Seeking Sanity in Science within the Medical Establishment

About ten years after being diagnosed with a non-aggressive prostate cancer and narrowly escaping the surgeon’s knife by finding a real prostate oncologist who shared all the treatment alternatives with me, then undergoing non-invasive yet pretty darn effective treatment, something entirely unrelated happened, or so it seemed.

Self-Serving Medical Practice

I recall the urologist who had diagnosed the cancer with strong distain. He was a surgeon and had glibly said, “Don’t worry, it’s not that aggressive; give me a call and we can schedule surgery in the next couple of weeks.” His conflict of interest coincided with a complete lack of objectivity as well as indifference to the risks for the patient – me. He failed even to mention alternatives to surgery. I was lucky to find a prostate oncologist, escape the knife, and find an effective non-invasive treatment.

Then, once again, a decade after that narrow escape from unnecessary surgery, by finding the right information and dodging routine medical practice – the so-called “standard of care” – I was able to choose a better path than passive acceptance of self-serving medical “authority” would have allowed.

After a few years living in Northern New Mexico, what had been rather ordinary springtime allergies gradually morphed into full-blown year-round allergy symptoms. I was tested, and sure enough, I had become allergic to most grass and tree pollens in the area. After about four years of weekly allergy shots, my symptoms seemed moderately reduced, but far from eliminated. Then, following a particularly strong winter flu, I sustained a major sinus infection. My sinuses had become almost fully blocked. Sinus surgery followed; the result was wonderful. I was breathing clearly through my nose for the first time in years. And my allergy symptoms were reduced to occasional minor irritations.

The Arrogance of Authority

However, during the pre-op testing, EEG and EKG measures revealed a small heart valve anomaly. Of course, nobody tells you why you are getting extra tests or what the findings are. Finally, after the pre-op physician’s assistant sent me for a full abdominal ultrasound in search of a non-existent aneurysm, she scheduled me to see a cardiologist. “I don’t know why they did the ultrasound; maybe they thought you had an aneurism. But the good news is, you don’t,” said the cardiologist standing over me with a smug air of authority. He said the heart valve anomaly was minor and simply should be checked once a year. If it didn’t change, no problem.

But the cardiologist insisted that I begin taking Lipitor to keep my cholesterol numbers below their slightly elevated level. When I began to inquire about the “side effects” of statin drugs, he became indignant. “I’ve heard all those arguments. You need to take it to prevent more plaque buildup in your coronary arteries to prevent a heart attack or stroke.” He thereupon wrote a prescription for a strong dose of the generic form – Lipitor’s brand-name patent had expired. The man was over-the-top arrogant. To discuss a patient’s concern was apparently below his self-defined authoritarian dignity. I resolved to never see him again.

I was more concerned about the heart valve anomaly and didn’t like what I knew about statin drugs. So, I decided to visit the cardiologist in Beverly Hills that my oncologist had sent me to for a checkup and stress test over a decade before. He was a very bright guy, affiliated with Cedars-Sinai Hospital, and clearly part of what I would call the “high-end” medical establishment.  Back then I’d had stress tests and imaging a year apart and the year of regular gym workouts with a trainer in the interim had made the initially difficult stress test easy. All clear back then.

Knowledge Overcomes “Standard of Care”

“Oh, we saw that heart-valve anomaly ten years ago; it’s nothing to worry about.” He reported that I’d done perfectly on the stress test. “But you are off the charts on your arterial plaque. You must begin strong doses of Crestor immediately.” He gave me a handful of samples, insisting that I was in serious danger, based on such a strong score on arterial plaque. I did wonder why, if it was so bad, I had performed perfectly on the stress test and the imaging showed no obstructions at all.

Well, as it turned out with further research on my part and consulting with a lipidologist, my puzzlement with the inconsistency between the stress test and the “plaque score,” was well founded. Things were not as they seemed to the high-end cardiologist. So, next time I will report, as Paul Harvey used to say, “the rest of the story.”

The New Normal and the Boisterously Silent Coup

Is the rise of Trumplandia the reflection of a “new normal” in American politics? Or, does it rise, as Rebecca Solnit suggests in a remarkable new piece on the Literary Hub website, to the level of a de facto coup that has already occurred? Has the Trump gang already, if not so skillfully, moved to clandestinely transform our constitutionally framed effort at representative democracy into a de facto authoritarian regime? After all, this sitting president is now directly interfering with the independent investigations of the nation’s highest law enforcement institutions that may well lead to his own downfall.

The Coup

Solnit asserts that, “Sabotage of national institutions, laws, standards, and the greater good has been accepted as part of the new normal, which is staggeringly far from normal.” She summarizes the vast array of diverse forms and sources of evidence that have surfaced since Trump began his initial Fake-Run [i] for the presidency. In addition to the myriad personal scandals, an international complex of illicit deal making adds up to a partnership of plunder between the Putin bossed Russian mob of oligarchs, the American pretender to Mob-Boss status and his gang of thugs and fixers of questionable competence and unbounded hutzpah, and just about any unscrupulous politician, here or abroad, who will pay to play.

As Solnit puts it:

Acts that would have been shocking if committed by previous administrations are overshadowed and crowded by equally transgressive acts that pile up into something that would like us to forget that this is not normal.

Solnit argues persuasively that the coup has already happened and that the only question now is what we are going to do about it. Given the damage already done to institutions, climate action, public health and safety, international relations, and above all the already precarious U.S. political culture, it seems that little time and a narrowing range of options remain.

Decades in the Making

One commenter argued that the coup began decades ago, listing a series of political actions by every administration and congress since, supporting the position that the coup was a long slow process of destroying democracy while elevating an increasingly open kleptocratic authoritarian corporate state. He argued that with Johnson’s resounding defeat of Barry Goldwater in 1964 the authoritarian right realized that electoral politics must be undermined to achieve their autocratic goals. Another asserted that the coup began with the assassination of John F. Kennedy. In any case, several scholars have documented the efforts of powerful business interests to suppress democratic control of government and the economy since the imposition of controls on the financial elite under the New Deal.

Unfortunately, as is so common in such venues, much of the commentary devolved into typical political bickering over which politician held more guilt, bad faith and evil. The usual dose of ad hominem admonitions and rigid either/or ill-logic circulated around the claimed offenses of Bernie versus Hillary, entirely missing the point of the article in service to internal partisan anger among Democrats.

The Republican Party has devolved into a state where its only principle is to win elections by pandering the alt-right base so effectively exploited by Trumpery. Genuine conservatives have nowhere to turn. The Democratic Party national apparatus, the DNC, remains unwilling to free itself from the corporate and financial elites it serves while hypocritically mouthing old liberal rhetoric. Its disingenuous cultural liberalism and avoidance of the deep issues of rising global and national crises have turned main street Democrats and independents away from the party. Electoral politics seems a long shot, in both substance and time. The convergence of catastrophic crises of ecosystem destruction and climate chaos, as well as global economic and political instability, is well underway. The crisis of American democracy is now. What is a citizen to do?

Precarious Prospects

Solnit finds herself distraught with the prospects, as well anyone who looks at the facts should. However, her recommendations offer little hope:

We still have an enormous capacity to resist the administration, not least by mass civil disobedience and other forms of noncooperation. Sweeping the November elections wouldn’t hurt either, if that results in candidates we hold accountable afterward. Or both.

Solnit seems to believe that we can rescue American democracy and respond effectively to the converging crises of climate chaos, ecological destruction, impending global financial failure, and imminent societal collapse by protests in the streets or by the so-called “centrist” democrats capturing the mid-term elections. Making such assumptions shows little sense of timing or even a deep understanding of the nature of the coup that has suppressed democratic institutions for decades.

The answer is nearly as difficult, but at least possible. Mass mobilization at the local level for resistance in place by turning away from the “inverted totalitarian” regime and its new “strong man” is extremely difficult to achieve. It would require forming new democratic institutions where we live that would become diffused forms of resistance by their very existence. Widespread resistance by withdrawal and replacement could not be stopped by troops in the streets or by bluster from the man who is “the empty clown suit.”

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[i] Mark Danner, “The Magic of Donald Trump,” New York Review of Books 63:4(May 26, 2016) quotes Stephanie Cegielski, Trump’s “Top Strategist-Turned-Defector,” to the effect that initially there had been “no thought of actually winning.” Rather, the goal was to bolster Trump’s celebrity prominence. That, of course, is consistent with Trump’s history of seeking celebrity attention and adulation above all else, aside from money of course. Winning the actual election bolstered his celebrity and profits beyond even the narcissist’s unbounded imagination.

Scientists’ Second Warning to Humanity

Over 20,000 scientists from 184 countries have now signed on to the second warning by scientists to humanity to dial down its profligate destruction of the ecosystems and environments upon which we all depend. In a short paper, World scientists’ warning to humanity: A second notice, the writers of the second warning (the first was in 1992 and had little effect) initially garnered nearly 15,000 signatures of scientists endorsing the paper. Soon, the total number of scientists signed on exceeded 20,000. So, What’s the big deal?

Scientists and Politics

Most scientists prefer to stay in their labs or out in the field collecting data for the purpose of better understanding some facet of the domain in which their research specializes. Typically, they are not all that political. But things have gotten so far out of kilter in the relationship between science and public policy that the dangers of governments continuing to do next to nothing about the converging crises of our time spurred some scientists into action. Now, their warning is getting a great deal more attention than most publications of scientific origin.

Altmetric tracks the mentioning of scientific reports in diverse media. The paper was published in 2017 in the journal BioScience, not exactly a top favorite of social media. However, Altmetric reports that ‘the warning’ ranked within the top 5% of all research outputs scored by Altmetric

Scientists Second Notice Graphic coverThe “altmetric attention score” is a measure of the quality and quantity of online attention that it has received. The score for the warning paper is 7382, which is in the 99th percentile of over 10 million research outputs Altmetric has tracked. It is the number 6 top paper published since global Altmetric records began, first of similar age. Most papers in the top 100 score below 600. In other words, people are paying attention, as well they might.

The warning paper is subtitled “A Second Notice,” because a first such warning was issued by scientists in 1992. The new Warning is short and to the point. As I mentioned above, the first notice was widely ignored. Things just kept getting worse as governments and some corporations gave obligatory lip service to “going green” in their business-as-usual operations, while dodging any serious policy questions.

Social psychologists have struggled with the difficult issues of how it is that even when confronted with overwhelming evidence, so many people avoid or deny the reality of increasing climate instabilities. Of course, confirmation bias plays a big role for the individual who is part of a social group whose ideology or world view conflicts with the facts of climate science. However, the power of corporate media, which dominate most public channels of communication, from talk radio and cable TV ‘news’ to social media, steers how the little public discussion of the topic is framed and circumscribed. The corporate state frames the issue as “controversial,” as does the propaganda of the fossil fuel industries and their political allies and agents in Congress and the White House.

Messengers of scientific fact are generally sidelined; they do not get a seat on the Sunday talk shows. Discussion of the most urgent confluence of crises humanity has ever faced is stifled. Perhaps the exposure of this powerful document via online channels may be able to draw the attention it deserves.

What about how? What the sci-fi novels all miss

I have not read much science fiction. But the sci-fi books I have read usually fall into the “post-apocalypse” variety, such as The Road, Earth Abides, Parable of the Sower, World Made by Hand, and most recently, The Handmaid’s Tale. I read these stories out of my interest in what is likely to happen in the next few decades.

We are entering a New Great Transformation of the relationship of humanity to the complex of living adaptive systems (ecosystems) that some call Gaia – a sort of organism of organisms. The exponential growth of the global technosphere has forced that transformation and we must face its consequences.

Varieties of Dystopia

Some of the post-apocalypse stories are quite fascinating and imaginative. They all explore in one way or another what happens when individuals or small groups encounter an entirely new situation in which widespread devastation has become the “new normal.” They raise all sorts of human dilemmas, from simple survival and threats from others to the forging of new social relationships when the old institutions and infrastructure of the society they had known are gone.

dystopian image

Dystopia Maybe?

In every case, at least in the books I have read, the apocalyptic event(s) that caused the post-apocalyptic condition remains shrouded in mystery. Alluded to in various ways and extent, what actually happened is not very clear.

In The Road, for example, a father and son travel away from the center of devastation in search of some safe new place, scavenging as they go. We get the impression that some major act of destruction such as an intercontinental nuclear exchange wiped out most of civilization on the East Coast of the U.S.A. But we are given no specific information about the event.

In Parable of the Sower, we follow a young woman leading a small group north out of Los Angeles and the chaos of marauding gangs of bandits, violent neighborhoods, and unsafe gated communities, all of which are under siege in one way or another. Yet we never learn what caused that urban dystopia. It might have been a single catastrophic event or a gradual collapse of society; we are not told.

Earth Abides, highly acclaimed when first published in 1949, is a bit different. A young man comes back to the San Francisco Bay area from a personal retreat in a mountain cabin to find that nobody remains alive; a pandemic has hit the world and apparently killed everyone except him. He had accidentally become immunized to the disease by a snake bite from which he almost died. Eventually he finds a few other survivors and they confront a world as it was but without people. The story is a classic well-told adventure of coping. In this case, the cause was quite simple, if not fully explained.

In World Made by Hand, a New England village struggles in a dystopian condition in which many factors of human conflicts and political disorganization play a role. As competing groups vie for power where most modern technology was somehow lost or destroyed, we never find out what caused that condition or what could have prevented it as the characters struggle to shape a new local-regional political order. The conflicts in World Made by Hand has some of the flavor of an old western movie.

The most interesting question (for me at least) is, how would a transition to a post-apocalyptic world happen? The New Great Transformation of the world as we know it, which we have begun to experience today, involves the destabilization of ecosystems and climate our industrial economy has caused. The environmental chaos, now well on its way, has already begun to trigger economic, political, military, and social breakdowns of increasing intensity, all likely to interact and even reinforce each other.

The New Great Transformation and the Peril Ahead

The popular classics of the genre of dystopian novels all contain a combination of some of the following: a totalitarian or theocratic state, censorship, surveillance, erasure of history, anti-intellectualism, consumption and entertainment as escapism, extreme inequality, and destruction of individuality and aesthetics. Read 1984, Fahrenheit 451, Brave New World, even Hunger Games or Lord of the Flies, and you will see. Wait a minute, that list of dystopian characteristics sounds a bit too familiar…

Each post-apocalyptic novel I have read describes a different world than the others, but with often overlapping issues of human survival under extreme collapse of civilization and ensuing chaos or the rise of a totalitarian state. Some say science fiction is really about the present, but with imaginary advances in technology and totalitarianism.

Each post-apocalyptic novel I have read describes a different world than the others, but with often overlapping issues of human survival under extreme collapse of civilization and ensuing chaos. However, it seems to me that the most important and interesting question of the human condition today has to do with two things: 1) whether and to what extent people will finally realize that the world we have created is becoming un-survivable, and 2) what we will do about it.

Can we abandon our illusions of progress through corporate economic growth immediately in favor of a new creatively realistic response to the converging crises we face? Governments and corporations are the problem; they do not have the solutions. So is the industrial-consumer culture we have embraced. It is now up to people to counter the apocalyptic trend where we live. Our problem is not how to cope with an existing dystopia, but how to prevent the New Great Transformation from becoming one. That will require a great deal of hopeful realism.