Sunday, January 31, 2010

Supernatural: Only Because I Want to Believe

Most people's working definition of the supernatural is something like: anything really neat that I cannot understand and which seems impossible. Harry Potter raises his magic wand, shouts "Expelliarmus," and a flash of lightning sends his opponent's wand flying across the room. That certainly meets the working definition of supernatural. I have no idea how that could have happened, and it sure looks impossible.

But, a 747 taking off arguably meets that definition, too. I don't know airplanes work, and all that metal gliding through the air sure looks impossible to me. Yet no one calls airplanes supernatural. A couple of centuries ago, people might have agreed that a 747 taking off was a supernatural event, had they chanced to see one departing from the local airport, but not today. Now it is commonplace, although a 747 leaving London Heathrow on time does still seem a bit miraculous to anyone who is familiar with that particular airport.

Our working definition of supernatural leaves something to be desired because it is based on what a particular person knows about how the world works. If you don't know how airplanes fly, they are supernatural to you, but if you do know, or perhaps even if you just know that someone else knows, then airplanes are no longer supernatural. The working definition is as much about the observer's state of mind as it is about the allegedly supernatural phenomenon. By that definition, the supernatural clearly exists. It just changes all the time.

So let's get a bit more serious and look at the actual definition, which is something like: outside of nature, or not following the laws of nature. By that definition, or any reasonable definition, the concept of the supernatural is barely coherent. It is easy for someone to say they believe in the supernatural, but if looks at the concept a bit closer, it simply loses meaning. The supernatural does not exist, by its very definition.

For example, let's say that we actually see Harry Potter disarm his opponent by pointing his magic wand and shouting the magic word, "Expelliarmus." Such an event is indeed supernatural -- until it actually happens. Once it happens, it is, by definition, natural. It might be new and surprising, but that does not matter. At one time, flight was new and surprising. For centuries, people believed that the laws of nature simply did not allow bigs hunks of metal to fly through the air. But they were wrong. That does not mean that the laws of nature changed. It simply means we did not fully understand them before. And of course, we do not fully understand them now, either.

The laws of nature are not like the laws of the United States or the laws of Britain. The laws of the United States are only laws because Congress passed them and the President signed them. Those laws can change. Moreover, they can be broken. That is what prisons are for. And, it is even possible to break the law and not go to prison. The laws of nature work in a completely different fashion. Scientists do not write down laws and command nature to obey. Rather, they observe what happens, and try to come up with rules that explain what is happening. Those are not "laws" in the same sense as the laws of the United States.

The laws of nature cannot, by definition, be broken. If the laws of nature as calculated appear to be broken, then it is laws that are wrong, not nature. And of course that happens all the time. The most powerful laws of nature, like F=MA, often turn out to be approximations that only "apply" under certain conditions. Einstein's theory of relativity is a better approximation, and made predictions that turned out to be correct, such as the bending of light in a gravitational field. That bending of light might appear "supernatural" without knowledge of relativity.

When people imagine supernatural events, they imagine them to follow logical rules. For example, Harry's spell would not have worked if he were not a wizard. It would not have worked if he had used a cricket bat instead of a magic wand. It would not have worked if he had said the magic word incorrectly. Ghosts do not randomly appear in the middle of the day, in the middle of the woods, with no one around. Rather, they haunt the houses where they were horribly murdered, in the middle of the night, because it is angry. The fortune teller follows fixed rules to interpret the cards. Perhaps those rules are new, strange or not fully understood. But they are still rules. (And, if those rules were chaotic, that still wouldn't matter. There is nothing that says that nature must be orderly, although it has always proven to be. I'm not going to follow that line of thought here).

Some may be tempted to try to rescue the supernatural by changing the definition to something like: things that humans can never fully understand. But that definition is not terribly interesting, and it certainly does not capture what people really mean when they speak of the supernatural. Those who know the most about quantum mechanics say that they do not really understand it, and never will. Richard Feynman, for example, admitted that he did not really understand quantum mechanics. Yet no one claims that quantum mechanics is supernatural. It is just really hard to understand.

Of course, Feynman could describe quantum mechanics, just as J.K. Rowling can describe Harry Potter and his magic tricks. It is easy to say: This is what I saw happen. The electrons are behaving as if they are both here and not here at the same time. I saw blood flowing from the eyes of the statue. I saw him lifted up to heaven. She was able to read my thoughts. These are all supernatural events by any meaningful definition, and they can all be described in the sense that we can report what happened. The fact that we can report on an event does not mean we understand it, and if we cannot even understand something well enough to report on it, we cannot even begin to have a discussion about it.

Moreover, there may be things even more complicated than quantum mechanics. Some humans, like Richard Feynman, can understand quantum mechanics in the sense that they can show it is true and describe what occurs in mathematical terms. Perhaps there are natural phenomenon even more complicated, such that our minds are simply incapable of comprehending. But that does not make those events supernatural. It just means our minds are limited, something we knew already.

Anything that actually happens is part of nature, whether or not we understand how it works. If something does not happen, then it is not part of nature. The supernatural cannot, by its very definition, exist. So, in the end, belief in the supernatural comes down to belief in gibberish. No one can really believe in the supernatural if they think about it in any meaningful way.

So, why do people insist on saying that they believe in the supernatural? Because people want to believe. Because it is exciting, scary -- or, in the case of religion, reassuring -- to believe in something being "out there" that is beyond our understanding. Harry Potter would not be magical if we knew the physics behind his tricks. Thinking about it to hard -- or reading pedantic blog entries like this one -- takes all the fun out of the supernatural.

In the end, we are just going back to that old working definition of supernatural: anything that we do not understand and which seems, in our experience, to be impossible, but with a slight twist: the supernatural is something we want to believe.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Medical Hell, Part III: 7.5 Minutes

Most doctors schedule four to eight appointments every hour. Eight appointments an hour, which seems to be the norm for orthopedic surgeons, means an average of less than 7.5 minutes per patient, given that the doctor must spend some time walking from room to room, etc. We're probably lucky to get five to fifteen minutes of our doctors' attention in the average appointment. Next time you visit your doctor, look at the sign-in sheet and figure out how little time the doctor has allotted for your consultation or examination.

In these short appointments, we are expected to make important decisions about our health: whether to take a medication, to undergo a procedure, or to just let things be. It is simply impossible to make a good decision in such a limited amount of time, and I can think of no other profession that gives such short shrift to its clients. Yet there is no profession more important than medicine.

I am confident of the problem, but I am less sure of the cause(s) and solution(s). Nevertheless, in the spirit of the internet (speaking out when you are not really sure if you know what you are talking about), here goes:

The underlying problem is that we simply do not have enough doctors to go around. There are two reasons for this. First and foremost, we do not have enough medical schools. There are only about 125 medical schools in the entire United States, about 1 for every 2,500,000 people. As a result, there are many capable students who would be more than happy to pursue a career in medicine, but who are not able to qualify. We would do well to close a few law schools and open a few medical schools.

Second, medical training is unnecessarily long. Many doctors --dermatologists, for example -- do not use even a fraction of what they learn in medical school. These specialists should be given separate degrees, with training focused on what they will need in their practice. Think of dentists, for example. Reducing the length of training means that each medical school can produce more doctors.

Clearly, there is a need for some doctors who know all fields well, and there is a need for all medical practitioners to have a certain minimum understanding of how the human body works. But, in a world of limited resources, it makes sense to allocate education more carefully.

Friday, January 1, 2010

Airport Security Has Become a Fraud

I fly frequently, and I care very much about my safety and the safety of my fellow passengers. Some airport security is necessary for that safety. But that being said, airport security in this country has become a very expensive farce.

All activities entail risk. Driving to the airport to catch a flight entails the risk of dying in a car crash. That risk is -- and always has been -- far higher than the risk of dying on the flight from all causes combined. Staying home is risky, too. There may be an earthquake or a hurricane. And, no matter what you do, you might die of cancer or some other horrible disease. Each of these different deaths is, in an important sense, the same. The victim is dead. To put it another way, I do not care if I die from cancer or in a terrorist attack -- I just want to put it off as long as possible!

But of course there are limits to what we can do. Even if we drive 10 miles per hour and wear helmets at all times, there is still a risk of dying in a car accident. Even if we go to the doctor every day, and have every possible test, there is still a risk that some disease will go undetected. We have to make choices about what steps we take to improve our safety.

So, we must apply some common sense. The amount of time, money and energy we invest attempting to mitigate any particular risk should be based on a simple cost-benefit analysis. How much risk can be reduced at what cost? People -- especially Americans -- like to put their heads in the sand and claim that there can never be a compromise when it comes to safety. But there always is such a compromise, whether we like it or not. Best to acknowledge that fact and make the smartest compromises. Refusing to acknowledge that we are making compromises prevents us from making good decisions and ultimately makes us less safe, not more.

The risk of dying in a terrorist attack is, in the scheme of things, trivial. No one has been killed by a terrorist in the United States in over eight years. Not one person. In the meantime, millions of people have died from cancer, heart disease and accidents of all kinds. A few unlucky folks have even died of being hit by lightning and as a result of shark attacks. Certainly, there is a risk of terrorism on airplanes. There always will be such a risk and, like most risks, it cannot be entirely eliminated. But that risk is already very, very low on the list in terms of actual size.

Moreover, there is very little we can do to reduce the risk further. We already spend millions of dollars, and spend millions of hours of people's time, trying to further reduce a risk that is already very small. As with any endeavor, there is a law of diminishing returns. The cost of improving something starts low and gets increasingly higher, while at the same time the benefits become smaller and smaller. At some point, there is nothing more that we can reasonably do. Airport security passed that point long ago.

Furthermore, even if we could make air travel "completely" safe from terrorism, it is unclear if that would make us any safer. Presumably, terrorists would learn that it is impossible to destroy an aircraft, and they would therefore turn their attention to other targets -- boats, bridges, stadiums and the like. Terrorists are going to hit the weakest point, so making one particular facet of our lives "terror-proof" would be of little benefit, even if it were possible.

The irony of all this is that the press and the government are playing directly into the hands of the terrorists by creating unjustified fear. The idea of terrorism is to scare people and to make them stop living their lives normally. The terrorist cannot hope to kill enough people to bring down his victim; terrorism is not war. Terror works through fear, not bombs. A "war on terror" should focus on stopping fear. But we seem to be doing the exact opposite.

The failed attack on December 25, 2009, provides a perfect example. All of our elaborate airport security was unable to prevent the would-be terrorist from getting his "bomb" onto the airplane. The attacker apparently was not particularly skilled nor persistent -- he simply stuffed a small bag into his underwear. Short of a real (or virtual) strip search, the next attacker can do the exact same thing and be all but certain to get his "bomb" onto the plane.

The attacker failed to blow up the airplane, but not because of anything the TSA did to stop him. He failed for two simple reasons. First, he was not very bright. Second, the passengers intervened (this is at least the third time that has happened -- the final plane on 9/11 and the "shoe bomber" being the other two examples of passengers intervening). Experience suggests we can count on both of these factors in the future. Competent terrorists are, fortunately, rather unusual. Brave passengers are not (and it only takes a few brave passengers on a plane to stop a given attack).

Ironically, however, the attack of December 25, 2009, did succeed in an important respect, but only because of the government and media reaction. The US government reacted by imposing more airport security measures. While those measures would not stop a similar attack tomorrow, they do impose a huge cost on travelers, airlines and ultimately the world economy. The stocks of airlines, for example, fell substantially. The attacker may have failed to take down that airplane, but he caused hundreds of millions of dollars of damage, based on the airline stocks alone. And he did not even have to blow himself up to do it!

The media did its part, too. Scaring the public is always a good way to improve ratings, and almost all major media outlets could not resist. No one said, "Here is just the second attack in eight years, and again it failed without the need for any security. This is proof that we are safe." Instead, the media ran the story so as to scare the daylights out of anyone who was planning to fly.

Terrorist attacks, like shark attacks, cause visceral reaction in most people. Mature, educated people can acknowledge that fear, but at the same time apply their reason and make decisions accordingly. Please, do not play into the fear game. Do not be afraid to fly. Even when there is another crash -- and sadly, there will always be another one -- use your common sense. Flying is, always has been and always will be, a very safe way to travel. If you want to fight terrorism, do it by not being afraid.