Amid apparent widespread media acceptance that we are experiencing a swine of a “flu pandemic”, it was announced 3 days ago that 29 people in the UK have died from the illness, 26 in England, 3 in Scotland.
Let’s remind ourselves once again that the word “pandemic” derives from the Greek pan = all, and demos = people. An incidence rate of 73.4 people per 100,000 is a long, long way from being “all people”. It doesn’t even come close to an epidemic, a far lesser animal than a pandemic. According to this analysis of influenza-like illness incidence in England and Wales over a 40-year period, current incidence rates are within the bottom 25% of the range of what would be considered ‘normal’. We don’t even start getting into epidemic territory until rates exceed 400 per 100,000. And given the excessive media and government hype which GPs are dubbing scaremongering, one has to ask to what extent existing cases feature psychosomatic rather than viral symptoms …
Let’s also consider this piece of research which examines the mortality from “ordinary” influenza in the United States in the 22 years between 1979 and 2001. During this period, the population of the US rose from 225 to 278 million. Extrapolating the average annual mortality rate of 41,400 to the present UK population of 61 million gives an annual mortality in excess of 10,100. This means that on average nearly 850 people per month in the UK are probably dying from “ordinary” flu.
Without in the least trying to belittle the tragedy for the families who’ve lost relatives to swine flu, surely that’s a figure deserving of a much bigger headline than 29 deaths? Pandemic? There’s only one thing you can say to that really …
“Two things are infinite: the universe and human stupidity … and I’m not sure about the universe.” Albert Einstein
What is it about a good idea that makes us, as a species, invariably take it too far? Does it originate in some deeply embedded race memory that says since storing food for winter is a good idea, the more food the better? Wherever it comes from, it seems to be a habit we get into without thinking, then before we know where we are, we’ve taken it to extremes and gone and overdone it again, which seems to have an uncanny knack of landing us back where we started.
A lot of what passes for ‘science’ these days is a case in point. As its defenders are so fond of pointing out, we humans are very easily fooled by our senses and appearances into erroneous theories and conclusions. No argument there at all. We therefore need to rigorously test our theories to prove that they’re real rather than illusory. No argument with that either (leaving aside for the minute the whole monumental philosophical question over the boundary between reality and illusion, and how we go about creating our ‘reality’ in the first place).
All well and good so far. And a bit of wheel reinvention never goes amiss either. It’s got us from the cart-wheel and grinding stone to all the gazillion uses of wheels in our present technology, not to mention the treadmills that so many of us spend our lives running round in. So with so many attempts at wheel reinvention going on all the time, wouldn’t it be a good idea to establish a basic method for making certain that such attempts jump a few elementary scientific hurdles before they even get off the ground?
If the conceptual impossibility of that analogy tripped you up, it was deliberate. What started as a good idea and a well-placed trust in scientific principles seems to have gone too far and extended itself to encompass the established method as well. Not such a good idea. Particularly when some of those elementary hurdles are built on unverified assumptions that set up an inescapably circular logic for everything else that follows. Oh those wheels … they simply can’t bridge the gap between the founding principles of the scientific method and the way the scientific method is practiced.
If by now you’re wondering where this post is going, apart from round in circles, here’s the crux of it. The scientific distrust of natural human reasoning now seems to have got us to the point where generations of ‘common sense’ wisdom based on generations of common human experience is being re-examined, reformulated and redesigned with the apparent underlying assumption that it must be flawed and ‘science’ can do better. But where’s that all going to lead?
Stating the friggin’ obvious
In more of a firestorm than blaze of publicity (just try Googling “swearing pain”!), it was announced at the beginning of last week that a study performed at the University of Keele has determined that swearing can reduce pain.
“Swearing can actually lessen pain, according to scientists at Keele University. They asked 66 volunteers to submerge a hand into iced water while repeating one swear word out of a list of “five words you might use after hitting yourself on the thumb with a hammer”. The experiment was carried out again, but with one of “five words to describe a table”. Volunteers were able to keep their hands in longer when they swore. Their heart rates also accelerated and their pain perception reduced. The scientists, writing in NeuroReport, believe swearing triggers a “fight-or-flight” response and heightens aggression.”
The study itself is behind a pay wall, but if the reports of it are accurate, there is so much that’s questionable about the thinking behind it it’s enough to have me swearing. For starters, the design completely ignores the relevance of context. Five words you might use in response to pain experienced after injury are contextualised to the experience of pain. They have relevance; they engage with the experience, even if the pain is being deliberately, rather than accidentally, inflicted. Therefore to differentiate between the effect of swearing and not swearing, you need to use five non swear words that are similarly contextualised. Five words to describe a table have diddly squat to do with the price of fish. The researchers even excluded the one subject from the trial who couldn’t suggest any swear words. Had this person been included and allowed to use the words they would normally use in response to injury, the conclusions might have been quite different. Also, had the subjects been instructed to use the table descriptors as if they were relevant to the experience of injury, again different results would have ensued.
Further, the researchers appear to be suggesting swearing triggers a “fight-or-flight” response and heightens aggression, rather than being, as so many of us have no doubt experienced for ourselves, a reaction — a symptom of a “fight-or-flight” response triggered by shock or trauma. You may be able to induce a half-hearted adrenaline burst by deliberately swearing at the same time as deliberately injuring yourself, but this is about as natural a circumstance and response as the half-hearted responses vaccination triggers in the immune system. Apparently the importunate lead researcher, psychologist Dr Richard Stephens, when interviewed on Radio 4 was attempting to suggest that pain in childbirth might be a physiological trigger to the whole process! Sounds like a bad case of putting carts before horses.
Last but not least, in focusing only on swearing, the study seems to have missed the point entirely. It’s releasing sound, pure primal sound, that reduces pain. Stephens apparently first started thinking about the connection between swearing and pain during the birth of his now-5-year-old daughter. At an agonising point in labor, his wife began cursing up a storm, he says, though she felt bad about it later. “The midwives said, ‘Don’t apologise, we hear that kind of language on the maternity ward all the time.’”, but had he done a bit more research on women in labour he would have discovered that swearing is only one expression of the pain-mitigation impulse (and to any homeopath, one that specifically conforms to the Chamomilla pattern). Just as many women are moved to simply vocalise without running any of the impulse through the language centres of the brain.
It’s part of an instinctive and immediate reaction and release mechanism — a response to pain, no matter how caused, and whether physical or emotional — which seems designed to eject/expel (or reject/repel) the offending impulse before it can result in lasting injury, whether to feelings or soft tissue. It’s about letting go the experience as quickly and forcibly as possible, expunging its energy from the body-mind. Sound gives the process concentrated and focused power. Done effectively, a good roar can stop any bruising from a blow. Words are entirely superfluous. What’s critical is the degree of engagement between sensation and sound. Used deliberately, vocalisations can help martial arts practitioners enhance the power of their attacking moves or defend themselves more effectively. It’s the same impulse behind the grunts of weightlifters or Wimbledon tennis players. It’s a similar logic behind the Maori haka. (Ultimately, it’s a not dissimilar impulse — Rejecto, ergo sum? — that impels one to blog about pieces of nonscience displaying a disturbing lack of joined-up thinking …)
So much of this knowledge is ‘common sense’, known and used by humankind for thousands of years across all cultures, yet in trying to reinvent this particular wheel, the narrow and fragmented ‘scientific approach’ seems to have distorted it out of all recognition. At least commentators on the many online reports of this research seem to have enough common sense to react appropriately …
Is it smart?
Next we have the headlong rush by car and aircraft manufacturers to engineer out human error. There’s a Mercedes Benz commercial running in the ‘States now publicising their new E-class “smart” car that can figure out if you’ve started wandering between lanes, been driving too long without a break, or if you’re in imminent danger of collision and not paying attention, in which case it slams on the brakes.
But the computer can only do what it’s programmed to do. It’s not omniscient, and can’t replace the capacity of a living breathing human being to respond to unique context (context again!) … provided of course they’re paying attention. Although well-intentioned, the inevitable consequence of such developments is that humans will start to rely on technology to do what only humans can do and will pay even less attention, in which case you end up in situations like the woman who drove her £96.000 Mercedes SL500 into a river in spate because her satnav told her to turn into it.
Then there’s the Air France Airbus that disappeared into the Atlantic on June 1st with the loss of all 228 people on board. The leading crash theory suggests the aircraft had a faulty speed input and the computer assumed the plane was flying too slow and adjusted accordingly, and fatally. In this theory, the computer doesn’t know that the air speed indicator tube is frozen over and that the plane hasn’t slowed. It only assumes what its inputs and internal logic suggest.
Just like good old natural human reasoning really … Which all goes to prove that in taking things too far, we merely end up going round in circles.
According to an article in today’s Pulse magazine, top GPs are accusing the government and Department of Health of scaremongering over swine flu. Too right.
The article states:
“Dr Sam Everington, a GP in Tower Hamlets, who has acted as a leading adviser to Lord Darzi on primary care and was formerly deputy chair of the BMA, said scaremongering by the Department of Health had seen the nation gripped with fear, leading to ‘utter chaos’ for practices in areas with the most number of cases.
“He said: ‘All this is being ratcheted up by the CMO and the Government. They are actively scaremongering everybody.’
“‘We have no evidence that this is in any way worse than winter flu, yet the approach has been taking clinicians away from more serious problems with patients and causing great fear among the public.’
“Dr Everington, whose practice has been among those in the front line, with London one of the worst hit areas, added: ‘We as GPs are used to measuring risk but there’s nothing of that sort going on in the Department of Health.’
“Of Sir Liam Donaldson he said: ‘It’s almost like he’s been preparing for this pandemic flu for so long he wants it to be fulfilled.’”
“Health Secretary Andy Burnham told the House of Commons yesterday that the UK had abandoned its previous attempts to contain the swine flu outbreak, and moved to a new ‘treatment phase’ in the face of a spiralling number of cases.
“Under the new procedures, GPs should diagnose swine flu cases by phone, and patients will then arrange for a ‘flu friend’ to collect a voucher for Tamiflu from GP practices.”
Tamiflu vouchers, eh? Well, well, well. Now isn’t this all going exactly to plan? Just don’t, whatever you do, see through the smokescreen …
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smeddum.net - Blog: Confessions of a Serial Prover. Weblog on homeopathy, health and related subjects by homeopathic practitioner Wendy Howard