Wednesday, 23 April 2014

A long and proud tradition!

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Jheronymus van Aken, better known today as Hieronymus Bosch was a Dutch painter from the late XVth-early XVIth century. He is famous for many striking paintings of hellish visions full of fabulous medieval beasts, nightmarish creatures, the grotesque fate of sinners in the afterworld and the like. These somber subjects are treated with a wonderful sense of creativity, an omnipresent sense of humour and more than a few hidden references! A serious analysis of Bosch's painting often reveals references to alchemical concepts or religious, social and political allegory.

The painting that gets our friend Bob all misty-eyed, up there, is called "the cure for folly"; it is currently in the museo del Prado in Madrid. It should be representing a doctor cutting out from his patient's head the stone that causes stupidity, but as is often the case in Bosch's work things aren't as simple as all that. First, I don't think anyone ever tried to make someone less stupid by removing rocks from their heads, although the device used in this image is appropriate for a late 1400's trepanation. We are therefore dealing in allegory: a learned person, or someone pretending to be learned, offers to improve a client's intelligence by some quick operation that does not involve any effort on their part. That the practitioner is a charlatan is made clear by his wearing a funnel for a hat: while the funnel is an appropriate tool in a scientist's laboratory, this is clearly not its intended use; like modern peddlers in "alternative" medecine, "alternative" science and "alternative" ways of knowledge, this person is wearing the trappings of a genuine scientists but doing it all wrong. He probably uses big scientific-sounding words too, in a haphazard and clueless way. Notice that what is extracted from the patient's head isn't even the purported stone of folly: it is actually a golden flower, which might represent whatever smarts the poor guy had to begin with. By trusting his fate to the skills of a charlatan, he has just given it all away.

Funnel hats were worn by other characters in Bosch's paintings, usually by doomed sinners, little demons or fraudsters. Funnel hats are today usually shown as appropriate headwear for crazy people, but it's difficult to say if that's as a result of their use in Bosch's work or as a popular tendency to put anything conical on the head of fools: dunce caps come to mind. (It may be stretching things a bit but a bishop also wears a conical hat called a mitre, and in the French language the chess piece we know as a bishop is called a "fou"... here a court jester, but the word also means "madman").

Bob's tin foil hat is not a funnel per se, despite its general shape (which also looks like a Hershey kiss). According to some conspiracy theorists, such an aluminum skullcap protects one from the government's mind-controlling microwave emitters, from aliens' telepathic probes, from mind-altering electromagnetic radiations and god knows what else. The origin of the concept is likely to be a 1927 science-fiction story ("the tissue-culture king") written by British biologist Julian Huxley, brother of Aldous Huxley (of Brave new world fame) and grandson to famous evolutionary biologist Thomas Henry Huxley, also known as Darwin's bulldog for his fierce defence of the theory of evolution during its first years.

The tin foil hat also gave us the funniest scene in M. Night Shyamalan's movie Signs.

Wednesday, 16 April 2014

Bullshit-flavoured yogurt

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There are keywords that the marketing industry just loves. These are words that inspire confidence or give a positive impression of the product they're associated with. "Fresh" is a term we encounter very often in conjunction with any foodstuff that doesn't come out of a can, even if it's a fruit that was picked weeks ago or a bag of chips that was forgotten in a corner after the zombie apocalypse. It just sounds good. (Like "crispy". "Crispy" always sounds good. There are even donuts named "Krispy Kreme", for crying out loud, because apparently even cream sounds better if it's crispy. And I must admit that "mushy-mushy cream" doesn't cut it). That's all fine, really; it's normal to say nice things about stuff you want to sell.

As soon as publicists come near anything having to do with health, though, our bullshit detector starts tingling. Understanding that we mere mortals tend to see the world in black and white, the marketing industry identifies words with a negative connotation (cholesterol! Booh! Hiss!) and others with a positive connotation (omega-3! Yay! Huzzah!) and starts using them whenever possible, even in situations where it makes little or no sense. It is not uncommon, for example, to see the virtues of orange juice exalted by making it clear, on the label, that it is "cholesterol-free". Which is true, by the way, but also an extremely odd thing to state since the only way to find cholesterol in an orange would be to add it artificially, something even the most evil of transnational conglomerates has not yet managed to do in a profitable way. Cholesterol-free bacon would mean something, but cholesterol-free celery, cholesterol-free rice or cholesterol-free water are just celery, rice and water. (I once saw candy advertised as being "fat-free", believe it or not, even though it was almost pure sugar and colouring. Oh, yes, that's definitely a healthy snack , right there! It's fat-free)!

I entertain this fantasy in which there is a secret hideout somewhere, probably buried deep under a dormant volcano, where little elves go through the scientific literature in search of a compound that could be turned into the next rising star of the marketing industry. Say, like omega-3 fatty acids. Most people are aware that a healthy diet goes hand in hand with a healthy life, but there is little profit to be made by telling people to maintain a balanced diet, eat some fish, not shy away from fruits and veggies and refrain from eating too much. It's just too simple. No, we must get hoi polloi to buy supplements! Don't tell them that a balanced diet is all they need, for that way lies the pauper house... if something in their diet is shown to be good (usually by showing that when it's not there, one gets sick) then get people to consume (and therefore buy) lots and lots of it! If they don't actually purchase five tons of dietary fibre each month, perhaps they'll at least associate "fibre" with "good" and will decide to buy this brand of pasta over that brand because it contains more fibre. With omega-3 fatty acids, studies show that a diet poor in this type of lipid correlates with a higher risk of cardiovascular disease. Clearly, that makes it a miracle product, akin to the blood in the Holy Grail or the potions of Panacea! Not only is a supplement of omega-3 fatty acids good for your heart, but it will also prevent you from getting cancer, will give your kids a higher I.Q., will prevent teen pregnancies, will prevent bad breath, will add three inches to your Johnson, will counter global warming, will enhance harmony between civilizations and may even delay the heat death of the universe. Yessir, ma'am! A great product, now on sale for a limited time!

One of the favourite fields of the nutriceutival industry is that of the immune system. Any good product, technique or fad worth its salt must, somehow, contribute to your immune health. I suspect that even a ciclosporin salesman could not afford to say their product represses the immune system; they'd have to say something like "reduces the chances of rejecting a graft". Which means the same thing, naturally, but in a more positive light. For customers, since we all know our immune system is what keeps the common cold at bay, "immune system" = "good".

The thing is that "stimulates the immune system", while sounding like a pretty positive thing, doesn't mean much when said put of context. It's as with the city's police: do we really want an overactive police force? Too many jaywalking tickets are not better than too few. The same goes for the immune system, which is, like a car, much more complex than one thinks under the hood.

The cells and the proteins involved in immune regulation have the ultimate goal (or function, say, since they don't have a goal per se) to maintain a balance between the cells belonging to our body and the rest of the universe that comes in contact with it. We do not want to allow other cells (bacteria, fungi, tiny animals) to reside within our bodies whenever they please, because apart from the yuck factor they are likely to cause the rest of our body to function at less than peak efficiency. Heck, they may even kill us if we let them. On the other hand, we cannot live in a bubble; we need to interact with the rest of the world without overreacting to its presence (which is basically what happens during an allergic reaction, which can lead to a lethal anaphylactic shock). Plus, we do need to tolerate the presence of all the micro-organisms that live on the surface of our body and on the surface of our gut; they help us keep other, more problematic, micro-organisms at bay and they help us do things like digest some material. Oh, and they make us fart. The world would be a sadder place without farts.

At the root of the immune system is the possibility of distinguishing between what is you (the self) and what is not you (the non-self). That is done via certain molecular marks mostly found at the surface of cells; these marks are called antigens. (These can shed and be found floating around, too; in fact, any structure that can be recognized by the immune system is an antigen). A certain type of immune cells called T lymphocytes, whose job it is to recognize antigens, learn early in our development to distinguish between the antigens of the self and those that do not. That way, during our entire life, they'll be able to float around our body and judge whether this or that antigen belongs here or whether it does not, thus triggering a response. This maturation is done in an organ that we lose in our teens, the thymus. (The thymus from veal is known as sweetbread, which is kind of odd. Why is sweetbread made of meat while sweetmeat is not?)

When bacteria manage to pierce the outer protective layers of our body and get into our system, their surface antigens will mark them as foreign bodies and we have several ways to dispose of them. Likewise, when a cell is invaded by a bacterium or by a virus, il will express at its surface foreign antigens that will mark it as an infected cell, and it, too, will be disposed of (because the immune system is a great believer in the scorched earth strategy). Helping in the process is a type of circulating proteins, called antibodies, that bind to antigens to signal their presence to other agents (like immune cells that will come to investigate, or like complement factors that will punch a whole in a cell membrane carrying a foreign antigen). So that we do not go overboard, our body also knows when to calm down its immune response.

As would be expected, like any system, this one has glitches. The immune response can be too weak, as is the case when we're immunosuppressed, and then pathogens can get the better of us; it can be unbalanced, as with an allergic reaction, where we react too strongly to something that's not that dangerous, or we can even see our immune system turn against our own antigens -a situation called autoimmunity. That last case is what comes to mind when some product claims to "boost" my immune response. Although I know that what's meant is basically "whatever's nice in your immune system, this yogurt/yeast extract/herbal tea will make nicer and ensure that you and the universe will live in harmony forever and ever and ever", what my brain imagines is that since I am not immunorepressed, a "boost" will mean a higher sensitivity to antigen; allergic reactions; rheumatoid arthritis, systemic lupus erythematosus, type 1 diabetes and multiple sclerosis. Which are, I'm sure you'll agree, far less marketable terms than "fresh taste".

Bah, let's be honest... there's no actual danger, here. The overinflated claims of these products are just empty words, like a fisherman's tale about the one that got away. But they do show that the industry never shies away from making outrageous scientific-sounding claims to get your attention, get your trust... and eventually get your money. Which is where it's at, in the final analysis.

Tuesday, 15 April 2014

Noah the undertaker

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For a hypothesis to be scientific and not simply a just-so story, it must meet certain criteria. Among these is falsifiability, or the possibility to be proven wrong. If an untestable hypothesis cannot be proven wrong, that doesn't make it right: it makes it useless. So the next time uncle Arthur tells you that you cannot prove that Leprechauns don't exist and that they're the reason thousands of unidentified people disappear each year, don't fret about it: the burden of the proof is on him, not on you.

Of course, in the case of a hypothesis that could be proven wrong but isn't, the lack of negative evidence (especially as the hypothesis or theory is tested again and again) makes one more and more confident that it is right.

A famous quote about the falsifiability of the theory of evolution is attributed to the famous biologist J.B.S. Haldane. Asked about what could convince him that the theory was wrong, Haldane answered "rabbits in the Precambrian". As we've mentioned before, the succeeding geological eras of our planet left layers of sedimentary rocks piled one over the other under our feet; these layers allow us to get a glimpse of what life looked like as we go farther and farther back in time (or deeper and deeper in the ground, which amounts to the same thing). An obvious testable prediction is that according to that theory, one should not encounter the remains of a life form in a layer that predates its apparition. During the Precambrian (anything older than 541 000 000 years BCE), we were still millions of years from the appearance of the first primitive fish, let alone amphibians, let alone reptiles, let alone mammal-like reptiles, let alone mammals, let alone rabbits. Were we to find fossilized rabbits among the remains of the Ediacara biota, it would fit with the theory like a square peg in a round hole. So there are ways to prove this theory wrong, and the fact that we can't is a pretty strong endorsement for its validity.

Needless to say, there aren't any rabbits in the Precambrian strata. That leaves creationists with a bit of a problem: how did fossils get organized in a way that somehow agrees with the theory of evolution? Hypotheses vary. Some claim that an evil imp organized fossils that way to confuse people. Some argue that as Noah's Flood struck, slower-moving animals like dinosaurs were drowned first and were the first to be buried under sediments. This is actually not an untestable hypothesis, unlike the first one, but it doesn't hold water (pun unintended). For one, the deeper strata do not contain the remains of dinosaurs, which appeared hundreds of millions of years after the Precambrian: they contain the remains of marine animals (no dinosaurs, no rabbits). Second, a large number of dinosaurs were not particularly slow-moving, judging from what biomechanics tell us about their skeletons. Third, according to this hypothesis, all slow-moving animals should be found in a deeper stratum than fast-moving ones; and yet, sloths are found just where the theory of evolution expects them: with other mammals, fast and slow, not with dinosaurs.