Saturday, January 28, 2012

Maps and Territories

If you are going to visit a city you might want a map of that city that will help you get around. Of course you have to be sure that you have the right map. A map of any city won't do. If the city you find yourself in is London and you try to follow a map of, let's say, New York your trip will be confusing. You might find some resemblances ("maybe this is this street and that corner over there is this, but wait - where is this square?"), but at some point you will find that the map doesn't fit the territory. You realize that for every city you need a specific unique map.

But maybe, you think, there is some way to make a map that will fit every city in the world. A Map of Everyplace - a MoE). One way of doing this would be to only include in the map such things that are common to all cities in the world. Roads for example - but you cannot tell where they are actually going. Buildings - but not where they are. Such a map will be useless you realize (a Map of Very Few Things).But what if, you think, you took all the cities in the world and made an average, a statistical median of all of them? Wouldn't this then be a Map of Everyplace? So you do it and find that this "citymap" doesn't help you travel in any city (It becomes a Map of No City).

Scientific theories and models are map-making. The notion that you can use one map (for example Einsteins theory of relativity) to fit everything (like quantum entanglement) doesn't work. It's like taking the "wrong" map (a map of NY when going to London) with you on a trip. Right and wrong here is contextual, of course. There might be nothing wrong  with the NY map but it still doesn't work in London.

The more generally applicable you try to make a map ( A GUT or ToE for example) the less useful. Science have a natural tendency to abstract away reality. The map is not the territory!

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

I Don’t Know

Knowing is a drag.
Etymologically consciousness means “to know with”, from the latin roots cum, which mean with; and scire, to know. The Buddha made the distinction between that which knows something – called mind (nama); and that which doesn’t know anything – called matter (rupa).
The pebble on the road doesn’t know anything – not even that it doesn’t know anything. The same with most (if not all) of your body. The hair you cut off, nailclippings, dead skincells washed down the drain when you shower – they presumably doesn’t know anything about anything.  Ignorance is bliss.
The mind on the other hand seems to be a bundle of knowing. To be human (among other things) means to have self-awareness, which means we know how it feels to be our selves. We know a lot of things, and one of the things we know is that there is a lot of stuff that we don’t know. For every piece of knowledge there is an unknown heap of ignorance. And ignorance is not bliss.
To know that we don’t know is seemingly quite anxiety-producing for most of us. We wish to know things because knowing gives us a sense of comfort and security. And since we don’t know who we truly are, or how the world has come into being, we feel insecure. This is where religion and ideology comes in. To feel secure we exchange knowledge (which is a rather hard to come-by commodity) with belief – the ersatz pacifier standing in the place of real knowledge. It doesn’t even have to be believing that we know how the universe came into being – somehow it seems enough to be sure that someone knows. The priests, God, the Bible-writers, the scientists, Wikipedia – surely someone knows! So I don’t have to bother. Imagine that almost every Wikipedia article would start with “No one actually knows, but…” It would feel less comforting, right? And yet it would be closer to truth.
In a sense practicing zen is practicing to be a stone. To not know anything and accept that lack of knowing as an opportunity to experience the world fresh. Maybe the stone is more conscious than we are. Maybe our consciousness is diminished by the need to know. Funneled into a narrow path of self-awareness. Maybe there is something to be a rock and not to roll. 

Placebo/Nocebo and the anti-smoking campaign

More people get lung cancer in spite of the fact that fewer are smoking. Today 40% more people get lung cancer than 15 years ago. The increase is biggest among women, but also among men there is an increase.  This is strange indeed, since smoking has continually gone down in the population since the seventies. A british poll show that 55 % of the male population smoked in 1970 and 22% in 2007. This trend is true for the whole western world. The strong campaigns against smoking started in the seventies and have been very successful. The risk of getting exposed to second-hand somoke has also dramatically gone down, since fewer are smoking and there is fewer public places whereyou can do it.  And still we have these facts:
 “Finding from the new American Cancer Society prospective study of 1.2 million men and women indicate that mortality risks among smokers have increased substantially for most of the eight major cancer sites causally associated with cigarette smoking. Lung cancer risk for male smokers doubled, while the risk for females increased more than fourfold.
So how can we reconcile these strange facts. We know that smoking is the major cause of lung cancer (hence the strong campaigns against it, including warning texts on tobacco products like: SMOKING KILLS!) Only 15%  of lung cancer cases occur among non-smokers and this number is stable through time. In other words, 85% of lung cancer cases still happen among smokers and 15% among non-smokers.  
Lung cancer goes up, both among smokers and nonsmokers according to statistics, habitual smoking goes down. One possible but usually completely overlooked reason for this could be that the strong campaigning against smoking in itself causes greater risk among both those who still smoke and those who fear second-hand smoke. It’s called the nocebo effect – placebos evil twin. It is the fact that fearing something or believing that something is harmful can itself harm you.
If this is true then maybe the powerful warning texts on cigarettes, as well as all the (accurate) information about the risks of smoking, could actually contribute to the problem rather than solving it.  The fact is: It has become more and more dangerous to smoke according to statistics. 
So to make my point clearer. We know that smoking is the main cause of lung cancer. Smoking has gone down since the seventies. Lung cancer has gone up. I can see three possible reasons for this strange fact. 
1. Lung cancer never was the "real" reason for lung cancer after all. But this doesn't seem right. We know (as surely we know anything) that smoking is the main cause.
2. Another unknown reason is taking the place of smoking. This also seems unreasonable to me. The other known main cause is radon, and radon in the environment has decreased since the seventies since banning asbestos.
3. Smoking has become increasingly more dangerous since the time we started to smoke less, both for smokers and those who get second-hand smoke. This I believe is the most likely reason and nocebo could conceivably play a not so small part in this. Hmm.
Very little research has been done to investigate the power of nocebo. The reason is that it would never pass an ethical committee  to suggest that people will be harmed by some inert pills, for example (and still make them take it). But what if you suggested very strongly to a whole population that something they do is extremely dangerous and harmful (SMOKING KILLS, SMOKING CAUSES LUNG CANCER) for decades? Isn't this then a huge experiment with nocebo?