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February 10, 2008

More on Bias (Scientific, Logical, Historical)

The last entry called attention to the role of bias in human decisions and ended by suggesting that the conflict between our prejudices and our cognitive function has deep evolutionary and anatomic roots. I also inferred that those conclusions were only two of the many unexpected insights resulting from clinical research enabled by the unexpected passage of Proposition 215 in 1996. By requiring applicants seeking a “medical” designation to see a physician, the new law  had opened the door to what eventually became a unique inductive (bottom up) look at America’s now-huge illegal market for cannabis, one that didn’t begin expanding to its present size until millions of Baby Boomers discovered the anxiolytic properties of inhaled pot in the late Sixties and beyond.

In terms of “bias” denoting an intrinsic preference for a particular belief, we can infer that the earliest pioneers in Science, by choosing to challenge the conventional wisdom of their day, were the first to demonstrate the benefits that can accrue from questioning the bias implicit in traditional beliefs. They were all intelligent mavericks who had clearly been inspired to seek answers to questions no one else had considered asking. In one of several coincidences that have turned this project into a personal obsession, the Science Channel just aired a documentary on four iconic Physicists: Galileo, Newton, Einstein, and Hawking. What they all possessed in abundance was intelligence, mathematical precocity, the ability to immerse themselves in certain concepts for years, and a rare willingness to challenge the conventional wisdom of their day. Also of great interest to me were comments to the the effect that they’d all exhibited a quirkiness that set them apart from contemporaries and might easily have made them candidates for psychotropic medication in the modern United States.

All had (obviously) survived long enough to formally publish on their obsessions; in terms of that survival, what is known about Stephen Hawking and his ALS makes it clear that without several medical developments, unknown when it was first diagnosed in 1962, his survival beyond a few years wouldn’t have been possible.. As it is, his attainment of 66 years is a tribute to both modern science and the power of devotion.

To return to the Science Channel program; its (understandable) focus on physicists left Darwin out; however, his intuition of Evolution was clearly of similar significance and the segue from Physics to Life Sciences allows me to observe that the reduction of bias in Biology, although just as important as in Physics, is typically more difficult; either because the self-appointed guardians of conventional wisdom are slower to spot trends in the “harder” sciences or tend to monitor “soft” ones more militantly.  As I’ve also pointed out in a number of ways, tacit acceptance of US drug policy by Medicine and the Behavioral Sciences is a major reason it has remained ascendant for so long. The obvious question then becomes: what does it take to “reform” the bias now preventing a more balanced understanding of “medical” marijuana by both our policy’s critics and its supporters?

Everyone seems to be looking to the new field of Neuroscience for answers to man’s behavioral problems. The problem is that it's far from a single entity and just below its (apparent) surface conformity with drug policy, lurks a deep abyss which is either unrecognized or, more likely, simply not discussed.

Doctor Tom

Posted by tjeffo at February 10, 2008 06:23 AM