Social Science, Medical Adventures, Ed and Me Part 1

I’ve been writing about science and especially medicine of late. As you know I think we have to always keep in mind that science is a deeply empirical, experimental task, and that means results are more or less tentative. For the sciences that claim to understand human beings, their motivations and actions, they tend to be very tentative. No problem, if you take the results as suggestive but a real disaster if you believe they are “capital T”, True.

Consider:
You’ve seen these news reports that come up every year or so about how “our kids” don’t know anything — they usually go on to say how (if you are in Canada) 95 (or whatever) % of Canadian high school students couldn’t point to Canada on a map. Of course they say it about U.S. students if the media outlet is in the U.S. or Italian young people if Italian. Of course while one of many indications of the tensions underlying the generational dialectic, the displacement of landscapes, etc. it tells us less than nothing about education but…

When out friend Roberto V. was still a high school student told me something very interesting about how some researchers came to his class room and asked all kinds of questions to which everyone of course responded with the most idiotic answers they could come up with. Good for them I thought. Always answer survey’s polls, etc but answer as if you were someone else, with totally different knowledge, with totally different beliefs. Of course, people do this almost instinctively, sometimes because they want to please their interlocutor, sometimes to freak that person out. Either way, I think it’s a good deed. Not because it fucks scientists, or wanna be scientists, around but because it challenges a faulty experimental protocol and the theoretical substructure it sits on but mostly because it acknowledges the forces that would reduce human citizens to objects to manipulated — for their own good in this case, or perhaps for the good of their future employers.

It’s not caveat emptor it’s caveat researcher, or really caveat manipulator. The information theorists observation that “the more signal the more noise” will become our slogan, our rallying cry, our idée force. Remind me to tell you about my interview many years ago with Claude Shannon the father of information theory — the math key to making possible the modern digital age.

Of course scientists who work with polls, opinion surveys etc try to take these mischievous tendencies in account. However their safeguards suffer the same problems and it becomes a rather circular circus.

Recently a headline in Science Daily News read: Young ‘Pranksters’ Skewed Landmark Sexuality Study
Jan. 14, 2014 — The joke’s on a generation of human-sexuality researchers: Adolescent pranksters responding to the widely cited National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health in the mid-1990s may have faked nonheterosexuality.

You can read their news report here or the original article here.

That reminded me of a series of events that form the basis of another anecdote in the same collection as Patanjali’s Circus, and a Birthday Dream. it involves my late friend, coetaneanEd Halbach.

He was a giant among men, and I don’t only mean that figuratively — he was one tall guy. And one of the finest — he was a farm boy with an extraordinary talent for connecting with the best in others. As an aside I’ll just note that he was working as a driver for a coop that provided transportation for the handicapped (is that the correct term?) when he decided to run as the Humanist Party candidate for Mayor of Kitchener (or was it Waterloo?) it was to raise issues that concerned us — not to actually win. This was a small city but a significant one with two major universities, in the midst of an agricultural zone. Ed was a political unknown, with no funding, only a small group of Siloist-Humanists and sympathizers (mostly teenagers), Ed gained around 10% of the vote a massive number for a previously unknown. Talk about the power of direct communication! Well that and Ed’s personal magic.

Well this story begins at a moment when Ed and I (both still young men with young families) were diagnosed with serious illnesses. I was on the verge of open heart surgery which had been put off for a year while I recovered from the chemo-therapy used to treat my cancer (non-hodgkins lymphoma). He had just been diagnosed with mesothelioma

Here’s how the story begins: