Sunday, June 27, 2010

And Then What?

Cedar Springs, Michigan

Sunday, June 27, 2010

I was saddened recently to learn that bachelor Jake and his fiancee Vienna have called it quits, even though they appeared happy on the last episode of Dancing With the Washed Up Network Reality Goofballs, or whatever it is called. Allegations of betrayal abound. Is there no faithfulness anywhere? The president's approval rating slipped a bit today, as well, on the perception that he hasn't done enough to try to keep Jake and Vienna together. If the leader of the free world can't do even a simple thing like that, then what good is he, anyway? Wall Street reacted to the news by closing on a down note, and the Dow Jones Industrial Average had its seventh lowest finish of the month.

Elsewhere in the realm of reality TV, the Republicans are battling one another for the chance to run the state of Michigan. The commercials all go (or should go) something like this, and you out-of-staters will recognize the patter, if not the names: “As we are all aware, the Michigan economy is in shambles. Putting aside the fact that the big three auto makers allowed their market share to erode by building shitty products they hoped would sell anyway based on the entrenched habits and knee-jerk patriotism of the public, and ignoring the fact that these same corporations have been systematically moving jobs elsewhere for several decades, Michigan’s mess is nevertheless entirely the fault of our current governor, Jennifer Granholm, whose extravagant tax and spend policies (wasting the public's money on repairing roads and meagerly staffing the state government, for instance) are the direct cause of Michigan's record-high joblessness. Hi, I'm Mike Cox/Pete Hoekstra/Mike Bouchard/Homer Simpson/Daffy Duck. When I was in the Marines/Army/Navy/Boy Scouts/Brownies, polishing my brass belt buckle and touching my sword to my nose, Governor Granholm was in Canada or California or somewhere, avoiding military service by wearing a skirt and hiding behind her foreign nationality, like you’d expect a Democrat to do. When I become your governor, I will attempt, as so many of my predecessors already have, to bring jobs back to Michigan by offering to assess no taxes whatsoever on businesses, a promise that will make my corporate masters happy, but will be to absolutely no avail, due to the immutable fact that the savings achieved by sending labor south or to Asia far exceed any tax benefits that any state is capable of conferring. After I have failed at this fool’s errand, I will pass the baton to yet another mealy-mouthed meat puppet, who will blame me for fucking up the economy and will promise you, the voters, that by decreasing taxes on businesses we will once again make our state strong. Thank you. God Bless Michigan, God Bless the United States of America, and God bless God.”

I just finished reading a book called The Ghost Map, by Steven Johnson, from about 2006. It concerns the last bad cholera epidemic in London, in the early 1850s, and how they figured out what was causing the disease (water contaminated with cholera-infected human waste) and how to stop it (removing the pump handle from one particular well on Broad Street in Soho, for starters). As often happens, it was a matter of supplanting a superficially logical theory (that the disease was carried in the stench, or "miasma" coming from the contaminated Thames River and from the profusion of shit, human and animal, everywhere in the densely-packed city) with a more logical, and ultimately correct, theory (that the disease’s cause was a water-borne pathogen). It turns out, quite reasonably, that the correct theory was the one that explained all the cases of the disease, not just most of them. But for the most part medical science (one uses the term almost ironically in this context) was content with a theory that explained the majority of cases, then ignored the rest as purely anomalous or tried to shoehorn them into the dominant theory. Of course this was before medical folks fully understood that diseases like this are caused by by microscopic organisms, and all that, so they must be excused on that basis. But, microscopes and other modern gizmos aside, the study of logic—the application and extension of known facts to the unknown so as to develop solid bases for predicting things—has been fully developed since well before the days of Aristotle. Which means that as learned as were the great minds of Victorian medicine, they still fell prey to sloppy and fallacious reasoning, despite the availability of the almost mathematical templates of formal logic, which has been among the few almost universally-taught disciplines in the western world throughout the past several millennia. These latter conclusions are mine, not the author's. He just tells the story, and does it quite well. But it gets me to thinking about logic, generally, and, apropos of the gubernatorial election, how incredibly easy it is to persuade ourselves and others of illogical things on a quadrennial (and indeed daily) basis. It's odd, almost. People don't routinely try to make 2 plus 2 equal 5. They know better. But when it comes to perceiving basic logical fallacies—argumentum ad hominen, begging the question, red herrings, circular reasoning, to name a few—they generally can't navigate the murky waters of bullshit on which we all must sail. Granted, logic employs a greater set of variables than does arithmetic—2 is after all pretty much always 2 on an everyday basis. And like higher mathematics, higher and more abstract theories of logic can get pretty abstruse for the average person. But on the whole, and in certain contexts invariably, basic logic should govern our thinking, helping us to realize that a single politician among many will not be able to bring about the extravagant changes he or she promises. And that all the monies used to build bridges, protect citizens and their property, educate children, and so on must come from a common fund, and that that fund derives itself primarily from taxes of one kind or another, and therefore, that taxing and spending are not the evils of a government run amok but rather the essence of why governments exist at all. These are things that every adult should know. And yet .....

Getting back to the medical aspect of The Ghost Map, though, two really chilling things struck me. One was how very recently we have been delivered up into the relatively safe confines of what we consider to be modern medicine, founded on the microbial disease theory and armed with antibiotics, and based also on the assumption that hygiene, especially among medical personnel, is essential to keeping patients alive and well once they are sick, mostly because all those microbes are out there. Less than 150 years ago, which is really nothing in human history, everyone was at the mercy of people we would today consider to be quacks and incompetents--little better than witch doctors. President James Garfield died unnecessarily in 1881 because distinguished men of medical science stuck their unwashed fingers into his bullet wound and helped it to become infected, then could do nothing at all to stop the infection. The wound itself was far less serious than the one Ronald Reagan received a century later in 1981, from which he pretty easily recovered. And even at that Garfield lived on for a couple of months, fighting with his natural immune system until the infection overwhelmed him. During the cholera epidemic, people died of acute dehydration within 12 to 48 hours, when merely drinking lots of water while they were sick would have saved the majority of them. But medical science hadn't figured out even that simple little thing. Instead they tried giving laxatives and sometimes bleeding the patients (guess what--it didn't work). But as amazing as all that seems in the light of today's everyday knowledge, the other scary thing to contemplate is how profoundly stupid we must be today in certain medical matters, compared to where we'll be in another 150 years. I think that's a safe and logical assumption. Many people have laundry lists of complaints about doctors and treatments and are more than willing to subscribe to the theory that modern western medicine is all messed up. That I don't buy, personally. Especially the bias in favor of treatments from other parts of the world where, if you look at how the people in those places are living (and dying), you have to say, "Who would ever assume that anybody around here knows jack shit about medicine?" Yeah, grind up a dessicated tiger's penis and drink it in your tea. That'll work, all right. Get in touch with you holistic inner blah blah blah. Put a few needles in it. No, I'm not talking about what folks call "alternative" medicine. What I'm referring to is what might be called "undiscovered" medicine--the extension of what we know now, cleaned up and freed from illogical and sloppy thinking based on the misapplication of shoddy research. It's nothing I could figure out, any more than I could have discovered the cure for cholera if I'd been living in the 1850s. But it's out there. Cures for cancer, Alzheimer's, spinal injuries--all the stuff we haven't figured out yet. So let’s get busy and start thinking logically! Jerry Lewis ain’t gonna be able to put on telethons forever, you know. And then what?!?!?