Monday, August 12, 2019

The argument from design (and the reality of biology)

So often when we compare what we feel is true with the testable reality of what is true we are struck with the fact that our own minds often struggle to understand most things.

Take the argument from design, not only formally a popular religious argument for a god concept but, and here's the rub, a naturally intuitively compelling one for any human. It's extraordinary (but easy to understand) that the most popular reason why people believe there is a supernatural realm is due to their own inability to understand the natural one. The basic gist is that when a human looks out upon the world and their extraordinarily improbable existence in it, one is naturally struck with what we describe as awe and wonder but is more accurately bewilderment. When we see something complex it is easy to resort to the simple (and poorly or non explanatory) gut feeling that since humans tend to do things for a purpose or reason, the entire universe must be the way it is because a being, which just so happens to resemble us (or we It) meant for it to be that way. More recently the discovery that were the universe to have been just a tiny weeny bit different (as defined by the cosmological constant) that we would not be here at all. Ah ha! Surely that's more evidence to support the claim.

The argument (it's obviously all for us from 'It'. Woopee!) is captivating until you think about it. One honest glance at the universe and we come to the conclusion that it is overtly hostile to life in general.  Not only is Earth (and its passengers) not at the centre of the universe, it's not even the most important rock in what we now know is a tiny solar system with a middling class G2V star at it's centre somewhere in a remote corner of one of billions of galaxies. And one look at our nature puts ourselves into perspective as well. Life is precious, brief and hostile. Moreover religious traditions fool their flocks (we love to be fooled) into thinking that 'value, meaning and purpose', you know those 'Big' life questions that only faith can examine, isn't derived from life at all but from fantasizing about a life eternal and therefore actively diminishing the value, meaning and purpose of the only life we all managed to have. You need to be prepared to devalue life in order to be convinced that you can escape its end.

Further still, if we're brave enough to keep pondering, an epicurean glance at any supernatural claim reveals them all for the absurdities and immoralities they are. Now look around honestly at the world which only a moment before seemed like a celestial bespoke just for us (the ones who believe I mean, since the greatest sin is simply being unconvinced (of a hundred or more entirely different traditional claims!)). If a god concept explained anything it could only describe 4 possible realities given that life, as much as we'd wish it was all wine and roses, is quite difficult at times and uniformly fatal. Therefore either the God of your choosing (that's where they come from) is indifferent and doesn't care to prevent harm, incompetent (a better God) and wants to prevent harm but cannot, malevolent and quite enjoys the suffering or the most plausible, not real.

The unreality of god concepts forces upon humans the very thing that nature built us to avoid - our own responsibilities both for our knowledge and morals. My religious acquaintances love to assert that only good has come from such beliefs but I'm yet to see how pretending to know rates as any type of wisdom or morality. The most accurate definition of faith I've ever heard was simply 'pretentiousness'. Want knowledge? Pretend you have it. Morals? Ditto. The clearest example of how these beliefs so effectively strip away the need to think is borne out by the absurdity of the story of Abraham and Isaac brilliantly explained here.

In 1994 a woman, Sarah Smith, captured the hearts (and values, meaning and purpose) of a nation when she reported that a black man had hijacked her car with her 2 young children still aboard. Tragically it was later discovered that Mrs Smith had drowned her children as a demonstration of love for another man who told her he did not want to be part of a 'ready made family'. The nations disgust was levelled at both people, a mother who would even contemplate slaughtering her own children to say nothing of actually committing filicide as an act of love and a man whose idea of love was to suggest it.

And yet our own natural sense of morality is inverted as soon as a god concept is inserted into the equation. It's difficult for people such as myself who do not believe god concepts describe any part of reality except the imagination (and self deception) to comprehend the level of self imposed delusion required in the futile attempt to shove this ugly distortion into a moral round hole. What is beyond repugnant is made, wait for it, a great expression of love if the being who requires the slaughter also has the ability to torture you for eternity. I've had people sincerely (and condescendingly) 'explain' to me that since I don't believe what they do I can't be right (until I do). God, apparently didn't really want Abraham to put a knife through his son, oh no. Seemingly, so goes the 'explanation', Abraham was in the habit of not listening to God (a good thing one would think) which prompted the Creator to 'test' Abraham by telling him to do it. Lol. It was just a joke. I think it was Hitchen's who pointed out that only religion seems to be able to take the wise and moral person and undo them.

A point of clarification - religions are not the only problem, people are. Gods do not come from themselves, they are invented by the imagination hence why there are always so many popping into and out of popularity. So many messiahs, prophets and miracles. A dime a dozen. But more accurately we should turn to Orwell who explained that any totalitarianism is basically a theocracy since all share the same 3 characteristics - irrefutable doctrine, infallible hierarchy and the right to invent history. Since no individual can achieve all this, one type of entity can - a horrible delusion.

The tragedy that people easily relinquish their independence of mind not so much for promises of freedom but threats of annihilation is the only motivation I have for talking about the most uncomfortable topic we have.  What's the harm I hear people say? There is no harm if you don't even start to think it through. Humans are born selfish to begin with, an evolutionary necessity, a Mark not of Cain but natural selection. But we clearly have the ability to recognize what is not moral while being easily fooled into believing the opposite. It is what psychologists call cognitive dissonance, the ability to hold two entirely contradictory beliefs and deal with it through further cognitive back flips. If it feels true it will feel exactly as if it is true. However we rationally understand that if something feels true it is, in and of itself, an unreliable way to determine truth. Test yourself and you'll note that you never conduct your day by having a feeling and leaving it unmolested by your own ability to use external objective methods to check it! Crossing a road? Check you hunch. Teaching a child, your child how to do anything? Check your hunches. Flying, building, food selection, anything at all and we understand that proceeding based purely on feelings of truth which cannot be otherwise validated is utter stupidity or plain selfishness. Not so religion which inverts, prevents and warns against doubt using the most effective device of all - fear. Children are still offered the bait and switch, the perpetual love and protection of the father (which all children crave), sealed with the threat that if you happen to find yourself unconvinced by what are naturally ridiculous and immoral (or at best naive and childish) stories you face worse than death, you face both the real and fantasy version of what humans fear the most - being ostracized from community. I think it was Hitchen's again who remarked that these ideas infantilise people. They never edify them.

Fortunately there seems to be a growing population of Ex's. Ex-Muslims, Ex-Pastors, etc. And there is growing evidence that most who find themselves unconvinced by unconvincing narratives do not advertise it (since it would lead to various degrees of shunning). Religions are here to stay, being as they are natural products of the human mind. I do find it fascinating, and obvious (once it becomes so) that the most despised Theory of all is natural selection (typically confused with the fact of evolution) and yet it is that process which, by necessity, 'has to' produce a type of cognition better suited to quick reactions and high emotion than considered thought. We have to be aware of our own mortality (to want to avoid it) as well as being capable of imagining any way out of it no matter how absurd. It is even a mark of doctrinal authenticity and the devotees badge of courage to accept and swallow whole the most preposterous, risible, farcical and ultimately selfish and immoral ideas. If ones wants to understand the 'magic' of delusion it is just that - the ability to take the sane and make them embrace and adore the insane. Humans need only one thing to enact it - our heavy emotional need for self preservation above all else, even our own children. What honest parent has never felt what my mother once described and later I experienced - to love unconditionally and want to kill the little bastard all at once.

In a shrinking world it is even more imperative that we protect and encourage environments conducive to what should be the ordinary and quite civil exchange of ideas. To argue that the story of Mrs Smith can be made moral merely by pretending that imaginary things make it so is the antithesis of anything good or wise. That the majority are foolish enough to believe that religious traditions do anything but detract from civil discourse surely has to be their greatest achievement of all.


Thursday, July 11, 2019

Magical Models - The fundamental absurdity of the biopsychosocial model of health care.

A great deal of intelligence can be invested in ignorance when the need for illusion is great - Saul Bellow, American author.

Models are just that, ideas or physical representations of reality but importantly are not to be confused with reality itself. Our ability to create models provides us with another observation about the very reason why the BPS model is both useful while being fundamentally, even grossly absurd. I also argue that the old biomedical model (BM model) was probably a better one, a scientific one, a testable one. It deserved thought not an outright and hasty rejection. The BPS model on the other hand, because of its grasping at the illusion of 'inclusiveness', is fundamentally untestable and was adopted largely because it looks and feels incorporated while possibly achieving the opposite.

Biopsychosocial model: an interdisciplinary model that looks at the interconnection between biology, psychology, and socio-environmental factors.

Interaction between infers in the human mind separate things, entities or processes that come together in a variety of ways. It's also perceived or feels to us that they can be separated as in actually so. For example, my personal experience of speaking with researchers and clinicians from various fields (clinical science, sociology, philosophy, politics, literacy theory, mathematics, etc, etc) is that biology is reducible (the first of many ironies) to a separate subject and largely, often entirely irrelevant to the study of what are essentially things that biological entities (ourselves and each other) do on a day to day basis. That is, humans, often quite accomplished and intelligent ones, function as if human reality existed apart from and was not influenced by or explained through their own biology. Now ask yourself, can either the psychological or the social exist without biology, not the subject but itself? Like the heat and movement produced by a functioning engine psychology and social interaction are aspects of a functioning biology. That we might emotionally prefer that there is a psychology and a society out there somewhere interacting autonomously (and that this helped us understand and explain it) is just that, an emotional preference, a familiarity with a model that is absurd, greedily reductionist, but feels true. And given that the BM model was discarded primarily for being 'too reductionistic' the BPS model simply repeats the fault while dumping the only necessary component of any biological model - the biology! I recall under a handful of people who when asked could describe the explanatory framework of biology (most have no idea what it means) who then went on to describe what they believed was a unique and insightful understanding of behavior (under a different label).

To help order our thoughts and so make better estimations about reality (in order to build reliable knowledge and satisfy the ethic we all apparently endorse (to help not harm others)) we have to understand the fact that believing we are helping others cannot, in isolation, help us determine whether or not we actually are. That step requires considered and dispassionate thought - In philosophy there is the basic premise of ‘necessary’ and ‘sufficient’ which helps us distinguish between that which is primary (necessary) and that which is secondary (and dependent upon primary factors). For example there is no actual example in reality of a psychology or a social interaction that can exist independent of biology (If it were otherwise a dogs bark could logically exist before or even without the dog). Moreover all behaviours depend upon and are explained by it. If the argument is that 'biology (usually science cannot...) explain everything" (a ludicrous position few seriously entertain) we do know that without it we cannot begin to understand anything at all. It requires repetition (such is our unfamiliarity with the idea) that exactly nothing is ‘real’ to a human before it’s biology is functioning. And, because it seems impossible to so many (to the human imagination), we'll state for clarification that a non functioning biology is called one of two things - dead or non existing. We are our biology and we are its story. And there is no possibility that psychology or social interaction can begin to be functioning or described or understood before a biology is present to produce it (and be modified by its own interactions). Consider any human behaviour. The dementia patient has a debilitated biology which severely limits their psychological and social functioning. Limited psychological and social functioning does not determine biology. Biology interacting determines biology (or 'nature interacting with nature'). If we place a person in isolation we will observe a deterioration in their psyche but that is how we describe a deterioration in their biology (which is the producer of the psychological and social behaviours) due to it being isolated from interaction with other biological entities (which through the very long history of biology is how biology interacted (within and between individual biologies). If you are still so attached to the idea that biology was a subject you took at school and not our own marvellous story (and the basis of everything about you) then perhaps it is easier to use other language. Suit yourself on that point but don't fall to the illusions created by our own species of animal (which displays a deep seated cognitive problem with 'daddy issues'). There are no independently arising psychologies or sociologies. What prompted this brief critique was a colleagues opinion that the most important (largest/greatest) aspect of the BPS model was psychological. That is impossible. Psychological cannot actually be greater than the biology which produces it and all other behaviours. Moreover what we call our individual psychology cannot be greater than society (thousands of other biologies/entities which over time have determined how each individual biology is). It appears to us as though it is true because humans are naturally infatuated with their own thoughts and feelings to such a degree that it is easy to feel (irony again) that thought and feelings are somehow an independently arising and autonomous event. They are important to us, yes. Are they so cardinal as to be able to be greater than all else? That is called solipsism, egocentricity or narcissism. All perfectly understandable through comprehending biology - built selfish out of necessity. Let's not give ourselves further reasons to be so.

To illustrate the problem, at the same conference a study showed that exposing a foetus to higher levels of cortisol tended to make a person hyper vigilant (and tending to respond to health interventions with a negative response (nocebo)). It might then seem as though the mothers ‘psychology’ affected the children when in fact the hormones produced by the mothers biology due to her interactions with the world (perhaps she was the victim of abuse and suffering from PTSD) then affected the biological development of the child. This is later expressed as hyper vigilance in the child. That is how the situation is more accurately understood. However, if we believe the BPS model to be descriptive of reality we can try to comprehend what looks like a primarily psychological phenomena (confirmed through our absurd BPS model) by (irony again) mentally (bias) amputating psychology from biology, an impossibility. If biology does not change we do not have psychology or society. Another way to think of it is that psychology and society are fluctuations in biology both in the immediate sense and over millions of years which has moulded itself to continually reflect what we define as psychology and society. Why is that fact so difficult to comprehend? Individuals never live for more than years whereas their biology is billions of years in the making. How our biology functions reflects its evolutionary history - born without knowledge into a brief life, if any at all, with an opportunity to take part in its continuation. For those who feel this cheapens life consider the opposite - it is its very improbability and brevity that makes it so precious and valued (and gives health providers a career).

The most elegant model does (and has for over 150 years) gone back even further than our individual biology. We know for example that the two essential factors that mould each one of us are the genetics we inherit coupled to the exposure or experience of them (which then, via negative and positive (biological) feedback) influence further development. One might study psychology or sociology (terms invented by us to describe aspects of biology (even though the illusion is of cleaving them away)) but one should be aware that our own minds will want to perform a little ‘magic’ on ourselves. Psychology (more irony) coined the term ‘magical thinking’. Our own neurobiology/cognition has a strong tendency to automatically or reflexively connect two ideas as if one caused the other. Feeling that the two are coherent is all the mind needs to believe they are (whether they are or not). We rarely consider whether or not the relationship was causal or otherwise. More importantly we tend not to query our own minds as to how, even hypothetically, we could test or determine the difference. We do not naturally question our own feelings if they feel true because our own neurology tends to reinforce habits. It is why when you awake tomorrow morning that you have not forgotten everything. Psychology calls this very robust, naturally selected, efficient and highly conforming (biased) cognition heuristic thinking. The BPS model satisfies our need for confirmation. If we want to think that psychology and sociology can be separated from biology we can feel strongly that this makes sense (even when it doesn’t).

The model - evolution via natural selection - has always been socially not scientifically controversial. Humans prefer the illusion of immortality for the very reason that the model explains - we are primarily geared to want to live. If that means adopting illusions in an attempt to be rid of our own cognitive dissonance (I'm mortal (I can die and suffer) but don't want to be) we will be easily led. Even very few evolutionary biologists seem to understand that our own story illustrates why our own lives are a constant dilemma, a stream of choices primarily driven by the need to avoid suffering. But it also explains why we are amused by the absurd. Movies, theatre, comedy, tragedy, poetry, song... We are 'attracted<>repulsed' by that which reflects our own predicament. Running away from the reality might offer temporary solace but that is to chose to embrace ignorance, a dangerous precedent. The mass suicide at Jonestown may have looked like an outlier statistic but it's not entirely unique at all and was possible due to human biology - enough people believed they could escape the death of their own bodies because it was 1. a naturally attractive idea (to survive forever in some form) 2. reinforced through repetition 3. the population was homogenised (few if any questioned what the group considered to be a ‘true’ hypothesis (group think)). Billions of humans believe that they either will or might live on after they die. The only difference at Jonestown was that a prolonged indoctrination period so blurred the line between the instinct to survive and the fantasy of immortality that they killed themselves en masse (note that were humans naturally confident of their fantasies (produced by magical thinking) we would witness the ordinary routine of people 'trying it out' by taking the occasional leap off a cliff. Humans are aware of their own pretenses but too afraid to abandon what becomes by adulthood, a social investment. We all pretend not to notice ridiculous ideas and behaviours for fear of looking 'bad' or standing out. Humans only wish to stand out to be admired not to express 'freedom of belief'.

Belief in life after death is the ultimate example of the easy ability cognitively (imaginatively) amputate one's own existence (psychology) from reality because of the natural drive of biology to live and the ability of the imagination to manufacture ‘magical’ solutions to impossible problems. Vitalism, the belief that biology is propelled (and best understood) by pretending it (and therefore we) is driven by something ‘more than’ biological is remarkably popular (even if people don't know the word) for the same reason. Children demonstrate magical thinking (imaginative play/vitalistic causation) which we endorse as a normal and healthy part of biological development. It is endearing in children, stupid and dangerous in adults. If any human can accomplish the delusion of existing without their own biology (billions do), believing that psychology functions independently from (and is bigger than!) biology (the BPS model) is elementary. As a note it is relatively popular to add a fourth category to the BPS Venn diagram, that of the supernatural or ‘spiritual’. Humans naturally struggle with the concept that how we form ideas (epistemology) is more important than the ideas we form But natural selection awards us another version of an animal's brain, not a philosophers and so the most popular epistemology is confirmation bias, instinct confirming instinct, faith thinking. Even education is used by us to cement what we feel is true. We are not educated inot what we are (only what we'd like to be) and are not given the tools of deliberate self examination (only self promotion). We are truly besotted with ourselves.

Perhaps this is why humans have no greater difficulty with science than with the common story of their own biology. It has, regrettably for us it seems, never promised what most humans naturally desire - immortality/continuing survival - which in philosophical terms is solipsism (I want whatever I feel is true to be true. If reality doesn’t conform I will imagine it does). For example, the title of one of Darwin’s books is On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection. Another title could well be ‘Our Family History - How We've All Made It This Far’. We need this sort of perspective in order to deal with what researchers have continued to reassert with robust research as being our need for tribal identity. Humans have no actual base rate at which they will favour the in group and punish any other. We will just do it. It takes a great deal of intentional self recrimination in order to even begin to compensate for the delusions our own biology presents us.

Evolution is defined as Descent with Modification and more specifically not only species but each individuals inherent anatomy (biology) is the way it is through our common story. And therefore the manner in which it behaves and interacts is formed and modified by the process. If one were to seriously entertain a competent model for health and well being, one which was most likely to be cogent (and humanly honest), generate sound hypotheses and valid research (and ultimately care for people) it would be natural selection. As insulting as it seems for a species to have to mature and confront suffering and mortality, a professional ethic requires only one thing - dispassionate thinking and better models and solutions. Unfortunately many want to be admired for being well credentialed but don’t accept the moral burden or implication it carries. What we call social, even cultural selection is best understood via the only valid model we have - an evolutionary one. To accept something else demonstrates, ironically again, evolution itself, that it does not proceed by giving creatures marvellous intellectual insight but by building marvellously efficient (and therefore exquisitely irrational and reflexive) biological systems. We even have research that shows that the perception of being ‘educated’ can blind the individual to the fact that they will always remain fundamentally a product of their own, largely consciously unaware, biology. As Saul Bellow and many others have remarked, intelligence is largely used in concert with ignorance, to bolster it, not alleviate. 

It is no accident that both psychology and sociology now have fields using the prefix ‘evolutionary’ since trying to understand either without the focus and explanatory filter of the very process that allowed them to exist would be like the delusion (to use a basic thinking tool called analogy) that deep knowledge and understanding of ourselves is derived by denying we ever had parents (if denial seems to fit the bill). Or as is most popular, to pretend our ‘parents’ are gods of some description. This is quite possibly the most naturally cherished type of belief but also a spectacularly infantile one. The greatest irony is that the current BPS model is what we would expect from a species still overwhelmingly reluctant to accept what we all are - mortal parts of nature (an accurate definition which suffers from being unappealing to health practitioners (but helpful (and ethical/moral) to the building of knowledge and therefore the individual and the community). The other direction is to continue to want to grasp at our own and others bewilderment rather than understand it for the simple reason that it takes less effort.


Thursday, March 21, 2019

Chiropractic and the curse of self censorship

No one can seem to say the words 'Vitalism is dead'. We can say 'evidence based patient centred care', 'professional ethics', 'contemporary guidelines' and 'forward thinking' but no one seems to have the stomach for a simple fact, that the core of the problem in the chiropractic profession is philosophical.
It's most likely a vast understatement to say that only 20% of the profession are backwards traditionalists. We know that 20% believe a chiropractors only role is the 'detection and correction' of subluxations but what is far less clear or less openly stated by any proportion of the profession is why.

Why would a person be led to hold the belief (and employ the one dimensional and strangely religious or ritualistic language) that a chiropractors job was always, currently and for ever only single focused? Why would at least 20% of the profession believe that their principle aim was to see everyone on earth, cure the world 'one spine at a time'? Why is there a desperate need to see children in particular and families in general, for life?

And why does the majority seem to obsess about the need to avoid talking about it?

The reason subluxations are such a curse to humanity (so the narrative goes) has less to do with spines and far more to do with the supernatural. Subluxations prevent a god concept (traditionally called a Universal Intelligence) from reconnecting with a soul concept (Innate Intelligence). This accurate and evidence based diagnosis of our professions woes and obstacles is also best described by the story of the Emperors New Clothes.

In that story by Hans Christian Andersen, two weavers convince the Emperor that they have made a suit of clothes that is invisible to those who are unfit for their positions, stupid or incompetent. Vitalism, another word or label used in the attempt to claim visibility or reality for that which is not, is generally believed to be real by most humans. That is to say as a species we are easily led to believe that supernatural forces, spirits or phantoms actually help us explain reality. Within groups which claim to be keenly evidence based it is not at all unusual to find proponents of creationism, the specifically religiously branded version of divine revelation, cosmology manufactured by super beings as an explanation for everything you see and experience around you - including biology (you yourself and the public). Vitalism is another form of Intelligent Design, a term initially conjured up by religious groups when they failed to convince US Supreme Courts that Biblical Genesis be taught  as a science instead of evolution.

Evolution via natural selection is the worlds most despised scientific framework. No other field of inquiry attracts the vitriol of the faithful or the indifference of the majority as much as this. Try to equate it with physics or mathematics. Yes, people will always want to inject their superstitions into these but few call for bans of formula or theory or argue that it comes in multiple forms. Imagine math for one moment without theory or frameworks. The textbooks would look like increasingly complex times tables, and achievement would be based purely on wrote learning. Alternatively we might be allowed to use formula but any result could be true. 2+2 could equal 4 or 7 or 107 because the consensus would be that '+' and '=' were merely symbolic, metaphorical. "All of science is metaphor" was even a claim made by one highly regarded person in my own profession. Dr Ian Coulter, who held many senior posts over his career, was regarded as a philosophical expert and yet he appeared to have no robust epistemology. In other words all that could be said about the truth was that it was indeterminable in principle. And on the subject of vitalism he agreed that due to it's apparent popularity it wasn't actually dead. But Santa is also a popular idea among children. Does that make it true?

And, ironically, it's due to evolution itself. The philosophical implication of all discoveries but especially evolution is that the belief that humans are specially created by invisible father figures or mysterious forces (which have some type of human intention) is false. We could be technical and say 'falsified' but in practical terms it makes no difference. I could leap out the window whilst claiming that the best we could say about my coming death was that my ability to fly was 'falsified'. But we couldn't say it was false, surely. We couldn't say I was wrong, could we? Moreover the ability to speculate about 'invisible' things (what might that be that's making rain, storm, life and death?) is a cognitive trait produced by natural selection itself. Speculation allows us to 'fast guess', what has been labelled heuristics. But it also comes with significant bias. While intuition can be cognitively efficient and supportive of short term survival, it is highly prone to error and is not good at long term projections or reasoning (although it will certainly claim the opposite). Being careful and rational is a learned skill and all the while, from birth to death, one cannot simply switch off our very animal and blunt headed brain. We have to continually question what is often only deeply held and cognitively defended (confirmation bias) false beliefs. Vitalism(s) are such beliefs being as they are built upon pure faith thinking, confirmation bias confirming itself in one endless loop of epistemic unreliability.

Questioning vitalism, to say nothing of declaring it effectively 'dead' by contemporary standards (just as dead as hundreds of other superseded explanations (preformation, ethers, geocentrism, etc, etc)) cuts at the very core of human intuitions about what is real. But here's the rub. Professionals don't have rights, they have responsibilities. If we want the privilege to even mention the words 'evidence based' but we also want the right to wear an invisible suit and not have it called out as such, in other words if we want to have our own version of what evidence means, then how are we any different from the 20%? Are we not an even greater problem? How do we know that just not being a part of the 20% is significantly better than an indifferent 80%? The latter would appear, logically, to be a far greater problem.

What we appear to be doing is taking the obviously ridiculous and simpleminded claim that all humans are afflicted by exactly the same condition (life sapping subluxations), but in principle vitalism is another naive attempt to understand complex things. We even have evidence to support that conclusion. Children use vitalistic (intuitive and often supernatural) attempts to try and understand biology. It's endearing in children and dangerous in adults who are now at the reins of education, industry, professions and their regulation. Biology education is cut into through the clever use of omission. Any complex study of natural selection is just left out and biology becomes an exercise in wrote learning. The entire field, of which we are one product, is stunted. We literally choose to misunderstand both ourselves and the patients we claim to want to share 'evidence' with. And we do this for the simple reason that it feels wrong to question our own beliefs. It is much easier to do that which is acceptable to the group. It's no more complex than short term survival.

The result is to be satisfied with what we feel is a better choice than the 20%. But how are we to know what potential we are capable of if we refuse to admit that we are not wearing real clothes, that all we are interested is in protecting whatever identity we presently feel suits us. The criticism of the 20% is that they play mere tribalism. So what is the 80% if not just a larger tribe and just as prepared to shut down progress if it perceives someone to be doing things the 'wrong way'. Consensus always feels good but rarely proposes effective solutions. Instead it perfects new forms of inertia.

Even with the growing awareness of a term called the 'hidden curriculum' we cannot bring ourselves to talk openly about the suppression of science, of facts and evidence bases, because it is too socially divisive. So the hidden curriculum, tragically, becomes its own circular story. Ironically, again, this is easily understandable because evolution produces herding behavior. It manufactures the hidden curriculum as effortlessly as any withdrawal response. Even pain, a subject we love to think we understand is this complex emotional response to perceived harm, intuitive, biased, self protective. And yet the 'theory' used to try and describe the hidden curriculum is not natural selection, it's often a rehash of postmodern influenced social theory, more 'vitalisms', naive, wrong but oh so emotionally compelling.


Sunday, February 24, 2019

The Hidden Curriculum

A few years ago some of my colleagues suggested I focus my attention towards the study of the hidden curriculum, a dull sounding educational term that basically refers to the manner in which humans are behaviorally blind to much of their own and each others activity whilst pretending otherwise. The hidden curriculum, it seems, isn't so much a thing in itself as it is the behavior of humans ourselves. In fact the hidden curriculum (formally defined as the unwritten, unofficial, and often unintended lessons, values, and perspectives that students learn in school (it tends to carry a negative connotation)) is, ironically, our own cognitive 'glitchiness', what neuroscience refers to as bias or the minds considerable blind spots. It is a particularly human 'evolved' trait and (biggest irony of all) evolution, as a subject, is treated educationally as if it were optional knowledge, not as it is, the story of how we came to be. Moreover it is this which explains why a hidden curriculum exists at all - because humans are naturally ignorant and deceptive survivalists. We prefer to pretend that consensus is more often right because what looks like (bias) consensus feels safe (survival).

The hidden curriculum attracts researchers from within education, in all its varieties - primary, secondary and professional - and in our case it is the hidden curriculum of heath care professionalism in particular (most of this research has been conducted within medical education and training). The irony (it never stops), quite a spectacular one, is that health care education is, obviously, built upon a foundation of the biological sciences and that is squarely and only, in a contemporary sense, underpinned by evolution and it's theoretical framework, natural selection. So, quite simply, if we teach biology and claim to be evidence based, we have to teach all of it and this includes its Theory - Natural Selection and it's somewhat awkward philosophical significance. And the hidden curriculum itself is the study of human behavior. In effect, all of it, education and the study it how it operates 'behind the scenes' (hidden), is the study of biology. And the theory? Natural selection. The theories used however are largely speculative, often based upon the whimsical postmodern notion that all of this is a creation of society - that society creates biological behavior. Pause a moment for reflection - that is the premise and belief that everything, down to what particular genetic traits you inherited from mum and dad, was produced by society. That society doesn't actually exist before we do seems to have slipped past the minds of a considerable number of highly educated people. How could that be?

The consequence of being alive is that we die. We also possess a highly emotionally mediated natural mind that can imagine what might be. And if one can imagine the possibility of consolation (the miracle of escaping death) one can feel it. And since what feels true feels just like something that is true, believing we make sense when we clearly do not is as effortless as having an imaginary friend, quite the most popular class of human belief. If a mind can convince itself of (actually) cheating death (by feeling strongly about it), believing you understand a hidden curriculum by never understanding the mind at all is another effortless self deceit (the mind can 'deceive' itself that what it believes is knowledge (cognitive illusion)). A hidden curriculum is there because of the way cognition operates and that is explained by natural selection and no other way. In all of health care education, certainly most of school education, evolution remains effectively hidden due to the significant social 'controversy' of it. The argument is nothing but this - Sure we're all gonna die but are we? And since the mere suggestion of survival (a Deus ex machina moment (a god plucks us from certain death)) is enough to lure any survivalist (we all possess a biology literally built to do this), we freely choose to embrace what is required to believe it - we pretend that what we rationally understand is unfounded (it's as philosophically compelling as any other childhood imaginary friend) is in fact the equivalent of wisdom. Humans do this on a daily basis. Evolution's theory technically refutes (it doesn't include), any and all hypothesized supernatural mechanisms or explanations. Yet the process built us to be 'teleological' thinkers, that is, we operate intuitively; able to use reason and imagination when we wish to, but far more adept at reaction, guesswork and the emotional significance of ideas, not necessarily the truth of them. You may think you understand evolution but very few are taught it in depth and they include educators who are quite prepared to tell you that they understand how to interpret biology. That is like doing any complex task without any other 'map' except intuition. The equivalent of teaching biology without a focus on theory is like maths without formulae or pilots without a license. I should stress that again - the reason we do not teach children about their origins is because it conflicts with a hundred 'origin stories' that their parents have become attached to! We can't bare to tell children that entire traditions failed to explain anything about reality. We either lie or we agree to have them lied to. Personally I leave people to their own beliefs but I do not accept that it is anything but moral revisionism (selfishness) to insist that the next generation be sold myth as explanation. It also demeans the impact of the myths themselves which either poetic attempts at understanding or an excellent study in its opposite. Notice the difference. People are free to believe but we are not free to tell children that we know what we cannot know to be true or false (while ignoring what we know to be true).

What could possibly go wrong? We teach top level biology by wrote learning and gut feeling. My daughters own year 11 biology text mentions the theoretical framework once (4 words) in one sentence in a 500 page book! 499.9 pages of wrote learning, no complex thinking required only the cognitive ability (also explained via theory) to have a high WMI (Working memory index or short term memory). Here's another insight due to being aware of theory. The reason some autistic people are savants possessing extraordinary but isolated talents (such as flawless memory), isn't because they are thinking, it's because their brain is processing one type of data. But it can easily 'look like' thinking to other minds that don't understand natural selection and it's tendency to build us with a mass of cognitive blind spots. Imagine any 'expert'  of human behavior refusing to understand basic principles of their own field. It's also why a scientific method often eventually works when the aim is knowledge building whereas intuition, or 'faith thinking', is quite demonstrably a much faster way to think but can carry considerable bias (it's often wrong and if used in isolation can only build wrong things (faith refuses revision)). I should explain that by faith thinking I refer to the manner in which our minds operate not just 'religion'. When we make rational decisions about things and events that we perceive as being potentially beneficial or risky, we 'back check' our initial feelings. If we sense that carrying on might damage our future prospects (going to bed with the woman or man you feel suddenly attracted to for example), we might alter our beliefs or actions but it's important to understand that the main driver of most behaviour, including what looks rational, is based upon this 'faith thinking', making a guess and back filling with confirmation (bias, or what we feel or predict is true (but isn't). Science methods (as distinct from scientists (people) go the other way - counter intuitively riding roughshod over our precious hypotheses. That's why we didn't really begin to accumulate knowledge about how the world worked until relatively recent times with the unexpected advent of the formalized testing of our ideas or hypotheses. Humans thought, quite naturally hoped (still largely do), that naturalism (science) could be a great way to finally work out that what 'I already believe is true' is true. That was the famous physicist, Richard Feynman's, simple advice - take a guess, he honest as to what you should observe if your guess was true. If the observations don't match you are wrong. Start again, because,

"you must not fool yourself, and you are the easiest person to fool."

Knowledge building primarily leads to explanations (Theory) which are, unlike the data, the story which makes our observations comprehendable. It's often assumed that 'real truth' isn't something that theory deals with (it's just 'theory') but some theories are demonstrably true. Geocentrism, the idea that the Earth is at the centre of the universe is false, superseded, never found, not a reality, an historical footnote on our way to further understanding. Heliocentrism is true. We and the other planets and solar 'gravel' orbit the sun. It is true because only a fool would claim that both it and geocentrism could be equally, possibly true. Vitalism is false. It is a word used to give the impression of an explanation for life. Around 1800 it was thought to be the explanation for the observation that living things lived and others didn't seem to because (theory) they possessed a vital spirit/force/thing/?. Vitalism was a proposed mechanism but since then what has been found are not vitalisms but the whole extraordinary process driven by and explained through natural selection. It is continuously claimed that two categories exist - one is natural and the other supernatural. The former can be known by observing nature doing its thing. The other is claimed to be 'more than' or in addition to or even causing the other. So what we appear to be doing is providing labels for our ignorance and feelings to give ourselves the impression that we have an explanation or knowledge of some description. That seems innocent enough until we realize that it's epistemically quite dangerous to pretend to know something we do not know. Claiming 'more than' or 'in addition to' is nothing but false knowledge. Instead of admitting ignorance (I don't know), we make elaborate attempts to paint a metaphorical picture that we hope our audience is unable to discern from a real explanation. Humans don't like to 'not know'. Surveys even exist that make that behaviour quite clear - humans will self deceive if they feel it's necessary to maintain their perception of themselves (as a person who knows things). Of course we do it habitually, believing we do know. It's easier than having to know anything and in many cases it is simply too difficult, financially ruinous or dangerous to admit we were wrong. Upton Sinclair may not have understood the details of cognition but he recognized the human condition.

"It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it."

We say 'Can't teach an old man/dog new tricks' to explain our observation that with age comes resistance to new ideas. But is that true? Does it explain it or recognise something that requires further explanation? In the hidden curriculum we end up in knots believing we can explain it via the observations we make without theory. Or is it that we insist that children follow suit and maintain the 'epistemology of faith', to suit their parents ideology, to make us (whatever has become a cherished belief) feel safe (from interrogation)? And we need not do that overtly since we already know that natural selection 'chose' the ability to learn mostly via mimicry without the need to think - efficient. And the easiest explanation (also the real one) - since we are animals built for reaction, not easy elaborate thinking, we must learn the benefit, the wisdom of doubt. If we are not taught that in childhood, we will resort to our natural strengths - we will make shit up and believe it to be a form of knowledge. Give someone rote learning about biology but no considered education about the ramifications of its Theory and you will get a great deal of bullshit in return. You will produce individuals who believe that critical thinking relies on personal feeling and little more. You will produce the cognitively arrogant not the intellectually flexible. So perhaps you already see the problem. Humans hate to discuss their gut feeling, subjective opinion, 'faith thinking' , ability to lie and deceive, if that means revealing it (what we often believe is 'knowledge') to be, at best, a personal matter, and that it is not a method to be used if one is simultaneously claiming to want to know something. Knowing, as opposed to believing, involves not only the gathering of reliable data, but using the correct narrative or Theory, by which to interpret it. By correct (if that is even too confronting a term) we can just as easily refer to that which isn't correct. Even though we might not know everything about a subject (and we never do) it is quite insufficient to claim that a correct explanation is reduced simply, naively, obtusely to preferences or tradition. Omitting this vital step (and considering theory to be just 'opinion') ensures that the profession itself (my chiropractic one) remains backwards, and professionally unethical, in principle. If the 'theory' is some version of 'an invisible being/force did it' (essentially 'what my gut feels is good enough') we are clearly replacing knowledge not only with opinion but our stupidity. Theory acts as a filter for our data and in biology it allows us to clarify what the data is telling us (if it could speak). But remove Theory (as happens so often in health care education and certainly in the research on the hidden curriculum itself) and you remove the equivalent of mathematical theorem - you will reduce academics to tribalism and, ironically, misinterpret human behaviour in the process (we are tribal). You will get the answer wrong most of the time and you will not only be unaware of it, you will tend to become increasingly angered when anyone insists on correcting you. This is the analogy I used in classrooms inside a public university. It was not my job, as I was often accused of it being, to force anyone to believe anything in particular. If an individual was religious or liked the idea of vitalism, then that was their right. However, to become a professional, now responsible for the public, and use personal faith as knowledge is unethical. And that simple fact did not go down well with 'adults', staff, the 'old dogs'. It was too easy and too confronting to admit that our species has always understood that we just avoid difficult subjects for no reason than it feels difficult or confronting (and ultimately confusing). But as I said above, there would be no need (for me) to bring it up if the stated goal of education was to promote a non evidence based form of knowledge, one which could only conform to tribal norms. Must I repeat the word 'irony' - that our ignorance of what we are and our reluctance to discuss it, IS the hidden curriculum. What we then say (explicitly) we believe (we want to get rid of a hidden curriculum) is implicitly not what we believe. Implicit beliefs are those we hold and act upon which often do not even match what we state. That is how bias operates. That is what natural selection builds. That is what we must discuss and learn and teach (if what we claim to want is what we really desire). Currently what we claim to know need only conform to what we feel is true. And if that is the goal, to just be that simple tribal species, then forget about science or philosophy altogether as neither is required in the game of survival.

I offered the same example, a practical thought experiment, in another article, to explain why using ones own preferred and random 'theory' would lead to a wrong answer. In maths you can't get the right answer by using random formula and in biology you will not get a cogent one by being ignorant of natural selection (and most people are grossly unfamiliar with it (because it is hidden)). To quote from 'Inside Jokes - Using Humour To Reverse-Engineer The Mind':

"The phenomena of evolution are not as simple as they are often portrayed. It is not just a matter of the natural selection of "genes for" this or that - whichever feature of living things catches the attention and curiosity of the researcher."

Meaning it is very common for people to think that a gene has to be 'for something' (a teleological thought) as if they are selected (for you) by a person down at the markets (or a God on his cloud). That is, ironically again, just how we relate to the world and is itself a naturally selected behavior. So we are naturally selected not to interpret our own behavior incorrectly, it is that natural selection operates in such a way that being able to accurately interpret exactly why we do things a particular way doesn't occur. It is far too slow and inefficient. It would not build good survivors and so it (we) is not built that way. When neuroscience investigates the central nervous system it finds no biology that can be an efficiently slow, deliberate, natural thinker. It finds no 'philosopher' so one must be nurtured, taught how to think, in order to develop and maintain their own independent minds.

Many other examples of the misinterpretation of evolution and natural selection (the common story of all of life (the most contentious statement)) exist. The one above demonstrates that the process has to select surviving and replicating individuals by definition and can only do that if they, obviously, survive. But survival is not due to some neat 'intelligent' process (most of life's attmepts actually fail), as if a human hand (and the extrapolated 'human like god images' we create) had done it. Those stories are part of our cultural mythology, by no means unimportant, but by no means explanatory of biology. We are not even an 'evolved species', as is easy for our naturally selected pattern seeking mind to believe, but, more accurately, a species which is one of the many parts of the process of evolution. This is, after all, why we share genetic material with grass, let alone other mammals, because the process has taken place over such extraordinarily long periods of time. And all forms of life, ultimately, are part of the same evolutionary family. Even that sounds preposterous. Family?! How absurd. No wonder Darwin was ridiculed in cartoons as an Ape. Human animals can't easily relate to what looks unfamiliar (another evolved behavior which tends to make us good (short term) survivors). To say that natural selection is underpinned by evidence is a scientific and philosophical understatement of magnificent proportion, and yet it is hidden. Like any infant species we hide from what feels as if it could hurt us and the prospect of death, and our natural biological inclination to avoid it, is that very thing. Even our distaste of the idea of natural selection is explained by it! So it is not only understandable but entirely predictable that we would, as a species, be easily convinced that we should despise the Theory or at least be indifferent to it - it takes away our immortality - and have it removed from our own education (now we can bask in the glory of our own opinions about what is real and true). Our species (all of us) truly is like an intellectual infant, finding it difficult to ask questions of itself. We cannot bare the idea of dying and so we invent invisible companions. But since it is what children naturally do is it quite dysfunctional for adults to retain the habit. We enter and leave this life alone so who wouldn't be drawn towards the comfort of such ideas? But are they really necessary or do they actually compound the problem, make our brevity worse? Why do we feel the need to invent metaphysical 'trapdoors' (hells)? How compassionate is that? It's pathetic that once we are convinced of our ability to talk to the creator of everything (think about that!) that we are unsatisfied unless we have company (to share our need to fantasize) and we do not even care how we gather it. Therefore all such traditions come with 'warnings' about love - if it's unrequited (unless you accept 'stalking' as a type of love ('He' always seems to be watching) your love will unlove you. Humans can be quite hysterical about their relationships even those with invisible friends (which, when we think about it, is mental masturbation, philosophical solipsism. We are so besotted with our own imaginings that they become the principal rationalization for dispute and war but we are just as likely to call it 'peace' or 'love').

People are terrified to think that someone might come along and educate them in such a manner that they are then able to examine their own beliefs to see, for themselves, if they come close to being classified as knowledge. Once we have grasped the illusion of (eternal) freedom (which is claiming to be able to manufacture knowledge from thin air) we are not likely to even examine it let alone entertain the prospect of casting it aside. The task of thinking really is prevented almost entirely by that one hurdle (our own fear). Whole religious and secular movements, even forms of academic scholarship, are committed to arguing as to why it is beneficial for us to remain ignorant of our own nature, that it is both wise and moral to hide the Theory or at best so discredit it as to make it appear another 'idea', authoritarian, even a conspiracy. In short, my own professions need to remain unaware leads, with the same predictive power that the Theory itself holds, to the repetition of entirely non evidence based craft theory and witheringly insane conspiracy theorizing. We bleat that we want 'evidence based' practice. Why should we deserve that when we are completely unwilling to teach it in the first place? What would natural selection predict? That we are cognitively credulous. That we easily swallow hearsay, logical fallacy and guru ism and end up making sweeping and professionally unethical claims, all because no one bothered to teach us how to think about biology with more than gut feeling and base appeal, all because education abandoned us for the security of the illusion of 'consensus'. We have the knowledge to begin trying to escape pure primitivism, a task made almost impossible by the irony that we possess a biology that makes us too blind, arrogant and scared to even make the attempt to look.