Tag Archives: Science

Time to open our eyes to Chinese science?

I hope my readers will kindly tolerate another of my blog posts about the pandemic and science in general, not focused on the main topics of this blog, which have been superrecognition and synaesthesia.

When I began writing this post (August 26th 2020) I was watching a passionate and articulate address to the National Press Club of Australia in Canberra by Wang Xining, Deputy Ambassador of China in Australia, and I knew it was time to share observations and questions about Chinese science and the pandemic that I had been thinking about for a while. That address has been described as fascinating, and it is a big, big deal to Australians, as Australia’s economy is massively dependent on China. Their consumer goods flow here, our minerals, seafood, wine and agricultural products flow there and their university students formerly funded our higher education sector. There’s also the ever-present military threat of China, the world’s biggest nation in terms of population, with 55 times the population of Australia, and frequent news stories about cyber-espoinage with clear inferences that the Chinese government is behind these online attacks and hacks. The important economic and cultural relationship between our nations has been frought recently, following what appears to be a universal assumption that China created the coronavirus pandemic through their traditions of keeping live wild animals from all parts of the world for sale at markets, to be used as meat, pets and ingredients of traditional medicine. Australia’s Prime Minister apparently caused offence to China by calling for an inquiry into the origins of the pandemic virus, with some offensive commentary and a trade war from China in return. In early September China has continued their habit of placing unreasonable restrictions on Australian produce exported to China, and an Australian journalist has been detained in China.

Mr Xining spoke of the depth of sentiment felt by offended Chinese people in regard to our PM’s call for an inquiry into the origin of the pandemic. I think this is an important point, but I also reject Xining’s calls during his speech for Australia to mind our own business in regard to the way China run their country. There are too many terrible and large scale violations of basic human rights by the government of China going on for any decent person to ignore or excuse China’s government’s actions and policies. I’m certainly no fan of the Chinese governnment, but I do have questions about whether it has been fair of the world to have assumed the guilt of the Chinese nation, government and culture in regard to the origin of covid-19. It is common to hear the novel coronavirus referred to as “the Chinese virus” by the President of the USA, and similar angry and racist sentiments from my fellow Australians. It happens, and I believe these assumptions about the origin of the pandemic should be examined.

First, I’d like to offer my outline of Chinese science. As you’d expect from the world’s largest nation, it is huge. For a number of years China has ranked second behind the USA for the number of science papers published in English-language science journals. And as you’d expect from a nation that has a deep cultural history that has been largely insulated from the rest of the world, without the widespread use of a second language of a colonising nation (such as English or French), there is also a huge volume of research and scholarship from Chinese scientists published only in a Chinese language. This wealth of inaccessible scientific literature has been described as “…a kind of terra incognita of scholarship” (Chevassus-au-Louis, 2019, p. 67). What scientific insights from China is the rest of the world missing out on? I can only guess.

The unusual angle from which I have viewed the question of the origin of covid-19 is my interest in another vascular medical condition. Erythromelalgia is a supposedly rare and poorly-understood pain condition that can be caused by infection with a contagious pox virus similar to mousepox and also other infections, but also has many other causes and associations. There is a genetic primary form of the disorder and it can also be secondary to many other diseases, and can be “idiopathic”. As is the case with many rare medical conditions, Australian medicine does not do a great job of diagnosing and responding to erythromelalgia (EM). When a patient has any rare disease, Australian GPs seem to be too comfortable with making a “quick and dirty” diagnosis of a common disease that does not really fit the picture presented by the patient, then hastily write a script for an antibiotic or painkiller in the hope it will address the issue. There seems to be an assumption that the patient will keep coming back if the prescription doesn’t work. A good GP might investigate and search for a tricky but fitting explanation, or show the care and humility of making a referral to a medical specialist, but such doctors don’t grow on trees.

Awareness of rare diseases is often lacking among doctors and patients alike, and information for the public about such conditions is often poor quality. EM can be treated cheaply and effectively without medical help with the application of cooling to the skin, but a good part of many popular English-language articles about EM warn patients to not immerse feet in cold water as it can damage skin, with no other reference to self-help measures. As if an EM patient suffering blazing pain would care about waterlogged feet! In contrast, there’s plenty of patient info on painkiller drugs to treat EM, despite the known serious  risks of such treatments.

Based on my experiences, I don’t believe there’s a lot of personal investment to be found among Australian doctors to identify cases of  rare diseases or novel infectious outbreaks. Within the Australian medical and pubic health system a lack of curiosity and an unwillingness to consider novel, speculative or rare diagnoses seems to be commonplace. There is also a common attitude that Australia is an island generally protected from interesting infectious diseases by geography, climate, vaccination and clean habits. This is why whenever we are required to answer disease screening questions the first question is “Have you travelled overseas recently?” This complacent Australian attitude that infectious diseases originate from somewhere else shows an ignorance of our history. The highly-dangerous zoonotic Hendra virus, named after a suburb in Queensland, has killed Australians in a number of outbreaks, and like the covid-19 virus it originated from bats and infects another mammal species (the horse in the case of Hendra) and infects humans. You don’t even need to go near a bat to catch Hendra; contact with an Australian horse living within the ever-expanding range of fruit bats is the way it is caught. Hendra is a disease that originates in Australia and was identified by Australians, but that’s not such a huge achievement of medical detective-work. Hendra is an obvious type of outbreak; it is high in morbidity and fatality, has shown no transmission between humans and its victims work with horses. If a less obvious infectious disease, such as the novel coronavirus, with its asymptomatic spread between humans and confusion with pneumonia, or epidemic erythromelalgia, with its main manifestation of pain that is easily dismissed or misdiagnosed and has no objective test,  jumped to humans from Australian bats or mice tomorrow, and started speading among people, would anyone notice? I doubt it.

My gripes about the Australian medical system are endless and might not be of interest, but I think the contrast with the way Chinese medical science has researched and written about erythromelalgia is revealing. The more I have read of the journal literature and research on the condition, the clearer it has become to me that Chinese doctors and scientists have made a massively greater contribution to the study of the condition as an epidemic disease than any other nation’s researchers. Even though erythromelalgia (EM) was first described in the 1800s, it appears that Chinese scientists are the only researchers who have documented the epidemic form of the syndrome. A Chinese scientist reported the first Chinese case study in 1945 and the first Chinese epidemic of EM in 1960 (Liu et al, 2015). According to Liu and colleagues (from universities in China and Australia) at least 100 studies of EM have come from Chinese authors, most of them about the epidemic form. Some of the leading pioneering researchers of epidemic EM were from the virus research institute in Wuhan. Liu and colleagues’ paper lists 12 epidemic EM events among Chinese school students, while another Chinese paper reports that dozens of EM outbreaks have been reported in China since the mid-20th century (Yuzhou et al, 2015). I think it is interesting to note that Liu et al write of schools reporting these events, which suggests to me that the Socialist social structure of China might mean that schools play a part in public health monitoring in a monolithic government network that would not exist in countries like Australia. I can’t imagine a high school principal in Australia being necessarily aware of or reporting a spate of pain-related illness among students (mostly teenage girls) to any government authority, especially not a principal of a private church-run school. In contrast, the Chinese are “right onto” EM as a public health problem. They have even researched the detection of EM outbreaks using a Chinese search engine for surveillance. Liu and colleagues suggest that EM outbreaks are common in China, but the language barrier prevents due recognition of this interesting phenomenon by international researchers. They have argued that the EM outbreaks are caused by temperature fluctuations, but they list other non-infectious epidemic causes theorised by other researchers. It is important to note that other Chinese researchers have noted pharyngitis associated with an EM outbreak, have taken throat swabs, and have isolated the erythromelelgia-related poxvirus (ERPV), and an American-funded team of researchers published their report of the sequence of the genome of ERPV in 2012, so there is strong evidence for the model of EM outbreaks as infectious disease, and most of this research work is from China.

Astonishingly and mysteriously, there are no records of any EM outbreak in “developed countries” (Yuzhou et al, 2015), and I have not found any report of any individual human ERPV infection outside of China. Why? I wouldn’t have thought that living conditions are hugely different between China and coutries like the US and the UK, and it’s not as though a viral infection can’t cross international borders. In 2020 we all know too well how a virus can span the globe. If EM epidemics really are caused by temperature fluctuations, why the heck wouldn’t they happen outside of mainland China? Could population density or diet be a factor in Chinese epidemic EM? EM outbreaks cannot be dismissed as some cultural psychological phenomenon or school-avoider’s malingering. One of the symptoms is red skin, and a virus has been isolated. Those things can’t be faked. Some research suggests that both the epidemic and non-epidemic forms of EM affect mostly females. Does a sexist bias prevent EM cases in developed countries being properly recognised and diagnosed? There are many reports of women in Anglophone countries afflicted with the painful condition of endometriosis being dismissed by doctors as “head-cases”. I guess it is possible that the Chinese have some kind of genetic vulnerability to EM that might explain why it is apparently rare outside of China but common within it, but if that is the case, I’ve got to wonder why the genetic form of EM seems to have been described by non-Chinese researchers, and I’ve found no suggestion of it being linked to race.

It seems to be not only the case that non-Chinese researchers haven’t studied epidemic EM, some of them also seem to be blissfully ignorant of its existence. I’ve found one outline of EM published by the American National Institutes of Health that fails to mention either the epidemic form of EM or EPRV, and claims that EM is “..extremely rare in children” but if it occurs in kids, is typically associated with serious outcomes. Such claims sit oddly with the fact that the many Chinese EM outbreaks mostly affected students in schools for the age range of 12 to 18.

I suspect that Chinese epidemiological research is somehow globally superior, able to identify new and obscure disease outbreaks, possibly due to access to data from a massive population and “surveillance state”. But what do I know? I’m only an over-educated housewife. I think it is possible that Chinese researchers have been studying in detail epidemics of EM within China while medical researchers outside of China have been blissfully ignorant of EM outbreaks happening in their own neighbourhoods. I think it is also possible that the same situation could have happened in relation to the covid-19 outbreak, first identified in December 2019 in Wuhan, China, with the first Chinese covid-19 case reportedly recorded on November 17th 2019. Were the Chinese merely the first to understand the existence of the deadly covid-19 virus in an epidemic form in their own (densely-populated) territory, without it having originated in their backyard? There have been hints and shreds of evidence that covid-19 existed outside of China before it should have, if you follow the popular narrative of coronavirus spreading out of China in 2020. There’s the possible French case from December 2019 (expert reaction here), a possible spate of early English cases, evidence of covid-19 in Spanish wastewater in March 2019, and a research paper by a Cambridge geneticist challenging the idea of an origin in Wuhan.

I think there’s something rather sad and strange going on when large numbers of people find it very suspicious that a new (mostly non-lethal and often asymptomatic) virual outbreak (the novel coronavirus) is identified in the same city that has a world-class institute for the study of viruses (Wuhan) and conclude that this coincidence must be the result of some foreign mad scientist’s mishap or misbehaviour. You can call me a Sinophile, you can call me a mug, but I think it is just possible that a city that includes world-class virologists might simply be better-placed to detect and report a new viral outbreak than a city without them. 

More of my amazing ideas! Beware!

In the past at this blog I’ve shared a large collection of ideas in the areas of neuroscience and psychology that I’ve managed to think up all by myself, independently but often with inspiration from my own experiences, situations that I’ve observed or my reading of science magazines or scientific literature, or a combination of the above. I’ve not exhaustively searched to see if I was the first person ever to publish all of these ideas, but I’m sure that some of them at least were first published by me at this blog.

I’d now below like to add to my collection of ideas, but this time not limiting myself to the subject areas of this blog. Please note that this page and all pages at this blog are permanently archived, and if you choose to copy my words or plagiarize any of my ideas, if I was the first to publish that idea or ideas, I will find out and I will make you sorry. Very sorry. 

So, here’s some ideas, some serious, some not so:

Can signal detection theory and changing criteria be used to study the sincerity of politicians in their responses to questions?

Can the funnel plot statistical method or something like it be used to predict the existence of undetected criminals within social groups?

Chocolate goods producers and major supermarkets can prevent groups of racist redneck lunatics from accusing them of pandering to non-Christian minorities by failing to label traditional Easter and Christmas goods explicitly as Easter and Christmas goods, by bringing out a range of colourful foil-wrapped chocolate Jesus figures and delicious Flake-bar crucifixes, maybe even entire chocolate nativity scenes and twelve apostles sets, all clearly labelled “Easter” and Christmas”.

As a form of living sculpture or sensory play activity for children, grow one of those mulberry trees that has an abundance of black fruit and grows very large, and underneath the canopy cover the ground in white-coloured quartz rocks that have been tumbled a bit to wear off the sharp edges, prevented from sinking into the dirt with white weedmat or some kind of durable pale-coloured matting that will allow for drainage. In the spring the ground should become a purply, pinky fruity-smelling mess, a celebration of the staining power of mulberries.

Are prosopagnosics over-represented among scientists, science graduates or among popularizers of science? (Consider Dr Karl, science journalist Robyn Williams, Jane Goodall, Oliver Sacks…) If so, is this because they develop a skepticism about unconscious, intuitive ways of thinking that give instant insights, as typified by the process of normal face recognition, as a natural consequence of experiencing this type of thinking less often than most people do? Is this a motivation to seek and understand and advocate for the more deliberate, conscious and explicit ways of thinking and reasoning that make up the methods, processes and statistical techniques of science and critical thinking?

Is the Availability Heuristic partly to blame for common and inaccurate ideas about the nature and numbers of refugees coming to Australia, when news TV shows constantly depict refugees as crowds arriving on boats rather than modest numbers of people (relative to foreigners arriving with working visas) arriving by plane? I believe there is evidence that the visual depiction of information is more influential than written or abstract information, and news TV may be unwittingly generating misleading beliefs about refugees when they choose exciting and distinctive visuals of swarms of exotic people on crowded boats to make their news stories about refugees more attention-grabbing.

Is the Trolley Problem thought experiment relevant to the phenomenon of parents refusing to vaccinate their children? The Trolley Problem shows us that a minority of people express irrational reluctance to take an action that will kill a person in order to save the lives of a greater number of people. Obvious parallels can be pointed out between this situation and that of a parent who fears some aspect of vaccinations refusing to “harm” their child regardless of the benefits. If there something especially emotionally repellent about directly causing harm even if the aim is to promote a less salient and immediate good effect, surely the Trolley Problem might be a tool that can aid in understanding the phenomenon of vaccination refusal.

Can the normal mean score in a test be double-checked after it has been used in published studies by gathering up all of the data of the scores of control group or normal study participants who have been given the test, in a systematic search of the literature, and then pool this data to calculate an average score? Is this a more objective method of determining a normal score for a published test than merely relying on a norm researched by the team that originally researched the test, or a way of replicating this result?

Are super-recognizers super at facial recognition because they are faster or better at converting visual memories of seen but unfamiliar faces into memories of familiar faces? (In some ways the enhanced memory for familiar faces displayed by ordinary people resembles super-recognizers’ memory for faces only seen transiently or once). Are supers over-familiar in a facial kind of way? Do supers pay closer attention to people’s faces or in some other way have an advantage in the encoding stage of memory-formation? Does the process of converting an unfamiliar face memory into a familiar face memory involve an attribution of personality traits to faces (which may or may not be based on reasonable assumptions), in the manner of ordinal-linguistic personification synaesthesia?

Are geographically-isolated cities such as Perth characterized by mediocrity in professional standards in those cities, as a consequence of a lack of “new blood” and the opportunity for the formation of social networks within professions that are too stable and collegiate, or frankly corrupt networks within or between professions, preventing genuine professional peer-review or criticism of members of these professions? Some professions that I’d start with include dentistry, medical, legal, law enforcement, public service, education, journalism/press, academia, librarianship. I’ve found clear data-based evidence for this effect in relation to one profession, but some of the most important professions are hard to rate because of a lack of openly-available systematic measurement of professional standards and outcomes. If I ever had the means to study this question and found an effect, I’d call it “The Perth Problem”, but the effect should be globally applicable. Apparently in Darwin, the residents have such a low opinion of a hospital there that they have a saying:”If you feel a pain, book a plane.”

And finally, dammit, for a while I thought I was the first to think of the brilliant idea in the article linked to below. Apparently not, but I like that in the age of skyscrapers, drones and Google Earth, we can take this hybrid of gardening and graffiti to new levels entirely. http://www.npr.org/sections/krulwich/2012/09/28/161947553/the-best-college-prank-of-the-1790s-with-bats-poop-grass

More ideas to follow………………

October 16th 2017

Could the underlying cause of chronic hoarding behaviour be undiagnosed hyperostosis frontalis interna (AKA Morgagni-Stewart-Morel syndrome)? There are reasons to believe that at least one form of hoarding is caused by damage or dysfunction to parts of the brain in the frontal lobes that perform decision-making, and it seems obvious that damage or impairment of this part of the brain could be the result of HFI, which is an abnormal thickening of the inside of the front of the skull. One might argue that HFI is typically found in old ladies, while this might not be the case for hoarding, so the two aren’t linked. To that I would argue that HFI is thought to possibly be substantially underdiagnosed, and is typically only identified as an incidental finding when a patient is given an x-ray of their skull for some unrelated reason, and HFI is (incorrectly) considered by some doctors to be a benign condition, so no one can say how common HFI really is or what age or gender characteristics the genuine typical case posesses. If hoarders ever are treated by any health professional, I would guess this would only consist of CBT from a psychologist or happy pills from a GP, and I’m sure an x-ray of the skull or other non-trivial forms of medical testing are virtually never a part of investigations of cases of hoarding. HFI is associated with epilepsy (ample reason enough why it should not be considered benign) and possibly this could contribute towards the hoarder’s inability to make decisions about the importance of items (to keep or to toss), due to seizure activity in the frontal lobes altering the emotional state to make everything appear to be important or significant. Apparently a common report in temporal lobe epileptics is of a feeling of insight or significance or ecstasy as an aura or precursor to seizures. What if this kind of sensation was chronically activated? If this was possible, how would that affect behaviour? This also raises the question of a possible link between hoarding and the epilepsy-related personality disorder that was proposed as a psychiatric diagnosis in the 1970s and 1980s, known as Geschwind syndrome or Interictal Behavior Syndrome of Temporal Lobe Epilepsy. I think this is another possible association worth researching. Obviously, I believe all of the disorders that I’ve mentioned in this paragraph should be the subjects of much more research and interest from the medical and psychological professions.



October 2018

Could super-recognizers be trained to identify sex offenders by viewing their faces or images of their faces, probably based on a typical facial expression?

Could fetomaternal microchimerism or male microchimerism explain the phenomenon of straight hair becoming curly with age in women?