The Anti-Authority Authority [A Doctor's Disclaimer]

I’ve begun reading Robert “Bob” Sears’ The Vaccine Book. Despite what you might be thinking, the impetus to begin learning more about baby (and child) vaccine’s actually came from my wife. I’m not always obsessed with needing for info!

Having just started the book (Just finished reading Stumbling on Happiness), I was immediately struck by a paragraph in the Preface which not only plays the skeptic to doctors generally, but also disclaims the authority of the writer. It’s this anti-authority slant, where someone who is perceived as an authority casts doubt on himself and other perceived experts, that I find so important*. In the field of medicine, where the egos of doctors are bigger than the size XL scrubs they so frequently don, this sort of disclaimer strikes me as particularly unusual, but nice to see!

Some people feel that vaccine books aren’t necessary; after all, why not just ask your doctor if vaccines are abolutely necessary and safe and leave it at that? It takes all of one minute, then you’re done. no research or effort on your part is needed. Here’s the problem with that approach. Doctors, myself included, learn a blot about diseases in medical school, but we learn very little about vaccines, other than the fact that hte FDA and pharmaceutical companies do extensive research on vaccines to make sure they are safe and effective. We don’t review the research ourselves. We never learn what goes into making vaccines or how their safety is studied. We trust and take it for granted that the proper researchers are doing their jobs. So, when patients want a little more information about shots, all we can really say as doctors is that the diseases are bad and the shots are good. But we don’t know enough to answer all of your detailed questions about vaccines. …

Even though vaccines are important, you as a parent are still entitled to know what you are giving your child. you have a responsibility (and a desire) to make informed health care decisions for your family.

*Notably, a real slick charlatan knows the importance of this disclaimer, too, so it’s by no means an “all clear” indicator that the disclaiming expert actually knows anything.

Stumbling on Happiness by Daniel Gilbert

Stumbling on Happiness by Daniel Gilbert

Finished reading Stumbling on Happiness (SoH) by Daniel Gilbert last night, which weighs at about 240 pages and is an easy and informative discussion of the human mind, how we perceive the past and future, and our own ineptitude at understanding what makes us happy. It’s explicitly not a self-help book or a guide to finding happiness. SoH is more an expose on how our minds work to deal with reality, remember the past, and predict the future.

In short, we’re not very good at doing any of the above and Gilbert does a pretty excellent job at explaining why.

While reading SoH, I marked various pages that I found particularly insightful. I’m sharing those bits and pieces below, as transcribed from the book.

Note: This “review” is a bit long because I’m recording some of the core concepts of SoH for future reference (If I don’t do this, I’ll probably forget them!).

On the importance of control with regard to human well-being (Chapter 1, Prospection and Control):

Knowledge is power, and the most important reason why our brains insist on simulating the futrue even when we’d rather be here now, enjoying a goldfish moment, is that our brains want to control the experiences we are about to have.

[Regarding why we want control,] There are two answers to this question, one of which is surprisingly right and the other of which is surprisingly wrong.

The surprisingly right answer is that people find it gratifying to exercise control—not just for the futures it buys them, but for the exercise itself. Being effective … is one of the fundamental needs with which human brains seem to be naturally endowed …

… Research suggests that if [we] lose [our] ability to control things at any point between [our] entrance [into the world] and exit, [we] become unhappy, helpless, hopeless, and depressed. …

Our desire to control is so powerful, and the feeling of being in control so rewarding, that people often act as though they can control the uncontrollable.

We want—and we should want—to control the direction of our [lives] because some futures are better than others … This idea is so obvious that it barely seems worth mentioning, but I’m going to mention it anyway. Indeed, I am going to spend the rest of this book mentioning it because it will probably take more than a few mentions to convince you that what looks like an obvious idea is, in fact, the surprisingly wrong answer to our question. We insist on steering our [lives] because we think we have a pretty good idea of where we should go, but the truth is that much of tour steering is in vain … because the future is fundamentally different than it appears through the prospectiscope.

In other words, the futures we expect to have given we do X or Y are never the same way as we expect them to be when we imagine them now.

On our brains doing the “filling-in” trick and imagining thing we could not know (Chapter 4, Onward). This reminds me of jumping to conclusions or the logical fallacy of the “hasty generalization,” though both fail to capture what our minds are doing, which is using a great deal of spackling to fill in holes.

Your mistake was not in imagining things you could not know—that is, after all, what imagination is for. Rather, your mistake was in unthinkingly treating what you imagined as though it were an accurate representation of the facts. …

Without the filling-in trick you would have sketchy memories, an empty imagination, and a small black hole following you wherever you went … We see things that aren’t really there and we remember things that didn’t really happen, and while these may sound like symptoms of mercury poisoning, they are actually critical ingredients in the recipe for a seamlessly smooth and blessedly normal reality. … Even though we are aware … of the filling-in trick, we can’t help but expect the future to unfold with the details we imagine.

And on how the brain leaves things out (Chapter 5, Absence in the Present), Gilbert cites Francis Bacon:

Nearly four centuries ago, the philosopher and scientist Sir Francis Bacon wrote about the ways in which the mind errs, and he considered the failure to consider absences among the most serious:

By far the greatest impediment and aberration of the human understanding arises from [the fact that] . . . those things which strike the sense outweigh things which, although they may be more important, do not strike it directly. Hence, contemplation usually ceases with seeing, so much so that little or no attention is paid to things invisible.

I’ll circle back to this later, but this is strikingly similar to our abilities to justify action over inaction, which Gilbert addresses later in the book.

Gilbert further illustrates how our brains leave out important details in discussing siamese twins and blind people who are unquestionably happy. Those of us without such disabilities have a hard time appreciating how individuals stricken with a dehabilitating problem could be just as, if not more happy than us. That is because our brains leave out important details. Regarding blind people, Gilbert writes (Chapter 5, Absence in the Future):

[W]hen sighted people imagine being blind, they seem to forget that blindness is not a full-time job. Blind people can’t see, but they do most of the things that sighted people do—they go on picnics, pay their taxes, listen to music, get stuck in traffic—and thus they are just as happy as ighted people are. They can’t do everything sighted people can do, sighted people can’t do everything that they can do, and thus blind and sighted lives are not identical. But whatever a blind person’s life is like, it is about much more than blindness. And yet, when sighted people imagine being blind, they fail to imagine all other things that such a life might be about, hence they mispredict how satisfying such a life can be.

Later in Chapter 5 Gilbert makes the astute analogy between how when we see off in the distance of space, our brains understand that we are unable to make out many details of the far-off objects, like the hairs on buffalo far off in the horizon; however, when we see off in the distance of time (either remembering the past or imagining the future), we fail to appreciate the many details our temporal perception may leave out (On the Event Horizon):

But when we remember or imagine a temporally distant event, our brains seem to overlook the fact that the details vanish with temporal distance, and they conclude instead that the distant events actually are as smooth and vague as we are imagining and remembering them.

One interesting part of the book describes how we use our brain hardware to imagine. This means that when we imagine a song or a picture in our heads, we trigger the parts of the brain that deal with visual or audio stimuli. This works reasonably well, but it is difficult for our brains to multi-task the hardware, which means that when we are feeling a certain way, that feeling impacts our imagining of something else – like the past or future. Gilbert writes (Chapter 6, Onward):

Each of us is trapped in a place, a time, and a circumstance, and our attempts to use our minds to transcend those boundaries are, more often than not, ineffective. … We think we are thinking outside the box only because we can’t see how big the box really is. Imagination cannot easily transencd the boundaries of the present, and one reason for this is that it must borrow machinery that is owned by perception. The fact that these two processes must run on the same platform means that we are sometimes confused about which one is running. We assume that what we feel as we imagine the future is what we’ll feel when we get there, but in fact, what we feel as we imagine the future is often a response to what’s happening in the present. The time-share arrangement between perception and imagination is one of the causes of presentism …

Gilbert goes on to discuss the balance our minds strike between the real and the illusory, and that this balance is achieved by the competing forces of what motivates us (the illusory) and what keeps us grounded (the real). He writes in Chapter 8, Cooking with Facts:

We cannot do without reality and we cannot do without illusion. each serves a purpose, each imposes a limit on the influence of the other, and our experience of the world is the artful compromise that these tough competitors negotiate.

Rather than thinking people as hopelessly Panglossian, then, we might think of them as having a psychological immune system that defends the mind against unhappiness in much the same way that the physical immune system defends the body against illness.

The idea of our minds as having an immune system over otherwise cold-hard depressing truths is particularly apt. How often are we able to find the silver-lining on the darkest, most depressing of clouds? Indeed, this is almost certainly an evolved trait that forces us to press onward despite real, painful realities.

Two of the best ideas that Gilbert illustrates in SoH demonstrate the implications of having a psychological immune system. For one, the present of this mental immune system incites us to prefer action over inaction (Chapter 9, Looking Forward to Looking Backward):

But studies also show that nine out of ten people are wrong. Indeed, in the long run, people of every age and in every walk of life seem to regret not having done things much more than they regret things they did

But why do people regret inactions more than actions? One reason is that the psychological immune system has a more difficult time manufacturing positive and credible views of inactions than of actions. … The irony is all too clear: Because we do not realize that our psychological immune systems can rationalize an excess of courage more easily than an excess of cowardice,we hedge our bets when we should blunder forward.

The second point is that despite how we seem to believe we want as much choice and freedom as possible, our psychological immune system is so effective at its job that we are often better off without choice because the restrictions imposed by unchangeable decisions elicit compensatory justification by our minds, which enables us to make peace and appreciate our somewhat restricted positions (The Inescapability Trigger):

The costs and benefits of freedom are clear—but alas, they are not equally clear: We have no trouble anticipating the advantages that freedom may provide, but we seem blind to the joys it can undermine.

Somewhat related to Bacon’s observation that we tend to ignore the absences is the reality that unusual experiences stand out in our minds, tricking us into thinking they are the norm, when we are forgetting that the norm is the usual. Said better by Gilbert in Chapter 10, The Least Likely of Times:

The fact that the least likely experience is often the most likely memory can wreak havoc with our ability to predict future experiences.

In SoH Gilbert explains the idea of super-replicators, an idea explaining why certain genes are transmitted successfully, and applies this idea to belief systems. The super-replicator idea is simply that “any ( gene | idea ) that promotes its own “means of transmission” will be represented in increasing proportions in the population over time.” The idea of the super-replicator immediately elicits thoughts of the spreading of religion (and hark remembrances of Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash):

If a particular belief has some property that facilitates its own transmission, then that belief tends to be held by an increasing number of minds. … [T]here are several such properties that increase a beleif’s transmissional success, the most obvious of which is accuracy.

I’d substitute usefulness or efficacy for accuracy, but the point is well made. There are ideas, both good and bad, that propagate and self-replicate. Gilbert goes into details on some of these ideas, perhaps the most prominent being the belief that money == happiness. The entire notion of self-replicating ideas is a great meta idea that, though related to how we perceive the world, could probably be expanded and written on in its own book.

At the end of SoH, Daniel Gilbert suggests a solution to help deal with our innately handicapped ability to perceive the future (and know what will make us happy). It’s pretty simple: observe others who are experiencing what you either will experience or want to experience. Watch how they feel because more often than not, the way they feel given a set of circumstances is likely to be how you would feel under the same. Gilbert calls this using surrogates, and it makes a lot of sense in theory though I can imagine it being incredibly difficult to put into practice. This is because we overestimate our own uniqueness in relation to other human beings when. As noted earlier, we are blind to how a blind man could be as happy as we are because we only see their blindness as a unique difference rather than seeing the gross majority of similarities.

All in all, some great insights are elicited in Gilbert’s Stumbling on Happiness. I have to recommend it!

Mr. Taleb Goes to Washington…goes-washington

Marion Maneker of The Big Money (part of Slate) has a nice article on Nassim Nicholas Taleb that discusses Taleb’s recent attendance at the Wall Street Journal’s “Future of Finance” conference in Washington D.C. The article describes righteous indignation at the ongoing and deepening financial calamity and what he suggests might be a more robust financial system. It’s a good read it is entirety, though below I’m saving down the major takeaways.

Taleb recently expounded upon the charlatan theme (and their positive advice) on his personal “blog.” Also, note Taleb’s closing words and see if you aren’t reminded of Jon Stewart’s big point in his recent interview with Jim Cramer.

… Taleb’s anger at the economic establishment [3] that drove us over this cliff—and populates the Journal’s conference—makes him a representative figure of ordinary people. Like most Americans, Taleb is seething with rage about the financial establishment’s role in bringing the about credit crash. “Nobody saw the crisis coming,” he says. “Bernanke, all these guys, I want them out. They proved incompetent, they crashed the plane.”

Unlike us … Taleb is comfortable with the theory and practice that undergirds the whole system of options, derivatives, and risk management that has spun so recklessly out of control. That talent mixed with his righteous anger makes him a rare bird: an Everyman who can do the equations. …

In normal times, the conferencariat are an arrogant bunch. This is something [Alan Murray of the WSJ] knows well from his travels on the conference circuit, which begins each year with the World Economic Forum in Davos. “Davos is usually filled with people who have all the answers,” Murray says. “What was so striking about Davos this year was all these people, for once, didn’t have all the answers. No one could tell you with certainty what was happening or what needed to be done.”

No one but Nassim Taleb. Before Davos, Murray read The Black Swan. At the conference, the newspaperman and the trader had many conversations over the course of four days. Murray came to the conclusion that Taleb was the iconic figure of Davos in 2009. “In my mind, he had the perfect message for the moment.” …

[As for the Future of Finance conference, Taleb] left after dinner the first night. While the 130-person conference debated the government’s new regulations that George Soros described as merely “tinkering” with the system, Taleb has a clear-eyed plan.

First, he says, we have to unmask the charlatans of risk like Myron Scholes. To Taleb, Scholes is the Great Oz in this Emerald City because his work on options and derivatives allowed the whole of the financial system to adopt poorly understood products-like the ones that brought AIG down-that hide risk. To Taleb, Scholes’ academic work, which enabled the widespread use of complex derivatives, was like “giving children dynamite.”

“This guy should be in a retirement home doing Sudoku,” Taleb says. “His funds have blown up twice [6]. He shouldn’t be allowed in Washington to lecture anyone on risk.”

With complex derivatives unmasked and, in Taleb’s vision of the future, outlawed, the next step is to create a more robust version of capitalism. Taleb calls it Capitalism 2.0. Robustness begins with a dismantling of debt. Leverage was the gas that inflated the financial system until it was too big, too fragile, and too volatile.

Over the past 20 years, the financial system has grown ever more complex. Building on a greater computing capacity and communication speed—”Bank runs now take place at the speed of BlackBerry”—Taleb recognizes that the financial system now possesses an efficiency that creates volatility. That cannot and will not go away.

We cannot have both debt leverage and a hyper-efficient system—the volatility is just too great. What Taleb explains—which no one else does—is that efficiency is already a form of leverage. A highly efficient system removes slack and magnifies small changes. Think of the efficient system as a high-performance aircraft. Each minute of steering input creates a rapid and violent shift of course, speed, or altitude. The system itself is souped up even before you add the debt. Once you do, the pilot is equally jacked up and twitchy, creating an explosive combination. Now imagine that fighter jet trying to fly in a 1,000-plane formation, and you get an idea of the world financial system in the 21st century.

We can’t erase the technology that created the planes, so we’ll have to make sure we fly sober, maybe even with an onboard computer that dampens the controls. That means getting rid of the debt. It’s that simple.

A deleveraged financial system is a stable one, especially if we increase the redundancy within the system. That’s an idea Taleb has taken from biology. But in finance, redundancy means two things: not having players in the game who are “too big to fail” and not allowing anyone—from the individual to the institution—to play with too much money. Redundancy means have cash on the side, not risking it all, and not becoming dependent upon financial assets for your economic well-being.

Nassim Taleb on Experts and Negative Advice

Nassim Taleb’s latest from Opacity #113 titled Negative Advice; Why We Need Religion makes the brief case that human beings are “suckers for charlatans who provide positive advice (what to do), instead of negative advice (what not to do).” Below is the entirety of his post, take a read (Emphasis mine):

At the core of the expert problem is that people are suckers for charlatans who provide positive advice (what to do), instead of negative advice (what not to do), (tell them how to get rich, become thin in 42 days, be transformed into a better lover in ten steps, reach happiness, make new influential friends), particularly when the charlatan is invested with some institutional authority & the typical garb of the expert (say, tenured professorship). This is why my advice against measuring small probabilities fell on deaf ears: I was telling them to avoid Value-at-Risk and the incomputable rare event and they wanted ANOTHER measure, the idiots, as if there was one. Yet I keep seeing from the history of religions that survival and stability of belief systems correlates with the amount of negative advice and interdicts — the ten commandments are almost all negative; the same with Islam. Do we need religions for the stickiness of the interdicts?

Telling people NOT to smoke seems to be the greatest medical contribution of the last 60 years. Druin Burch, in the recently published Taking the Medicine

The harmful effect of smoking are roughly equivalent to the combined good ones of EVERY medical intervention developed since the war. (…) Getting rid of smoking provides more benefit than being able to cure people of every possible type of cancer”

It is easy to read Taleb’s argument as meaning that negative advice is both more routinely followed and better than positive advice. However, this is clearly not the case as there are countless examples of bad negative advice. For example, look at the “Don’t eat fat” mantra that developed over the past few decades. This is negative advice that I believe Taleb has personally acknowledged as poor (Taleb is a friend of Art De Vany’s and an adherent on some level to the low-carb evolutionary nutrition/fitness theory). The low-fat or lipid hypothesis that has been the driving force behind public health policy over the past few decades may ultimately be proven to have caused the premature deaths of millions of human beings (via cancer, cardiovascular disease, Alzheimer’s, obesity, diabetes, etc.). Clearly, not all negative advice is good to follow.

However, negative advice or bright-line rules seem to take hold more strongly than positive advice. Christianity and Islam are the two most dominant religions of the world. Both contain prescriptive, bright-line rules. In the case of Christianity the prominence of rules is particularly ironic: Jesus openly argued for the destruction or irrelevance of the law (The bright-line rules of Judaism at the time). Regardless, the dominating sects of both Islam and Christianity appear to have more negative advice (What not to eat, drink, do) than positive advice (Love your neighbor), and the negative advice tends to be much more concrete: “Do not commit adultery” is much more cut-and-dry than “Love everyone.” It’s the time-tested success of hard-line, negative-advice-based religions that lends the most support for Nassim Taleb’s argument.

Agreeing somewhat with Taleb’s theory, I think it is too limited in scope, and should be expanded and clarified. Simply put: human beings are sucker’s for bright-line rules be they positive or negative; adherence to and success of these bright-line rules is dependent upon their prescriptive strength. Based on conclusions drawn from observing health and religion idealogies, it seems that negative advice promotes the greatest adherence and zealotry, both of which lead to idealogical success**.

That it is human nature to want others to tell us what to do seems hard to deny. Why are we this way?

I just finished reading Daniel Gilbert’s Stumbling on Happiness (SoH), which discusses how we perceive things and how that affects our happiness. One argument Gilbert makes is that it is human nature to prefer action over inaction. This is because it is easier to justify our action-based decisions after the fact because they have clearcut consequences whereas inaction does not, making inaction difficult to imagine and thereby difficult to justify. I would add to this that I believe it is human nature to put greater faith in our ability to control outcomes; therefore, we act out of the misguided belief that our action can elicit the responses we want.

Regardless of the source of our preference for action, I believe it’s from this bias that springs the need for bright-line positive advice. For proof of concept, look no further than the pervasive mentality that, “We must do something to mitigate the economic crisis!” Charlatans and politicians fully exploit the bias of action over inaction to propagate their own prerogatives.

On the other hand, there is a second contention in SoH that seems an extension of the preference for action over inaction, which is that the elimination of choice can trigger our psychological immune systems. Once triggered, these systems work to make us happy or content with a more restricted existence. Imagine this: having bought the farm, you’re quick to articulate the benefits of the purchase and figure out a way to love the cows. In keeping with this understanding, we can readily explain the human preference for ideologies that drastically reduce choice via negative, bright-line rules.

Thus, here we have two psychological explanations for why humans crave bright-line rules, both positive and negative.

I’d imagine Taleb would agree: life is incredibly more complex and uncertain than our bright-line rules, either positive or negative, allow. We should be aware of our tendency towards dogmatic over-simplifications and be wary of overly prescriptive, bright-line advice.

* It’s always interesting how Jesus is written to have claimed he came to free man from the law. Yet Christianity, via any number of particular denominations like Catholicism or Protestantism all adhere to stringent rules and edicts.

** I can’t help but wonder if its just easier to prescribe negative advice than positive advice even though both are likely to instill dogmatic behaviors.

Further reading

Ignoring the Importance of Fermented Foods (Inuit Paradox)…id-eskimos-eat/

Seth Roberts dug up some 1935 research that discusses the prevalence of fermented fish and oils in the Eskimo/Inuit diet. That research in combination with the observed “Inuit Paradox” (The Inuit diet consisting almost entirely of meat and Omega-3 rich fish fat) incited further research into the cardiovascular benefits of Omega-3 fatty acids. Roberts point, which he’s made before regarding Weston Price’s findings, is that little attention has been paid to the fermented aspect of these ancient human diets.

As someone who regularly reads numerous blogs that discuss evolutionary fitness, diet, paleo-diets, etc., I can attest that Roberts is right: the fermented food angle is overwhelmingly ignored by people who should know better, with the notable exception of Stephen at Whole Health Source (Maybe one or two others have mentioned fermented foods in passing, but it is overwhelmingly given short shrift).

When I say the Paleo/evohealth pundits should know better, I mean that it just makes intuitive sense (whether the back-fitting story is ultimately true or not) that, prior to refrigeration and other modern food preservation technologies, human beings would have been forced to eat fermented foods. This would be for no other reason than the fact that (for example) a band of humans probably couldn’t polish off a wooly mammoth in one sitting. There would be leftovers; and no way were these hunter-gatherers going to let that hard-earned food go to waste!

Apply the same concept to fruits and vegetables ripening at a certain times of the year as well as other food-timing problems and you reach the unavoidable conclusion that human beings must have regularly eaten rotten or semi-rotten foods.

I suspect Seth Roberts is on to something.

[At first, Stefansson didn’t want to eat decayed fish.] While it is good form [in America] to eat decayed milk products and decayed game [well, well], it is very bad form to eat decayed fish. . . . If it is almost a mark of social distinction to be able to eat strong cheeses with a straight face and smelly birds with relish, why is it necessarily a low taste to be fond of decaying fish? On that basis of philosophy, though with several qualms, I tried the rotten fish one day, and if memory serves, liked it better than my first taste of Camembert. During the next weeks I became fond of rotten fish.

So Eskimos ate fermented whale oil and a lot of rotten fish. (”A lot” because if they didn’t eat a lot of it, Steffanson wouldn’t have felt pressure to eat it.) I had no idea that Americans used to eat decayed game.

Video of Old Stunt Man (Not Georges Hebert)

For all things Erwan Le Corre, MovNat, Methode Naturelle, Georges Hebert that I’ve been tracking, be sure to see this Link Repository

Below is a short video of a stunt man that is being billed as a video of Georges Hebert, the French navy man who founded Methode Naturelle back in the early 20th century and originated parkour* (Perhaps Hebert was the original traceur). It’s a cool video, even though it’s not Hebert. The stunt man bounds up trees, walls, pipes, and makes any number of insane leaps into bodies of water.

There are two “tells” that this isn’t Hebert. The first is that the motto of Methode Naturelle was:

“Être fort pour être utile”–”Being strong to be useful.”

Carrying a kid up a parallel wall to show off — nifty, impressive, dangerous, but not really useful!

The second tell was really that I got told or tipped off by Erwan that this isn’t Hebert, and it really should have been obvious. In Erwan’s words:

I’ve noticed your link to the so-called Methode Naturelle founder. This is not AT ALL Georges Hebert, this is an old footage I think of a movie called Gizmo.

Hebert was born in 1875 and got badly injured (his right arm paralyzed) in 1914. There’s no video footage of him! The guy is a stuntman, pretty talented (the tree climbing is nice, but obviously sped up though). In any case, not Hebert, but a cool illustration of the practical side of natural movement, even though the kid carrying is I think not very smart, great skill, but if the guy had fell, the boy could have died just to show off…

Glad he told me even though I feel like a horse’s pa toot for being gullible enough to think it was Hebert (From my original post). Alas, still a neat video, and you gotta love the goofy old-time music:

H/T CF by Imperium

*Though you could argue that parkour originated with our innate nature as human beings who had to be strong to be useful.

Omega-3/6 Fats, Skin, and Skin Cancer


Interesting stuff from Stephen at Whole Health Source on Thai skin being observed as nice, and inferring that the type of fats Thais eat (High saturated – coconut oil and lard) being the predominant reason. Stephen goes on to look at studies into linoleic acid (Omega-6, high amounts found in vegetable oils) and the anti-inflammatory/anti-cancer properties of Omega-3 fatty acids.

Some good stuff at WHS, per usual.

A series of semi-purified diets containing 20% fat by weight, of increasing proportions (0, 5%, 10%, 15% or 20%) of polyunsaturated sunflower oil mixed with hydrogenated saturated cottonseed oil, was fed to groups of Skh:HR-1 hairless mice during induction and promotion of photocarcinogenesis. The photocarcinogenic response was of increasing severity as the polyunsaturated content of the mixed dietary fat was increased, whether measured as tumour incidence, tumour multiplicity, progression of benign tumours to squamous cell carcinoma, or reduced survival… These results suggest that the enhancement of photocarcinogenesis by the dietary polyunsaturated fat component is mediated by an induced predisposition to persistent immunosuppression caused by the chronic UV irradiation, and supports the evidence for an immunological role in dietary fat modulation of photocarcinogenesis in mice.

In other words, UV-induced cancer increased in proportion to the linoleic acid content of the diet, because linoleic acid suppresses the immune system’s cancer-fighting ability! …

It doesn’t end at skin cancer. In animal models, a number of cancers are highly sensitive to the amount of linoleic acid in the diet, including breast cancer. Once again, butter beats margarine and vegetable oils….

Conversely, omega-3 fish oil protects against skin cancer in the hairless mouse, even in large amounts. In another study, not only did fish oil protect against skin cancer, it doubled the amount of time researchers had to expose the mice to UV light to cause sunburn!

Human Happiness, the Human Condition, and our Hunter-Gatherer Forebears

Bruce Charlton has made his a final proof of his 1999 book Psychiatry and the Human Condition available online in its entirety. The book book is described as, “an optimistic vision of a superior alternative approach to psychiatric illness and its treatment, drawing upon modern neuroscience and evolutionary theory.” From the parts of the book I’ve managed to read so far, this book could well be worth reading in full.

The part I’d like to focus on here is Charlton’s discussion of hunter-gatherers and their relative happiness. The subject of happiness and the human condition from a psychiatry/psychology perspective is of keen interest to me right now as I am just finishing up Daniel Gilbert’s Stumbling on Happiness (Also see recent discussion on Is Technology Making us Miserable?).

Charlton’s take is that H-G societies were “leisured and egalitarian” and H-Gs experienced a “Golden Age for humans.” Though I’ve yet to read it all, Charlton says that the “scanty” evidence available to support this statement is “consistent and unambiguous.” I believe part of the evidence is the apparent diminished health of agrarian societies combined with the greater stratification of class and status systems brought about by division of labor. That agrarian societies would migrate voluntarily to cities to partake in the industrial-mercantile society just furthers the argument.

I intuit that the hyper-specialization and -isolation experienced by modern human beings doesn’t fit with our evolutionary programming, even as it provides us with amazing new technology and toys. Having said that, I see no reason a balance can’t be struck between the perks of modern existence (technology) and the biological programming of functional/fulfilling community (family) and a more generalist approach to productive activities.

More on this later. And I have more reading to do. In the meantime, read the two bits from Charlton’s book below, which discuss in detail relative degrees of happiness and whether or not the human condition (which Charlton argues hasn’t been designed to be happy) can be improved.

From Chapter 1, Psychiatry and the human condition

Degrees of happiness

The lifestyle of nomadic foragers involve little forward economic planning beyond the communal decisions over when and where to move camp, and the logistics of hunting and gathering. This means that most problems of life related to the social realm – especially around the question of competition for mates – and this lay behind the power struggles, disagreement, discussions and violence. And the primacy of social life in hunter gatherer societies is what has been the decisive force in human evolutionary history – the main focus for natural selection is within-species, human versus human competition.

In summary, the ancestral hunter gatherers experienced a way of life that was – in world historical terms – leisured and egalitarian, and enjoyed health and life expectancy at a high level. Of the three kinds of society as described by Gellner: hunter-gatherer, agrarian, and mercantile, it is probable that hunter-gatherers had the best life, overall. Hunter gatherer societies are the happiest and peasant societies are the most miserable – while industrial-mercantile societies such as our own lie somewhere in between.

That, at any rate, is the conclusion of anthropologist Jerome Barkow – and his opinion is widely confirmed by the reports of many independent anthropologists who have experienced the alternatives of foraging, agrarian and industrial society. The ‘naturalness’ of nomadic foraging is also shown by differences in the harshness of child rearing practices in different types of society. Child rearing involves varying elements of forcible training that are necessary to prepare children for their social role. Peasant societies typically employ extremely repressive forms of socialization, extreme discipline, restriction, and the use of child labour. Industrial mercantile societies (such as our own) are much less tough on children – but still require many unnatural behaviors (eg. sitting in classrooms or examination halls for long periods of time without speaking or moving). But nomadic foragers are able and willing to give their children even more freedom than the most liberal ‘modern parent’ – and such a relaxed upbringing of unstructured interaction with peers apparently prepares the child properly for the adult life to come.

Another line of evidence is patterns of voluntary migration. When industrial mercantile societies develop, they are popular with the miserable peasantry of agrarian societies who flee the land and crowd the cities, if given the chance. Not so the happier hunter gatherers who typically must be coerced into joining industrial life. My great grandparents left their lives as rural peasants and converged from hundreds of miles and several countries to work the coal mines of Northumberland. They swapped the open sky, fields and trees for a life underground and inhabiting dingy rows of colliery houses. Being a miner in the early twentieth century must have been grim, but apparently it was not so bad as being an agricultural laborer.

From a psychiatric perspective, then, there are sharp differences between ancestral societies and modern societies. In terms of their general social situation modern humans are faced with a wide range of new problems – although we console ourselves that for the bulk of the population life is much better in an industrial mercantile society than in a warrior-dominated medieval peasantry. Nevertheless we now live in a mass society, full of strangers who there is no reason to trust since they are neither family nor friends. Although resources are vastly more abundant, resources are linked to status and there are massive inequalities in their distribution.

This means that there is a much higher proportion of intractably low status people in modern societies than in the societies in which humans evolved. Since status is the most important factor in determining a man’s sexual attractiveness, this is a major source of dissatisfaction. Men will devote enormous effort and take great risks in pursuit of the highest status, but for most people in delayed return economies the odds are stacked heavily against them succeeding.

Improving human happiness?

Even if, somehow, the impossible were achieved and humans returned to the kind of egalitarian, immediate return, foraging societies in which we spent much of our recent evolutionary history – then unhappiness would still be common and intractable. Humans did not evolve to be happy – natural selection rewards reproductive success, not happiness. Happiness is – from this perspective – merely the ‘carrot’ which compliments the ‘stick’ of pain – a lure to draw us onwards, to make us strive – but happiness is a reward that we can never permanently grasp nor enjoy at leisure.

So much for the bad news. Happiness drives us, it is not a permanent state. And this really is bad news because there is little we can do about it, short of changing human nature. The good news is that this might prove possible – at least to some extent. Just as human ingenuity has landed us in the predicament of a sub-optimal modern human life, so the same ingenuity has proved a range of technologies of gratification through which we can attain a variety of surrogate satisfactions. – something that will be discussed more towards the end of this book .

Essentially the broad shape of society and its possibilities for happiness are the way they are for reasons that are accidental, unplanned, and intractable. We inhabit a society that grants few satisfactions and offers limited possibilities of fulfillment. It is also a society in which psychiatric symptoms are endemic and a major cause of human misery. In our favour we have increasing knowledge of the causes of human misery, including the understanding of psychiatric illness, and increased power to alleviate that misery provided by the armamentarium of psychopharmacology. All this understanding and therapeutic potential has arisen within the past few decades, and we have hardly learned how to use it.

My point is that the human condition of Western man is intractable in its fundamentals, but amenable to improvement in important ways. Things are worse than they might be. One aim of this book is to explore some of these means of improvement, and to do this will require an evaluation of the extent and nature of psychiatric illness.

The purpose of this book is therefore to suggest how knowledge and technology might be deployed to ameliorate the human condition. We are not talking about utopia, but we are talking about the potential for significant and worthwhile improvements in well-being for substantial numbers of people. However, power can be used for many purposes. And potential agents for good are almost inevitably also potential agents for harm. The possibilities for benefit from psychopharmacology is, although not universal, nevertheless immense. Whether these benefits can be realized under prevailing social conditions is altogether a different matter.

(H/T Mangan’s via Patri)

Day in the Life of a Hunter-Gatherer…7GZycC&pg=PA180

I have not read much of Loren Cordain’s works, but I stumbled upon a passage from Rafe Kelley’s Natural Athletics blog (here) that appears to be quoted from Chapter 10 of Cordain’s book, The Paleo Diet for Athletics, which just landed a place on my ever-growing Amazon wish list.

The passage is quoted below, as quoted from Google Books and Kelley. It’s a fascinating insight to how some hunter-gatherers still forage for food in modern times. The bit about anthropologist Kim Hill’s experiences ducking beneath vines and branches all day reminds me of a sequence in Erwan Le Corre’s MovNat video (ELC MovNat links here) where Le Corre dashes through the woods weaving a path through the underbrush.

What I wonder (And expect a full-scale blog post on this soon) is how we can find a balance between our extremely specialized modern existence when foraging for food means driving to Kroger and hunting is playing corporate politics and pushing for a raise and our undeniable biological programming that expects us to be active, problem-solving generalists. As far as diet goes, it’s simple enough to suggest exercise should involve cross-training and wide variability. But what about fitness? A one-hour workout session makes for a nice compartmentalized way to look and feel in shape, but it makes exercise an end in and of itself rather than a means to secure our continued existence.

I don’t want to run eight hours a day, mind you: I just want to find a better, more fulfilling balance.

Chapter 10 — The Paleolithic Athlete: The Original Cross-Trainer

Ten thousand years sounds like a long, long time ago. but if you think about it in terms of how logn the human genus (Homo) has existed (2.5 million years), 10,000 years is a mere blink of the eye on an evolutionary time scale. Somewhere in the Middle East about 10,000 years ago, a tiny band of people threw in the towel and abandoned their hunter-gatherer lifestyle. These early renegades became the very first farmers. They forsook a mode of life that had sustained each and every individual within the human genus for the previous 100,000 generations. In contrast only a paltry 400 human generations have come and gone since the first seeds of agriculture were sown. what started off as a renegade way of making a living became a revolution that would guarantee the complete and absolute eradication of every remaining hunter-gatherer on the planet. At the dawn of the 21st century, we are at the bitter end. Except for perhaps a half dozen uncontacted tribes in South America and a few others on the Andaman Islands in the Bay of Bengal, pure hunter-gatherers have vanished from the face of the earth. . . .

Very few modern people have ever experienced what it is like to “run with the hunt.” One of the notable exceptions is Kim Hill, PhD, an anthropologist at the University of New Mexico who has spent the last 30 years living with and studying the Ache hunter-gatherers of Paraguay and the Hiwi foragers of southwestern Venezuela. his description of these amazing hunts represents a rare glimpse into the activity patterns that would have been required of us all, were it not for the Agricultural Revolution.

“The Ache hunted every day of the year if it didn’t rain…GPS data I collected … suggests that about 10 km per day is probably closer to their average distance covered during search. They might cover another 1-2 km per day in very rapid pursuit. Sometimes pursuits can be extremely strenuous and last more than an hour. Ache hunters often take an easy day after any particularly difficult day, and rainfall forces them to take a day or two a week with only an hour or two of exercise. Basically they do moderate days most of the time, and sometimes really hard days usually followed by a very easy day. The difficulty of the terrain is really what killed me (ducking under low branches and vines about once every 20 seconds all day long, and climbing over fallen trees, moving through tangled thorns etc.) I was often drenched in sweat within an hour of leaving camp, and usually didn’t return for 7-9 hours wi th not more than 30 minutes rest during the day.”

“The Hiwi on the other hand only hunted about 2-3 days a week and often told me they wouldn’t go out on a particular day because they were ‘tired’. They would stay home and work on tools, etc. Their travel was not as strenuous as among the Ache (they often canoed to the hunt site), and their pursuits were usually shorter. But the Hiwi sometimes did amazing long distance walks that would have really hurt the Ache. They would walk to visit another village maybe 80-100 km away and then stay for only an hour or two before returning. This often included walking all night long as well as during the day. When I hunted with Machiguenga, Yora, Yanomamo Indians in the 1980s, my focal man days were much, much easier than with the Ache. And virtually all these groups take an easy day after a particularly difficult one.”

“While hunter gatherers are generally in good physical condition if they haven’t yet been exposed to modern diseases and diets that come soon after permanent outside contact, I would not want to exaggerate their abilities. They are what you would expect if you took a genetic cross section of humans and put them in lifetime physical training at moderate to hard levels. Most hunting is search time not pursuit, thus a good deal of aerobic long distance travel is often involved (over rough terrain and carrying loads if the hunt is successful). I used to train for marathons as a grad student and could run at a 6:00 per mile pace for 10 miles, but the Ache would run me into the ground following peccary tracks through dense bush for a couple of hours. I did the 100 yd in 10.2 in high school (I was a fast pass catcher on my football team), and some Ache men can sprint as fast as me.”

“But hunter-gatherers do not generally compare to world class athletes, who are probably genetically very gifted and then undergo even more rigorous and specialized training than any forager. So the bottom lines is foragers are often in good shape and they look it. They sprint, jog, climb, carry, jump, etc all day long but are not specialists and do not compare to Olympic athletes in modern societies.”

The blockquoted material within the blockquote is from Rafe Kelley’s Natural Athletics.

Is Technology Making us Miserable?…-miserable.html

An article surfaced on sometime in February (I think based on comment dates) by David Wong titled “7 Reasons the 21st Century is Making You Miserable“. It’s since made the top of Digg as well as making the rounds throughout the blogosphere. The premise of the article is that modern technology is making us miserable, lonely people. Despite the sad subject matter, it’s humorously written and worth the read.

Overall, I think Wong makes some good points. The overarching theme is one of technological isolation.

Captured in Wong’s “#3. Texting is a shitty way to communicate.” the Internet creates the tendency to rely on text-based communication over communicating by phone (better) or in-person (best). This is likely due to the control text-based communication affords — if someone calls you and you answer, you fit your life to their demands. If they email you, you can email them back whenever and put their demands on your schedule. Additionally, we have greater control over what we say in a text-based world, which means that we can shield our emotions better (among other things). Ironically, despite the care people put into wording emails and text-based communication to only say so much, the article goes on to point out how terribly inefficient text-based communication is. I can’t argue with this in the least as I’m daily confronted with my own preference of email over phone calls (even when I recognize the inefficiency) and see horrendous miscommunications resulting from loss of tone, misreading, etc. As Wong notes in his related “#4. Online company only makes us lonelier.”:

There’s a weird side effect to [living in Text World], too: absent a sense of the other person’s mood [experienced through body language and tone of voice], every line we read gets filtered through our own mood instead.

As I’m learning right now in Daniel Gilbert’s Stumbling on Happiness, our brains inevitably filter feelings about the past or present (or whatever) based on our current mood. How much more amplified is this when the only communication inputs we receive are text-based?

Continuing my out-of-order analysis, Wong lists the related problems of “#1. We don’t have enough annoying strangers in our lives.”, “#2. We don’t have enough annoying friends, either.”, and “#5. We don’t get criticized enough.” These all relate to our enhanced ability to pick and choose the people with whom we associate over the Internet. The Internet has an amazing power to bring like-minded individuals to the same table where they all reinforce each other’s beliefs, congratulate themselves on their insights, and chide anyone who disagrees with them. This happens big-time in the blogosphere from what I’ve seen. For examples, just find any established political, health, or finance blog. The problem here is that we are empowered to surround ourselves with people who never challenge our beliefs or make us uncomfortable. Change is uncomfortable and the price of sound ideas is constantly holding them to the fire to be tested. How do you do that if you effectively surround yourself with yes-men?

The flip-side benefit, of course, is immense: the Internet enables people with uncommon beliefs to find other like-minded folks.

Also, anyone who has spent any measured time on Internet forums can attest to the wide abundance of annoying people that you simply cannot escape. If you spend any time on forums (and even if you generally avoid them, they are still a fact of Internet life you’ll inevitably encouter), you will encounter annoying people who are nothing like you. Even when you can mute certain forum members, you still can’t completely isolate yourself from people you don’t like.

I’ve got little to say about “#6. We’re victims of the Outrate Machine.” It is probably part of the human condition for us to want to see/read about misery. It makes us feel better about our lives, after all. Sad, but true. So that we see all sorts of gloom and doom sites on the Internet? That’s just par for the course. The only difference is that people with crazy ideas (Conspiracy theorists) are now empowered to find each other and then self-reinforce within their group their own bizarre viewpoints. But perhaps like the abundance of porn apparently reducing violent sex crimes, maybe the ability for wackos to find each other and exchange high-fives about their strange theories will reduce the likelihood of domestic terrorism. Hard to say.

Finally, Wong’s “#7. We feel worthleses, because we actually are worth less.” reminds me of this huge graphical “how to” guide titled “How to not fail at life.” The gist of both Wong’s observation and the humorous graphic guide is that human beings are not hardwired to exist in isolation, doing everything for ourselves, and nothing for our friends. When our friends only exist in digital form, there’s just only so much we can do to engage them. It’s like the 20 birthday messages you get via Facebook. All these people see it’s your birthday and write on your wall. Does it make us feel better? Maybe. It’s possible it makes us feel worse — after all, this sort of communication takes so little effort and is so transparently prescribed as to feel hollow and worthless.

There is probably more to say here, and I’m very skeptical that overall we aren’t incredibly better off thanks to the communication empowered through the Internet. However, Wong’s points are well taken and stark reminders that technology affords us the ability to isolate ourselves, be lazy friends, and pretend to have a “real” life and “real” friends, when in the end, most of our online buddies will disappear just as soon as we stop posting on our forums or blogs or facebook pages. A balance needs to be struck between realspace and our virtual worlds.

Here’s Wong’s conclusion:

It ain’t rocket science; you are a social animal and thus you are born with little happiness hormones that are released into your bloodstream when you see a physical benefit to your actions. Think about all those teenagers in their dark rooms, glued to their PC’s, turning every life problem into ridiculous melodrama. Why do they make those cuts on their arms? It’s because making the pain-and subsequent healing-tangible releases endorphins they don’t get otherwise. It’s pain, but at least it’s real.

That form of stress relief via mild discomfort used to be part of our daily lives, via our routine of hunting gazelles and gathering berries and climbing rocks and fighting bears. No more. This is why office jobs make so many of us miserable; we don’t get any physical, tangible result from our work. But do construction out in the hot sun for two months, and for the rest of your life you can drive past a certain house and say, “Holy shit, I built that.” Maybe that’s why mass shootings are more common in offices than construction sites.

It’s the kind of physical, dirt-under-your-nails satisfaction that you can only get by turning off the computer, going outdoors and re-connecting with the real world. That feeling, that “I built that” or “I grew that” or “I fed that guy” or “I made these pants” feeling, can’t be matched by anything the internet has to offer.

(H/T Patri)

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