September 30, 2004

Morphine-free Poppy and Morphine-producing Humans

Two reports appearing nearly simultaneously: Morphinefree Mutant Poppies: Novel plants make pharmaceutical starter: Science News Online, Sept. 25, 2004 and Endogenous formation of morphine in human cells (Chotima Poeaknapo, Jürgen Schmidt Matthias Brandsch, Birgit Dräger and Meinhart H. Zenk, PNAS, September 28, 2004 vol. 101 no. 39 14091-14096 )

So in Australia they grow poppy that due to a mutation doesn't produce morphine (but instead make useful drug precursors), and in the lab two cancer cell lines produce morphine. It is a upside-down world.

It is interesting to note that the top1 mutant poppy is widely farmed (40% of tasmanian poppy fields), apparently with little environmentalist protests since it is a natural mutant. Another reason may simply be that it has a traditional medical use, which predisposes people to be more positive - pharming often awakes strong emotions by more "cold" medical terminology and links to suspicious high-tech medicine and farming than the "natural" practice of using opium.

I wonder if that logic would be applicable to a treatment that got the body to produce morphine at neurochemically significant levels. Training, meditating and other activities that are said to "increase endorphine levels" (i.e. make us happy) is far more acceptable than taking external drugs despite being phrased as a drug use. But what happens if we actually find a way of meditating us to the same bliss as a heroin addict (or, less radically, just as a cheap painkiller)? In reality it is unlikely that we could reliably reach that level of endogenous pleasure without extremely hard training (otherwise most of us would already be blissed out... but I'm suspicious of some religious people :-) and adding some external stimulus to the cells might be necessary. And then we will likely end up with the same debate as about EPO and growth hormone precursors.

Humans and poppies are different. People accept genetic modifications of poppies because they have a traditional use - much of which has been serious abuse - while we don't accept modifications of human metabolism because it is something new. But change a phrase ("produce your own medicines", "pharming"), and suddenly a practice becomes acceptable or vice versa - it is all about words, semantics and emotion, not really science. Because genetically poppies and humans are surprisingly similar.

I wonder if there are any top1-analogue mutant humans out there and how happy they are.

Posted by Anders at 09:14 AM | Comments (15)

September 25, 2004

Promoveatur ut Amoveatur

Now it is official: I'm married to science.

Yesterday I participated in the Stockholm University promovation in the City Hall. Yearly academic promovations are local to Sweden and Finland, a remnant of medieval installation ceremonies. The ceremony includes the appointment of new professors, honorary doctors (doctor honoris causa), doctor jubilaris (50-year anniversary doctors) and us garden variety doctores iuvenes. Banner-bearers, speeches in latin, inaugural lectures, faculty fanfares and laurel wreaths: truly classical academic pomp. So now I am equipped with a real laurel wreath (symbol of academic freedom and power) and a doctoral ring (symbol of being married and faithful to science).

What use are such ceremonies and symbols? It is a symbolic initiation both showing society that a person has attained a certain position as well as showing the person that they are recognized, valued and now entering a new sphere of rights and responsibilites.

The problem is as always scaling. Once societies were so small and homogeneous that it was possible for nearly everybody to have a notion of who others were, and a single ceremony was enough to transmit it (reinforced by the use of worn symbols like doctoral hats or rings). Also, the number of promovendi being promoted each year at any university was fairly limited. Yesterday it was clear that the ceremonial machinery was straining under the weight of hundreds of doctors. What would once have involved at least stating the thesis title and maybe a short speech was reduced to a formula and a handshake - and that still took maybe an hour to get through us from the natural science faculty.

As we move towards larger and more complex societies the old rituals need to change. The public recognition part can no longer be done through ceremonies or insignia, but is moving online through searches, CVs and webbed dissertations. Larger universities might have to split up the promovation between the faculties. In the end the most proximal aspect of the ceremony remains: being given recognition in front of those friends and relatives that were invited, as well as the experience of participating in a long-running tradition. While far less utilitarian than the former uses of the ceremony, they are still enjoyable.

I doubt this form of ceremonies will vanish even when they are even more irrelevant or impractical. Human nature thrives on rituals no matter their content, and being able to clearly and strongly - yet pleasantly - announce to oneself that one is now a postdoc is useful. We use the rituals to give our life shape like paragraphs and chapters in a book. The styles can change, but since we send messages to our subconscious using symbols we learn by infusion from our surrounding culture(s) they tend to remain fairly fixed. This lag creates a comfortable tie to the past, necessary since our sense of self is only retrospective and not truly prospective.

Maybe this is also the way of making more radical transhumanist changes manageable to the individual and their social context. So why not uploading ceremonies (Transmetropolitan #7), xox divorces and personality change initiations? Might be fun to invent a symbolic context that makes sense.

Posted by Anders at 06:10 PM | Comments (17)

September 23, 2004

Prometheus Bound (In Red Tape)

I blogged on CNE on the Converging Technologies for a Diverse Europe conference I attended 14-15 September in Brussels.

The quick of it: if the US is doing converging technologies, then the EU must of course do the same. But of course in a more ethical way, just to keep that technology from doing something unexpected. If we can get the public involved, then maybe we can avoid stupid polarizations, misuse and make the technology more human, softer, more european. But I believe it when I see it, because the highminded ideas of the report underlying the conference will be filtered through layer after layer of EU administration and agendas. In the end the result might well be completely opposite to the aim.

Some might remember the nanoethics conference I attended some months ago. Professor Alfred Nordmann discussed the need to normalize nanotechnology. Once electricity was the next great thing and it and its controllers were treated with awe. It was the mysterious power able to raise Frankenstein's monster and heal, as well as a death ray threat. But over time it became an everyday function. Today electricians are held in no greater or lesser esteem than other practical professions. No marketing team anywhere would boast that their product runs on electricity (unless it is a car, maybe). Electricity has become normal, its dangers and benefits integrated into our everyday reality. This normalization and contextualization process is beneficial, since it makes a technology part of our public conceptual world. It can be used by anybody, its use is surrounded by generally accepted norms and disagreements tend to be over rationally decidable issues (like safety) rather than the truly divisible value issues.

The report his group delivered to the EU commission is an attempt to facilitate this normalization of converging technologies. It recommends developing technology with a vision, getting more trans-disciplinary collaboration between the natural sciences and the social sciences, social empowerment through public involvement, transparency and education, and so on. All in all, the CTEKS (Converging Technologies for the European Knowledge Society) is a fairly humanistic approach to radical new technology.

But even the sanest vision might run into trouble. On the value front, it supports engineering for the human mind and body, not engineering of it. While I would support the slogan, there is no doubt that the underlying values of it in the report are far removed from my transhumanist position: I want to engineer myself for myself - to enhance my quality of life, to extend my potential, to achieve desirable states outside of past human ability. And I have no problems with other people doing the same or going in different directions. But this vision of morphological freedom is far outside the bounds of the report - it is firmly anchored in a vision of the future as the present, but better.

The only mention of transhumanism is indeed a dismissive mention of the US report as causing alarms by being too transhumanistic. And that may be the core problem of the entire EU report and conference. The easiest way of appearing to be realistic, a good intellectual european and thinking in moral terms at the conference was to dismiss or contradict the converging technologies report in one way or another. It antiamericanism combined with the usual social psychological trick of increasing the self-esteem on the in-group by denigrating the out-group. That is not to say the the US report is utterly great and a true guide to the best possible future, but it really annoys me that people define their own proposals in terms of an anti-proposal.

The core disagreement was the lack of contextualisation of the US report. That is unfair, since the report was not intended to show how these technologies fit in with everything - it aimed at showing that it was possible, and some first wild consequences in order to get the debate started. It is a bit like complaining to Benjamin Franklin that his description of the kite experiment did not warn about the aesthetic effects of lightening rods on the skyline. Now we have a field of speculation opened before us, and we can start to explore it and try to find ways of putting it into context. No need to kick the door-opener.

The second main disagreement was the commercial/military aspects of the US approach. The ethicists and sociologists were lyrical about the need to put society at the steering wheel rather than the market (or worse, engineers or the military). This was rich, given that the opening speech by the Man From the Commission pointed out the need to get stable and strong economic growth in order to meet the demands of the Lisbon strategy. Let's see, in order to do that we either need huge economic growth (the stuff free markets are good at, especially when new technologies are involved) or that new technology makes the EU a far more efficient place. But the market wasn't supposed to be running things, and the efficiency increases discussed during the conference were all just traditional efficiency (better infrastructure, better machines) rather than the real promise of these technologies - better humans. Which are of course a no-no.

But piles of euros weigh more than sociologists and ethicists. The sentiments expressed at the conference will end up in the final report and doublessly repeated gravely. But if any implementation of them threatens the bottom line, I would guess that a growth-conscious Commission would go for the bottom line. But there is a way of buying out these troublesome priests (, ethicists): Begleitforschung (“accompanying research” alongside science and technology R&D) in their areas. If the big growth-producing projects each set aside 2% of their budget to ethicists, they will hopefully be quiet and busy soaking in their newfound riches and importance. This way, the whole set of ethical and social concerns becomes a vehicle for ambitious researchers to profit.

But getting the public involved is a good thing. Far too often engineers invent devices nobody in their right mind would want. Had the biotech companies asked their consumers what kind of GMOs they wanted they might have aimed for nutraceuticals, cheap and healthy produce or pro-environment crops rather than pesticide resistant soybeans that profit high-tech farmers. The public isn’t stupid and knows a great deal more about what it wants and why than most experts. In addition, if it does not feel that decisionmakerslisten to it it will begin to resist changes - not necessarily because they are bad in themselves, but because they are unasked. And that is a great environment for those who have serious value disagreements with the promotors of new technology to channel public concern and set up self-reinforcing loops of worry (GM foods might be unsafe, so we shouldn't do any testing of it because that might be dangerous...).

But most of the really nice ideas of the report like having bottom-up "Widening Circles of Convergence" where issues, research needs or ideas for convergent technologies are brought up and disseminated, fit awfully badly with the top-down big project approach of the EU. Can citizen participation in fast-moving technologies really be achieved through big projects planned by specialized groups on multi-year timescales according to plans that have to be reported at length upwards? Can the EU handle new fields that break discipline and institution boundaries left and right (and even go beyond the borders of Festung Europa)?

In the myth, Prometheus was the titan of foresight. He ended up chained to a rock. The CTEKS vision might also end up chained at a rock (with a bald eagle picking at its liver?) through the inherent logic of the EU bureaucracy. Emerging technologies are unpredictable dynamic things, napsters and WWWs popping up not because they were decided as desirable but because somebody somewhere had a great idea and it spread like a wildfire. That is anathema to staid, top-down, society-knows-better-than-the-individual and planning-obsessed Europe. But real foresight is about knowing what might happen, making contingency plans and then handling them flexibly as events develop. Maybe the CTEKS vision works better when applied outside the EU.

Posted by Anders at 09:54 PM | Comments (16)

September 13, 2004

Off With Their Labels!

TCS: Tech Central Station - Pill, Anyone?

A blog entry in the defense of off-label prescription of cognitive enhancer drugs.

This might very well be the next big medical battlefield. On one hand, off-label prescriptions enable exploration, customization to patient needs and new treatment for disorders. On the other hand there is room for abuse, prescriptions based on bad or weak science or pharma advertising. And that is just the normal debate about off-label usage (a quick google suggests that there are several anti-off-label campaigns out there).

Given that governments everywhere are running scared of escalating health-care costs it is not inconceivable that a crackdown on off-label use might occur simply for economic reasons. In a finite budget, any new option that will be requested by patients or doctors will be a new cost, and either force an enlargement of the budget or competition with earlier options. In the ears of many health-care politicians technological advancement is bad, no matter the good effects on patients. Just look at how the pharmaceutical industry is being increasingly seen as evil and manipulative at the same time as health budgets get more stretched. Coincidence?

Add to this the bio-conservatives, who strongly seek to limit medical enhancement (be they human nature defenders like Fukuyama or anti-modernists), and it seems plausible that policymakers might be tempted to add further restrictions on medical freedom. It is good for the budget, saves the human soul and might prevent some maltreatments. No problems at all.

The only thing lost is the flexibility. And the ability of the medical profession to learn things in a bottom up manner. In a world where only approved treatments can be done, only those who can afford to get their treatments approved will develop new ones. And given the rising costs of testing and bureaucracy, that means an even greater concentration in big pharma. Limiting off-label prescriptions will in the long run slow medical advances and limit the quality of life of many patients.

While it is not clear how many patients who are hurt yearly by bad off-label usage, it seems likely that they are far fewer than those who are helped. Limiting off-label usage by X% means many more lost quality-years from the helped group than gained years from the damaged group.

A better approach is of course to improve detection of side-effects, to enable better informed consent from the patients and better reporting of the results. This is a matter of information technology and medical practice rather than regulation. By stimulating these areas many of the basic problems with off-label usage can be dealt with. Better information sharing and transmission makes experience cheaper. In fact, it would even help put many of the fears of the dehumanizing effects of medical enhancement to the test.

What we need is a dynamist approach to off-label usage of medicine.

Posted by Anders at 10:52 PM | Comments (3)

September 11, 2004

The One Hundred Seventy-Ninth Reserve Regiment offers its Unanimous Support of the Traditional Extropian Revolutionary Front!

Charles Stross’ Singularity Sky starts with a ring, not a bang – the ring of telephones falling from the sky, asking for entertainment in exchange for anything you want. That is certainly a louder threat than any cannonade to the economy of the backwards New Republic, and it scrambles to strike at this threat.

What happens when a technological singularity literally falls from the sky into a backwards society? That is basic story of this fun novel.

Singularity Sky is to some extent a space opera – interstellar empires, grand spacefleets with epauletted officers, strange aliens and good versus evil. But it is a modern space opera in the kind of Vernor Vinge’s A Fire Upon the Deep, Iain M. Bank’s Culture novels and Scott Westerfeldt’s The Risen Empire. The technology matters, not as some kind of backdrop but as an active factor that twists the story, characters and ethics out of the traditional human mould. Classic space operas like Star Wars could easily be turned into fairly tales with little loss (prince Skywalker on a quest to save a captured princess from the evil magician in his flying castle, gathering a fellowship…). But even if a strong fairy tale theme of Singularity Sky is the recognizable “be careful what you wish for” it is a broader story about the meeting between utterly incompatible cultures and modes of existence. While one could certainly try to make a mapping of the story into a fairy tale, it would become a very unorthodox fairy tale.

Perhaps a better description would be comedic military sf. Stross makes a believable job of describing interstellar warfare given the underlying technological assumptions – relativistic speeds, full-ship lidar used for detection and to power missiles, gravity control using small extremal black holes and limited FTL. Above this foundation he describes the complexities of a traditional military command structure, made ornate by coming from a backwards society insisting on equipping the control systems of their off-world bought warships with brass knobs and decorative dog’s heads. And it is here where comedy strikes. There are plenty of control room scenes that could be from any military sf novel: the shouted jargon filled commands, uneasy waits for missiles to reach their targets and brilliant tactical decisions. But they are all irrelevant: for all its might, his majesty’s battlecruiser Lord Vanek is an utterly inefficient relic compared to the kinds of conflict that occurs in the post-singularity universe. It is the Russian Baltic fleet from the Russo-Japanese war 1904-1905, blundering around and eventually doomed. The dark comedy lies in the complete inability of the Republic navy to realize this. Despite ample warning and evidence, they refuse to think outside the box and still charge on in the name of his majesty. Who cares about nanoweapons when you are defending the crown?!

The outside observers – a tongue-tied engineer and an UN disarmament agent – are smug in their condescending yet frightened view of the claustrophobic Republic. At the same time they are nearly as vulnerable to the alien threat of the Festival. But unlike the Republic they recognize that there are more than one way of dealing with threats. This seems to be an underlying trait among the advanced powers of the novel. Even the Eschaton, the godlike post-singularity offspring of Earth civilization, shows that it knows how to make omelette without breaking eggs.

Stross manages to sketch a truly alien system in the Festival, a description that gradually unfolds across the novel until it seems entirely plausible and logical. It is the Republic that is parochial and odd for all its comedic humanity. But people love to cling to what they are used to, no matter how bad it is. They can always hope the singularity might be a passing fad.

Posted by Anders at 08:56 AM | Comments (4)

September 09, 2004

The Dangers of Blogging

New Scientist: Dear diary, you make me sick

A small study has found that writing a diary does in fact reduce overall health. Apparently the cathartic effect isn't very useful. The same authors did a study a few years back (Written Emotional Expression and Well-Being: Result From a Home-Based Study, The Australasian Journal of Disaster and Trauma Studies, Vol 2002-1) that showed a short-term worsening of health after writing about emotional or personal events but a long-range slight improvement. This study seems to suggest that the continual writing in a diary only gets the bad effect.

This suggests to me that I'm doing the right thing in just blogging about interesting intellectual pursuits rather than my personal life - besides keeping the noosphere free from junk (in my case happy-stressed junk) it keeps me healthy. Let's see if I get a cold from that last parenthesis.

Posted by Anders at 09:23 AM | Comments (1)

September 08, 2004

Taboo Medicine

Marcus J Longley wrote a fun little essay about the psychological impact of going to private health care, The three paradoxes of private medicine, BMJ 2004;329:579 (4 September) (I also blogged about it at Blog)

Basically, the problems with private health care are that the people are too friendly and eager to please, not visibly greedy enough and it makes die-hard socialised health care people feel guilty about going there.

Stop laughing, it actually points at a problem. Many instutitions are so embedded in ideological and symbolic structures that we are unable to approach them rationally, and that this makes them sacrosanct (or hated) beyond what they should be. Any challenge based on practicality or other secular values is taboo, just as in the value coflict/taboo trade-off theory developed by P.E. Tetlock. The ending of the essay is a vivid example of how the author seeks to morally cleanse himself after having done a taboo tradeoff - his daughter's health (!) vs. the righteousness of the national health care system (OK, some/all of that outrage is certainly played and parodied, but the general emotion is probably not that far from reality). It is a real collision of value systems, and one that slows the adoption of many useful institutions. If trading health for money is seen as inherently evil, people will not trust those who do it - private health care and pharmaceutical companies.

I have repeatedly heard people say that the new pharmacology, stem cells or nanotechnology are great for the future of health, but at the same time that they don't wish such research to be commercialized. But how are drugs and treatments supposed to be developled? Here the strong value of the human life limits vision, making economic realities (that also exist within government run health organisations) immoral to consider - people either ignore them, cleanse themselves by promoting overly altruistic acts (OK, lets fund it all by even more taxes!) or seek to limit profits to "proper" levels, ignoring the slowdown of research and loss of opportunity/lives this causes.

In another CNE blog I discussed Robin Hanson's theory about the evolution of health altruism. Given that we seem to be strongly health altruistic this might explain some of the value-accretion around our health institutions.

[In a case of google-synchronicity, I also found a paper by Tetlock et al. about why the DARPA policy futures market became so disliked (Robin is the originator of the information market idea). It feels good to see that Tetlock himself attributed the fierce reactions to the same mechanics I described in one of Eudoxa's policy studies. OK, hammers and every problem a nail, but there seems to be a nice confluence of thinking here. ]

So, if health care naturally tends to become sacred - regardless of cost, utility or being pleasant - we have a real problem with health instutitions in the near future. Health care altruism does not seem to cover enhancing medicine. As the border between curative and enhancing medicine blurs the issue of what resources to allocate to what (and by whom) will become fiercer. If the traditional institutions cannot be effectively criticized, they may block the development of both new institutions providing new services (like, say, private hospitals for enhancing treatments not covered by state insurance) and necessary changes in their own structure to remain flexible and effective (such as information-enabled medicine and realtime cost tracking). We end up with a sacred albatross around our necks.

Posted by Anders at 07:19 PM | Comments (0)

Never Underestimate the Bandwidth of an Interstellar Truck

Christopher Rose and Gregory Wright, Inscribed matter as an energy-efficient means of communication with an extraterrestrial civilization, Nature 431, 47 - 49 (02 September 2004).

When sending information long distances electromagnetic radiation might not be the most energy-efficient way. Rose and Wright show that over interstellar distances it may make more sense to send packages launched at sub-relativistic speeds than to try to beam over messages, even when taking massive radiation shielding and redundancy into account. The only loss is time.

Their conclusions seem to mirror the ones in my Jupiter brain paper. Matter is such a dense storage medium that it trumps mere radiation as soon as distances get large.

However, one conclusion in the paper might be too pessimistic: the antenna size. The largest antenna they consider is Earth-sized. But if you can build an interstellar launch catapult, it wouldn't be that hard to launch a number of observatories across the solar system, expanding the antenna size by 6 orders of magnitude. That in turn expands the distances where radiation are effective by 6 orders of magnitude. That suddenly makes local calls within the galaxy efficient.

Posted by Anders at 11:57 AM | Comments (0)

September 05, 2004

A Rising Empire?

I just finished Scott Westerfeld's The Risen Empire, book one of a trilogy. I usually stay away from trilogies that are not yet finished, but since I really enjoyed his Evolution's Darling I decided to take the chance.

If there are three genres I by default try to avoid it is space opera, military sf and romance. But Westerfelt manages to mix them together in a pleasant soup, that I can perhaps swallow thanks to the presence of some favorite spices: nanotechnology, information management, posthumans and AI.

The setting is The Risen Empire: an interstellar empire held together by slower than light starships and FTL communications, united by an emperor who has monopoly on a form of immortality. It is a conservative and slow-moving society, held back by imperial institutions, a large "undead" population and long delays. Senators are elected for 50 year terms, spending a few years travelling to the central world and then freeze themselves between the senate sessions (letting their staff monitor developments and wake them up if something happens). Decisions are similarly long-range, with plans made so that a suitably educated generation will be adult when a fleet passes by their world. Against this order stands the Rix, a high-tech cult that worships the emergent superintelligences of planetary networks and try to awaken them on all worlds. Of course, the Empire does not want anything like that and both sides are at war.

The main plot allows the author to explore both the mechanics of the war through the eyes of a starship captain trying to contain a Rix incursion and the politics of war through the eyes of a politician on the remote central world. It is a functional plot that enables him to describe the many wonders of the Empire without too many data dumps, although as a plot goes it is relatively straightforward. Overall, the setting is not particularly original in the large. Few of the big components are new: interstellar empires run by mad immortals, emergent posthuman superminds, empaths, imperial administrations monopolizing immortality in quasi-religious ways, ruthless transhuman supersoldiers and romance-at-a-distance. The main characters are mostly familiar: the conservative but secretly vulnerable commander, the idealistic politician navigating around necessary compromises, the competent executive officer secretly in love with her superior. We have seen them before in different permutations. It is in the technological details Westerfelt gets things right: teleoperated micro-crafts, automated house construction, the problems of micromachinery dress uniforms and living in a synesthetic high information density world.

It was especially this last factor that really stimulated me. Most people have extra visual and auditory fields linked to the information systems around them:

"At her command, data swelled before Oxham in secondary and tertiary sight and hearing, blossoming in to the familiar maelstrom of her personal configuration. Nameplates, colorcoded by part affiliation and striped with recent votes, hovered about the other Senators flowing up the steps; realtime polygraph-poll reactions of wired political junkies writhed at the edge of vision, forming hurricane whorls that shifted with every procedural vote; the latest headcounts of her party's whip AI invoked tones at the threshold of hearing, soft and consonant chords for measures sure to pass, harsh, dissonant intervals for bills that were losing support."

- - -

"Nara Oxham often wondered how politics had been possible before second sight. Without induced synetsthesia, the intrusion of sight into the other brain centers, how did a human mind absorb the necessary data? She could imagine going without synesthesia in certain activities -- flying and aircraft, day trading, surgery -- where one could focus on a single image, but not in politics. Noninterfering layers of sight, the ability to fill three visual and two auditory fields with data, were a perfect metaphor for politics itself."

Just as sf formulated the dreams of spaceflight and AI, this is a formulation of our dreams of the perfect interface.

The setting mixes hard sf with some rather soft elements. Some are nice additions, like the different kinds of gravity: "hard", "easy", "wicked" and "lovely". Normal gravity is hard, artificial gravity is usually the unreliable easy kind, wicked gravity is a dangerous weapon and lovely gravity is the ridiculously expensive luxury gravity used by the emperor (and his cats). Other elements are pure mistakes that annoy me to no end. A self-constructing house separates hydrogen and oxygen from water to burn as fuel?!

In the end this might not be a very deep novel that challenges our notions about anything. But it is good entertainment that often thinks a few extra steps about the implications of the technology and brings up wonderful images. If the trilogy holds this level it will at least be a fun read. If it manages to actually get into the real issues, like how does compound minds actually relate to the inhabitants of their worlds or whether there is a way for the empire to function without having to choose between death and flexibility, then it could become truly great.

Posted by Anders at 11:39 AM | Comments (5)

September 01, 2004

Hospitalize the Regulators and Doctors

Another Blog: the Gauntlet of Disgust

Disgust is adaptive: we tend to experience it when we encounter something that could be dangerous to our health. Ironically, many of the treatments we have developed to keep healthy disgust most people. We are dissociated from the practice of medicine and prefer to leave the gory details to the professionals.

But this has the drawback that when the techniques of medicine become debated in society, most people react with disgust and subsequent negativity regardless of their benefits. This is especially true for new biomedical treatments such as tissue engineering, that evoke horrific images while actually being far more humane than past reconstructions and transplants. But as policymakers get more involved in running science and medicine, their reactions (or their reactions to voter reactions) have more power. If we want to have medicine based on principles beyond distaste and fear we need to make sure policymakers know enough to distinguish between something messy but benign and something messy and malign.

In the slow conversion from perversion to everday medical practice people get used to a technique and learn to see it for what it is. The only way to speed up this process is more exposure: maybe we need to get anybody who seeks to regulate a field to regularly participate in its everyday practice? No need to make health-care politicians into doctors, but a schedule of regular participation. The same might go for other fields, be they schools or the military. At present regulators mainly visit their fields symbolically. But given the increasing complexity of most areas and the growing risks of abstracting away the core goals of regulation, periodic reality-checks might be not just fun or educational, but necessary. Of course, implementing this idea is likely to be resisted by most sides. But if we citizens delegate regulation and the actual running of many parts of our societies, we should demand the inclusion of additional feedback lines to reality.

In many ways this is the mirror image of citizen's deliberations, where citizens are selected to deliberate important issues and act as advisors/bridges to the policymakers. Here policymakers are placed in the organisations they regulate and made to experience the consequences of their policies. Hopefully they will bring back a better understanding of the realities of their areas.

It has been remarked many times by doctors that the experience of being hospitalized has changed their outlook of how they handle things: despite being in the same environment the switch between doctor and patient reveals many unexpected and suppressed sides of the system. Maybe a one week hospitalization should be a part of medical training, and regular visits necessary for licencing (this might also improve the tendency to under diagnose among doctors).

Posted by Anders at 11:37 PM | Comments (0)

Snakes Lurking in the Brain

Arne Öhman and Susan Mineka, A Malicious Serpent: Snakes as Prototypical Stimulus for an Evolved Module of Fear, Current Directions in Psychological Science, 12:1 2003

Why are so many people afraid of snakes? Even in snake-rich Australia only 18 people died over a 10-year period, during which time traffic deaths were more than 1,220% more common. If fear is learned we ought to fear cars far more.

The paper by Öhman and Mineka suggests that we have an ancient, subcortical module evolved to detect and warn us for snakes.

The evidence seems fairly plausible. Monkeys reared in labs can easily acquire snake phobia from other monkeys, while they wonät acquire flower phobias. Snake fear in human can occur without conscious awareness, and we tend to link snakes to aversive stimuli.

But how do we encode a snake detector? Genes only encode proteins, and while a suitable genetic program of switches, receptors and morphogen production could build any neural network, it likely has to be pretty big to encode a specialized snake detector. Even if the stimulus is only a long thin object with a sinous movement pattern it seems to require a pretty complex module. Similar modules might exist for insects (many radial legs) and faces (two dots and a line).

Given the fairly short neural pathway from the retina to the amygdala to process fear stimuli there doesn't seem to be that many places the module can hide. Is it in the superior colliculus, posterior thalamic pulvinar nucleus or one of the amygdala nuclei? My guess would be one of the smaller amygdala nuclei, but I wouldn't bet any money. A rewarding approach might be to look at gene expression patterns in these systems among species that have a snake fear tendency (like primates) and species that do not (are there any mammals that do not fear snakes?). There should be one pattern common to the snake fearing species in these systems that does not exist in non-fearing species or outside systems.

If we find the module, what should we do with it? Keep it as a reminder of our evolutionary history, or see it as an atavism making us fear beauty?

Posted by Anders at 12:25 AM | Comments (3)