Cognitive Biases and Anti-Vaxxers

Since an 18-month old unvaccinated child in Berlin just died of measles, this new SciShow clip seems timely. The point is that parents who don't get their kids pricked aren't necessarily 'stupid', they're just letting their thinking be guided by cognitive biases, the eternal insidious enemies of rational thought. Here, the culprits are negativity bias, confirmation bias, and omission bias, all of which are crisply and engagingly defined in the video:


They Saved Hitler's Brain

Dr. Scheißwixxer: Well, Mr. Hackler, I suppose you would like me to explain why I created the Cyber Death Ray before I order my nanoslaves to consume you from the inside out, causing agonizing pain.

Jack Hackler: Sure, why not?

Dr. Scheißwixxer: It's simple. I am pure evil, and my only desire is to watch humanity suffer.

Jack Hackler (exasperated): What? Is that all you've got? What is this, 1987? Supervillians today should be able to make at least 2 or 3 superficially-plausible, thought-provoking arguments for what they're doing. You know, psychotic resentment caused by a life of oppression, or corrupt venal humanity had its chance and blew it, or I'm going to actually usher in a golden new age. You've really disappointed me.

[Dr. Scheßwixxer removes pistol from pocket, shoots Hackler in the head.] 


Peculiar Idea for the Day

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

There's been a recent increase in odd political messages being posted in the halls the university. I presume these folks are attempting to reach the 'leaders of tomorrow' and may not be aware of the Internets.

In the name of political enlightenment, I hereby present you with the latest example. The guy included his full name and address at the bottom; I've decided to blot it out for obvious reasons. Enjoy!

Untitled


'Oh Albania, Red Star that Burns Bright'

Probably the finest Canadian song praising the Communist Party of Albania you will hear today (h/t RM):

I wonder if there are any English-language songs praising East Germany?

If you're interested in the internecine squabbles of Canadian Marxist splinter parties in the 1960s -- and who isn't? -- you can find plenty of documentation here. One of the absolute must-read highlights, On the Question of Liu Shao-Chi:

While we might be disposed to be somewhat critical of [Sidney Rittenberg]'s speech for being poorly constructed, not too carefully prepared and containing some careless formulatons, we are in agreement with its basic content in criticizing and repudiating the bourgeois-reactionary line of Liu Shao-chi and upholding the proletarian-revolutionary line of Mao Tse-tung. However, the Belgian trio of Jacques Grippa, Rene Raindorf and Stephen Strulens who are of the opposite opinion, in reply to Rittenburg’s 40 to 50 minute speech inscribed a, reply that would fill a good-sized book.

The extreme length of this literary attack is largely caused by the authors’ ranging far beyond the limits of the Rittenburg speech which did not provide them with sufficient scope for the objective they had in mind. In order to correct this situaton Rittenburg is charged with not saying certain things, and the things which were not said provide the main basis for the attack.


Painful Questioning and Breaking on the Wheel

Doing a bit of research I came across the online version (g) of the Bambergische Peinliche Halsgerichtsordnung, one of the first European criminal codes. It was written by a German knight, one Johann the Strong, Baron of Schwarzenberg and Hohenlandsberg. Johann was 'Hofmeister' (a senior court official) to the Bishop of Bamberg.

From a legal perspective the Bamberg code is forward-looking in many ways, but in other ways it's, er, medieval. And what's even more awesome is that the medieval stuff is illustrated. Directly below we see court officials preparing for interrogation under torture, the so-called peinliche Befragung (g). It's even accompanied by a short poem (anyone want to try a translation in comments?). Below that we see a man about to be beheaded with a sword in the foreground, with a poor bastard broken on the wheel in the background.

Bambi046

Bambi080


Raw Meat Punches Holes in Your Brain

Mettbroetchen

European friends often mock me for my aversion to raw meat. 'So American', they say, fingering their monocles and twirling their mustaches. But I defend my disgust for raw animal flesh. Mankind realized fire made meat good thousands of years ago -- forgoing cooked meat makes as much sense as trying to live without wheels. You wouldn't decapitate a pig and drink the blood spurting from its arteries, so why would you bite into its raw muscle? Besides, raw meat is full of bacilli, viruses, cysts, spirochetes, worms -- you name it.

Yet the Europeans, disdaining my advice, continue to eat it raw. Germans in the form of Mettwurst (seen above spread on a roll -- würg), the French in the form of steak tartare. Generally, they survive. The key, they will tell you, is freshness and quality.

But no matter how fresh the meat, it still contains nasty brain-changing parasites, says this fascinating article in The Atlantic about toxoplasmosis:

The parasite, which is excreted by cats in their feces, is called Toxoplasma gondii (T. gondii or Toxo for short) and is the microbe that causes toxoplasmosis—the reason pregnant women are told to avoid cats’ litter boxes. Since the 1920s, doctors have recognized that a woman who becomes infected during pregnancy can transmit the disease to the fetus, in some cases resulting in severe brain damage or death. T. gondii is also a major threat to people with weakened immunity: in the early days of the AIDS epidemic, before good antiretroviral drugs were developed, it was to blame for the dementia that afflicted many patients at the disease’s end stage. Healthy children and adults, however, usually experience nothing worse than brief flu-like symptoms before quickly fighting off the protozoan, which thereafter lies dormant inside brain cells—or at least that’s the standard medical wisdom.

But if Flegr is right, the “latent” parasite may be quietly tweaking the connections between our neurons, changing our response to frightening situations, our trust in others, how outgoing we are, and even our preference for certain scents. And that’s not all. He also believes that the organism contributes to car crashes, suicides, and mental disorders such as schizophrenia. When you add up all the different ways it can harm us, says Flegr, “Toxoplasma might even kill as many people as malaria, or at least a million people a year.”

You can avoid toxoplasmosis by not eating cat parasites. So far, sounds pretty simple. But not eating cat parasites is harder than it might seem:

After an infected cat defecates, Flegr learned, the parasite is typically picked up from the soil by scavenging or grazing animals—notably rodents, pigs, and cattle—all of which then harbor it in their brain and other body tissues. Humans, on the other hand, are exposed not only by coming into contact with litter boxes, but also, he found, by drinking water contaminated with cat feces, eating unwashed vegetables, or, especially in Europe, by consuming raw or undercooked meat. Hence the French, according to Flegr, with their love of steak prepared saignant—literally, “bleeding”—can have infection rates as high as 55 percent. (Americans will be happy to hear that the parasite resides in far fewer of them, though a still substantial portion: 10 to 20 percent.) Once inside an animal or human host, the parasite then needs to get back into the cat, the only place where it can sexually reproduce—and this is when, Flegr believed, behavioral manipulation might come into play.

The rest of the article details the mind-breaking human behavior changes caused by those hundreds (thousands? millions?) of toxoplasmosis cysts in your brain, including reduced attention, risk-taking, even changing your reaction to smells.

Germans, I've found something new for you to be terrified of. You're welcome!


Internet K-Hole / Das Internet K-Loch

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The new batch of photos from the inimitabe Internet K-Hole is up on tumblr. Curator Babs welcomes submissions -- in fact one of the new photos is from my personal hoard (can you guess which one? No, not the one above). Given how metal-friendy Germany is, there are doubtless thousands of snaps moldering in basements in Hereford, Oer-Erkenschwick or Dibbersen that need to be on Internet K-Hole. Get after it, comrades.


America Wants to Sell You a Foodless Future

Soylent liquid meal replacement, 'a functional simulation of food', is now a thing:

‘According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, people spend about 90 minutes a day on food,’ Rhinehart explained. That figure is an average that includes grocery shopping, food preparation, consumption, and doing the dishes. By opting out of food, and replacing it with Soylent – named after the soy lentil burgers in the sci-fi novel Make Room! Make Room! (1966) by Harry Harrison, rather than its much better-known film adaptation Soylent Green (1973) which came up with the cannibalistic plotline – Rhinehart told me that he’s saved ‘easily an hour a day, plus’.

Rhinehart came up with the idea for a nutritionally complete liquid food substitute in December 2012, spurred by dissatisfaction at his expensive, time-consuming and nutritionally dubious diet of fast food, frozen quesadillas, and pasta. In February 2013, he wrote a blog post entitled ‘How I Stopped Eating Food’, in which he reported feeling like the ‘six-million-dollar man’ after just 30 days of replacing food with a ‘thick, odourless, beige liquid’ made up of ‘every substance the body needs to survive, plus a few extras shown to be beneficial’.

...

...Soylent claims to fulfil all your body’s nutritional needs. ‘It contains all of the elements of a healthy diet,’ confirms the website, ‘with limited contribution from less desirable components such as sugars, saturated fats, or cholesterol.’ Rhinehart’s formula blends vitamins and minerals at the levels recommended by the US Institute of Medicine, tested on himself and a handful of friends, and refined under the supervision of Xavier Pi-Sunyer, professor of medicine the Institute of Human Nutrition at Columbia University.

Now that we've overcome chewing, can America's Hygiene Magicians® free us of other bodily functions? 


I Have Herpes, and So Does Justine Henin, and So Do You!

And now to one of the most amusing sources of cross-cultural misunderstanding there is. One fine day, a co-worker and I were chatting in my office in German and she casually said: "Damn, my herpes is back. What do you do about your herpes? Is there some special American treatment?"

I just barely avoided a genuine, honest-to-Allah spit-take. Before I could ask what this prim, attractive member of the German haute bourgeoisie was talking about, she added "Fortunately, most of the blisters are on the inside, so it's not that embarrassing." And then she showed me what she was talking about, pointing to the location of the outbreak. I recoiled in horror, crossing my arms in front of me, as she exposed her infected...

...lips. The ones on the mouth, that is.

As you probably know, there are a few different kinds of herpes, and almost everyone carries Herpes Simplex Type I, the virus that causes blisters on the lips now and then. English speakers, in our prudish way, call these outbreaks 'cold sores'. In the English-speaking world, the word 'herpes', standing alone, refers exclusively to genital herpes, the incurable sexually-transmitted disease.

Which brings us to the tale of how Belgian tennis champion Justine Henin unwittingly became a poster girl for venereal disease. In a 2007 interview, she stated: 

Q. Weren’t you afraid that the emotional side of things would have too much influence on that match?

JUSTINE HENIN: No, I didn’t panic. I knew I was not starting that match well. I can tell you, I had a horrible night. My herpes came out again, and I said to my doctor, “Well, I see everything is fine, it’s great.”

So, really, I was a bit anxious. But also, I really wanted to do well. And very early in the match, the match turned over. And then I knew I was going to be able to keep it up until the end.

I rather doubt that Justine Henin, at the height of her career, casually confessed to millions of strangers at the French Open post-game press conference that she has genital herpes. That would be an extremely un-European thing to do.

But that is exactly how American fans interpreted it. One tennis forum entry reads: OMG!!!! Justine has herpes, while other articles praised her for her bravery and called her a 'champion' for herpes sufferers worldwide:

With six Grand Slam titles to her credit, Henin is no stranger to plaudits. But even more need to be extended to her for speaking openly about something that is the secret of so many.

With that one turn of a phrase, millions and millions of herpes sufferers now know that they are by no means alone. And with her remark, the term “Champion” fits her even to those who have no interest in professional tennis.

Another American sports outlet noted: "Henin either doesn’t mind talking publicly about her herpes, or herpes = humor in Germany." And another titled a post, "That's Right, Justine Henin has Herpes" and speculated whether her "admission" might have had something to do with her then-recent divorce.

And the legend lives on! Andrew Sullivan recently wrote something about the shame and stigma of herpes, and received the following note from a reader:

Update from a reader: As your friend Dan Savage would attest, herpes is shameful only to Americans. Justine Henin, when she was the #1 tennis player on the world, was asked why she lost a match. She very matter of factly said she had a herpes outbreak. Americans attend support groups for herpes, can you imagine an American treating herpes like the flu, something you have, not something to be ashamed of?

I've sent in a correction by email to Sullivan, but I thought a blog entry was also in order.