Welcome to my blog

Hello. I am Sherlock and this is my diary. My job title is "osteopath", and my work is problem-solving. This involves detective work, hence my name. Detective work involves reason and science, but is not limited by them. It also involves the eye of experience, and "hunches". Thus, some would regard my activities as those of a quack, a title I assume here with irony. I am writing this blog because I like writing. I am quite opinionated, and perhaps I suffer from a repressed need for expression. I have no particular prior "agenda"; if I have any bees in my bonnet, no doubt they will make themselves apparent by their buzzing. All names and identifying details of any people featuring in these anecdotes have been changed. Thank you for reading.

Wednesday, 22 June 2016

So you think your cold is caused by a nasty bug?

At the beginning of June I went for my first swim of the season, foolishly stayed 45 minutes in the cool water, and got a bad cold. Then I was told by several friends, relatives and acquaintances, very sensible people all, “Oh, but you don’t get a cold from getting cold, colds are caused by viruses”. This post is for them.

I feel like banging my head repeatedly on the floor when I hear this sort of thing. Here are normal, sensible, intelligent people with some small exposure to the concepts of science, who use that knowledge to come to obviously false conclusions, largely because of a failure of common western culture to come to terms with the complex nature of the world... and even if to accept those conclusions one has to disregard the most obvious common experiences.

Our western culture seems still to be trapped in a simplistic, unreal world view that says, “Every effect has one simple cause and there is a straight line with an arrow running from the latter to the former”. That view, quite simply, is wrong. In fact it is quite bizarre that anybody should still hold it.

Let me put to all you microbe extremists what the relevance of getting cold might be to “catching” a cold:
  1. You might catch a cold if exposed to cold viruses, but on the other hand you might not.
  2. The difference depends on how many viruses are around and, crucially, how susceptible you are to them.
  3. Your susceptibility depends on many things: the status and settings of your immune system, your general health, your nutritional status, the efficiency of your circulation, and so on. Add to that all the factors we know nothing about.
  4. Among the things that influence your susceptibility are local variations in the temperature of the tissues to which the virus attaches, primarily the lining and superficial tissues of the nose and throat.
  5. Cold viruses like cool temperatures. That is why more people catch colds is the winter. Perhaps you hadn’t noticed?
  6. When you get cold, blood is shunted from surface tissues deeper into the body, so the surface tissues get slightly cooler. Therefore they are more susceptible to attack by cold viruses.
If you don’t believe me, in 2015, scientists finally caught up with this. They scratched their heads and exclaimed, “Hey… but it does actually seem that people catch more colds in cold weather. Let’s see if it’s true, and why that might be”. See here and here for their conclusions, so revolutionary that they should immediately get the Nobel prize. For finding out the bleedin' obvious.

So, you cold weather deniers, do you see now how more than one factor can combine to produce a certain result? Do you see also that the world could be a little more complex than you have been taught to believe?

Let me talk a little now about “causes”. In 1884 a fellow named Robert Koch devised some rules which must be satisfied in order for us to be able to say that such and such a bug is the “causal agent” responsible for producing such and such a disease. These rules are called Koch’s postulates. Here they are:
  1. The microorganism must be found in abundance in all organisms suffering from the disease, but should not be found in healthy organisms.
  2. The microorganism must be isolated from a diseased organism and grown in pure culture.*
  3. The cultured microorganism should cause disease when introduced into a healthy organism.
  4. The microorganism must be reisolated from the inoculated, diseased experimental host and identified as being identical to the original specific causative agent.
(* “in pure culture” = on a nutrient medium in a dish/tube in the laboratory).

Koch soon realised his rules didn’t work, when he discovered people could carry cholera and other bacteria without developing any symptoms of their corresponding “disease” (contrary to rule number 1), and that he could actually introduce their bacteria into healthy people without them causing disease (disobeying his third rule). How dare they disobey?! Moreover, it is now known that various microorganisms (including all viruses) isolated from animals with their corresponding “disease” cannot be grown in pure culture (rule 3).

Today, the “rules” have changed. Now the identification of so-called “causal agents” is based not on the presence of the microorganisms themselves, but on detection of a kind of chemical they contain which is involved in their reproduction: nucleic acids. Thus we have some new rules devised by two scientists called Fredricks and Relman. I have adapted them here for a general readership.
  1. The kinds of nucleic acids belonging to the microorganism should be present in most people with the disease. They should be found mostly in the parts of the body known to be diseased, and not in those organs that are not diseased.
  2. Less (or none) of these nucleic acids should be found occur in people without the disease.
  3. With resolution of the disease, these nucleic acids should decrease or become undetectable, and with relapse of the disease the opposite should occur.
  4. The organism is more likely to be the cause of the disease when its nucleic acids are found prior to the onset of the disease, or when their amount correlates with the severity of the disease.
  5. Foreign nucleic acids found in a diseased person should be consistent with the known characteristics of the kind of organism believed to be responsible.
  6. It should be able consistently to identify chemical and biological changes in the cells of diseased people which correlate to the presence of the foreign nucleic acids.
But these rules do not work either. Rule 1 is non-committal. “Most” people? What about the exceptions? And rule 2… “less” or “none”? If “less”, how did that foreign chemical get there, even if in a lesser amount, and what then, is its significance? Or shall we just ignore it and hope it goes away? Moreover, these rules rely on a definition of what constitutes “disease” which is unstated, and most probably arguable. Moreover, at a practical level, these new rules do not account for all cases of infection (e.g. diseases caused by prions such as “mad cow” disease) or diseases triggered by infection (e.g. cervical cancer resulting from papillomavirus infection).

Now, all these rules would be perfectly good and reasonable if the world worked in terms of having one cause for one effect. But when Koch’s original rules didn’t work, rather than admitting that the model of a bug “causing” a disease is an overly simplistic idea, scientists tried to move the goalposts in order that they could hang onto that delusion.

Given that (as we have explained) in real life various factors must interact in order to produce a certain result, especially in biology, why do we insist upon saying ONE thing “causes” another (ONE) thing. It is almost as unrealistic to say that colds are “caused” by viruses as is it is to say they are “caused” by getting cold.

Saturday, 11 June 2016

Spiritual Reflection Nº1

Some people say to me that they love animals. But you who say this to me, observe nature. Do you love the hyena when it rips a limb from the still live baby antelope? To profess to love animals without loving nature is a cosy evasion, and to love nature is to love all of nature: its harshness and its pain as well as its beauty. When you send me pretty messages of love and light, remember this.

I have been told that God loves us, as He loves all His creation; that the bad things that happen are a test and a mystery. Don't tell me that the baby antelope is being tested, because I won't believe it. Why do you wish to believe that God loves you, in particular, more than the antelope, more than the hyena? That He would spare you the pain of the antelope or the ruthless need of the hyena? Why do you believe He would love in the personal way in which you would like to feel loved? Observe nature. If there is an all-encompassing intelligence in the universe, and I am persuaded that there is, I doubt that its attitude to you and I is that which you would like to believe. These are matters that are difficult for us to understand. So let us observe, but not jump to premature conclusions.

What if that attitude is not the kind of love of which you conceive? What if it is more of an impersonal affair? Why should that be too much to bear? Nature is truly a marvel, in its beauty, its harshness, and its pain.

Tuesday, 7 June 2016

The elephant pony

I am interested in the oddities and the strangeness of perception. At one time we used to put our empty wine bottles in a cardboard box from the supermarket, kept under a working surface in the kitchen in view to anybody coming into the kitchen. To make the box look nicer my beloved had pasted a picture cut out from a newspaper onto its side. It was indeed more pleasant to look at a mother African elephant standing behind her calf than to look at the unadorned cardboard of the box. It was only months later that I mentioned to my beloved how much I liked the picture of the elephants on the box. She looked at me as if I had gone mad. "What do you mean, elephants?", she said, "It's a pony." I looked at her, incredulous, but she was adamant. I had to struggle for a couple of minutes to see the pony, and then something rearranged itself in my perception, and I saw that indeed it was a brown pony. After that, I could see only the pony. Just sometimes, if I struggled, could I then see how I had seen two the elephants, and even then it seemed incredible to me that I could not see the pony. What do I take from this? That there is more than one way to construct our view of the world. That once we have constructed a view, we are likely to go on seeing things that way even though alternatives exist. That our established ways of seeing the world are extremely resistant to change.

Gateway to another world

On a trip to Malaysia I take a walk in the jungle led by Cornelius, the nature guide at our forest resort. Cornelius shows us a tall tree with an enormous girth. Its trunk is made up of numerous interweaving branches with deep dark holes between them. It is a Strangling Fig, so called because it parasitises other trees. It uses them as support around which to build its own structure, before killing them off when it is big and strong enough to support its own weight. Cornelius says the Malays traditionally believe this kind of tree is a gateway to another world, and he professes to believe it himself. He sometimes takes pictures of the groups he takes around standing in front of the tree. On more than one occasion, he says, when looking at the picture afterwards, there is an extra, unknown face in the picture. Then when he looks again, it is gone. Once he took a noisy group of Chinese tourists on this same walk. They were so noisy, he said, that they must have disturbed the spirits. Although he knows this trail like the back of his hand, he could not find the way back the place where he had brought the boat to shore. While he thought he was on a straight trail, it kept on leading them in a circle, back to the tree. Eventually it released them and they were able to find the boat. A showman's likely story to entertain the tourists, irregularities  in perception, or something else?

Monday, 23 May 2016

The why game

You will have done it as a child, and may have had your own children do it to you. "Why?", they ask and you give them an answer and they say "Why?" again, and so it goes on and you quickly realise you could spend the rest of your life on this. All children become instinctively aware early on of the fallacy of the why-because game. And they are also aware that you cannot work it out. So your only recourse is to say, "Because." Or "Because I say so." To which of course they say, "Why?" The wisest thing to do then is to concede the last word stay silent. The fallacy of the why game is the fallacy of seeing the world in terms of single linear chains of connections between cause and effect. The world doesn't work like that.

The world works not as simple chains of cause and effect, but as networks of mutually influential phenomena. Let me use an analogy. If you are out walking in unfamiliar terrain and you stray from the track and get lost, back-tracking and doggedly focussing on looking for the path is like asking "Why?" You might find it, but you will always be dependent on the beaten track. What if you can't find it or it peters out? You will have to cast your vision widely about to establish roughly, from a series of widely scattered landmarks, your position and the location of where you want to go. Now you are working with a network, which is more real and ultimately more useful.

The human body does not work in the why-because way, either. This is where conventional medical reasoning often falls down. As an osteopath, if you are my patient and you ask me "Why?" we both quickly find we cannot go very far along the chain. So I say, "There is this, and this, and this, and this...let us look at how they relate to your health."

Thursday, 19 May 2016

A sceptical eye cast on the biasis of "Skeptics"

I suspect I am not the only one to have long lost interest in the antics of the "Skeptics". But this piece is refreshing. Sceptical science journalist John Hogan takes a look at the blatant biasis of the organised "Skeptics", and asks them to examine their own views more sceptically...


Monday, 9 May 2016

An interesting sensory experience in a salad bowl

Yesterday over lunch in a small village restaurant I went to sleep in the salad bowl, which seemed to cause some alarm among the people around me. I was heroically helped by well-meaning but misguided diners, and an ambulance was called. Before it arrived I ruined people's lunches by crouching on the floor on all fours retching up mostly spit and colourless mucous. I don't want to tell much about the ultimately banal reason for my falling into my food; I am more interested in my experience of it all.

SCENE 1. I am sitting eating and chatting quite happily with my wife and a friend. I omit to chew properly a bite of tough old lamb shoulder, and it goes down nearly whole. I feel it get stuck at the bottom of my gullet and discomfort builds up there. I take a swill of wine to wash it down. A bad move. The wine can't get past it and adds to the blockage. Discomfort turns into pain and I feel my diaphragm spasm up. I feel the blood draining from my face and I am a little faint. I try to take a deep breath (this has worked before), and... END OF SCENE 1.

SCENE 2. I am a rather pleasant, relaxed dream. I say "I am a dream" because actually there is no sense of a separate, individual me being "in" a dream. There is just the dream. It is the sort of dream where the images, sounds and spoken words which make coherent sense in the dream are incomprehensible nonsense if remembered later. Anyway, it is pleasant and peaceful there. I become dimly aware of voices to my right. They are a mild disturbance. The images in my dream have turned into a kaleidoscopic pattern of many colours rotating round and round in a clockwise direction. I realise some of the voices are saying my name. All the imagery is now in a mad swirl and a commotion is growing on my right. I feel movement and become aware of people asking "Are you all right? Are you all right?" Now I am becoming aware of myself as an individual person, but all is confusion. What is this? This is not normal. Why? What am I? Who am I? What is happening? I realise something is wrong but I don't know what it is. I can't move or speak. I realise something bad has happened to me. I am alarmed. What's happened? Am I dying? Will I be all right? I am being pulled back into the void, but my fright impels me to fight to regain consciousness. Gradually my normal awareness restores itself and I can raise my head. I realise it is my friend who has been shaking me and asking me if I am all right. One of the most prominent swirls of colour in my kaleidoscope has coalesced into his multi-coloured shirt. I sit up and breathe and say, "I'm all right", although I feel far from all right. "What happened?", my friend asks. "I don't know", I reply.

I did not know because of the absolute perceptual discontinuity between my sitting up chatting and the utter disassociation, perceptual distortion and cognitive confusion I experienced in the salad bowl.

The perceptual distortion interests me. It must be the same kind of experience of the world of a new born baby. The cognitive machinery for differentiating and classifying sensory input into preconceived taxonomies of class and meaning is not operating. What is perceived is chaos.