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of Stephen Powell

A Heretical View of Alternative Medicine

The field of alternative medicine tends to have weaknesses that are seldom discussed. I've found that it's human nature to spontaneously form belief systems about whatever's important to an individual or group, and defend those belief systems tenaciously. To truly admit that one doesn't know how something important to us works tends to fall under the realm of religious experience.

This is true in all aspects of life, however, its implications in the alternative medicine seem troubling to me, particularly relative to AMA style medicine.

My experience is that alternative healing/medicine tends to display:

  • A high chaff-to-wheat ratio (drivel-and-bull to good-sound-information ratio). I may not know how a lot of things work but I'd pretty good at detecting bull, and the bull in alternative circles seems to exceed that of AMA style circles.

  • Lack of tools equivalent to "Double Blind Experimentation" and "Scientific Method". While AMA style medicine is notorious for ignoring and misusing these powerful tools, these tools have allowed conventional medicine to slowly go on a one-way-journey. That journey is one of from ignorance to sound belief concepts that withstand vigorous testing by hostile opponents, to withstand the "test of fire". One side effect of this is for conventional medicine to almost ignore what it calls "the placebo effect"; the flip side of this is that in alternative medicine it is often impossible to tell whether an outcome was do to anything except "placebo effect". I am all for "the placebo effect", I am not for expending time effort, and money unnecessarily because of convoluted, untested belief systems.

  • "The Placebo Effect" is a catch all phrase. I think the most ignored field of research is - How do we optimize it?

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My Fairy Tail

This fairy tail was written about some sandtrays I made in a class.

The Tail of the First Big Boo Boo

By: Stephen M. Powell

May 23, 1994
A long time ago in a land far, far away, there was a Kingdom called "All". The people of "All" were happy and content, and had been that way as long as anyone could remember.

A few of the people, even the King and Queen of "All", began to feel bored, and eventually explorers were sent forth to find new things, but not much hope was held out, for no one in the land of "All" had ever found anything of interest outside of "All". Many explorers had gone forth, but those who returned, returned empty handed. After a while, the explorers were barely remembered, except for their families, who longed for their return.

One day a ragged band of explorers was spotted at the edge of the Kingdom, their garments tattered and worn. The citizens rushed up to them but, to their dismay, found them babbling almost incoherently and so tired they could barely move. Poking out of their packs could be seen the corners of glittering objects, like none ever seen before in the land of "All". Word of the returning explorers spread like wildfire through the land. The queen, on hearing of these events, dispatched the royal carriages to pick up the ragged band and bring them to the royal palace.

The royal physicians, cooks, and scientists were hastily summoned, and told to spare no effort in ministering to the returning band and to finding out what had befallen them. For many days they attended to the explorers, the king and queen pacing the halls, listening to ever scrap of information as the explorers recovered from their ordeal. After weeks had pasted, the impatient royalty summoned the royal staff to report on their progress.

First to be heard where the scientists who had examined the artifacts that the expedition had brought back. They said much but seemed to know little. "The items are like nothing we've ever seen", they said. They spoke endlessly about possibilities, but , the king decided, they knew little more than he did. The royal physicians spoke up next, "We don't know what happened to them" they said, "The patients seem to be slowly recovering with proper bed rest and care." Slowly, the explorers began to recover, and their stories were pieced together.

Eventually, the expedition leader recovered sufficiently to addressed the royal court, "When we had traveled as far as we thought possible, we came to a passage into a mysterious New World. This New World was a harsh and dangerous place", he said. "Just being there drained our life force and threatened our sanity. Yet we stayed there, transfixed, experiencing the unbelievable, wonders beyond our wildest dreams. Finally I ordered a retreat out of the New World, lest we all had perished." The king questioned the explorers for hours, but they seemed to lack the words and ability to explain their experiences.

After much debate, the royalty summoned the master Royal Design Engineers to the palace. "This New World must be explored", the king said, "You are to design suitable protective garments and means of transportation for these expeditions." This was a tall order for the designers, but they went forth with gusto to accomplish their task.

After what seemed like forever, the Royal Designers came back to the king with their plans. "We had begun to think this task impossible" they exclaimed, "but we finally came upon a solution. We cannot manufacture such garments here, but it should be possible to manufacture them in the New World. We have designed a protective exterior that is quite unbelievable. It will be difficult to start up manufacturing in the New World, but once we make a few, no further effort will be necessary. These devices, or bodies as we have called them, will replicate themselves; they also repair themselves and maintain themselves, even when left to their own devices." "Outstanding", said the king, "How did you manage this feat." "We combined what we found out about the New World with our knowledge of how our own consciousness works" the designers replied. "You mean these garments think!", the king exclaimed with obvious worry in his voice. "No, no", the designers said, "They would never do that. They just follow the programs we build in plus they follow the instructions of the operator."------ And so started the largest design adventure ever attempted.

After long delays and cost overruns, the first garments became operational and were turned over to the first group of new explorers. The first user reports were ecstatic, and the designers retired to their ivory design tower for the biggest victory celebration they could conceive of.

It was not very long before complaints started filtering back from the New World. The reports were of bodies going berserk and ignoring commands. After the initial shock wore off, the designers sent a letter back to the complainers, saying that they should just pick out a new body and discard the defective ones. They figured there were just a few of the new bodies with manufacturing defects. As complaints started pouring in, the design ers started arguing about who had messed up. Eventually the king and queen found out there were serious problems. The king paid a surprise visit to the ivory design tower, and found the engineers arguing about who was to blame. The king smashed his scepter onto a table and yelled, "Shut up! I don't want to hear your quibbling. Fix this screw up, and I mean now!." The room was utterly silent, no one had ever seen the king angry before. A team of junior engineers were dispatched to the New World and told to not come back till the problem was fixed.

When the team arrived in the New World, they were shocked to find that all of the units had become unmanageable. They began trouble shooting the bodies and later met to share their findings. In a letter sent back to the ivory tower in All, they said, "We have found that the cause of the failures was a basic design flaw. The design assumed perfect operators and flawless manufacturing. While these assumptions work in the land of All, they just don't hold true in the New World. Apparently, one of the operators tinkered with his body's program in an attempt to fix a problem. This resulted in his body having a thought, and then a thought about that thought, ad infinitum. Since this possibility was never considered in the design, no failsafes were built in to prevent it, this resulted in a cascading failure of the communications links with the operator. As the bodies made contact with each other, this failure past from one to another like a computer virus." They continued, "We have come up with a plan to rectify this problem. The bodies are designed to shut down daily for self maintenance. During this period the cascade failure also shuts down. During this interval it is possible to insert small program elements into the body's mind. Over a long period of time, it should be possible to build a base of competency in various bodies, such that they will, as a group, be able to repair themselves. Once we create a few bodies with reasonable failsafes against cascade failure, we can form an iterative process to evolve new minds in these bodies. These minds will have robust safeguards against future failures. Once this reprogramming is finished, it can be spread from body to body, like the original virus. We must point out that as a result of the original design flaw, these bodies are already conscious beings, although on a primitive level, and our solution will evolve this consciousness."

When this letter reached the ivory tower of the designers, the bosses were furious, but the junior engineers had wisely sent a copy of their report to the king, as a protection against reprisals. No practical alternatives could be found to the plan, and the king decided to go ahead with it. After what seemed like eternity, the engineers in the New World came near to the completion of a base of abilities needed to start the iterative process. One of the engineers happened to be working through a body named "Stephen", and as part of the transition between developing compatences and beginning the iterative process of refinement, he arranged for "Stephen" to write a fairy tail, as a way of explaining the intention of the plan, behind the mystery of humanity.

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Copyright © 2000 by Stephen M. Powell.
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