lenin declared that “accounting and control” were the key factors in running an enterprise and that capitalism had already “reduced” the administration of business to “extraordinarily simple operations” that “any literate person can perform” – that is, “supervision and recording, knowledge of the four rules of arithmetic, and issuing appropriate receipts.” Such “exceedingly simple operations of registrations, filing, and checking” could, according to Lenin, “easily be performed” by people receiving ordinary workmen wages.

After just a few years in power, however, Lenin confronted a very different – and very bitter – reality. He himself wrote of a “fuel crisis” which “threatens to disrupt all Soviet work”, of economic “ruin, starvation, and devastation” in the country, and even admitted that peasant uprisings had become “a common occurrence” under Communist rule. In short, the economic functions which had seemed so easy and simple before having to perform them now loomed menacingly difficult.

Belatedly, Lenin saw a need for people “who are versed in the art of administration”…Lenin warned his comrades: “Opinions on corporate management are all too frequently imbued with a spirit of sheer ignorance, an anti-expert bias.” (Sowell, Basic Economics, 2006, p. 164-166).

The fatal flaw of socialism is equivalent to that of positive psychology: That we can correct the wrong by simply actively pursuing the good. The flaw is in the assumption that man’s pursuits are as tangible, predictable, and manipulable as his shortcomings.


Media (in order of appearance)

Photo: (1) P1030672.JPG, 06/30/2008, by Stanandlou; (2) 200811 bull market, 10/10/2008, by superciliousness; (3) Frankfurt Stock Exchange-Bear, 04/30/2007, by Leonieke; (4) Girasoles para los amigos/Sunflowers for the Friends, 12/31/2007, by Claudio.Ar-Hermes; (5) soledad, 12/02/2005, by Robotson; (6) Mike Butcher being judgmental, 10/21/2008, by Adam Tinworth; (7) Representation of Phineas Gages' leison, 2004, by Antonio Damasio; (8) sadness under a big sky, 05/04/2006, by goatopolis; Grosse tete-Big Head, 12/21/2005, by Gentil Garçon [sombres présages].

Video: (1) Music video of the song
Fake Plastic Trees, by Radiohead, released on the album The Bends, which was put out in 04/05/1995. Sphere: Related Content

Thursday, November 20, 2008

"Epidemic of Civic Illiteracy", Arrogance

I didn’t make up those words, they come from a Josiah Bunting III: "There is an epidemic of economic, political, and historical ignorance in our country.” According to his institution’s new study: Only half of American adults know what all of the branches in US government are. Almost four tenths of them falsely think that the president has the right to declare war. And a whopping %43 percent don’t even know what the electoral college is for. Incredible news - not in terms of its content, but in terms of its broad coverage, its blatant superficiality, and its downright arrogance.

What is civic literacy? If you're asking, clearly you don’t have any.

The Intercollegiate Studies Institute conducts annual surveys to gauge our citizens' basic knowledge about America. They’ve been doing this for the past 3 years, and after every survey they emit a minor public outcry about our nation’s growing ignorance.

Before discussing the outcry, a word on the research techniques: The latest survey was a telephone interview with 139 multiple choice questions covering civic knowledge, public philosophy, and household demographics. Even at this point, the logistics of answering factual multiple choice questions over the phone are beyond me: Audible presentation of the multiple choices is a tax on short-term memory, while you’re being asked to retrieve facts from long-term memory, while under the duress of talking to a stranger on the phone, most likely after returning home from work.

2,508 adults were called. Responses were averaged across relatively small demographic groups: Those who’d earned a Ph.D, for instance, scored a C in civic literacy, while baby boomers with a college degree earned a D, and most everyone else failed. Despite reporting group averages, the institute reported no statistical tests for group differences, and we’re given averages which are relatively useless without standard deviations (for instance, it’s possible that a few people who scored extremely low brought down the whole average). But these are minor qualms relative to the overarching message, which is that most people got an F. Shame on us.

The conclusion: We have another cause to be taken up by the American people. After all, isn’t education priceless? And how can you be an American citizen without any civic literacy? There’s poverty, world starvation and warfare, AIDS, plain old illiteracy, and now we can add civic illiteracy.

I'm reminded of my old high school civics teacher. Every week we had to memorize 10 new facts about the government. We would then be quizzed with multiple choice questions that were randomly selected from our accumulated bag o' facts. By the end of the end of year, we worked up to some 500 facts. I wince upon the memory of all the time I spent sweating over those useless inane facts, especially as there are so many richer ways to learn about government. Increasing civic literacy is not only a stupid cause, it’s a harmful one.

The face of American education is changing and it’s wonderful. Teachers at both the high school and college level are downplaying rote factual memorization in place for better educational techniques. Each new generation of kids are exponentially smarter than the last. What new generations lack in their ability to recite random facts they gain in fluid thinking, particularly when it comes to technological wizardry. Thanks to society’s plethora of scientific advances, my old high school science classes would be too rudimentary for the kids of today, just as my professors’ old classes would have been too rudimentary for me. These are points for celebration, not scorn.

Society’s ability to respond to causes is limited, and focusing on civic literacy is as arbitrary as lending federal money to banks, bailing out GM, improving health care, fighting drugs, sending a man to the moon, or focusing on any other knowledge base, be it chemistry or grammar. If more teachers were physicists than policymakers, then they'd decry physics illiteracy instead. And with good reason, as our present existence is tied just as much to physics - or maybe even moreso - than it is to civility. If the bulk of teachers happened to be grammar gurus, we might have more attempts to keep the English language pure like French.

Like most proposed causes, focusing on civil literacy is arrogant in its narrowed perspective. Being able to name our government's 3 branches might be basic for your average news-addict, but not everyone follows politics daily; and the truth is unless you're directly tied to the government the number of federal branches is not important in most people's day-to-day preoccupations - an inference that is supported by the result (questionable in and of itself) that not many people know about these facts. Indeed, from a democratic perspective, the importance of such knowledge is measured by how widespread it is rather than by some scholars at an institution.

Arrogance is truly one of America’s greatest problems. I’m not referring selfishness or the like, but to blinding arrogance. It underlies the argument of authority. It’s a core piece of racial tensions when manifested as the inability to tolerate the different. It holds back science, manifested as the inability to question one own’s measurement and line of thought. It’s wasteful, manifested as the inability to consider alternative problem-solutions. And its petty, manifested in the cause of civic literacy.

Media (in order of appearance)

Photo: (1) Getting it done, 07/12/2005, by jamacdonald; grandmother's report card, 02/24/2008, by Victoria Bernal; "6 weeks of dedication" or "why I could never be a doctor", 10/08/2008, by Ben Golub; img_6154, 03/02/2008, by C.M.; (5) kids & computers, 01/13/2007, by shapeshift.

Upcoming ideas:
  • it's too easy to just be critical & point out what's wrong with the world
  • but still, it's easier to see when things go wrong than when things go right, & there's a good reason for that, b/c we have more to learn from when things go wrong than when they go right
  • "negative" news is more useful than "positive" news
  • specific implications for positive psychology, preventative medicine (if ain't broken...)
  • broader connections to the economy, evolution by means of natural selection
Sphere: Related Content

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Cross Traffic Does Not Stop

Browse through reviews of self-help books and you’ll find two tones: Praise garnished with revelation, and criticism along the lines of simplistic, obvious, common-sense. There’s no secret to happiness – how many times have you heard that – but it’s easy to forget. In the meanwhile, there are other things to remember: Whenever you greet and part with the day you're asked to brush your teeth. Official recommendations for weekly physical activity are two and a half hours a week (an hour above older standards), but watch out for excessive exercise as well. Fast and calorie-rich food is unhealthy, so take some additional time in picking out groceries. We’re fortunate to live in a society where we have two food pyramids – an old one and a new one – between them there’s really no excuse for unhealthy eating.

The human mind is a scarce resource, and all sorts of people are battling for it. Like any great scarce resource, it has tons of invaluable alternative usages, some of which are deciding on which usages are best.

Everything that is vying for your mind is competing with its alternative usages. TV commercials are the most obvious case, but they're just the tip of the iceberg. The new-age self-help guru who wants you to meditate every night is competing with your dentist who wants you to brush your teeth. And the CDC who ask for two and a half hours of exercise each week are competing with your therapist who wants you to spend more family time. Rest assured, all these parties have the best of intentions, but the problem is that no one sees it from an economic perspective.

The government is in the same situation: The future of our country, some people say, is education. So education has to be mandatory. But at the same time, if the auto industry falls apart, then the whole economy is going to shreds. Automobiles and banks, we need to save them both. That and health care. How can you put a price on something so important as health care?

The truth is that everything has a price, and in a free market, all of these seemingly intangibles are already factored into that price. Implicit in any price is not only the resources necessary for any product, but also those resources’ alternative usages. A limited amount of capital cannot pay for everything – you’re reminded about this fact of life whenever you check your bank statement.

Our modern time is filled with so many causes – so many months and days are tied to a cause, that we may have to extend the calendar. And it comes to the point where each of these causes is not battling ignorance and non-recognition, but they’re battling both each other and for your personal time.

An unfortunate fact about democracy: It’s easier to add to the clutter than to take away. How else, I ask you, did our government get so big?

Misallocation of scarce resources, as any economist will tell you, has innumerable unintended consequences. This holds for the mind’s resources as well. Exercise is all well and good, but no doubt other things come first: A job, food on the table, and maybe even a social life. Exercise enthusiasts who work in public health are not waging a war against a nation of couch potatoes and ignorance, they’re waging a war for your free time. That war maybe worth fighting for, but their victory will come at a cost: The alternative usages of your time.

I personally enjoy some types of exercise, and I’ve read many accounts of how good it is for you. But I haven’t read any accounts of how exercise is better than other things that you can do in those two and half hours of your week. Nor have I seen any arguments comparing the effects of brushing your teeth with a few minutes of meditation. Nor have I seen arguments that spending more money on health food beats spending that money on higher education. Such studies might seem silly - what does meditating have to do with brushing teeth - but they get at the underlying point that they these activities tap our personal time, which is perhaps the most important scarce resource we have.

There are real consequences at stake. Just as rent control increases homelessness, dedicating your personal time and attention to the wrong thing has drastic consequences.

American roads provide an excellent example. A well-written Atlantic article by John Stadden attributes America’s higher rate of traffic accidents to our sign-cluttered streets. The article drives home the dangers of misallocating resources: It’s easier to put up another sign on a street than to consider which signs need to be taken down. No one considers when does too many signs begin to take a toll?. This point becomes painfully obvious if you browse some of the worst street signs people have seen here. As Stadden points out, American roads are unique from other countries' in their sheer number of both traffic signs and accident rates, which remain a factor even after all sorts of other differences are taken into account. The result is a misallocation of attention, which is our most needed resource when we drive. This likely causes more accidents, fuels stress and road rage, and it’s probably why drunk driving is such a big issue, as it compounds the effects of blunted executive decisions.

The positive side of things is that the economy is never static. Julian Simon argued that the ultimate natural resource is not found in the earth, it's our mind. Without our mind, current and future natural resources would be useless. Apocalyptic predictions of overpopulation and world starvation proved to be false because they assumed that human ingenuity was static.

All the more reason to be on the lookout for things that missallocate the mind's resources, be it restraints of free speech, dictating centrally to people what's important, or having leaders determine our nation's distribution of goods. The American government is just like our road sides: paved with good intentions but ultimately consisting of too many road signs - confusing ones, unnecessary ones, silly ones, and downright dangerous ones. Keep this in mind whenever you pass any sort of cause, be it one for the public, or one for your time and attention. Imagine the sign-littered road that represents both this country and your mind: Does it really need another sign?

Media (in order of appearance)

Photo: (1) Happiness Now, 05/21/2007, by wrestlingtropy; (2) Too Much Exercise?, 01/26/2008, by assortedstuff; (3) Businessman brushing his teeth while driving his car, Imagine Digital Stock Photography (4) Cross traffic does not stop, 01/08/2008, by Pat Rice; (5) Cluttered Corner, 03/19/2008, by Alan Stanton; (6) Um, Which Way Do I Go?, 09/26/2008, by US71

Video: (1) Music video uploaded by henrikak47 of the song
Rockit, by The Gorillaz, released on their album D-Sides, released 11/20/2007. Sphere: Related Content

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Piece of Fiction: Light Cafes

I'm mostly a nonfiction guy - both in reading & writing - but sometimes I can't help myself from giving fiction a go. It's great at giving your mind a break from the world & letting your imagination take over. So I figured why not occasionally post some fiction on here.

So here's a fictional piece I recently wrote. It was distinctly inspired by 2 works: Richard K. Morgan's Altered Carbon, a hardcore sci-fi novel with flashes of film-noir; and Ernest Hemingway's (very) short story, A Clean Well-Lighted Place.

Posting fiction, should I feel inspired to write it again any time soon, probably won't be a regular thing. But hopefully reading it will give your mind a brief break from the real world just like writing it did for mine.

Light Cafes

I awoke with a headache the size of Jupiter. Light and sound splintered in like rubber dragging against pavement; like advertisements that repeat contact codes with no end; space explorers scraping on pieces of spontaneous forming fractal formations; believers going on about the code of god; jackknife blasters that won’t stop until they drive through earth’s edge. In the wake of a Metra coma I instinctively laid in the fetal position to cocoon my senses from the incoming day. Coffee was in due order, lots of cream, lots of sugar, and lots of coffee.

Heightened perception is the principal recreational attraction to Metra- dipping. During climax the user feels so connected to external stimuli that his inner self slips under the rug of consciousness unnoticed. The shine on clean tile floors, the glow of a power cord and cheap crack melody, the empty abyss of a toilet or vagina – it’s as if you’re one with everything in peripheral perception. It has a half-life of seven hours, but to the befuddlement of street pharmacists the subjective effects can last up to seventy-two. Mornings don’t quite resemble a come-down, so much as a returning of consciousness to the chaos of sensory overdrive; and with the soul back online, so to speak, the world recedes from its soft inclusive form of the previous day and takes on a sharp edginess – as if every corner and boundary of physicality threatened to slice you into pieces. During the early days of the infectious toxicology field there was mild debate as to whether or not these are aftereffects of the chemical proper, or if maybe the brain sequesters it in a corner untouched by normal blood pathways similar to some anaerobic neural-parasites. Since then the issue’s remained unresolved, relegated to textbook footnotes along with other historical oddities.

By the time I was staring into a mug of coffee – more like a bowl than a mug, and more like a swirling chocolate universe than coffee – my senses came to. Ray’s Sun Pies and Bottomless Coffee – sure the outfit was a bit cliché but something about it always appealed to a soft spot in me, and it was the perfect joint to get yourself out of a Metra coma. A combination of daily inconsequential minutia always somehow brought me to Ray’s a few times per week. Metra still firmly gripped my receptors. I glanced up from the circumference of my bowl o’ coffee. The café was dominated by blinding neon white light and petite servers with disproportionate chests decked in kinky black leather two-pieces. The sun leaked in, as if it were situated around the block, through panels of window displays distorted to magnify natural beams of light. To my unprotected eyes the whole damn place appeared flooded with artificial white light showering down from the ceiling and blinding nuclear sepia sunrays that ran more of a horizontal attack. Together they formed a sort of visual grid which seemed to say something about the nature of the universe.

Sometime in the past this was actually a pretty common setup for a café, the idea was that multiple sources of unsavory quantities of light complimented a morning dose of coffee and got you up and prepared for the daily grind. They say that, back in the day, the light was much stronger than at Ray’s, and light cafes, as they called them, spread in popularity. They were as effective and innocently addictive as coffee alone to the third power. But they fell out of flavor like any predictable trend, especially as physical commuting became a thing of the past in white-collar employment with neural-commuting, some types of which even allow you to work during your sleep.

“That and complaints from converted coffee junkies of irreversible retinal scaring,” Ray himself had once told me, summarizing his historical knowledge of the business.

“And the black two pieces - they supposed to get you up as well?” I had muttered in response on that morning still arising from a truncated stage six stupor.

“Yeah well,” a chuckle – or more like a grunt, “they’re supposed to get something up.”

So white-collar employees found new modalities to go to work, and light cafes emptied out, only occasionally frequented by construction workers with offbeat taste, oddball housewives or servant-bots, and conspirators, hacks or pimps who always seem to seep into abandoned corners of the world. Light cafes became gathering places for underworld cyberhacks who took a strange comfort in the atmosphere's anonymity, hid deep in the light, and in a twisted way took pleasure basking in the only hours of sun that their lifestyle afforded them.

Decades later places like Ray’s appealed to a natural nostalgia for times past. Sure the light was weaker so as to avoid undesirable retinal side effects, but it still proved novel to young eyes such as my own unfamiliar with trends so far past.

My pupils would've shrunken to pinholes to blunt the visual effect if not for the Metra which pulled them outward from their diameters, causing an awkward tension between my eyes and my brain, similar perhaps to what a starving earthling on Jupiter might feel should his antigravity generator gradually lose power. The ambient barrage of fork and plate clinking alone was enough to crack the feeble soul of a small mammal. But with the pinpoint aroma of burnt coffee and accompanying light it all surrendered to clicks of human clockwork that contained a mere trivial aura of annoyance.

“Refill mister?”

A glob of black reflective leather stood before me. I squinted until I made out the outline of feminine flesh blocking the light’s assault in the form of a pitch dark curvy silhouette. Bust, lips and jaw came into focus. She was chewing on a piece of gum as if the universe depended on it.

-KJ Sphere: Related Content

Friday, November 7, 2008

Price of Health Care

I voted for McCain. There, the cat’s out of the box. I was undecided for a while, interested but not very passionate either way. I recently started Thomas Sowell’s epic on economics (Basic Economics), and the opening discussion about prices tilted me towards McCain.

His Basic Economics is built upon price – as in, the price that any item costs. Prices pack an incredible amount of info: It includes not only the resources - both in material and labor – that go into a product, but the alternative uses for those resources as well. Milk for example, can be used in many ways – and if the price of milk goes up, then so does the price of everything that has milk. This goes for labor too. If a new industry requires workers from an old one, then demand for the workers increases as well. It’s an intense web, you might not know it, but it's all intimately interconnected.

This makes sense, but in another way it’s completely counterintuitive. Day-to-day, price doesn’t inherently seem to be connected with an item’s value. This is because we use our own subjective value. I’m going to want ice cream regardless of the price – if it goes down, I think, “more for me!”, not “It seems like some of the alternative uses of milk have been curbed this year, so the inherent value of ice cream is temporarily down”.

Prices are so naturally informative that their import can best be seen when they’re artificially manipulated. Sowell cites an example from communist Russia, where all prices were government-set:

Two Soviet economists, Nikolai Shmelev and Vladmir Popov, described a situation in which their government raised the price it would pay for moleskins, leading hunters to get and sell more of them: State purchases increased, and now all the distribution centers are filled with these pelts. Industry is unable to use them all, and they often rot in warehouses before they can be processed. The Ministry of Light Industry has already requested Goskomstein twice to lower purchasing prices, but ‘the question has not been decided yet’. And this is not surprising. Its members are too busy to decide. They have no time: besides setting prices on those pelts, they have to keep track of another 24 million prices.
It’s tempting to think “well, that’s Soviet Russia, it’s completely different from us”, after all the situation there was so depressing, but setting prices is not a far cry from Obama’s call for universal health care.

This harks back to how counterintuitive prices are. The liberal perspective is that, after all, health care is too expensive for most people, so we need to lower the price to make it affordable. But really this is the same logic that says that printing more money is good for the economy: After all, if we all had more money, we’d be able to buy more things.

The real question is “Why is health care so expensive?”, and by expensive, I mean not only its superficial price but the inherent value in the material and labor underlying health care. For some reason, this question is scarcely asked. The answers lie in basic economic principles.
It starts with medical education. Medical schools are expensive and selective. Doctors that do graduate find themselves in high demand, and it’s suiting in proportion to all the time and money spent on their education. This, I suspect, is partly why medicine has developed many specialties: If all trained doctors became general practitioners, then they’d make significantly less money, and might not recover their educational costs.

Can we manipulate medical training? Can we lower the standards to produce more doctors? Or can the government make training more available or bear more of the cost? The answer is not clear, but either way, this is the place to start because on the most fundamental level this is what’s driving up prices. Personally I suspect that standards of training can be lowered, such that medical school might come to resemble law school.

I hear already the doctors groaning that one’s health should not be taken as precariously as law. This is the argument of authority, which we'll return to yet again. And law is complicated too, yet somehow we find ourselves with enough lawyers.

Either way, this is the place for any creative government manipulations, not the at the end-user patient level, where the inherent value of health care – regardless of any superimposed price – has already been determined.

The second way to address the price of health care is to inspect current regulations that unintentionally affect price. Most relevant is drug-policy. Our top-down drug regulations are rotten from the bottom-up (take a moment), as they’re predicated on governmental concerns about what someone puts in their blood. (The entire annual budget for the war on drugs could send almost 3,500 students to med school).

The FDA are overburdened and inefficient, but even in a perfect world their standards would still send drug prices skyrocketing. The risk of lowering drug standards is offset by the benefits. But you can’t have your cake and eat it too: You can’t require drug companies to spend years, often decades, to develop drugs and then keep the price low. And right now we just have our cake, as drug companies spend forever getting drugs approved, and their value is high as well.

The prescription system increases the end-cost of drugs even more by requiring superfluous paperwork from doctors and pharmacists.

Economics is a science of consequences, ripple-effects. You can learn a lot about it by watching The Wire, one of my favorite shows, because it’s all about delving into consequences, and displaying them in stark and gritty detail. Even though the show’s liberal, with socialist tinges, it’s a great lesson in economics.

I’ll end with a personal anecdote about the prescription system and consequences.

For some time, I was on an extended course of antibiotics. After a few months, I started noticing a chalky white substance on my tongue, it was a yeast infection. My doctor had warned me about this ahead of time, and through his convenient online system I was able to request prescription Clotrimazole – oral tabs that inhibit fungal growth. However, this was a Thursday, meaning that it wouldn’t be faxed over until Monday. In the meanwhile, I felt like I had to address this somehow. Yeast, just like any indoor fungi, needs to be nipped in the bud early before it has a chance to spread. I went over to the local CVS, but the pharmacists told me that there weren’t any over-the-counter meds, I’d just have to wait for the prescription to arrive.

I’m not the sort of person who likes to wait for others to do things. I took to browsing the aisles at CVS. Oral clotrimazole, mind you, is one of the most harmless drugs out there. Side effects are rare, and even the listed ones – which are normally over cautious – are pretty benign. But here I find myself empty-handed with a yeast infection, having to wait 4 days for a fax, under the ugly florescent lighting of a CVS, and I came across Clotrimazole Topical Foot Cream. I stopped and thought for a minute and turned the box around. Clearly written: “Do not apply this medication in the eyes, nose, mouth, or vagina.” I chuckled and looked at the ingredients. I thought some more.

The above health care recommendations would be next to impossible to tinker with. The medical profession profits from keeping training prices high and doctor supply low. The FDA employs over $2 billion worth of jobs. Drug companies – although screwed in one sense by the FDA – benefit from prescription practices, which allow them to charge more. These factors all drive up the cost, but in an artificial manner and often justified as yet more ways to protect the public from themselves.

It all goes back to how counterintuitive concept of price is, which unfortunately is manifested in a fatal flaw of democracy that when things are wrong we feel the need to do stuff, even if the problems are originally due to stuff we did in response to past problems. You'll remember a congressmen who gets money for a library named after him sooner than one who sweated hard to balance the budget. In this case, we’re trying to do stuff with the outward price, which is already elevated from stuff we did in response to past problems.

The counter argument is almost always one of authority: “Health is too important to leave it up to the whim of patients”, underscored by the attitude from medical professionals, “You wouldn’t know, you’re not a doctor, but I know.” But this falls flat when you hear it from so many different angles and in all sorts of industries (like the automobile industry trying to say that it’s as important as the credit industry & that it needs it's own bailout). Flaws in such expert arguments are compounded by their narrow point of view: An expert physician probably knows how important medical care is, but does he know how important it is relative to, say, the automobile or financial industry? Or relative to everything else that you spend your money on? Or relative to the American economy as a whole? The true importance of most public versus private issues is determined not by individual experts, but by associated prices.

Media (in order of appearance)

Photo: (1) Thomas Sowell; (2) Got Milk?; (3) three days late -- happy birthday di!, 03/07/2006, by chocolate monster mel; (4) Soviet Revolutionaries, 02/26/2006, by Dunechaser; (5) Joseph B. Martin Conference Center at Harvard Medical School, 10/27/2008, by Cliff1066; (6) FDAlogo; (7) Paperwork, 07/05/2007, in neilsphotoalbum; (8) Japanese Rock Garden, 04/02/2008, by vgm8383; (9) too many choices, 01/06/2008, by D'Arcy Norman; (10) Eye Doctor, 09/21/2007, by Samuel Duhamel

Video: (1) Mogwai: Hunted By A Freak, video from MountCyanide, music by the band Mogwai, from the album Happy Songs for Happy People, released 07/17/2003

Upcoming ideas
  • Other effects of over-regulation in combination w/
  • Medical & academic elitism
  • Simplicity versus complexity, both have roles
  • Nothing in the world is complex, we simply perceive various things as such
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Sunday, November 2, 2008

fMRI: The Argument of Authority

Science in America has replaced religion. Not in all aspects – science will never be held in people’s hearts like religion, but the two tread on the same ground, by some arguments they stab at the same questions. Both are paradigms for explanation, and they’re competing for space - science’s gains in status speak more to scientific progress than to religious decline. In a funny way though, science’s rise in power has inherited it some of religion’s warts. Science in America has adopted an air of superiority and objectivity, which for centuries was reserved for Christianity. The curious rise in the use of fMRI – functional magnetic resonance imaging, used to tap brain activity - is an interesting example of this. It’s a scientific technique that may have more objectivity and authority than substance.

The argument of authority is the weakest argument of all. This is a stance put forward by St. Thomas Aquinas (who, ironically, was rather authoritative himself). As the Church’s authority changed and grew with the times, this became a common criticism of doctrine. Nietzsche, though, first revealed authority - or at least, how authority was perceived by the masses - for what it really was: a power grab.

His line of thought was that people are going to declare whatever they want to declare and they’re going to use any means to do so. The largest historical example of this is the Church – who go so far as to claim backing by the word of God in order to hold captive the public.
But Nietzsche didn’t stop there. He damned objectivity as part of the same game. This is theology, this is bodies and bodies of literature using the bible to form public opinion. Authority and objectivity have a synergistic effect, and this is what kept the Church in place. In 397 AD St. Augustine wrote The Confessions and in 1227 St. Thomas Aquinas wrote The Summa Theologica. In the 800 years in between, there weren’t really any other intellectual breakthroughs in the Western world. This worked.

Democracy heralded a new age of decentralization in the West. People not only stopped trusting authority, they were smarter. Smarter in an academic sense. More intellectual, more opinionated, individualistic, they felt their voice should be heard because it deserved to be heard. The academic sphere – which used to center around religion and authority – now focuses more on objectivity. With an air of objectivity, it is earier to win over the modern mind. Modern day science holds a similar role - in power and policy - as religion used to, but it’s traded a bit of authority for some more objectivity: The latter is built on the pillars of the scientific method and peer review; while authority still persists in premier research institutions and "Ivory Towers", but overall the value of authority is still sinking. Here, though, Nietzsche still stands: Objectivity, yes, but objectivity for what?

Moving onto fMRI's, this post was largely sparked by a presentation I saw about neuroimmaging by Robert Poldrack. He’s documented his skepticism behind the widespread use of fMRI. On the surface, the technology, as used in most research, is simple enough: Participants do activities while their hemodynamic responses from different brain areas are measured. This gives us pretty images like this:The results are the changes in brain activity across tasks that have been carefully selected by scientests. The tasks involve turning on/off a certain thoughts or stimuli (e.g., viewing a shape versus a piece of art). Empirical results from fMRI studies are centered around very simplified and controlled changes in the lab and corresponding changes in brain activity. That’s it.

Poldrack raises the point that fMRI images are very sensitive and they’re very nonspecific. In other words, your brain lights up from almost any activity, and the areas that light up aren’t always specific to the activity you’re doing. You could be pondering the world or having sex, a lot of the same areas of your brain will light up. This becomes a problem when scientific studies pinpoint areas of the brain that are tied to some distinct activity and/or use fMRI to distinguish between two populations.

For the better or worst, these sorts of studies can't simply look at the whole brain. In the world of science, it’s preferred to keep studies limited in scope, and this particularly applies to brain imaging. Too much data is hard to interpret, and in technical terms it’s…a mess. Unfocused studies have a higher chance of finding spurious results. This has a statistical explanation, but really it’s just that if you look at tons of stuff, you’re bound to find stuff that appears interesting, on an empirical level, but is actually just occurring by chance. This gets worse though with fMRI’s, because they spit out millions of pixels, each of which is a data point that is analyzed. As technology makes fMRI’s more resolute, they give out even more data, increasing the chances of finding a mess on your hands.

As participants do the required experimental actions, researchers focus on distinctive parts of the brain. When that part of the brain lights up across their sample, the authors attribute whatever action they have the participant do to that part of the brain. It seems reasonable, and that's often why you always hear about the executive part of the brain, the emotional part, etc. But the issue of high sensitivity and low specificity calls most of that logic into question: Due to high sensitivity, those areas in the brain might have lighten up in response to any other task; and due to non-specificity, many other areas of the brain likely respond to that activity as well.
An example: Poldrack brought up an area of the brain called the anterior cingulate cortex, often summarized as the decision making part of the brain. However, this area lights up from so many other tasks: reading fake words versus real ones, pushing your tongue against the roof of your mouth versus resting it, viewing certain patterns versus letters, and doing simple versus complex memory tasks, to name a few. Nonetheless, whenever researchers find that this area lights up, they'll specifically attribute it to their experimental task. This sort "reverse inference", as Poldrack calls it, runs rampant in the field.

Everything gets messier when comparing different people. (You might remember the recent news item that Democrats think with different parts of their brains than Republicans.) Inevitably, many fMRI studies do this, but things get tricky with the introduction of a new demographic or person-based variable.

For example, a study might compare responses to certain stimuli - say, threatening versus neutral stimuli - in anxious versus normal people. So they’re dealing with two versuses: The first – based on the task – produces those sensitive and non-specific responses in the brain; and the second – the person-centered comparison – brings into the equation differences between people, which is a complex area in its own right.

One pitfall (of many) in this common experimental design: Different clinical conditions are related to different amounts of baseline brain activity. Going back to our example, this is likely the case in anxiety, which is a state of hyper-vigilance. So the noise of the anxious person’s brain is already turned up. This leaves less room for their brain to respond to tasks (causing a ceiling effect). Studies in fact often conclude that clinical groups are less responsive to changes in stimuli, because a specific brain area lit up less in response to a certain activity in clinical populations than in normal ones. Again though, this might be due to differences in resting brain activity. Or it might be due to non-theoretical differences between the populations - for example, anxiety tends to be higher among women or in insomniacs. Or it might be due to non-theoretical differences in responses to the stimuli that the researchers used (e.g., the color of a certain card) which were picked up in the sensitive brain reading. In other words, it's easily possible that such a typical study isn't teaching us much about anxiety or the brain.

I apologize for the long and technical discussion of fMRI, but the resulting situation is rather interesting, albeit not because of what it teaches you about the brain. Imagine if every question you could ask about the brain were answered in the positive, regardless of the true answer. That’s much like this field.

Since every study finds what it wanted to, you get this mishmash of absurdly complicated theories about neural correlates, brain circuits, specific activities linked to specific areas of the brain. It reminds me of reading theology, where I'd have to step back and ask myself whether the sheer complexity of the subject matter ever matched its underlying content. Every research question is answered with a yes, and consequentially it's said to deserve further research, which means even more finely detailed study. You end up getting these very complicated theories about how specific activities affect very specific brain areas in different types of people. The word complex is used very often even within scientific circles to summarize these theories. (There’s even a blog called The Neurotic completely devoted to unveiling society’s brain-imaging-based misconceptions.)

Not that all of science is going to hell in a hand basket. There’s no mistaking true scientific advancement for anything but – and we’ve been a fortunate and smart enough society to have experienced much of it. Likewise, despite Nietzsche’s musing about the church and power, there’s a true underlying glow of religion which fits the human soul so perfectly and like a key. But inevitably there are ways to exploit any man-made system, and fMRI’s maybe a unique example of this exploitation in science. They provide a veil of objectivity necessary for academic clout, justification for future grants – in a word, power.


Media (in order of appearance)

Photo (1) The Majesty of Law, statue on Independence Avenue Washington, DC, 09/19/2008, by Kimberly Faye; (2) Portrait of Fredrich Nietzsche (1844-1900); (3) Christianity, 08/29/2007, by OdedG; (4) Triumph of Christianity, by Tommaso Laureti (1530-1602), Sala di Costantino, Vatican Palace (5) Stained Glass Tower of Ivory, window in St. Ignatius Church, Chestnut Hill, MA, 05/17/2006, by John Workman; (6) fMRI, 03/08/2004, by Washington Irving; (7) Varian4T, fMRI scanner from Helen Wills Neuroscience Institute at University of California Berkley; (8) Artistic Mess Cormacphelan; (9) Anterior Cingulate Cortex; (10) Activation of Brain Region Predicts Autism, Scott Huettel, Duke University Photography Jim Wallace; (11) Hawkan Lau by Dr. Pat, 07/18/2005; (12) Nietzsche's Will to Power - Bar, 05/01/2008, by Sharon Hagenbeek

Video (1) some of them were superstitious, AlGorey91's channel, music by the band Midlake, from the album Bamnan and Silvercork, released 07/06/2004
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