Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Joy of free thinking

Free thinking is good for your health because it is real stuff, based on science, and more than a placebo. This is my conclusion after ten months of blogging here at Med Journal Watch and after some posts about the placebo effect of religion and its common traits with quackery.

I have learnt a lot, plunged into tons of medical science news stuff and tried to sort out the most relevant of it. My skepticism has grown steadily, and I more and more considered the broad scope of my blog a weakness. I felt like I should put more focus, and this focus has been more and more on mind and brain, psychology, freethought, religion, philosophy and the like.

As a consequence, I've chosen to discontinue Med Journal Watch and take my exit to a new blog: Free Thinking Joy. Feel free to follow me and think with me, and to subscribe to my new feed.

Of course, Med Journal Watch will remain strictly under my control, serving as an old archive.

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Tuesday, January 29, 2008

One single cigarette may be addictive

Be warned against just trying it out because as little as one cigarette may be sufficient to get you hooked on nicotine. For all those who might have thought this danger to be low - me included, I must admit, before I have come across this study on diminished autonomy over tobacco - it is high time to learn that 25 to 30 percent of all young people, after having lit up once, feel some troubles not to light up a second and third time. With as little as one cigarette every one or two months, the addiction rate is as high as 46 percent!

Addiction, or loss of autonomy, has been defined in this study as a feeling of unpleasantness or difficulty towards quitting. And the data base is sufficient for a strong conclusion: More than ninety thousand young students aged fourteen and fifteen have been interviewed in New Zealand.

In retrospect, I consider myself a very, very lucky guy. I have been smoking a few but heavy cigarettes daily, about two decades ago, but not for longer than several weeks until I felt an unpleasant tightness and weakness in my lungs. Caused me to stop from one day to another. I am the exception to the rule. Don't follow me. Period.

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Monday, January 28, 2008

The subtle balance of human cooperation

free riders
Cooperation between strangers can only evolve if the cost of altruistic punishment is low and its impact on free riders is high. This is the result of a web based Dutch experiment with more than eight hundred participants where the cost of altruistic punishment and the impact on free riders have been varied, using real money in a public game.

It came out that the decision whether to punish free riders or not depends on a mix of emotion and cost to impact calculation. On the emotional side, a free rider provokes negative feelings in cooperative subjects. But before the subjects take action, they calculate the cost to impact ratio of the punishment. Cooperation only occurs if the level of free riding that goes unpunished is relatively low, and this in turn depends on a favourable cost to impact ratio.

Altruistic punishment costs the punisher some amount of effort, for instance time, emotional or physical energy, a risk of being attacked, maybe even money, without any direct personal benefit. The benefit is only indirect, serving the group as a whole. And this group typically is a group of strangers, only united by concordant interests.

Altruistic punishment can only lead to cooperation if reputation and reciprocity are important in the group of strangers, and if it is easily possible to opt out, that is, not to participate in any activity of the group.

The case of science, quacks, and skeptics

The success of science in modern world has prompted quacks to use pseudo science as a vehicle of free riding, and unfortunately they sometimes even manage to act against the only viable countermeasure, altruistic punishment. Skeptics play an important role in keeping up a high quality science by cooperation of all those who really use their brains, unmasking pseudo science, calling quacks quacks and exposing their fraudulent tricks in public. Even at the risk of lawsuits.

There has been a sad day recently when a self-appointed "professor" and leader of an "institute", Joseph Chikelue Obi, has managed to silence our skeptic colleague Le Canard Noir at Quackometer Blog. After having threatened the web service provider of Quackometer with a million pound lawsuit, Obi has won the first round of the game: Le Canard Noir has been forced to take down his critical remarks.

But there is a second round, fortunately. Many bloggers of the skeptical community have reposted the article that has been deleted from Quackometer, the first copy I have found is at Steven Novella's Neurologica Blog, and also Orac has reposted, and more than thirty others. It's worth following these links.

So, at last, I hope to gain back my confidence that altruistic punishment of quacks is still working.

Sunday, January 27, 2008

Would you like to become a digital zombie?

The survival instinct of the human mind is so strong that the idea of afterlife has survived religion and entered freethought in the twilight zone between science fiction and science facts. Why else would Steven Novella, a leading skeptic, post a long article on digital immortality plus follow-up? I have come across this old post (published a year ago) while gathering information about the fact that mind is linked to our brain and will die definitely with our brain.

Steven has put very interesting thoughts into the question whether and how a digital copy of the brain could be made and stored in a computer of the future. I like to go a step further and assume that it could be done: Would I want to have my mind digitally cloned for infinite survival?

I have a certain weakness for this type of reasoning. A couple of days ago, in a blitz chess tournament, I have wasted about half a minute contemplating whether I should want to give my Queen for two Rooks, only to become aware that this has been my only option. Fortunately, I kept enough time to checkmate my opponent with my two Rooks. Back to life: I am quite sure that my only option is the definite end of my mind after death. But Steven's science fiction stuff has fascinated me, so it may be appropriate to propose the desirability question for the hypothetical option.

Are we our brain, really?

Every tiny bit of feeling, emotion, consciousness, reasoning, and memory is produced by our brain. So are we our brain? I strongly hesitate, and the longer I think about it, the more skeptical I get. Suppose a leg is amputated. I still can feel phantom pain. But it would be very hard to produce all the feelings and impressions provided by the skin, the muscles, and the joints of my leg. Amputate the whole body and keep the brain alive in a perfect nutrient solution, then it becomes virtually impossible to reproduce all the lost input and make the brain believe that it still has its own body. Let alone the simulation of the whole environment. Thus, should it ever be possible to clone a mind, its situation would be pretty like that of an isolated brain in a nutrient solution.

Digitally undead, can this be called life?

I strongly doubt that a thing digitally cloned from my mind to a supercomputer still would be "me". I guess I should not bother of this clone's fate and happiness because this is his (its) business and not mine.

But let me be altruistic. Would the life of this digital zombie be worth living? Either it would be sort of an endless dream where he would not miss his body and his environment because these sensations would be produced by the mind itself. Really? I think even in dreaming our body is active and gives input, so a complicated software environment may be necessary to maintain such a digital dream.

But what about waking the zombie up? Then it will be necessary to provide a complete second life environment. And I guess that just avatars won't do. Our mind has evolved hand in hand with a body interface, it will hardly be working well without it. Maybe not at all without it. A digital mind zombie will not be able to interact with another mind zombie because neither of them has a body.

The torture of solitary confinement

Solitary confinement violates a fundamental human right. It is torture. Yet the victim of such a torture is much better off than a digital mind zombie: He has his own body, he has a poor environment but still a much richer one than the mind zombie has, he can drink, eat food, urinate, defecate, touch the walls, touch his body.

Whatever the housing of a digital mind would look like, however perfect it would be designed, I suspect it would be much worse than the worst solitary confinement.

On the other hand, if a mind zombie would be adapted to feel well in such a confinement, he no longer would be something like me. Let alone that it might really be me.

Not without my perfect robot!

I also have my doubts whether a mind zombie could stay mentally fit without a body and its inputs. When I got it right, the recent research in artificial intelligence more and more is about robots because the physical interaction with the environment is part of human intelligence. Take this interaction away, and people quickly get demented.

Thus, a mind zombie may require a perfect robot, a physical copy of his own body. Such a thing is impossible to construct with technical means. But it may be possible to clone the own body cells and grow all human organs in a test tube, replacing the old ones as soon as they are worn out.

Now, we get a number of serious problems. The brain is also a part of the body, so it also should be replaced when worn but the original idea has been to replace it by a computer. I do not see how such a media break may be overcome. But even worse, such a humanoid zombie would need resources, taking them away from his children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren.


If I had the choice to have my mind digitally cloned, I probably would agree, partly out of survival instinct and partly because I would be curious how such an existence would look like. But I would insist on the option to have me deleted should I suffer from boredom or other unpleasant feelings. Without this being granted, I strongly hesitate. Probably I would prefer to be really, really dead, just as provided by mother nature.

Important note: This subject will be continued in my new blog Joy of Freethinking.

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Friday, January 25, 2008

Centenary of the camp toothbrush

camp toothbrush

Robert Baden-Powell has become famous as founder of the Boy Scout movement, but his role as pioneer of dental care is less known. A hundred years ago, in May 1908, in his bestseller "Scouting for boys", he has charged boys to be careful with their teeth, brushing them twice a day. In case toothbrushes should be missing, he showed how to make a camp toothbrush out of a dry twig, frayed out at the end. And he drastically described the consequences of tooth loss if teeth are neglected in young age.

Scouting for boys has been sold in more than sixty million copies in thirty languages all over the world. The ideal window of opportunity for adopting hygiene behaviour is thought to be the age of boy scouts, thus Baden-Powell probably is one of the most influential pioneers of dental care.

Obviously, he has been quite successful: In a 2003 survey, the toothbrush was selected as the number one invention Americans could not live without, beating out the automobile, computer, cell phone, and microwave oven.

A number of studies show the importance of teeth for health: Disease of the gums has been linked to heart disease, tooth loss to disease of aortic valves, rheumatic disease and a poor general health and quality of life, to name only a few.

Photo credit: Horace Cox, C. Arthur Pearson, and The Scout Association

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Our ears grow throughout lifetime

baby's ear
The outer ears are the only parts of the human body that continue to grow until death. Head, trunk, arms, legs, hands and feet, all the inner and outer organs stop when fully grown in adult age. Even the nose of Cyrano de Bergerac did not grow forever. Hair and nails do, but these are expendable items that constantly must be replaced.

In contrast, the human outer ear is something very special. In proportion to body size at birth, it is the biggest of all organs, even bigger than the head. And it continues to grow throughout lifetime, mostly in childhood and then slowly decreasing, but never stopping until death.

The greatest ear length is 52 millimeters (2.04 inches) at birth on average; at seventy years of age it is 78 millimeters (3.07 inches) in men and 72 millimeters (2.83 inches) in women. About half of the growth between birth and old age is reached at age twenty. But the inner part of the auricle, the so-called concha, has reached its final size already at birth. Detailed statistics about ear sizes may be used for forensic age estimations.

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Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Four years of dementia lifespan

4 candles
Four to five years after the onset of dementia, half of the affected persons have died but this is only an average, largely depending on the age at onset. Such is the result of a fourteen years follow-up statistics in more than four hundred aged persons with dementia in England and Wales.

The median lifespan of aged people with dementia, that is the time from onset of the disease until half of all surveyed persons have died, is 4.1 years in men and 4.6 years in women. Age is by far the most important factor; the median survival time varies from 10.7 years in those aged 65 to 69 down to 3.8 years in those aged ninety and more. Women and those with a better mental or physical status survive longer.

Quartiles give a more detailed picture of how the different lifespans are distributed in the population: A quarter of men will be dead 2.5 years after onset, three quarters 7.6 years after onset of dementia. In women, these lifespans are 2.9 and 7.0 years, respectively. Again, these figures vary with age.

How to deal with these figures

Be aware that this is statistics and cannot be applied to individual cases. These figures are from England and Wales and may be different in other parts of the world.

But all the same this information may help better enjoying the company of a loved one suffering from dementia because he or she may not be around much longer. On the negative side, the burden of caregiving, it may help seeing that this will not go on forever. For professional providers of care as well as for family members, it may help for mid to long-term prognosis, planning, and better coping with the rapidly approaching fact of the inevitable.

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