Friday, September 23, 2016

Fairness and accuracy: how much are they alike? 

Years ago, in the early 80's, I was living in NYC. Gay men in the city, as well as in San Franciso were dying mysteriously of diseases associated with immunodeficiency. People were calling it GRID for Gay Related Immuno Deficiency. No one knew what caused it. One of the major hypotheses was that it was caused by the use of recreational drugs called "poppers". Then in 1984 a couple of scientists discovered the retrovirus, HIV. Soon it became clear that this virus met Koch's postulates and work started on how to protect against the virus that caused what was renamed AIDS as it was soon very clear that it was not only gay men who were affected in the world.

But there was this other scientist, Peter Duesberg, who in 1986 decided that HIV did not cause AIDS. He claimed, against all evidence, that AIDS is caused by recreational drug use, and now by anti-viral therapies. He is a professor at UC Berkeley and science generally tolerates contrarians, even when they are considered crackpots with dreadful data. Nonetheless in scientific circles, people look at what he says and writes and his arguments, sees that they are lousy, and dismisses it.

Unfortunately that is not how our news system works. Upon discovering this contrarian, for years every time there was a news story about AIDS Duesberg would be trotted out for equal time as the opposing voice. The fact that most everyone else was working on an infectious disease and treatments for it and Duesberg was just one solitary contrarian with effectively no data didn't matter. The News was trying to be "fair" and to give equal time to opposing viewpoints. Unfortunately that legitimized him among non-scientists and in 2000 he ended up advising the South African President, Thabo Mbeki. South Africa had a ballooning AIDS problem, and Duesberg convinced Mbeki that HIV was not the cause and that those expensive retrovirals were bad. South Africa embarked on a wacko course of advising people to drink water with lemon in it, not get HIV tests, and not take antiretroviral drugs. It is estimated that a third of a million people died as a result of these years of bad advice.

Why am I talking about this? Because sometimes equal time is not a good idea. The news should not be giving equal time to largely discredited science. A story? Sure. Talk about the contrarians. On very very rare occasions they are the ones that turn out to be right. That is why they are tolerated in science. But geez, don't give them equal time. Similarly, come Monday, if Clinton tells a lie and Trump tells ten, don't devote an equal amount of time to Clinton's one as Trump's ten. Don't over-weigh or under-weigh dramatically in an attempt to be "fair". Proportionality should reflect reality. Don't make false equality. It can cause great harm.

Monday, August 22, 2016

An Old Torch, Going Out.

An old acquaintance is dying.  He is a couple of years older than me and when we were in high school he was the first chair viola player in both my high school orchestra and our regional Junior Symphony.  He was cute, an excellent musician, and had a good sense of humor.  I played farther back in the viola section in both symphonies and had an enormous crush on him. He probably had no idea, which is just as well. 

As has been the case with almost all of my many crushes, he fell in love with someone else.  The love of his life was a cello player.  I remember, soon after they got together, riding on a bus with the other symphony players on our way to a distant town to play a concert.  I was sitting across the aisle and a little behind.  His sweetheart dozed, her head on his shoulder, his arm wrapped around her.  Her long, straight, honey brown hair glinted with golden highlights in the sunlight filtering through the dirty bus windows.  He looked at her with wonder and satisfaction.  I was jealous and sad.  There was no way to find any fault in it.  She was not spectacularly gorgeous, she was not mean, she was always supportive and sweet. It was simply my misfortune to have ever developed the crush.   She loved him, he loved her, they were lucky souls to have found each other. 

He went on to become a professional musician in a city not many hours from where I now live.  She became a school music teacher there.  We reconnected on facebook some years back.  They had raised two sons, handsome and successful young men.  Their life was not easy, the vagaries of the lives of professional classical musicians and of school teachers is not for the weak.  But they seem to have thrived, lead good lives and to have given a lot their community.  We talked of Oregon, where we were all from, music, and education.  I talked mainly to his wife.  We periodically mentioning my maybe coming up and visiting, but when I did go through their city I was in a hurry passing through on my way to somewhere else.  I never went.  I would have liked to have sat and had a beer and talked about old times, music, education, politics, how to solve the problems of the world and bring joy into people’s lives.  They were like that.

Then about a month ago, maybe two, there was information that he had had a stroke.  He was working on rehab, it was not a terrible stroke, but that recovery was slow. 

Then mentions of continuing difficulties, then YAY he played in a concert, had a ways to go, but there he was with his viola.  Then more appointments, things just not seeming to be going right.

And then…

After more work ups, it turns out he has a terrible incurable fast moving brain disease. He had not had a stroke. His sons and parents and brother (who was also cute and a bit of a crush of mine many decades ago), all zoomed out to visit, while there was productive visiting to be done. 

I offered my access to research information to his wife.  It is a terrible disease though there are some very experimental things out there.  They are nowhere near being tried on humans, and may very well be futile.  She decided not to take advantage of my offer, and that is a perfectly valid choice, perhaps indeed the best choice. 

The plan is for him to stay home, cared for by his wife until she can no longer do it.  He will be gone very soon.

And I have been oddly devastated by this.  I am not entirely sure why. He will be the second of my many crushes to die a terrible death. 

I found out about the other one a few years ago, a year after he had died.  I was shocked. I connected with his sister.  That particular crush had stayed single all of his life.  We had been close friends in college, not boyfriend/girlfriend, but close.  His sister did not even know he had had any close college friends.  Mutual friends said, yeah, that he was a very private person except with me, and I had never realized it. We parted ways when he went off to medical school and I to grad school.  He stayed single and private all of his life, though a good uncle to his sister’s kids, until he died of bone cancer in his early 50’s.  I cried over him too.  Gone forever.

I have not seen the viola player in over 30 years.  I can only imagine what his wife is going through.  She seems to be amazingly strong on fb.  I have no idea if it is just a brave front, but she seems to have a sturdy soul.

Why does this take me to tears?  I do not really know the man who is dying any more.  I do not really know his wife.  We knew each other when we were teenagers.  In social media we seem to have things still in common.  I admired them.  I admire his wife.  They seem to have lead a good life, done good things, improved the world they have lived in.  I suppose he was lucky, until the last few months, to have had the work he loved, a great family, his best friend also being his wife. He had for most of his life these important things that many never have.

Am I mourning the talented teenaged boy who gazed on his love tenderly while she slept?  Am I mourning the end of their (imagined) wonderful life?  Am I feeling sad for that plump, awkward, and nerdy teenaged girl, who also played the viola, who never had any years, any months, any weeks, or even days of a protective arm and a loving gaze?  Am I regretting not having gone to visit them (yes)? Am I putting myself in his wife’s shoes and am imagining the loss of the partner of an entire adult life?  In truth I do wish there was something I could do to give her moral support, other than what I have.

My level of sadness seems inappropriate.  We do all have to die, somehow, sometime, and he had a good life.

Tuesday, July 05, 2016

George Harrison in a Dream

I put this on the blog before, some years ago.  But I was reminded of it tonight, lsitening to a George Harrison song "Here comes the Moon" that I had not heard in a very long time.  So here is version two of the same dream as in the post "The Meaning of Life" .

A long time ago, probably 30 years ago, I had this dream: Some of the Beatles had gotten together to play a concert. 

It was outdoors in a Greek-style amphitheater in a park. At the end of the concert I manages to slip "backstage" and found myself in a botanical garden, the white marble of the Amphitheater behind me. 

There among the flower beds, sitting on a marble bench in the bright sun was George Harrison. I was so exited. He slowed down my puppyish bouncing and proceeded to tell me important things. Very Important Things about life, and the world, and being. I was amazed. 

But Damn! I realized I was dreaming. "But I'm dreaming" I said. 

He smiled, of course I was. 

Then I had a bright idea! If I could only write these important truths down maybe they would stay with me. I hunted up a piece of crumpled paper and a stub of a pencil. I asked him to repeat bis words of wisdom and he did, with a quirk to his mouth, some place between laughing and sad. 

Foolish child that I was. 

I woke up hand gripped tight around the paper and pencil stub, but of course my hand was empty and the great truths were gone from my head.