Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Predicting the Future

We all predict the future. When we read a story, educators tell us that we are unconsciously trying to guess what comes next in the story. It’s part of the fun of reading. Sometimes the author will give us hints about what is coming next such as using the writing technique of foreshadowing.

Here is an example of how the average person might make a prediction. Someone buys an old, used car. A friend says, "You just wasted your money. It’ll break down within the year (prediction). You would have done better buying a new one." We are not only good at making a lot of predictions we are also good at covering our tracks when the prediction doesn’t pan out. If the car is purring along after a year, the friend might say, "Of course, it lasted longer than a year. You took better care of it than most people." After two years, the friend might be saying, "Well, I guess you just got lucky and got a better-than-average care." Very few people would say, "I was flat wrong about my prediction because your car is still running."

Of course, we mortals act like this. That’s because we are not professional prognosticators. We all know that the pros do a much better job at making predictions. That is why they are interviewed for the knowledge they have to share.

Oops, maybe they aren’t all that good. Several years ago, a psychologist decided to check out how well professional forecasters actually do. Philip Tetlock is a professor at the Haas School of Business in Berkeley. He decided to find out if experts who actually made their living in the field of politics and economics could predict events accurately in their field of study. He found people who regularly offered advice and made public comments on a variety of trends in their specific fields of expertise. He chose 284 experts to study. Over the course of the study, the experts had made an amazing total of 82,361 forecasts.

Let’s see how these experts did. Would you pass the envelope, please. Okay, let’s look at the results of these super mortals. Oh — something must be wrong here. The results are unimpressive. Did they do only slightly better than you or I would have done? No. Did they do the same as Jane and John Doe might have done. Nope. Omagosh. They actually did worse than the average person would have done by just guessing.

The study also found that the more the experts knew the less reliable they were at guessing what would happen to the world in the future. Dr. Tetlock explained this by saying, "We reach the point of diminishing marginal predictive returns for knowledge disconcertingly quickly. . . . In this age of academic hyperspecialization, there is no reason for supposing that contributors to top journals—distinguished political scientists, area study specialists, economists, and so on—are any better than journalists or attentive readers of the New York Times in ‘reading’ emerging situations." This study also showed that forecasters who were well known would have exaggerated confidence in their forecasts. He concluded that "Experts in demand were more overconfident than their colleagues who eked out existences far from the limelight."

This is terrible. Why do our experts do so poorly? The best guess is based on human nature. People love to be right but hate being wrong. So, when we make a guess (forecast) we "fall in love" with our choice. No matter how it turns out we stick with the choice, justifying it right to the bitter end. This seems to be exactly what plagued the experts.

You would think that really smart people would learn from their mistakes. Even though experts are smarter than most of us, they are also human and subject to the thinking errors that affect all humans. One (of the many) thinking errors that might explain why smart people don’t learn from their failed predictions is called confirmation bias. This error describes how most people tend to dismiss new information that doesn’t fit with what they already believe. So if experts really believe their predictions actually come true most of the time, then they will automatically refuse to accept the failures.

Other psychologists think that maybe too much information may also be a handicap for accurate predictions. By having more information than the rest of us, an expert can marshal more facts to support her predictions. Although these predictions may be more appealing to the average person, they are still subject to the same failure rate.

Even when a prediction does come true, an expert will believe they had made the prediction with a great amount of certainty. Dr. Tetlock found out this did not match the data they had collected. In other words the experts were actually more tentative prior to the prediction than what they thought after the predicted event.

This also happens to people who believe they have special powers to see into the future, like psychics. Years ago, a young woman contacted me to tell me that she had precognitive dreams. For example, she would dream about a terrible tragedy like an airplane crash prior to it actually happening. After she gave me some very impressive examples, I suggested she write down the details of her next tragedy dream immediately upon waking in the morning. After writing down the details, she was to seal the paper in an envelope and mail it to me immediately. She called me a few weeks later and excitedly told me about a dream she had about an accident that had killed many people. When she read about it a few days later all the details in her dream matched the newspaper account. I had her come to my office and we opened her letter together. She was surprised, shocked and disappointed with what she had written. The information was not even close to the event in the newspaper. Her mind had tricked her with something called retrograde memory. As she read about the accident in the newspaper the information went into that part of her brain that held long-term memory. As she tried to recall what she had dreamed, the dream details were replaced with the actually details.

How about those of us who buy into the predictions made by other people? Why would we be so gullible? There are many factors that make it more likely we will do this. One reason is that people tend to be more willing to believe information that has a lot of detail. One study asked people which of two health policies they might choose. The first policy covered their hospital expenses for any reason. The second policy also covered their hospitalization expenses for all diseases and accidents. Even though the coverage on these policies were identical, most people said they would be willing to pay a higher insurance premium for the second policy. More detail. This might mean we are more likely to accept a prediction if it has a lot of details instead of one that is less descriptive.

All of this is to say that people should be cautious about making decisions. A few years a really smart person made the mistake of making his prediction public. William Dembski is a Ph.D. mathematician who did not understand the pitfalls of predictions. Oddly enough, even though he teaches in an academic setting, he is a vocal critic of Darwin and evolution. He believes that evolution will never be able to answer how life evolved on our planet and is a strong supporter of something called Intelligent Design. He was so confident in his beliefs that he wagered a bottle of single-malt scotch about the truth of his beliefs. He publicly said that if the issue of teaching evolution or Intelligent Design in schools should ever go to trial, Intelligent Design would win hands down. Then the Dover trial took place. Intelligent Design was thoroughly dismissed (by a conservative judge) as an acceptable subject for school biology classes. Like many prognosticators, Dr. Dembski will not admit defeat. Evidently he has never given away that bottle of single-malt scotch.

Another smart person is more humble. Paul Krugman, the 2008 Nobel Prize winner in economics and a professor at Princeton University, says that "making predictions is hard … especially about the future, and sometimes about the recent past." Even that great philosopher about life, Yogi Berra, agreed with Dr. Krugman when he said, "It’s tough to make predictions, especially about the future."

If you are interested in the book from which much of this material was taken, it is called "Expert Political Judgment: How Good is it? How Can we Know?" (2005), Princeton University Press.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Science Doesn't Know Everything

Have you ever heard someone say that science doesn’t know everything? I hear it often when a someone is trying to explain something based on science. A listener may nod sagely and respond with the above observation. For example, at a party someone mentions they have found that psychics are really good at what they do. Eventually, someone else will say there is absolutely no scientific evidence that psychics can do what they claim to do: talk to dead people, read the future, know something private about someone they have never met. The person who finds psychics helpful will retort that it doesn’t make any difference that science doesn’t support psychics because "science doesn’t know everything."

This actually is a correct statement. Every scientist I have known has readily admitted that as a scientist they cannot explain everything. Not even close to everything. Why would a smart scientist admit such a thing? Doesn’t this just bolster the notion that science is not such a big deal after all? Even the great Einstein said, "The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and all science. He to whom this emotion is a stranger, who can no longer pause to wonder and stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead: his eyes are closed."

Wow! How could such a hard-headed egghead make such an admission? It’s because the job of science is to probe the mysteries of life and the universe. Science is always wandering into areas that are not understood or not yet explained. They can do this because the tools they use are the most powerful ever developed by the human mind. Who would have ever thought that we would even attempt to try understand emotions such as love or even the nature of consciousness? Yet, this is what psychologists around the world attempt to understand daily.

But, since science can’t explain everything, doesn’t this take the glow off the adoration that people have towards science? Not really. The average person loves absolutes, but science does not deal in the absolute. Instead of concentrating on "everything" what if we were to emphasize what science can actually explain. Think about what humans did not know before the advent of science about 400 years ago.

Contributions of Science
Here are some discovers made by scientists in the early years:

  • Johannes Kepler (1609) was able to figure out that the planets in our solar system had orbits that were elliptical. Prior to this everyone knew (because Aristotle said so) that the orbits were circular.

  • William Harvey (1628) found out how blood was circulated through the body. His discovery was the beginning of modern physiology.

  • Robert Boyle (1661) made an important distinction between alchemy and chemistry. He introduced the concept of earth’s building blocks, the elements, and helped found the new science of chemistry.

  • Isaac Newton (1687) revolutionized how we understood our world. He was able to show us that natural laws exist in nature. For example, the three laws of motion and the law of universal gravitation.

  • Edmund Halley (1758) was the first person to accurately predict the appearance of a specific comet.

  • Joseph Priestley (1774) found out through the scientific method that the air we breath is made up of oxygen and carbon dioxide.

  • Richard Trevithick (1804) was able to use the principles of science to invent the steam locomotive.

  • Michael Faraday (1823) was the first person who was able to turn a liquid into a gas.

  • Friedrich Wilhelm Essel (1838) used science to shrink the size of our solar system by finding out that a star, 61 Cygni, turned out to be 35 quadrillion miles away. It is so far that it takes six years for the star’s light to reach us.

  • Hermann Ludwig Ferdinand von Helmholtz (1847) gathered enough scientific data to show that the total amount of energy in the universe was constant. This came to be known as the law of conservation of energy and was later called the first law of thermodynamics.

  • Charles Darwin (1858) published The Origen of Species which rocked the world of science and became the basis for a new biology. Some scientists consider his painstaking data collection and conclusions to be the equivalent of the accomplishments of the great Isaac Newton.

  • William Huggins (1863) discovered that everything was made up of the same elements.

  • Alexander Graham Bell (1876) invented the telephone.

  • Charles-Louis-Alphonse Laveran (1880) isolated the microorganism that causes malaria.

This is an incredibly small sampling of what science discovered in its first two hundred years. From then on the scientific discoveries came faster and faster. The speed of light was measured at 186,000 miles per second. The bacterium that caused tuberculosis was found. A vehicle was designed to be driven by internal combustion. More elements were discovered. Science found out about radio waves.

You get the idea. We haven’t even listed any discoveries of the twentieth century. You may want to think of the contributions that science made in the last hundred years. As you make your list, you will notice that the rate of discovery is accelerating.

The Power of Prediction
Anyone can make predictions. And many have tried. Market analysts are constantly making predictions about what direction the market will take. Some religious people love to predict the end of the earth. Psychics make predictions of what will happen in the future: meeting someone to fall in love with; natural disasters; what is going to happen to famous people in the next year.
It only takes a few minutes of reflection to realize how inaccurate nonscientific predictions are. If you listen to the talking heads on the financial channels you will quickly notice that everyone contradicts everyone else. One says the market will soar in the next year, while the next expert says we will have a financial melt down.

Christianity has a long list of dates when momentous events were supposed to happen but didn’t. One of the favorite predictions by "end times" Christians is the date of the world’s end (the rapture): a dozen predictions were made that 1988 would be the year of earth’s demise. Even the great apostle Paul predicted that Jesus would return in his lifetime.

For many years an acquaintance of mine would cull all the tabloids on January 1st in order to list all the predictions psychics made for the coming year. On December 31, he would publish the predictions. Year after year, every psychic failed to make a single prediction that came true. Yet, year after year people continue to be amazed at the non-predictions of psychics.

Only scientists consistently make accurate predictions. Of course they cannot do this with 100% accuracy because the data they use is sometimes faulty or skimpy. What other group or institution could predict within minutes the sunrise for any date in the distant future? What other group devised a tool that can predict—with an 87 accuracy—which newlywed couple will divorce? What other non-scientific organization can accurately determine the age of the earth and its moon?

The answer, of course, is that only scientists can accomplish these amazingly difficult tasks. Many other organizations have attempted through the millennia to explain how nature works. Philosophers have debated and disagreed among themselves how things are. Theologians try to explain life but have no data to back it up so find themselves fractured and disagreeing vigorously between each other.

Since the dawning of humans on our planet people have tried many methods to discover the truth about life and the world in which we live. Humans have tried to increase knowledge by an appeal to authority and this works sometimes. However, smart authority figures still make mistakes because of the biases built into the human brain. This may explain why so many intelligent people will follow the lead of a powerful figure: Jim Jones and Adolf Hitler are only two examples of the power of authority. Authority figures usually have a public platform they can use to constantly pass on ideas and information to their followers. the problem with this is that experiments have shown us that simply repeating a false statement over and over leads people to believe that it is true. Accepting the words of an authority figure must be done cautiously.

Societies have used tradition to establish what we must believe and how we must behave. One problem with tradition is that each new generation wants to put its own stamp on the traditions of their elders. This introduces differences between the old traditions and the new traditions. Another problem is that each culture has its own tradition. No matter how revered the traditions are they often contradict one another — they can’t all be right.

Humans love to decide what is right and true by attending to testimonials. This is why advertising relies so heavily on testimonials. Robert Cialdini, a social psychologist and author of the powerful book Influence, discovered that people make decisions on what to believe or how to act by looking at what other people believe. If they know or like the other person they are even more likely to be persuaded to adopt the other person’s beliefs. Advertising has made us cynical because we all know that famous people are paid enormous sums of money to say what the advertiser wants them to say. Nevertheless, testimonials still convince people to believe the unbelievable.

In more recent times, humans have turned to majority opinion to determine what is right. Although this works sometimes, we have also discovered what is called the "tyranny of the majority"—when a majority of people decide that wrong is right. Slavery is an excellent example of majority opinion going down the wrong path.

Faith is another method for determining what is right and good. Yet even faith has its limitations. Since faith is defined as "the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen," each person or group of individuals can believe what they want without any evidence to back it up. Some people believe that God will heal their sick child even when the parents avoid any medical intervention. This kind of faith almost always ends in disaster and grief. As philosophers often disagree, people of faith disagree, sometimes violently, with people of a differing faith. To guard against someone else’s faith interfering with their own, many people declare that their faith is the only true faith. When thousands of groups demand that their version of faith is right (orthodox) and all other faiths are heretical, something must be amiss. How can everyone be right at the same that everyone is wrong?

A more recent style of discovering truth is the use of personal experience. Have you ever heard someone say, "I don’t care what the evidence is, I know what I believe." People who believe they have seen or experienced a UFO from somewhere outside our solar system or galaxy use this method a lot. "You can tell me all you want about how impossible it is for someone that far away to get to our planet, but you can’t convince me that I didn’t experience it." If personal experience is the final word, we are all in trouble. It only takes two people to be in the same location for a disagreement to arise. With six billion people on planet earth, there is a lot of divergent experience.

All of these methods for finding knowledge are flawed in that they have extremely high error rates. When the scientific method became a viable option, people realized that science was now the method with the lowest error rate. Though not perfect, science has reduced human error dramatically. Scientists are trained to put aside all the above methods for increasing knowledge.

When they do this (even though they also can slip up) the results are stunning. What other organization of people have given us the wonders of modern medicine? No other group. What other collection of humans have discovered how the world operates? There aren’t any. Science is the only organization that has made any significant contribution towards increased life expectancy. Science alone has shown us how vast our universe is. Only science can explain the microscopic world of molecules, atoms and leptons. Will power and determination did not land people on the moon — scientists did that.

More importantly, only science is willing to say, "we were wrong" because that is the nature of science. By definition every scientist is supposed to be skeptical of the work of all other scientists. Science is not a method driven by opinion, faith, authority, or majority vote. No association of scientists voted on whether or not to believe in gravity. The secret of science’s amazing productivity is the reliance on what the evidence says. When scientists disagree it is because the evidence is not yet complete.

Science doesn’t know everything and never will. Science is based on understanding the unknown by letting the unknown speak forth its truths. Once the unknown is known the scientist moves on to the next unknown. Why will science never finish its job? The editors of The Encyclopedia of Ignorance wrote, "Compared to the pond of knowledge, our ignorance remains atlantic. Indeed the horizon of the unknown recedes as we approach it." This is the job of science—to light candles in the darkness of our ignorance.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Cosmology and the Bible

If you are not familiar with the word cosmology, it merely means the the study of the origin and nature of the universe.

From the very beginning, the Bible teaches that we live in a three-tiered universe. We find this idea in the story of creation. And God said, Let there be a firmament in the midst of the waters, and let it divide the waters from the waters. (Genesis 1:6)

The original readers of these words, the Hebrews, understood this to mean that the earth was like a hemisphere floating on a giant body of water. The firmament was a solid, arched vault that sat over the earth. It had several functions: it supported a reservoir of water (Psalms. 148:4); it also supported the stars; and it was the dividing line between heaven and earth. In this solid dome were windows and doors that let moisture fall to earth in the form of rain and snow (Genesis. 7:11; Isaiah. 24:18; Malachi. 3:10).

Ancient people had no idea of the vast distances in our solar system, let alone the universe. They thought the firmament was close enough that birds could fly to it and cruise along its underside. The writer of the Book of Baruch adds additional details to the tower of Babel story. He said the people who built the tower (or ziggurat) wanted to find out what the firmament was made of: clay, brass, or iron. When they reached it their intent was to poke a hole in it (3 Baruch 3:7-8). Sounds like an early scientific experiment. Since God wouldn’t allow them to mess with his creation, he caused them to go blind and scrambled their brains.

Without modern technology and mathematics, people believed that God and other divine beings such as the angels lived above the firmament (The Lord is high over all nations, and his glory is higher than the heavens.—Psalm 113:4). Below the earth was a dark, watery place of chaos (The great dragon was hurled down—that ancient serpent called the Devil.—Revelation 12:9). Over the millennia, people have always assumed God lived "up there." People refer to the "Man Upstairs" and will raise their eyes or point upward when speaking of God. A familiar hymn sung in churches is titled "Glory to God in the Highest."

In this day and age we know that God doesn’t sit on a throne above the heavens. If you travel high enough you won’t be bumping into any angels flitting about. Many Christians have even began to wonder about Jesus ascending into the clouds. Even though the writer of Luke told two different stories (one in the Gospel of Luke, the other in the Acts of the Apostles) about how Jesus left his disciples, Christian tradition has always focused on the first story — that Jesus was bodily lifted into the sky on his journey to heaven. Contemporary Christians question this story. Even if Jesus had been able to travel at the speed of light in his journey to heaven, two thousand years later, he would not even have left our galaxy.

Does this mean that Christians today know better than our ancestors long ago? Have Christians stopped thinking that God lives "up there?" As I’ve mentioned before, psychologists like to try to find answers to human questions. Psychologists from Gettysburg College and North Dakota State University wondered if people still thought of God as being above the earth. Or in their words, did people "consistently employ descriptions of vertical space in both Christian and non-Christian religions?" The researchers also recognized that most people thought of the Devil as being "down there."

They devised a clever experiment to find out if people associated God with "up" and the Devil with "down." They did this by showing a series of four God-related words (Almighty, Creator, Deity, and Lord) and four Devil-related words (Antichrist, Demon, Lucifer, and Satan) on a computer monitor. The total of eight words were randomly shown either at the top of the monitor or near the bottom of the monitor. When the word appeared the subjects were supposed to indicate whether it was God related or Devil related. Sometimes the God words appeared near the top and sometimes near the bottom of the monitor. Likewise for the Devil-related words.

The researchers were not interested in whether or not people assigned the words to the correct category — God or Devil. They measured how quickly each person responded. The psychologists guessed that people would take longer to assign a word to the correct category if the word were in a mismatched space, namely, a God word at the bottom or a Devil word at the top.

The results verified what they thougth would happen. The subjects took longer to match the God word when it was at the bottom than when it appeared at the top. Here is how they explain their results.

It seems that our results are consistent with religious symbolism and ritual. Preachers, priests, or ministers often speak to their congregations from an elevated platform known as the pulpit. This practice intentionally or unintentionally builds on the sorts of perceptual representational processes examined here, with a higher vertical position suggesting a closer relationship to God.
Our data are also consistent with the frequent observation, in anecdotes at least, that higher realms of attention seem to promote experiences of closeness to God. Along these lines, it has been reported that military pilots and astronauts tend to have experiences of God when flying high above the earth Similarly . . . an upward eye gaze is generally associated with experiences of being closer to God. Such systematic links seem particularly amenable to conceptions of divinity emphasizing high regions of vertical space.
The authors of the study explain the reason people do this is because our brains have a mechanism for using metaphors for describing something that is not directly accessible to our senses. The human brain is a sensory-based organ. Consequently, when we need to describe and make sense of abstract concepts, we need to use metaphors to make sense of what we are attempting to communicate. Since nothing supernatural can be perceived through our five senses, humans need to use metaphors for describing God or the Devil. That is why humans use metaphors such as "up" to describe something as ineffable as God.

A final note. The study did not find as strong a relationship between Devil and "down" as it did between God and "up." The data also found no significant differences in performance between believers and nonbelievers.

If you want to read the original study, you can go to the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (2007, Volume 93, Number 5, pages 699-710). I can also send you a copy of the article in PDF format if you send your request to terry@sandbek.com.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Cleanliness Is Not Next to Godliness

As a doctor and waiting-woman eavesdrop on Lady Macbeth, they have the following whispered conversation followed by Lady Macbeth's immortal words.

What is it she does now? Look how she rubs her hands.

It is an accustom’d action with her, to seem thus washing her hands. I have known her continue in this a quarter of an hour.

Lady Macbeth:
Yet here’s a spot.

Hark, she speaks. I will set down what comes from her, to satisfy my remembrance the more strongly.

Lady Macbeth:
Out, damn’d spot! out, I say!—One; two: why, then ‘tis time to do’t.—Hell is murky.—Fie, my lord, fie, a soldier, and afeard? What need we fear who knows it, when none can call our pow’r to accompt?—Yet who would have thought the old man to have had so much blood in him?

Macbeth Act 5, scene 1, 26–40

Today, we call it mysophobia — an irrational fear of contamination. Lady Macbeth had developed an obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). It is a common after someone who has experienced or witnessed a traumatic event. Although there was a time delay for her, she was the one who convinced her husband, Macbeth to murder King Duncan of Scotland. By so doing, she became Queen of Scotland. Eventually, the awareness of what she had done began take its toll on her. The excerpt above is from the famous scene (Act 5 of Shakespeare's play Macbeth) and typifies the agony of living with OCD.

I still remember when my new client walked into my office many years ago. Moving slowly so that she would not brush against anything, she carefully wiped off a place on the couch with a tissue she kept in her purse. During the interview she admitted that she used up two large spray cans of Lysol in her house every week.

She was deathly afraid of germs contaminating her body, Like Lady Macbeth, she never really saw what she desperately tried so hard to clean. Education had no effect on her compulsive behavior. She was an intelligent person who understood that her body contained about 100 trillion cells. She also knew that ninety percent of these cells belonged to bacteria (germs) living in and on her body. When she recounted these facts, she curled up in a ball, closed her eyes and looked like she was attempting to hide from the germs.

As a nation we now have people who, although they don’t have mysophobia or OCD, have gone overboard on cleanliness. As the twentieth century progressed, Americans became more consciously aware and afraid of uncleanliness. Maybe it all started with deodorant and mouthwash. Although originally cosmetic, their effectiveness had to do with being able to kill "germs." Most people had never heard of anti-bacterial soap ten years ago. If they did, it was because of its use in medical facilities.

Gradually this product made its way to the average consumer. Now these products can be found in any drug store or grocery store. The big jump in usage came in 2005. People spent more than sixty-five million dollars on sanitizers which was a jump of more than fifty-four percent from only the year before.

Microbiologists have become concerned about our obsession with killing germs because our bodies need bacteria for a variety of reasons. These good germs and bugs help us digest and use the nutrition in the foods we eat. They also protect us from bad bugs that get into our bodies. Microbiologists have determined that if you could become totally germ-free, you would be dead within two weeks.

We need to begin to have a balance in our lives regarding cleanliness. Appropriate hygiene is important but knowing where to draw the line is equally important. Dr. Anne Maczulak, a microbiologist, has written a book entitled The Five-Second Rule and Other Myths About Germs.
Some of her gems (not germs) are startling. One of the big questions many people think about is related to the use of public toilet seats. She says it is extremely difficult to catch a disease from toilet seats. Studies have shown that there are about fifty microbes per square inch of surface on a public toilet seat. Your average office has about 21,000 microbes per square inch of surface. Scary.

She also says it is important what you do with your hands. After using the bathroom you are advised to wash your hands with soap and warm water for about twenty seconds. This will kill about eighty percent of any dangerous germs. On the other hand (no pun intended) try to keep your hands away from your face until after you have washed your hands. Why? Because these are the openings in your face — eyes, nose and mouth — that the germs use to get inside your body.

You’ve probably read by now that your kitchen cutting board is a breeding ground for the bad guys. After using a cutting board, she suggests you wash it with hot, soapy water, rinse it well, then pat it with a paper towel and let it air dry. Why go to so much trouble? She points to studies that have shown the average cutting board has two hundred times more fecal bacteria than your toilet seat. More scary.

For many people in our society, the old saying that "cleanliness is next to Godliness" has now been converted to "cleanliness is next to perfection." Basically, Dr. Maczulak tries to convince us that perfect cleanliness is not only impossible but is harmful.

Back to OCD and mysophobia. What is this all about? The condition is generally maintained by an attempt to control anxiety and discomfort. If a person feels uncomfortable in the presence of dirt or invisible germs, he might feel better after cleaning. Once this happens, it can escalate. When the anxiety returns, the person believes that if he doesn’t clean, then the anxiety will get worse and last forever. Unfortunately, it is like taking drugs to feel better. The effectiveness eventually wears off and more cleaning is needed to get the same sense of relief.

How do psychologists treat this problem when it has evolved into OCD/mysophobia? Our current treatments are quite effective. Unfortunately, there are people who try to sell treatments that are unproven and may not be any more effective than a placebo. Some of the more common examples of unproven therapies include hypnotherapy, neuro-linguistic programming, and so-called "energy therapies."

Cognitive-behavior therapy and exposure therapy have proven track records and have helped millions of people lead more normal lives. Sometimes these two are used by themselves; other times they are used in conjunction with each other. These treatments are extremely effective and, if properly administered, work after just a few months.

Some people have been helped with SSRI antidepressant medications used along side of psychological therapy. However, you must understand that few people get a permanent cure using these drugs by themselves. There is also the problem of unwanted side effects.

So, if you know of someone suffering from mysophobia or OCD related to germs and dirt, contact an experienced cognitive behavior psychologist who has had experience with this problem.

Friday, April 10, 2009

What’s Good About Good Friday?

First, a little history. According to the New Testament, Good Friday honors the crucifixion of Jesus. Most scholars accept Friday as the day of his death yet point out various problems in the stories as told by the four Gospels.

For example, The narration in the book of Mark says that Jesus was betrayed at the darkest point of the night, namely around midnight. When Jesus was arrested he was dragged before the Chief priests for a trial that presumably lasted until 3:00 a. m. Bible scholars struggle with this fact because no pious Jewish priest would have done such a thing because Jewish authorities were forbidden by the Torah to sit in judgment at night.

Since Mark tells us that "all of his disciples forsook him and fled," there would have been nobody around to tell anyone the details of Jesus’ final hours. So where did Mark get his information? How then did Mark know what happened after the disciples ran away?

Many Bible scholars suggest that Mark created these events from passages in the Old Testament (which would have been known as the Hebrew Scriptures). Perhaps, it is suggested, Mark used a phrase from Psalm 22 to put on the lips of the dying Jesus: "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me." He gets other ideas from this same Psalm. When he relates the story of Jesus being thirsty, he uses verses fourteen and fifteen. Mark tells us the Roman soldiers divided up his garments by using information from Psalm 22:18.

Then he uses ideas from the 53rd chapter of the book of Isaiah. Mark noticed that Isaiah wrote aboaut a Suffering Servant who "was numbered with the transgressors" (v. 12). This gave him the idea to write about two thieves being crucified with Jesus. The section about the rich man, Joseph of Arimathea, may have been inspired by Isaiah, in verse 9, which said the Suffering Servant was "with a rich man in his death."

And so it goes. The other three Gospels were written decades after Mark’s gospel and, except for John, copied a lot from Mark. Luke also takes material from Isaiah. He noted that in Isaiah 53:12 the Servant made a petition to God regarding the transgressors. Luke then has Jesus speaking from the cross to God about the cruelty of the soldiers, "Father, forgive them for they know not what they do" (Luke 23:34).

So what does this have to do with psychology? Psychologists learned long ago that when people tell their story in therapy, the literal words are often a screen for deeper truths. For example, if a client were to relate the horror of reading about the terrible abuse of someone when they were a child, the client might be (but not always) trying to talk about her own abuse as a child. Deep truths are sometimes not on the surface of communication.

Many contemporary Christians and Biblical scholars believe that the Gospels are not about literal and historical truth. Rather, they believe that the stories point to something deeper and more meaningful than mere history. Unfortunately, other Christians are appalled at the idea that the Bible is not literally true.

Psychologists (also novelists and poets) would say that literal truth has severe restrictions. That is why great literature is not merely about the story that is being told. If any of you have taken literature classes in school, you know that you were encouraged to dig deeply into a story to find out what the author was trying to say through metaphor and other literary devices.

You were also taught that literary devices within a story are the most effective methods an author can use to get her point across to the reader. Some of these devices include figurative language, irony, allusion, simile. You may have discovered this took a lot of work. It would have been easier to just be satisfied with the literal story. For some of you, the light began to dawn and you found that literary and philosophical treasures could be found underneath the literal words.

The writers of the gospel stories were intelligent people who knew how to use literary devices to tell a powerful story. They were not literal historians whose only purpose was to record dry facts about Jesus. Their mission was much more profound than that. Jesus was not expected to die like a common criminal. When this happened, his followers were stunned and confused. It took years to figure out what his death meant. Each writer tried to express in mere words the seemingly inexpressible. Their words made use of literary devices to convey what simple facts were incapable of doing.

We still do this today. When we have had a profound, life-changing experience, we must resort to literary devices to convey to other people what really happened to us. We may struggle with finding the right words or phrases. This is why therapy can often be hard work. It can be an attempt to pass on to another person what is wholly subjective and personal to the person trying to tell their story.

Bible scholars realized these stories were more than just stories because the truths they were trying to explain were often beyond human understanding. To illustrate this point, look at all the different ways Christians disagree on what the Bible means. If it were as simple as an historical story, everyone could agree and Christians would be one big happy family.

As people, we are continually trying to figure out what life is all about. We are born with a brain that has no prior knowledge of how things are. We spend our entire lives learning, understanding, questioning. This is what gives life such richness. The more we probe beneath the surface of everyday existence, the more we discover the awesomeness (to borrow a currently over-used word) and depth of existence.

Oh yes, what about the title? Today is Good Friday 2009. As I thought about the day, I was reminded of what someone told me many years ago. He asked, "Why do they call it Good Friday? Shouldn’t it be called Bad Friday? After all, that’s when Jesus was killed. Doesn’t sound so good to me."

It all depends on your perspective. If you are a devout Christian, then I suppose Good Friday is all about Jesus dying for your sins. If you are a nonbeliever, then Good Friday gives you a three-day weekend.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Weight Loss

Some circumstances beyond human control have caused people to experience drastic weight loss. For example illness, extreme exercise (forced marches), imprisonment, famine, wars and religious fasting have caused people to lose weight.

Losing weight was not good for the survival of the human race. Long ago, people who lost too much weight did not survive long enough to pass on their genes. People who were better at keeping their bellies full were able to more effectively pass on their genes to later generations.

This is our heritage — to eat more than we need so that we can survive times of famine and food scarcity. We are programmed to eat this way. The only problem is that in the world of today, famine is a rare occurrence. We have become so efficient at making food available, even people with limited financial means can stay alive by eating enough. Our brains have gotten us to eat more than we need by making it one of the more pleasurable human pastimes.

In the course of history, eating has become associated with many other human activities. In the ancient world, offering food and drink to a stranger was a form of hospitality that almost had the force of law. Today, holidays are often spent with family and friends and enormous amounts of food. We eat with people we want to know; we eat with others as a way of staying connected; we offer food to people as a way of showing gratitude; food is often provided at meetings and conferences. Food has become the hub of social activities. Eating has become a social event.

For many people, hunger is merely a momentary sensation prior to filling our stomachs. Eating has recently become a habit that successfully takes away personal discomfort like boredom and loneliness. We have become a people who eat any time we want. Food is everywhere. The workplace is often filled with snacks. When we stay at a hotel, breakfast is often provided the next morning. We can find food at gas stations. Snack machines are conveniently available as we travel our nation’s roads.

So now we are told that we have an obesity epidemic. Nearly sixty years ago, thirty-one percent of the population thought they needed to lose weight. Today, fifty-eight percent think they need to lose weight. The irony is that half of us want to lose but less than a third of us really try to lose weight.

It gets even stranger — two-thirds of people who are trying to take off the pounds have no plan in mind for how they are going to pull it off. There is definitely a disconnect between our wanting to lose weight and our actual willingness to put the effort into it.

One of the major components of our super-sizing population is less and less exercise. Extreme athletes can consume thousands of calories a day and not gain weight. Without exercise as a weight control component, our metabolism slows down which means we have to eat less food.

Eating less makes our brain think we are in a famine and slows our metabolism down even more. At some point we just give in and start eating again which makes it even worse because our body has now adjusted itself to fewer calories.

Solving overweight problems can be complex. The contribution of psychology has been to show people how to manage their thought life regarding eating. Since our behaviors are often controlled and maintained by our self-talk, we need to understand what we say to ourselves when we try to eat more healthy. Dieters often sabotage their eating plans with continual mythological monologues.

  • If I don’t get rid of this hunger right now, I just won’t be able to stand the discomfort.
  • Since I have done so well with my eating this week, I’ll reward myself on the weekend with the food I didn’t allow myself to eat during the week.
  • If I just eat until I feel full, then I won’t overeat.
  • I’ve had such a rotten day that I deserve to feel better by eating.
  • I don’t want to diet any more because it’s too painful.
I call these self statements myths because they are not true. Can you spot the distortions in these beliefs? To be successful in losing weight these Voice messages must be defeated and replaced with a perspective that is more in line with reality. Here some examples of replacement thoughts that successful eaters have used.
  • I really enjoy the feeling of accomplishment at the end of the day when I have stuck to my eating plan.
  • I have other methods for defeating hunger instead of not following my plan.
  • My body is programmed to overeat, therefore I must use my brain to overcome this programming.
  • Instead of using food as a reward, I have a long list of non-food rewards I can earn by following my plan.
  • The longer I am successful, the easier it gets.

These "affirmations" are not very effective until you have cleaned out the mental garbage in your brain. The best sequence is to follow Voice fighting with affirmations. Realistic self-talk is a powerful tool for anyone who is trying to change their behavior.

Friday, April 3, 2009

Healthy Painful Emotions

Ms. Anonymous sent a comment to my post on Six Unhealthy Emotions. Obviously I don’t know the gender of Ms. Anonymous so I will pretend it is female.

Normally, I would not allow this comment to be published. As I’ve mentioned before, I would like to publish all your comments to any post. However, the requirement is that you sign your name for it to be published. If you would rather not so, your comment will not be published. Instead of not having a response to your anonymous comment, you would be better off sending me a personal email message at terry@sandbek.com.

With that said, I decided to post a response to Ms. Anonymous because the confusion implied by her comment may be common for others of you. Here is what she said: "There are not only six unhealthy emotions. three are left out...anger, jealousy, and lust. and envy. thats four that were forgotten and i think should be included."

There are two kinds of painful emotions: healthy and unhealthy. You can review this concept in the previous article on the subject. If you have a copy of The Worry Free Life, you can review this material in Chapter Three. If you don’t have the book yet, you can also read Chapter Three online by clicking this link.

I would like to address the idea of healthy emotional pain. To do that we need to understand that our emotions exist within the package of thoughts and behavior. All emotions are preceded by some type of thought process (even thought you may not be aware of it) and followed by a behavior (active or inactive).

One of the major differences between your healthy painful emotions and the unhealthy painful ones is the different paths they take. The unhealthy painful emotions will propel you down a path of self-destruction and a life of misery. The healthy painful emotions are the warning bells that remind you that life can be painful but built within that pain is the means to manage and cope with it. Although there many healthy, painful emotions, fortunately there are only six unhealthy ones.

Let’s take a closer look at the comment by Ms. Anonymous. She believes that anger, jealousy, lust and envy are unhealthy emotions. This is a common misunderstanding. They certainly seem unhealthy. Don’t we have anger management classes for people because anger can be so destructive? Isn’t jealousy called the "green-eyed monster?" Aren’t we taught that lust and envy are emotions to be avoided?

The only way to make sense of the fact that these emotions are healthy is look at them in their packaging. Anger is a very common emotion. Few people go through a day without experiencing it. Anger is generated by something that takes place outside of us. Often it is because someone else does something that violates our sense of fairness of right and wrong. We then say to ourselves, "What they did is bad and they shouldn’t have done that." Our automatic reaction is to feel anger. Now, if this anger remains pure anger and doesn’t get polluted — which it often does by one of the unhealthy emotions — then the emotion will move us towards confronting the person about their behavior. When this happens, we may have increased the possibility of helping this person change the way they behavior towards you.

As happens so often, anger gets mixed with its opposite, resentment. Resentment when we respond to the injustice with the thought that other person is bad and worthless. Then we feel resentment, on top of the anger, and want to retaliate and hurt the other person.

This can be confusing because many people don’t make the distinction between anger and resentment. By mixing the two, it is easy to see why Ms. Anonymous thinks that anger is an unhealthy emotion. It is unhealthy because reasonable confrontation is very important in relationships. As social creatures, we improve ourselves by having people give us feedback on our behavior. Think of the times in your life when you have improved yourself because someone cared enough to let you know you were off base.

If you are a faith-based person, you probably believe that Jesus never sinned. If this is so, then you are on dangerous ground by thinking that anger is unhealthy. Do you remember his white rage when he carefully made a whip of nasty knots, walked into the temple and started beating people and destroying their legitimate businesses (John 2:13-16)? If you read this section carefully you realize how genuinely angry Jesus really was. It does no good to justify his behavior by using adjectives, like "righteous," in front of the word anger. Perhaps he was angry but not resentful. Anger, by itself, is normal and healthy. However, we need to be cautious about not letting resentment override our anger.

Jealousy is another difficult emotion to see as normal and healthy. Again, this is because we don’t understand the packaging of the emotion. Jealousy is triggered when we think someone wants to take something or someone from us that we love and admire. If someone feels jealousy, they might say to themself, "I think that person wants to take my boyfriend from me." The jealousy (free of unhealthy emotions) gets the jealous person to behave in healthy way by putting more energy and effort into keeping the relationship with the boyfriend strong and connected.

Ms. Anonymous mentioned lust. Actually, this is a physical sensation, not an emotion. It may be accompanied by emotions such as envy, excitement, or wanting. Since this post is about emotions we can leave lust for another time. Envy is often the flip side of jealousy. Instead of someone wanting something of ours, envy is the healthy emotion that occurs when we want something that someone else has. You can see why it is healthy because it motivates us to behave in ways that help us get what we want on our own. If we begin telling ourself that the person who has what we want is a bad person who doesn’t deserve it, then we might introduce the emotion of resentment and try to take what is not ours. Even though we might not actually do this, we may fantasize about doing it which is equally bad for our own well-being.

There are many more unhealthy painful emotions: boredom, loneliness, sadness, remorse, to name a few. In the near future I will be putting up a long list of healthy painful emotions that you can use a guide for knowing what emotions are healthy if though they hurt.

I hope this has brought some clarity to the notion that healthy emotions are also painful. Painful doesn’t mean they are they are bad for us. Just because they can get polluted by unhealthy emotions doesn’t mean they are bad for us. It only means we need to eliminate the pollution. Of course, this is done by changing our thought life — defeating the Voice.