An upside to being anal

From the Longevity Project:

“The best childhood personality predictor of longevity was conscientiousness—the qualities of a prudent, persistent, well-organized person …—somewhat obsessive and not at all carefree.”

The benefits of a conscientious personality are obvious: These people are less likely to smoke and drink, or drive dangerously. Throughout life, conscientious people are less impulsive, and less depressed. The researchers found that the prudent died less from all causes, not just those related to dangerous habits. It appears the conscientious have higher levels of the neurotransmitter serotonin (a brain chemical boosted by antidepressants), which is linked to, the authors write, “many health-relevant processes throughout the body, including how much you eat and how well you sleep.”

Among the most counterintuitive of the findings is that cheerfulness can kill. The authors write: “[C]heerful and optimistic children were less likely to live to an old age than their more staid and sober counterparts!” They found that cheerfulness was as big a risk factor for premature death as elevated blood pressure and high cholesterol. There seemed to be several reasons. The highly social went to more parties where they smoked and drank, craving the buzz. They died from accidents. But Friedman and Martin say their research showed something deeper. Despite the belief that optimists enjoy better health than pessimists, this research found a dark underside to optimism. When everything is going great, the optimist soars. But when facing life’s difficulties, the optimist can feel defeated by the magnitude of the struggle that’s required.

A long, satisfying marriage is good for both partners’ health and longevity. But the researchers found that it is not the institution of marriage itself that conveys some kind of life-extending elixir. The participants who made long, happy marriages tended to be the people who were more stable as children and young people. The participants who ended unhappy marriages were less happy even before they chose a spouse. (And in a research aside that just begs for more follow-up, female participants and wives of Terman men who reported the highest frequency of orgasm during intercourse tended to live the longest.)


For those who contemplate retirement as decades filled with leisure and relaxation, The Longevity Project serves as a warning. As Friedman says, “fun can be overrated” and stress can be unfairly maligned. Many study participants who lived vigorously into old age had highly stressful jobs. Physicist Norris Bradbury, who died at age 88, succeeded J. Robert Oppenheimer as director of the Los Alamos National Laboratory, overseeing the transition of the U.S. atomic weapons research lab from World War II into the Cold War.

Friedman and Martin say it’s the kind of stress that matters. The bright boys selected for the study who ended up having low-status jobs—streetcar conductor, baker, porter—and whose careers did not match their early promise were far more likely to die before age 60 than their higher status counterparts. Success, even in challenging jobs with demanding hours and responsibility, is a tonic. (Ever notice that orchestra conductors and dictators tend to go on forever?)


What Never Say Die and The Longevity Project agree on is the salutary effect of work. Jacoby writes, “Being forced to work longer, or to think about developing new skills to augment an inadequate retirement income, might turn out to be an invigorating kick in the pants for boomers rather than a life sentence at hard labor.” Friedman and Martin write that an analysis of the activities and accomplishments of study participants during the 1980s, when most were in their 70s, and following what happened over the next two decades was dramatic. “[T]he continually productive men and women lived much longer than their more laid-back comrades. … It was not the happiest or the most relaxed older participants who lived the longest. It was those who were most engaged in pursuing their goals.”

Lobsters: Yes it Hurts

In a wonderful article written in 2004, David Foster Wallace asked us to Consider the Lobster:

So then here is a question that’s all but unavoidable at the World’s Largest Lobster Cooker, and may arise in kitchens across the U.S.: Is it all right to boil a sentient creature alive just for our gustatory pleasure?

While much urban lore along with pamphlets from the Maine Lobster Promotion Council propagate the idea that lobsters do not feel pain, there is growing scientific evidence that this is simply untrue:

Ripping the legs off live crabs and crowding lobsters into seafood market tanks are just two of the many practices that may warrant reassessment, given two new studies that indicate crustaceans feel pain and stress. The findings add to a growing body of evidence that virtually all animals, including fish, shellfish and insects, can suffer.


Sadly DFW did not live long enough to see this little bit of science supporting his view as he so eloquently illustrated in that article:

However stuporous the lobster is from the trip home, it tends to come alarmingly to life when placed in boiling water. If you’re tilting it from a container into the steaming kettle, the lobster will sometimes try to cling to the container’s sides or even to hook its claws over the kettle’s rim like a person trying to keep from going over the edge of a roof. And worse is when the lobster’s fully immersed. Even if you cover the kettle and turn away, you can usually hear the cover rattling and clanking as the lobster tries to push it off. Or the creature’s claws scraping the sides of the kettle as it thrashes around.

The lobster, in other words, behaves very much as you or I would behave if we were plunged into boiling water (with the obvious exception of screaming). A blunter way to say this is that the lobster acts as if it’s in terrible pain, causing some cooks to leave the kitchen altogether and to take one of those little lightweight plastic oven timers with them into another room and wait until the whole process is over.

There happen to be two main criteria that most ethicists agree on for determining whether a living creature has the capacity to suffer and so has genuine interests that it may or may not be our moral duty to consider. One is how much of the neurological hardware required for pain-experience the animal comes equipped with—nociceptors, prostaglandins, neuronal opioid receptors, etc. The other criterion is whether the animal demonstrates behavior associated with pain. And it takes a lot of intellectual gymnastics and behaviorist hairsplitting not to see struggling, thrashing, and lid-clattering as just such pain-behavior.


The idea that we had managed to convince ourselves that some species had evolved without a meaningful sense of pain seems ridiculous given that all life survives around the the response to the pain/pleasure dichotomy. It is primal. To assume the imperative of this experience is proportional to brain size is convenient but is impossible to know and unlikely given that evolution would have honed every creature’s desire to avoid harm.

The more important point here, though, is that the whole animal-cruelty-and-eating issue is not just complex, it’s also uncomfortable. It is, at any rate, uncomfortable for me, and for just about everyone I know who enjoys a variety of foods and yet does not want to see herself as cruel or unfeeling. As far as I can tell, my own main way of dealing with this conflict has been to avoid thinking about the whole unpleasant thing.

JAMA and a Tale of Perverted Science

Escitalopram 10mg Tablets (Lexapro brand)

Doctor Jonathan Leo’s story is riveting:

  • Research published in the JAMA conluded that all stroke victims should be prescribed anti-depressants
  • However the researchers failed to point out that the drug under investigation, Escitalopram, worked no better than problem-solving psychotherapy.
  • Furthermore, one of the authors of the paper failed to point out that he had a conflict of interest owing to past work he’d done for the makers of Escitalopram. This info, by the way, was available via a simple Google query.

To make a long story short, after Dr. Leo flagged the issue to JAMA and gave them every opportunity to clarify the matter, he published a letter about it in the British Medical Journal. The letter put no blame on JAMA but instead focused on the troubling nature of such a COI.

Our letter was published without any negative commentary regarding JAMA itself, and included the following statement: “We are fully aware that JAMA is concerned about conflicts of interest and has taken a leading role in promoting policies to benefit the medical community. We are pleased to report that we learned at the end of business on Thursday (3/5/09) that the JAMA Editorial Staff has looked into this matter and will be discussing it in the forthcoming March 11 issue.

JAMA lost it. Although they could not point to any factual inaccuracies, Leo was asked to retract the letter. When he refused, they pressured him through his dean. Reportedly, the JAMA told him he was “banned for life” and that he, his students, and his school would be sorry.

They are now instituting a gag rule preventing anyone from publishing info about COI’s in their articles. Not that they have the power to enforce the rule except, of course, for limiting access to one of the most prestigious medical journal in America.

It is worth reading his story in full.

And now for the rant:
Forgive me while I go off on a tangent.

I am appreciative of the good work that the likes of Hitchens and Dawkins do to bring reason to the masses and to point out the potential of religious institutions for hypocrisy and manipulation. But science is so rife with hypocrisy that it strikes me we would be better served by cleaning house and focusing attention on our own wayward high priests.

There could be no better place to start than with the “science” funded by Big Pharma. The quality of research and the cherry picking of results which goes into the gospel selling everything from anti-depressants to statins is truly appalling. And for the holy grail of science “the peer reviewed article” to be hijacked in the way that JAMA has just done, is, in my opinion, a complete erosion of the high ground science claims for itself.

Is there really any difference between one person refusing meds because it will attract body thetans and another taking meds because of media hype over the latest cooked study? In both cases it’s misplaced faith in a flawed authority.

It’s time for the good priests to take the bad ones to task.


  • NYT March 10, 2009:
    Doctor’s Pain Studies Were Fabricated, Hospital Says
    The researcher, Dr. Scott S. Reuben, an anesthesiologist in Springfield, Mass., who practiced at Baystate Medical Center, fabricated data in some or all of the 21 journal articles dating from at least 1996… The drug giant Pfizer underwrote much of Dr. Reuben’s research from 2002 to 2007

A Trustworthy Face

The Confidence Game

In a paper published in June, [scientists from Princeton's Department of Psychology] suggested that our unconscious bias is a byproduct of more adaptive instincts: the features that make a face strike us as trustworthy, if exaggerated, make a face look happy – with arching inner eyebrows and upturned mouths – and an exaggerated “untrustworthy” face looks angry – with a furrowed brow and frown. In this argument, people with “trustworthy” faces simply have, by the luck of the genetic draw, faces that look a little more cheerful to us.

Just as in other cognitive shorthands, we make these judgments quickly and unconsciously – and as a result, Oosterhof and Todorov point out, we can severely and immediately misjudge people. In reality, of course, cheekbone shape and eyebrow arc have no relationship with honesty.

I found this last statement quite irksome because it is just the sort of untested assumption that leads scientists away from rude reality. Perhaps it is true – but is it tested? Why would humans evolve the tendency to trust a certain look and distrust another if there wasn’t some payoff?

The simplistic interpretation of the data is that we trust friendly faces and distrust unfriendly faces. It’s not really hard to imagine there is some logic in this. Friendly people, we intuit, are more likely to honor a social contract because relationships are more important to them.

Isn’t it possible, if not likely, that a persons facial shape, sculpted by the expression they wear, has some bearing on their tendency to be trustworthy?

Only Dorian Gray, a work of fiction, was able to avoid wearing his character on his face.

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