Blue Tuesday: Is there too much work against Blue Monday?

60_jahre_allgemeine_erklarung_der_menschenrechte_3084670759

This bear is leaving home because its owners believe that Blue Monday has a scientific origin. (Attribution)

Yesterday wasn’t Blue Monday. Or to use its full name, Blue Monday (A Normal Day Of The Year Which Was Rebranded Through Marketing With A False Veneer Of Misleading Science). Blue Monday (ANDOTYWWRTMWAFVOMS) became a “not a thing” which happens as a result of holiday sellers, Sky Travel, and public relations company, Porter Novelli, selling holidays and public relating. They invented a formula which supposedly calculates that the third Monday in January is the most depressing day of the year and stuck what looks like a scientist on the front to complete its fancy-dress costume of sexy fake science concept. Needless to say, the average mood of everyone is too complex a thing to calculate with the simple equation being touted. Saying it can is a horrendous misrepresentation of the scientific method, human emotions and mental health. The added scientist, Cliff Arnall, is not a doctor or a professor of psychology. Or of anything. Saying he is is…

It’s difficult to argue with the success of the Blue Monday (ANDOTYWWRTMWAFVOMS) idea as a piece of marketing. On the day itself, the number of companies, including charities, that use the term to promote their products or causes is vast. With the general theme of spending money to improve your mood, Blue Monday (ANDOTYWWRTMWAFVOMS) is used to sell pretty much everything; be that the holidays it was designed to sell, cars, chocolate or financial advice. Perhaps more subtly, some groups have tried to re-purpose Blue Monday (I’ll stop now). They argue that while the supposed science might be a gargantuan heap o’ nonsense, it can still be a day to consider and support those who are unhappy. In addition, a lot of people have put a lot of work into explaining why, as a scientific concept, Blue Monday has the same credibility has half a brick with a picture of Dr Emmett Brown sneezed onto it by a guinea pig. So much so, that the publication of pieces debunking the science of Blue Monday have become as much of a tradition as the shower of gaudy sadverts.

kiara

This dog is more scientific than the formula for Blue Monday. (Attribution).

For the last few years, I have gained the impression that the pieces attempting to counteract the Blue Monday information have become more common than the items using its selling power. If this was indeed the case, the main thing keeping Blue Monday alive would be the valiant efforts to kill it. This could be placed in the Venn diagram of ironic things and bad things. However, whether this is the case is far from decided. While I have seen the same claim from others, my perception that anti Blue Monday work is more common than pro Blue Monday work is just that, a perception. Perceptions are at risk of bias.

Confirmation bias would mean that I might be interpreting information in a way that confirms my pre-existing beliefs. All the evidence I’ve seen shows that confirmation bias exists. The Baader-Meinhof phenomenon (or frequency illusion) would mean something that’s recently been noticed by me, suddenly seems to occur at a greatly increased rate. Once you’ve noticed the Baader-Meinhof phenomenon, you’ll start seeing it everywhere. Finally, the perception that anti Blue Monday work is more common than pro Blue Monday work might be the result of an echo chamber. I’m more likely to associate (digitally or in the great outdoors) with people who hold similar points of view to me. I’ll therefore see opinions the same as mine with greater frequency, and if I’m not careful will come to believe that those opinions are the most common. Everything I’ve seen on Twitter confirms I’m right.

One potential antidote to the plethora of human bias is correctly analysed data. I didn’t have that, so I took to the internet. On 16th January 2017, I searched for the term, “Blue Monday” on Twitter. I didn’t specifically use the hashtag because I wanted to avoid people or organisations using it just to make their tweets more locatable on the specific day. On a separate note, SEX! I then counted the tweets that seemed to believe the effect of Blue Monday, the tweets that actively opposed the effect of Blue Monday, and the tweets that didn’t believe Blue Monday, but wanted to use it to at least gain some benefit. I did this until the total tweets I’d counted reached 100. To be counted, a tweet had to at least hint at belief in Blue Monday or otherwise. It couldn’t just spout a load of a nonsense about sofas and then end with a hashtag. I also did a similar thing with Google (incognito window to avoid the influence of my search history) to count sites, news items, blog posts etc. and place them in the same categories as were used for the tweets. This was also completed when the total links reached was equal to 100. I later checked the Google search o a separate device and found the resulting list to be practically the same.

The results can be seen below. In summary, the pro Blue Monday items were much greater in the number than the anti Blue Monday items. These were both much more prevalent than items trying to re-purpose the day. My perception was wrong, and unfortunately the work to demonstrate that the idea of Blue Monday is anti-scientific rubbish appears to still has some way to go.

blue-pie

Pie part showing the proportion of pro Blue Monday, anti Blue Monday and re-purposing Blue Monday items.

 

One thing to note however, was that out of the pro Blue Monday items, 72% were advertisements. As discussed, these would make the argument that it’s the saddest day of the year so why not buy chocolate/hair gel/happiness? It is unclear to what extent the people behind these believe that Blue Monday was a scientific concept. While their adverts vaguely hint at belief, it’s just as likely that the mention of Blue Monday and its supposed effects are being used as devices to enhance how noticeable their brand is on a specific day. An increasingly difficult task given how common the use of the Blue Monday “brand” is. It seems to me that an advert that went with something other than Blue Monday marketing on the third Monday in January would be the one to stand out.

I’m not sure why efforts to educate people as to the non-scientific origins of Blue Monday are not working or even if they are actually not working in the first place. As discussed, it’s possible people know all of this, but find the term useful for their purposes; whether these are charitable or otherwise. Indeed, some news outlets may be using anti Blue Monday work to join in and take advantage of the temporary interest while maintaining an appearance of credibility. There’s no point in having your cake if you can’t eat it.

Ultimately and unfortunately, it appears that not much can be done about the Blue Monday juggernaut. I might still hold out hope for those valiantly explaining the gibberish behind the claims and even for those re-purposing the day for more noble causes. Judging by the current proportions, these efforts need to increase or change their methods to become more effective. How? I don’t know, although at least I’ve got nearly a year to think about it.

One thing you can do is donate to/support/um… those things, the Rethink Blue Monday campaign to raise awareness for the real issues of mental health and why blue Monday is, to use a polite phrase, factually faecal. The link is here.

https://www.gofundme.com/f/rethink-blue-monday?utm_source=customer&utm_medium=copy_link-tip&utm_campaign=p_cp+share-sheet

Stigma and mental health: a one-sided conversation

L0026693 A man diagnosed as suffering from melancholia with strong su

A man diagnosed as suffering from melancholia with strong suicidal tendencies. This is what people thought people with mental illness looked like before they all started looking out of windows with their heads in their hands. 

What is stigma?

Stigma is basically a word for discrimination. Slightly more technically, stigma has been described as a sign of disgrace that is perceived to set a person or group of people apart from others. It’s also a Greek letter, although everyone that uses it in that way is rubbish. Stigma can affect many groups, including people with mental health problems, the elderly, and a third less serious group that I was going to include as a joke, but didn’t because it would increase stigma too much.

The casual use of language stigmatising mental illness is exceedingly common. If you’re a bit angry you might be described as mental or psycho. If you put a book away you might be called obsessive compulsive. Media portrayals reinforce stigma by constantly associating images of violent and homicidal individuals with mental ill health. The Eurovision song contest recently got in on the stigmatising act by parading a person in a Eurovision-themed straitjacket for so called crazy fans and having one of the hosts proclaim “You know what they say – crazy is the new black.” Which is definitely saying like, “Half a cup of thunder makes the bears look at the handbag” and “You don’t have to be crazy to use stigmatising language, but it…oh…I see…I’m sorry.”

Even children’s television seems to have gotten in on the act. A study in the British Journal of Psychiatry found that during just one week’s worth of children’s television, 59 out of 128 programmes contained one or more references to mental illness. Terms like “crazy”, “mad” and “losing your mind” were commonly used to portray that a character was losing control. Six characters were identified as consistently shown to have a mental illness. These characters were almost totally devoid of positive characteristics. Luckily, children aren’t impressionable and don’t learn or pick up attitudes easily.

Does it really matter if people are offended?

In the great scheme of things, not really. Overall, it’s probably not good to upset people, although that largely depends on context. If you’re using abusive language and someone says your awful because of you’re abusive language and this upsets you, then you’re upset doesn’t matter a Katie Hopkin’s opinions worth. If someone with severe anxiety is offended because you’ve told them to “stop worrying”, then that does matter. You’re belittling a potential illness, and ignoring and heightening their distress. We’ll deal with these cases of offence on a case by case basis until we’ve Gervaised the lot of them.

Stigma

I really wouldn’t recommend searching for “prejudice” in order to find images for your blog post.

However, this isn’t really about people being offended. It’s about the harm that can be caused by language and attitudes. Stigmatising attitudes towards people experiencing mental illness are responsible for substantial additional distress, as well as reduced employment and social opportunities. In addition, stigma can lead to hate crimes, a decreased ability to access appropriate healthcare and reluctance to seek appropriate help (if that help is even available). In fact, the stigma surrounding mental illness has been identified as the primary barrier to providing mental health care and the delivery of treatment. It turns out that if large portions of society hold negative beliefs about a group that aren’t necessarily true, then that group suffers.

So I’m banned from using certain words?

Not at all, but it would be nice if you thought about what you were saying and the impact it might have. Unsurprisingly in a matter involving language and society, there’s a lot of nuance involved. If I privately say “my cat is going bananas” while my cat does something adorable like climbing up the curtains or becoming non-fictional, then I’m probably not doing any harm. If I loudly proclaim to a crowd that another person who is shouting “has gone schizo” then that’s another matter. I don’t know who’s listening, who might be upset and who might avoid social situations or potentially getting help to avoid similar judgement. If you don’t believe in the potential impact of your words in this setting, perhaps you should look at the research, or at least have more confidence in yourself. You can make a difference!

Well, what other words can I use?

I’m pretty sure there are quite a few words that aren’t stigmatising towards people with mental health problems. There’s probably a word for that situation. I’ll check the dictionary. Anyway, a bit of variety in your insults will make you look more intelligent, which is always nice.

Sanakniigu

A good source of awful words.

Why are people so thin skinned?

It’s not really about being offended (as discussed previously), but if we’re talking about people with certain diagnoses then there is evidence that negative terms can have greater impact than in people without those diagnoses. For example, much research has shown that people with clinical depression have what’s called a negative cognitive style. That is to say they’re much more likely to focus on or attend to the negative aspects of any personal experience and to an extent may be unable to focus on positive or neutral aspects. Conversely, other studies claim that this tendency differs across individuals with the depression with some people focusing on negative information, while others pay equal attention to negative and positive information but remember negative information more efficiently than those without depression. Either way, telling someone with this problem to just ignore the bad stuff isn’t helpful. Like telling someone with their foot caught in a bear trap to just walk it off.

I have a mental illness and it doesn’t affect me like that!

That’s good. However, there are other people who it does affect.

Isn’t this just being pedantic about language?

“Just”?!

But you got several phrases regarding mental health wrong!

Probably, and I apologise for that. I daresay I’ll do it again, but I’ll try and do better. Which is hopefully what we’re all trying to do. Not you though. You’re perfect. You’re hair is particularly good.

In fact, a bigger problem is that throughout this post I’ve essentially referred to people with mental illness as a homogenous group. This obviously isn’t true, just as it wouldn’t be for any large group of people. It also potentially marks a large proportion of the population (1 in 4 is often bandied about, although I can’t find a good reference for that figure) as an outgroup. I certainly don’t want to do that, and a large part of reducing stigma should probably be in getting people to consider that the group they’re stigmatising contains as much variety in personality as any group they consider themselves a member of, that that group contains people just as capable of experiencing harm as they are (more so in some cases) and that their words have the power to impact real-world events. Easy done.

Are you finished yet?

Yes.

 

Image credits: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images images@wellcome.ac.uk http://wellcomeimages.org A man diagnosed as suffering from melancholia with strong suicidal tendency. Lithograph, 1892, after a drawing by Alexander Johnston, 1837, for Sir Alexander Morison. 1837-1892 By: Alexander Johnstonafter: Alexander Morison and Byrom BramwellPublished: [1892]

By Ilja.mos – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=46665757

 

Copy and Paste Science Stories

 

Nobody ever asks the infinite monkeys to write an original piece.

Nobody ever asks the infinite monkeys to write an original piece.

Science is often reported badly in the press. There a number of reasons for this and it’s a complex topic which I’m not going to cover in this blog post. Part of the problem may be the use of press releases for studies that may have public interest before they have been rigorously reviewed by the scientific community. Typically the public interest angle is enhanced through claims technically but tenuously linked to the study being reported. These press releases are often then reported almost verbatim by the press with little accurate interpretation. This isn’t just a problem with journal or academic institution press releases and can be due to companies performing surveys and then releasing the results masquerading as research to promote their product. Examples of this include the most depressing day of the year “research” performed by Sky Travel and Lloyds Pharmacy and their survey to sell carbon monoxide detectors.

Ultimately this leads to a situation where complex science is reported incorrectly and grouped with non-science copied and pasted from dubious survey results for the overall degradation of the public understanding of science. For example, recently the Mail Online reported a comedic science blog, written with predictions invented with humorous intent as genuine science prediction. Largely this was performed using direct quotations from the piece, rewritten in the third-person to give the impression of reporting. Dave copied this technique for the purposes of making a semi-humorous point about this kind of writing.

Sarah Griffiths, a kind of journalist for the Mail Online Scientist copied some details from the Brain Flapping comedy science blog written by Dr Dean Burnett for The Guardian without noticing it was full of joke predictions in a list of features he predicts humans could evolve. It includes tentacles, colour-changing skin, flexible skeletons and selective hearing. The article notices some humour when they note that the neuroscientist humorously notes that as evolution takes so long no one will be around to see his predictions are right or wrong. Taking inspiration from the chameleon, humans could evolve the ability to consciously change their skin colour; they wrote that he wrote in a blog for The Guardian. They muse that he muses that this could happen if humans evolved chomatophores – pigment-containing and light-reflecting organelles in cells found in reptiles – or even by using technology, but also note that he notes that whatever the case there are numerous evolutionary benefits.

‘Being able to either visually blend in or stand out at will would be a potent advantage in modern society, one that evolutionary pressures could make more common,’ they say that he said. Which he did. The Oxford English Dictionary defines “context” as a noun representing the circumstances that form the setting for an event, statement, or idea, and in terms of which it can be fully understood.

Sarah Griffiths points out that Dr Burnett points out that humans already have the ability to focus their hearing on certain conversations and noises, but the human ear does not have a physical mechanism for doing this. She believes that he believes that over time selective hearing could become more important – perhaps to filter out increasing noise from social media and other sources of continuous information.

‘Rather than diverting attention to more relevant inputs, humans could develop the ability to actively ‘tune out’ things they don’t want to hear, like closing your eyes to block an unpleasant sight,’ She said that he said. Which he did. The Oxford English Dictionary defines “satire” as a noun representing the use of humour, irony, exaggeration, or ridicule to expose and criticise people’s stupidity or vices, particularly in the context of contemporary politics and other topical issues.

While this could result in humans taking in less information over all, The Mail Online believes that Dr Burnett believes future humans might be less stressed and angry to live longer, happier lives.

A copy of a picture of some paste.

A copy of a picture of some paste.

They say that he said that in order for humans to use keyboards and touch screens to communicate with computers more easily, we could evolve more dexterous hands that allow us to make precise movements but are less rigid to help us type faster. Which he did. Actually he typed it using his human fingers and a computer keyboard and checking the words on a computer monitor using his human eyes. All of this was coordinated by Dr Dean Burnett’s human nervous system I can report in a tedious attempt at excess description to make it look like I’ve given the issue some thought.

They could even end up more like ‘tentacles like those on a sea anemone,’ they say he said. Which he did. The Oxford English Dictionary defines “repetition” as a noun representing the action of repeating something that has already been said or written. Repetition can be used to hammer a point home or for humorous effect with varying degrees of success.

While noting that Dr Burnett noted that there might be limited practical reasons for humans to develop tentacles, they recognise humour and report it when they recognise that he humorously suggests that they could be used for sexual selection as an alternative method of arousal.

Humans could also develop more cartilage in their skeletons like sharks, which would have benefits such as being able to give birth more easily, they say he said. As the world gets safer for most of us, there is less need for humans to have rigid and inflexible bones to withstand forceful impacts. While The Mail Online’s suggestions as to what Dr Burnett’s suggestions for features that humans could evolve are just their own musings based on his own musings, new research has found that that humans could one day grow beaks if you misrepresent it slightly.

Sarah Griffiths believes that Dr Fraser, a biologist at Sheffield University, believes that humans will evolve constantly developing teeth thanks to ‘tooth fairy’ cells. The Mail Online reports that he believes that human teeth are no longer fit for purpose and could even change into a beak that beak would not rot, chip or fall out. While nobody believes that this is likely to happen it makes a good headline for enticing people to read the story. This is based on Dr Fraser’s research into the growth and robustness of pufferfish beaks and the possible applications to human teeth. Dr Fraser’s research is particularly well-timed as staff at The Mail Online’s teeth are no longer fit for purpose and they find it difficult to chew. This isn’t true either but could be inferred from the things they say other people say if taken out of context.

Overall this sort of copy is a parody of science journalism and as I have stated has negative effects on the public understanding of science. It is a joke when completed how it’s been completed here. Stopping it is likely to be complex, even it is does boil down to people stopping misleading press releases and journalists being vigilant with regards to the information they include in their stories. Hopefully then we can avoid this sort of copy and paste science journalism and avoid the repetition of inaccurate stories in this sort of copy and paste science journalism.

Generic Article About Disagreeing With Science With Opinions And Anecdotes.

An angry cat because I am angry and people like cats with facial expressions.

An angry cat because I am angry and people like cats with facial expressions.

When I first heard about the science in question I was sitting in my pyjamas, hoping that someone would say something that I disagreed with so that I could complain about it in a public forum. I like doing this and it’s a realistic image which makes you believe me and the rest of what I have to say. Someone disagreed with me fairly quickly as what I had chosen to believe about this area of science wasn’t quite right but was commonly researched and talked about. So it wasn’t long before I was casting my pyjamas aside.  After an embarrassing number of minutes stood at a window contemplating what I’m going to assure you is slightly evidenced based fury, I remembered that I didn’t need to cast my pyjamas aside to attempt to write a generic, anecdotal science piece. Don’t worry too much at the evidence though. It’s so “wrong” I’ll treat it as a humorous thing. The things I’m about to say will appeal to a template of certain group that agrees with me for political reasons. In fact really this is an opinion piece masquerading as a science piece but we’ll pretend otherwise so you more readily believe me and less likely to think that I’m pretentious, smug and bitter.

You’ll have heard of the survey, research, inspirational Facebook picture and The Daily Mail article in question because it was on the Twitter and I needed to get my article down quickly before my rage subsided and a desire for accuracy overtook me. What the research pointed out that what I previously believed about this area was science wasn’t quite right. I instantly mistrusted it because of the person that reported it and because of the numbers that they used. I had never heard of the person before which is suspicious to me despite there being quite a few scientists and I have never heard of a large percentage of them. Luckily they are a scientist so I can stereotype them as a typical scientist or point out that they don’t conform to my stereotype of a typical scientist. The numbers used were entirely the wrong sort and had obviously been worn out through all that heartless using them to describe evidence. Luckily a lot of people don’t trust numbers because of complicated counting so I’ll just disregard them or say they mean something else by doing them not quite right. For crying out loud I think I saw a four in there!

I’ve had the stuff that the research is talking about happen to me and to a relative and to a pet of mine so obviously my experience can apply to everyone else. You can tell this because of the story or anecdote that I have which will make you feel one of the emotions. You can then use this to identify me as an authority from experience and agree with me because chances are you’ll know someone with a similar anecdote. Also maybe something to do with the weather.  All science does is take some evidence and analyse it in a way that can statistically be applied to the population or area they studied. This means that it will apply on average but there will be some people or areas it doesn’t apply to and some people or areas it does. Hopefully the stuff it does apply to will be more common than the stuff it doesn’t. This is obviously unreasonable and often involves words like “mean” which can describe something mathematical but can also refer to not being very nice. That fact proves that the scientist saying these things is not being very nice. I am furious with rage that they would say these things about something I’ve misunderstood and about something that doesn’t quite apply to me because of complex circumstances. Why do scientists have to be so median?!

Now it’s time for me to quote some different science which supports my idea. This will be easy because science is complex and the analysis of its results difficult so it’s likely there are some results or some discussion that agrees with me and what I’ve been saying. I can use the science correctly so that if you thought I was misrepresenting it up until now you’ll think “actually that bit is right so maybe the rest of it is”. Then I’ll say, “yes” and you’ll say, “how are you reading the thoughts of a fictional person invented to agree with your increasingly bitter and smug point?” I’ll say something about bacon to show it’s a joke and in a misguided attempt to make people think this is witty. As you can see there is some science that agrees with me. Whether it’s because it agrees with me because it actually does or because I’ve misunderstood or misrepresented a number or a word which means something else in everyday language to its scientific definition I don’t know. You can see it definitely has the flavour of science and therefore makes my overall point correct. There is definitely an art to this kind of pseudoscience which is described much better in a piece by psychologist, Dr Pete Etchells which in a way inspired this one.

Now I’m not saying that everyone who disagrees with what I’m saying is wrong. That would be foolish and would contradict the paragraph that I am writing to make myself seem reasonable. My reasonableness and logic from everyday life now stands in opposition to the results that I disagree with and the people that produced them. I know there will be people that the results might apply to and good luck to them. However there won’t be many of them and they’re probably wrong but fingers crossed that they don’t notice when they are being patronised. The sentences throughout this piece have been quite long and some have been quite complicated so that might help in obscuring the exact meaning with shorter sentences to get across the general tone. The tone is that I am right.

Overall though you can see that my definite real experience that happened means that what I have to say against the evidence that I disagree with is nicer. This is probably the same as being right. If it isn’t nicer then I’ll probably just say that it’s more realistic and if you disagree with me you’re a daydreamer. You know you can distrust the numbers I don’t like from the person I don’t like because I’ve told you I don’t like them. You also know there’s other science that might agree with me. Don’t look it up whatever you do! Ultimately I’m a reasonable person because I told you I am in a paragraph. Whatever the point is about the science I disagree with I will now entirely win you over with this joke or comment that refers back to my opening paragraph or anecdote and which broadly reinforces my point. And also James Delingpole, Melanie Phillips and some Twitter outrage was there.

Bile Assaults: Is bile really that bad?

The four types of temperament proposed by humorism. Or how nobody has ever looked ever.

The four types of temperament proposed by humorism. Or how nobody has ever looked ever.

Something had me thinking about bile recently. I can’t be sure what it was and I wouldn’t want to date this blog post by relating it to any recent news events to take a guess. It seems to me that it has something of an unfair reputation. Bile that is. Obviously.  In language and to describe language, bile is often used to represent speech displaying a certain level of anger or peevishness.  “She spoke with great bile about the supposed comedian Paddy McGuinness” one might say, or “the very thought of the supposed theories of Susan Greenfield makes neuroscientists speak with bile in their voices.” Even gall. one of the other names for bile has been used in this fashion. Gall is used as a verb to represent the act of irritation and as a noun to indicate a bitterness of spirit or a sort of brazen insolence. For example you might say “it was with tremendous gall that he used his examples to mention things he disapproved of and it was beginning to gall the reader.”

A disturbing number of descriptions of bile as a bodily fluid begin by talking about its taste. Search for bile on the internet search engine of your choice (although choice may be the wrong word given that everyone always chooses the same one) and you’ll invariably meet with a definition beginning with how bitter it tastes. It is unlikely that you would find this with any of the body’s other sloppy bits.

Blood (noun): a metallic-tasting, red liquid. Try to keep it inside you.

Urine (noun): a sweet-tasting liquid of varying colour. Sweet? Get tested for diabetes.

Tears (noun): a salty, transparent bodily fluid brought about by thinking too much about the   consumption of human bodily fluids.

The previous descriptions seem odd and while this semi-intentional, the description of bile as “bitter” does not seem as peculiar. A fact which possibly relates to its other uses in the English language. This in turn has its roots in an ancient medical theory.

For approximately 2,000 years the medical theory of humorism was one of the most prevalent in Greece where it was systemised and eventually throughout most of Western medicine.  There is some evidence that the theory originated in Mesopotamia. Humorism states that the body contains four basic substances or “humors” the balance of which effects a person’s personality and health. These four substances were blood, phlegm, yellow bile (or chole) and black bile (or melan chole). Too much yellow bile for example resulted in a person that was very aggressive and was associated with “warm” diseases or fevers. Too much black bile supposedly caused a person to be depressed and was associated with illnesses that made one cold. And in a short leap from 400BC to now we have why bile may be associated with anger and melancholy can be another word for depression. I can also claim that despite criticism that this post definitely contains humour.  Even if it is badly spelled.

We now know through facts and evidence that humorism as a medical theory is not correct. Although this doesn’t stop people like Gary Smalley, a counsellor and founder of the Smalley Relationship Centre, using the humors and their resulting temperaments to explain his Christianity-based relationship advice. Except Smalley relates temperaments to the animal types of otters (blood/sanguines), lions (yellow bile/cholerics), golden retrievers (phlegm/phlegmatics), and beavers (black bile/ melancholies). It is perhaps easy to see why lions may relate to people who are angry but it seems odd that beavers are depressed. Are beavers particularly sad? Perhaps Smalley got confused with the association of the word “dam”.

Either way the humorism theory of medicine is of no use in modern medicine other than with its potential linguistic remnants in terms such as humoral immunity. Food also has descriptive links to this theory based on which of the humors they were supposed to influence. For example spicy, salty or sour foods were said to aggravate yellow bile while dry, stale food or excessive beans were said to aggravate black bile.  Perhaps here it is easy to see how excessive beans might make you sad.  It remains that bile is a much maligned liquid which seems unfair given that as a bodily fluid it does have a function. Without it you would almost definitely be much angrier or more depressed.

Bile is a bitter-tasting, dark green to yellow-brown liquid, produced by the liver and stored

The gallbladder: winner of The Organ Most Like A Deflated Balloon Award.

The gallbladder: winner of The Organ Most Like A Deflated Balloon Award.

in the gallbladder prior to its discharge into the duodenum at the beginning of the small intestine. Bile is an alkaline and as such aids in the neutralising of stomach acids if they should enter the small intestine. This in itself is useful. Bile is primarily composed of water (85%) as well as bile salts (10%), mucus and pigments (3%), fats (1%) and inorganic salts (0.7%). These bile salts are to an extent bactericidal, destroying some harmful microbes that may be present in the food. Already we can see bile does two things that aren’t that galling. Although technically they are literally galling. Stupid language.

Primarily though bile acts as a surfactant, allowing the emulsification and absorption of fats from food.  Without bile, the majority of the fats from food would be excreted in your faeces which as a result would be particularly foul smelling, greasy and difficult to flush. A condition that when it occurs is known as steatorrhoea or colloquially as I’d give that 5 minutes/hours. Perhaps diet-fans (if such a thing could be said to exist outside of people making money from books such as “The Eating Nothing Diet” or “A Moment on the Lips, a Lifetime on the Self-Esteem”) would think it desirable that no fat were to be absorbed and that a horrible case of the toilet Chernobyls is a small price to pay. But fats in the correct amount are of course necessary. For example some vitamins such as D, A, K and E can only be absorbed if dissolved in fat. And vitamins are good right? Especially these ones. If arranged in a certain way they make a word that rhymes with cake! Also health.

To accomplish the thankless task of aiding in fat-absorption bile salts are hydrophilic on one side and hydrophobic on the other side. That is to say at one end they are attracted to water and at the other end they repel it.  This means they gather around droplets of fat from food with the hydrophobic sides facing towards the fat and hydrophilic sides facing outwards.  The resulting structure is referred to as a micelle, not to be confused with a prison for rodents. Not that you would. The outward hydrophilic surface is negatively charged, and as like charges repel each other, prevents the micelles from coming back together like a more disgusting boyband reunion into larger fat particles. With lots of micelles we therefore have a larger surface area for fat digesting enzymes (lipases) to work on, which then break down the fats into fatty acids and monoglycerides for absorption through the intestine walls.

Bile of course isn’t perfect.  The cholesterol in it can form the occasionally unpleasant gallstones and you don’t want to taste it in the back of your throat. Ultimately it has a very important function. Language isn’t going to change to reflect this knowledge and a campaign to make it do so would be strange and ridiculous. This is the case no matter how moving the protest sign “Do not revile, the humble bile.” or how galvanising the chant “We’re appalled, we want accurately described gall, get used to it!” But next time you speak of something as “full of bile” or find something particularly galling, think of the humble bodily fluid and how it keeps you healthy and leaves your bathroom not as bad as it could be. Even if it does taste bitter.

A Fish With No Eye?: The use of labels and language in science.

What am I?

What am I?

A short while ago I did a Skeptics in the Pub (SITP) talk about how as part of a university debating team I was forced to argue that creationism is a science. Don’t judge me, there was a trophy involved. The judges said so.  My SITP talk haphazardly covers if creationism is a science (it isn’t) and if it isn’t (it isn’t) could you go about arguing that it was to the bafflement and delight of the judges of a debate and an increasingly intolerant audience? (I did.) The talk was short and jolly and seemed to go OK.  If you don’t know, SITP is about getting people together in pubs to have a relaxed and enjoyable evening while listening to talks given in a friendly manner on a wide range of topics of sceptical interest. They’re good. You should go. As I understand is usual following the talk there was a short break and then we got to the question and answer section of the evening.

Goodness me.

I think it’s correct to say that the discussion was dominated by a philosophy human with some objections to the scientific nature of evolutionary theory. I say philosophy human because I don’t want to provide a name. I don’t think it would be right as I’m not attacking this individual, just describing the events leading up to the question that made me think. Being made to think is a good thing. I think. Also philosophy human is a good name. Although are all humans philosophy humans? Ah, see it’s working already.

I handled the questions as best I could, which I don’t think was all that well really given that I didn’t really understand what was being asked. Sadly when I asked for an explanation all I got was repetition which as you can imagine didn’t really help. Constantly repeating your point when asked for an explanation doesn’t really help you see. But never mind. I’ve been giving what I think the question was about some thought and thought it was worth vomiting some of this process into a blog post. Well obviously I did. You’re reading it. Sorry.

The main objection to the theory of evolution being scientific was that it can’t begin to explain anything as it doesn’t have any models. If you’re trying to explain the evolution of a fish eye, you first have to identify what a fish eye is. Fish eyes don’t have black lines around them.  It’s very difficult to get properly waterproof mascara that would look good on a fish for a start. If you say something is a fish eye, how do you know you are right? You don’t. There is no and can be no model for it, you can’t even identify what it is you are trying to explain, therefore the theory you are using to try to explain it is not scientific. This is all paraphrased by necessity.

By paraphrased I do not mean that the sentences are attached to parachutes. In this case they might as well be. I am not a qualified philosopher other than by the amount necessary to occasionally consider my own belly button. Thus any attempt I make to understand philosophy is going to be simple and feel to me like plummeting towards an unforgiving ground made of Hume without the ability to deploy a safety aid made of..um..Wittgenstein. Is the challenge to the scientific validity of evolution even philosophy? That’s for the philosophers to decide.

The “problem” posed by philosophy human seems to me to be a problem of the limitations of language. As humans we have to communicate using a language which is essentially a collection of labels originally useful for pointing out where good fruit is or where a beast is attacking from probably.  I can understand what you are saying if the labels you are using match the ones I use agreed upon by an  ironically unspoken consensus. The labels are not the thing itself but if you are an English speaker and I tell you about a badger, there’s a good chance you know what I mean.  In the very least can find out using said agreed upon labels.

So with the fish eye, we can look at the collection of parts within a collection of parts and label them as a fish eye within a fish. Objects which are sufficiently similar can also be named fish eyes and we can set about exploring how it is they developed over evolutionary time. We could just as easily label the fish eye as a “teacup banana” but as long as we all know what these labels refer to then we can study it as an object shaped by evolutionary pressures in a scientific manner.

When I say this about evolution I guess we can do this at the level of the gene, parts of the organism, the organism itself or the species the organism belongs to.  Using this language and the definitions it allows means we can access these incredible facts identified and the incredible explanations based on incredible evidence. And it is all incredible. Some of it you won’t believe your teacup bananas.

Evolution can lead to problems with labelling and the language behind it. Our labels for organisms, species etc can only exist because of the snapshot of time we exist in. If we had every badger that ever lived and every single intermediate organism going from each of those badgers back to the first thing that can legitimately be called alive then the idea of a species with a name becomes a bit difficult. Also we’ll have a serious pile of badger faeces to dispose of.  The parents of the badgers are similar enough to their children to be classed as the same species. The parent badgers  have the same deal with their badger parents and so on and so forth. However if we go back far enough then what we’ve got starts to look so different that we can’t label it as a badger. However at no point was a parent different enough from their children to be classified as a different species. So where do we draw the species line? Well in this scenario we can’t and to an extent the species label becomes meaningless.  My apologies to the taxonomists. Please don’t come at me with your swords and various lengths of knives. This said at this time we still have to use the labels we have so that everyone knows what evidence we are talking about.

It doesn’t make the theories less scientific that the language we have to use is at times imprecise although we of course should try to make our definitions as precise as possible. It doesn’t make the theory less scientific if we have to apply a label to something within that theory. Nobody would understand me if I invented my own definitions and words to apply to things based on my individual understanding of them without translation. Then if I did translate them what would have been the point in making up my own language in the first place? Quite.

I’m not saying it isn’t interesting to talk about the philosophy of what represents an example of something and how we can identify it. However we have to have definitions based on the limitations of our own language so we can usefully explain events using what we can currently classify with empirical evidence.  Is this empirical evidence some platonic ideal in a platonic universe? I don’t platonically know. We have to live in the world as we understand it empirically. I can question how I understand if what I’ve got is a fish eye or a pint of beer all I want. I’m still am not going to drink the fish eye. There are those that might argue it is not the purpose of philosophy to be useful in this real world example. Indeed.

Crazy talk: The language of mental illness stigma

I worry this may be the actual fate of some reality TV contestants.

I worry this may be the actual fate of some reality TV contestants.

 

It’s time to deface music! At the time of writing it was that time of year again. The musically talented and untalented alike had swum upstream (been selected in advance by producers) to spawn (sing a bit on television while people frown/smile at them).

Every Saturday night, millions of televisions blurted the selection of noises, shapes and primary colours that compose Cowell’s Cavalcade of Corporate Crooner Culling into the living rooms of the UK. The name of the particular programme has been changed for many reasons, i.e. x number of factors. During the initial stages of this singing and pointing competition the less-talented among the hopeful masses will be accused of a great many misdeeds. A simple internet search reveals contestants being referred to as dim, attention-seeking nutters, delusional, circus freaks, mad-as-a-box-of-frogs and violently breaking down.

The more astute among you may have noticed that these are intended to be derogatory terms belittling people for not using their vocal cords properly while some music is playing. Additionally these derogatory terms almost universally refer to mental illness in some fashion.

During the 2012 Paralympics, Channel 4 is showing a programme hosted by comedian Adam Hills. (The Last Leg with Adam Hills. It’s a pun, please don’t be wrong-footed. That was another pun (a much worse one). One section of this programme involves Adam discussing with Alex Brooker what you can and cannot say about the Paralympics: a frank discussion about the taboos inevitably involved when discussing disability.

Primarily their advice revolves around the content of speech. “Just don’t be horrible” – a seemingly simple piece of advice that needs to be tattooed backwards across the heads of whoever is writing THOSE comments on YouTube.

Hills and Brooker state that you probably will say the wrong thing and not to panic if you do. An example of such a wrong thing is given (source mercifully not provided): “In the Paralympic equestrian events, is it the horse or the rider who is disabled?”

The point is not to control what you should and shouldn’t say but rather to create an environment where people at least think about what they’re saying before being horrible or downright offensive.

Despite the first paragraph of this blog being about mental illness, I’m not trying to conflate being disabled with being mentally ill. Rather we should note that while people increasingly take care about the language they use to describe the disabled, the same luxury is often not afforded to those with mental illness.

You would correctly frown (I don’t know how you’d incorrectly frown, possibly a problem with your corrugator muscle) about someone with a stubbed toe saying “I’m a little bit crippled”. But you wouldn’t pay the slightest attention to someone tidying their desk saying “I’m a little bit obsessive compulsive.”

I can almost hear the cries of political correctness gone mad. Except if political correctness really had gone mad, we wouldn’t be allowed to use the phrase, political correctness gone mad. Possibly you’d be forced to say political correctness had become a little bit obsessive compulsive.

The casual use of language stigmatising mental illness is exceedingly common. Stigma can be described as a sign of disgrace setting a person apart from others. Erving Goffman, defined stigma as, “the process by which the actions of others spoil normal identity.”  For those with mental illness the stigma experienced can result in a lack of funding for services, difficulty gaining employment, a mortgage or holiday insurance. Ultimately, feelings of stigma cause people to delay seeking help or even deny they have symptoms in the first place.

Casual language used to describe mental illness is decidedly negative. He or she is described as going mad, mental or psycho. Media portrayals reinforce this with images of violence and homicide associated with mental ill health. It was rare to see a discussion concerning the recent shootings in Aurora, Denver, without comments about the shooter’s mental health status.

Even children’s television seems to have gotten in on the act. One study in the British Journal of Psychiatry found that out of a sample of one week of children’s television, 59 out of 128 programmes contained one or more references to mental illness. Terms like “crazy”, “mad” and “losing your mind” were commonly used to denote losing control. Six characters were identified as being consistently portrayed as mentally ill. These characters were almost totally devoid of positive characteristics. I’m not sure if one of these was SpongeBob Squarepants.  Why would a porifera even need trousers? Some sort of body dysmorphia ?

The sign “You don’t have to be crazy to work here but it helps” has become so common that it’s a cliché. People describing themselves as “a bit mad” usually mean that they’ve worn a sparkly hat at some point. Terms like mentalist, psycho, bonkers, insane and barking are thrown around like loose pennies in a conversational washing machine. Look at Terry, the mentalist. He’s bonkers. He’s so drunk he’s gone outside to punch the thunder for annoying the moon. Mad!

An argument could be made that these terms, while technically describing mental illness are not being used to specifically refer to mental illness. Rather they are referring to behaviour which they consider a little out of the ordinary. We can refer to this argument as Gervais’s Gambit. The problem is that if this language is making people with mental illness feel stigmatised, ashamed and isolated then the amount of thought behind it as it is used casually is largely irrelevant.

If you are so attached to using a word you don’t want to put any thought behind it before you use it that’s fine. I am more than happy for you to take your dictionary on a romantic weekend away if you promise to use your technical definitions in private without hurting anyone. “But nobody I know has complained about me using this language.” Well no, perhaps the people you know with mental illness are too worried you’ll call them crazy and laugh at their inability to sing.

And you will know somebody with mental illness. With estimates of one in four (most likely higher) people being affected it would defy statistics if you didn’t. And only Benjamin Disraeli is allowed to defy statistics. Ultimately people are not going to stop using these terms stigmatising mental illness. It could be argued that at least one comment I’ve made during this article does just that. They are as entrenched in language as the saying of “lol” is instead of actually laughing. As a side note, shouldn’t people who say lol instead of laughing, write it as lolol to describe laughing?

Like the thought that should go into that distracting parody of text speak, it would be enough that people thought about what they are trying to express and whom they will hurt. Especially as it’s likely to be someone close to them. You can still make your jokes and use the words, but consider whether another word might do and who you may hurt beforehand. Perhaps then we can move towards a frank and honest dialogue about mental illness and away from the disgrace and stigma.

The Royal College of Psychiatrists along with mental health charities Mind and Rethink Mental Illness have produced a video explaining more about mental illness discrimination and how you can support the proposed mental health (discrimination) bill.

That and some consideration before you describe your busy weekend as mental, would go some way to reduce mental illness stigma. I don’t think I’m crazy to think that would be a good thing.