Friday, January 18, 2013

Death Is Taxing

Dr Mrs Wombat directs me to Eben Alexander, MD, a neurosurgeon, who had a near-death experience while suffering from E. coli meningitis, and writes about it in his book, 'Proof of Heaven'.  The Brigham was the place where Harvey Cushing MD, perhaps America's most distinguished and influential neurosurgeon, practiced; there's no more historically significant venue for the craft in this country.  Unsurprisingly, his colleagues, and most who reject the supernatural, dismiss his story as a product of physiological phenomena rather than evidence of an afterlife, while those already convinced are bolstered in their beliefs.  Here's a cite to the book on Amazon, with multiple reviews worth a look as well:

Dr Alexander now runs a web site,, which I'll admit pushes my BS meter off zero, though that's probably prejudice on my part.  I should say I'm a gentle agnostic, who accepts decency from liberal religion and the possibility of the supernatural without requiring it to explain the universe as I see it.  And a neurosurgeon isn't likely to be warm, fuzzy and woo-promoting.

I'm left with, yet again, the notion that death is a very difficult thing to face.  Kubler-Ross's dream of a good death, surrounded by loved ones, stages gone through and an amicable separation from the lost object of life, seems to me after my decades practicing surgery to be an a priori aspiration rarely if ever followed through in the actual event, when people tend not to go gentle into that good night.  And people think of death a particular way--religious, political, personal, mythic, tribal, all of the above, trying to deal with the impossibility of knowing death, with its finality, its sometimes cruelty, its appalling contingency.  And a challenge to someone's take on death is likely to be rejected as threatening, rather than embraced as an enlargement of possibility.

Me, now, in my sixties, I don't fear death at all, not nearly as much as living too long.  But that's in the abstract.  I happen to have a narrow heart valve, which I'm told will require replacement sometime in the next 5-10 years.  They'd put me to sleep, stop my heart, open things up and replace my narrow valve with a mechanism, or a valve taken from a biological source like a pig.  Then they'd (mostly) restart my heart, sew me up and I'd be fine.  Mortality from the operation is around 1-3%.  The day before they operate, if it indeed comes to that, ask me again...

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Don't Ask A Question, You Might Get An Answer

Today Pres. Obama overturned a fifteen year ban forbidding the Centers for Disease Control from researching gun violence. I was not aware such a thing existed. But, then, it's been illegal for pediatricians to inquire if a gun was present in a patient's house in Florida, too. There's ignorance of fact. There's denial of fact. And then there's fear of fact. How can one react to this with other than outrage and contempt?

Friday, January 11, 2013

Boldly Going

Formaldehyde and other organic molecules were found in interstellar dust clouds decades ago. They're used down here routinely to synthesize stuff. Give 'em a little radiation and a few billion years, they might amount to something. Maybe already have. Which raises the question: has Donald Trump provided his toupee's birth certificate yet?

Friday, January 4, 2013

Economics: Is That All There Is?

Mark Thoma's blog today cites an article by Justin Fox, suggesting that economics has imposed itself and its methods on other social sciences, with an unwonted triumphalism and claim to physics-like precision and certainties begging for skepticism:

...The financial crisis and subsequent economic downturn — which Lazear somewhat infamously downplayed while in office — have put a big dent in the credibility of the macro side of the discipline. The issue isn't that economists have nothing interesting to say about the crisis. It's that they have so many different things to say about it. As MIT financial economist Andrew Lo found after reading 11 accounts of the crisis by academic economists (along with nine by journalists, plus former Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson's personal account), there is massive disagreement not just on why the crisis happened but on what actually happened. "Many of us like to think of financial economics as a science," Lo wrote, "but complex events like the financial crisis suggest that this conceit may be more wishful thinking than reality."

Part of the issue is that Lazear's description of the scientific way in which economics supposedly works (state a theory, test it, revise) doesn't really apply in the case of a once-in-a-lifetime financial crisis. I tend to think it doesn't apply for macroeconomics in general. As economist Paul Samuelson is said to have said, "We have but one sample of history." Meaning that you can never get truly scientific answers out of GDP or unemployment numbers...

What's going on is probably not the incipient overthrow of economics. As described by Lazear, its imperialistic power has in large part been the result of its uniformity of approach over the past half century. (That, and economists have actually been right about some things.) As best I can tell, there is no such methodological consensus in sociology, political science, anthropology, or history at the moment. But the economists' consensus is wobblier than it's been in a while (especially in macro), there is ample motive for insurrection, and the non-economists' stores of intellectual ammunition are growing. Economics may well have reached the stage of imperial overstretch. Interesting times lie ahead.

The models economists use oft conceal simplistic assumptions within sophisticated mathematics, acquiring a veneer of precision to which they're not entitled.  Some date back to admiration of 19th century statistical thermodynamics.   Many claim economics' primacy not only in describing resources, allocation, transactions and so on, but in politics, even morality and ethics.  'Freakonomics' and its brethren claim economic reasoning as superior across wildly broad areas of human interaction.

Tony Judt, in 'Ill Fares The Land',  decries as 'economism' the notion that economics is not only necessary in human affairs, but sufficient.  He points out that decisions are made, or should be made, on other than economic grounds, that political life and citizens' conduct requires discourse involving more than economics.  Not all can be quantified or modelled.  Not all should be.  Unwarranted attempts to do so are usually out of ideology rather than discussion and compromise, and oft obscure solutions and worsen problems.  And neither do they feel right to those of us who are trying to do the right thing for real people with real problems.

Monday, December 31, 2012

The Perps Get Away With It Again

JP Morgan Chase, Citigroup, Wells Fargo, Ally Financial and Bank of America have, per the Times, agreed to a $10 billion settlement with respect to, er, 'irregularities':

Banking regulators are close to a $10 billion settlement with 14 banks that would end the government’s efforts to hold lenders responsible for foreclosure abuses like faulty paperwork and excessive fees that may have led to evictions, according to people with knowledge of the discussions.

Under the settlement, a significant amount of the money, $3.75 billion, would go to people who have already lost their homes, making it potentially more generous to former homeowners than a broad-reaching pact in February between state attorneys general and five large banks. That set aside $1.5 billion in cash relief for Americans.

 Ten billion dollars is chump change to these people and their corporations, an entirely acceptable cost of doing business.  They're laughing at our naivete, and toasting each other's robust financial good health, as we speak. And nobody's doing jail time, nobody's admitting to criminal activity. Nothing, but nothing, will change in any substantive, institutional sense. They've largely gotten away with it. Again.  When new calculations arise, they'll go for the new scam, make trillions, concede a billion or two and move on, leaving the rest of us under water. Nothing is more predictable.

Sunday, December 30, 2012

Ross Douthat Suggests Balance

His column today, titled 'How to Read', actually describes what to read, including sources from the side of the debate other than one's own.  He doesn't describe how to read--skeptically, willing to question facts and suspicious of naked ideology, demanding a piece which can continue a conversation.

But he neither admits, in the slightest, how entirely unreasonable, hateful and crazed much rightie commentary is, and how few rightie voices rise in protest.  I've been following politics for 50 years from the left and center-left. It's now gospel (sic) on the right that Obama is a crypto-Muslim Kenyan socialist bent on destroying the country, that national health insurance is a step towards Soviet tyranny, that our liberties depend on the availability of 100-round magazines to any citizen, that Europe is an unspeakably horrible example of the failiure of socialism, that talking diplomacy with other than allies is pusillanimous surrender, that government help is an oxymoron, that anthropogenic global warming is a statist conspiracy and that environmentalism is an anticapitalist pseudoscientific religion. Any Republican disagreeing with any of this will be challenged in a primary he/she can't win. Any right wing commenter who suggests that, for instance, Rush Limbaugh was a bit much when he told a black woman to take the bone out of her nose, or Jonah Goldberg when he blamed fascism on liberals, or Ann Coulter when she celebrated Joe McCarthy, is cast out. And Ayn Rand is taken seriously.

I get all that reading rightie sources, and a lot more as bad or worse. And I haven't even touched on the gold standard and fiat currency, or potted female physiology, homophobia, on and on. None of this is stuff I can take seriously, except as pathological.  There's Fred Hoyle and Georges LeMaitre arguing about cosmology; then there's Immanuel Velikovsky.  And there's a difference between 'Here's my view, based on the following facts and logic.  What do you think?' and 'You're a fucking idiot.'  Douthat pretends to a symmetry that simply isn't there.

cite to his article:

Saturday, December 29, 2012

O Science! I cannot hold thee close enough...

I found the below in a review of Oliver Sacks' 'Hallucinations' in the Times this morning:

The idea of a “romantic science” can be traced to Goethe. The German philosopher, poet and scientist opposed a mechanistic, analytical science of static categories for a fluid and organic one. A. R. Luria, the 20th-century Soviet neurologist, who was a mentor to and friend of Sacks, evoked the tension between “romantic” and “classical” science in his intellectual autobiography, “The Making of Mind.” “Romantic scholars,” he wrote, “do not follow the path of reductionism.” Instead they strive “to preserve the wealth of living reality.” Classical scholars work piecemeal toward the formulation of abstract laws, and in the process they sometimes “murder to dissect.” Romantics may err in the other direction when their “artistic preferences and intuition” take over. Luria sought a middle ground — a science that preserves the part without losing the synthetic whole. This is not an easy balance to achieve, but for Sacks, unlike many clinicians in his field, it remains an ideal.

Seems to me there's something important going on in this.  One looks in vain, I think, for morality in nature, which simply is.  Then there's looking at nature, which science is about.  The word 'holistic' is used romantically as if it's remotely possible to imagine that science/medicine should be excluded when embracing the totality of existence, as if one can't study trees without destroying the forest.   And the romantic era's embrace of science, superbly documented in Richard Holmes' 'The Age of Wonder', is oft forgot in an uncritical celebration of Enlightenment 'virtues' at the expense of romanticism.  Emotion and rationality are oft contrasted as if they're not only unambiguously separable, but inevitably inimical to each other.  I think that's a mistake.