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.