April 15th 1941: The Belfast Blitz, Brian Moore, and Errol Flynn’s father

Around the time of the 2010 IMF/ECB/EC bailout, I remember hearing it described as “the worst day in Irish history.” This struck me as hyperbolic at the time. Obviously, like best of lists, worsts are subjective. Surely however loss of life must count towards “worst days” than economic events. I am not aware of any day in the last hundred years of Irish history with a greater loss of life than April 15th 1941, the Belfast Blitz when over 900 people died.

Much of what I have heard about this focused on the Southern reaction, with fire brigades crossing the border. This is seen as a positive. To some degree, the sheer human cost of 900 lives lost (about a quarter of those lost in the Troubles in a single night) and thousands injured or made homeless is eclipsed by this. More generally, the narrative of the Second World War as “the good war” can blind a little to the suffering involved.

Here are the recollections of novelist Brian Moore (incidentally this piece captures how Moore’s death in 1999 led to near-invisibility in the digital age), who was working in the Mater Hospital at the time:

“In the stink of human excrement, in the acrid smell of disinfectant these dead were heaped, body on body, flung arms, twisted feet, open mouth, staring eyes, old men on top of young women, a child lying on a policeman’s back, a soldier’s hand resting on a woman’s thigh, a carter still wearing his coal-slacks, on top of a pile of arms and legs, his own arm outstretched, finger pointing, as though he warned of some unseen horror. Forbidding and clumsy, the dead cluttered the morgue room from floor to ceiling”.

One thing I didn’t know was that Theodore Flynn, father of Errol Flynn (and grandfather of Sean Flynn) was based in the Mater Hospital and “head of the casualty service” for Belfast:

“The rescue service felt the want of heavy jacks; in one case the leg and arm of a child had to be amputated before it could be extricated … [But] the greatest want appeared to be the lack of hospital facilities … At 2pm, on the afternoon of the 16th (9 hours after the termination of the raid) it was reported that the street leading to the Mater Hospital was filled with ambulances waiting to set down their casualties … Professor Flynn, [father of his more famous son, Errol], head of the casualty service for the city, informed me that the greater number of casualties was due to shock, blast and secondary missiles, such as glass, stones, pieces of piping, etc … There were many terrible mutilations among both living and dead—heads crushed, ghastly abdominal and face wounds, penetration by beams, mangled and crushed limbs, etc. … In the heavily “blitzed” areas people ran panic-stricken into the streets and made for the open country. As many were caught in the open by blast and secondary missiles, the enormous number of casualties can be readily accounted for. It is perhaps true that many saved their lives running but I am afraid a much greater number lost them or became casualties…During the day, loosened slates and pieces of piping were falling in the streets and as pedestrians were numerous many casualties must have occurred.”

It is evident from Theodore Flynn’s biography he was a zoologist rather than a medical doctor. It would be interesting to know how common this sort of thing was on the Home Front in wartime.

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Don’t Take Notes With A Laptop – from @andymcnally

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Original Scientific American article.

Far transfer through music? This longitudinal study suggests it works!

A post on the potential “far transfer” of music education – ie the longer term impact on cognitive ability. I like the way that Pedro restrains his enthusiasm here! “Far transfer” is tricky to study, but also is a factor in education that needs to be considered when subjects/disciplines are accused of lacking “relevance”

From experience to meaning...

I’m a musician as some of you might know and very much in favor of music and music lessons, but I’m a bit hesitant about this new study. It sounds like great news: cognitive skills developed from music lessons appear to transfer to unrelated subjects, leading to improved academic performance.

Why I’m not so sure? Well, this kind of far transfer is not something easy to achieve and I don’t want to get my hopes up too high. So, let’s have a look at the press release:

Structured music lessons significantly enhance children’s cognitive abilities — including language-based reasoning, short-term memory, planning and inhibition — which lead to improved academic performance. Published in Frontiers in Neuroscience, the research is the first large-scale, longitudinal study to be adapted into the regular school curriculum. Visual arts lessons were also found to significantly improve children’s visual and spatial memory.

Music education has…

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Theranos, hype, fraud, solutionism, and eHealth

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Anyone who has had to either give or take a blood sample has surely thought “there must be a better way.” The promise of replacing the pain of the needle and the seeming waste of multiple blood vials has an immediate appeal. If there was a technology that could

Theranos were one of the hottest health teach startups of the last decade. Indeed, their USP – that existing blood testing could be replaced by a pin prick – would have been a genuinely disruptive one.

Theranos was founded in 2003 by Elizabeth Holmes, then 19 years old, who dropped out of studying engineering in Stanford in order to start the company. In 2015 she was named by Forbes magazine as the youngest self-made female billionaire in history, with an estimated worth of $4.5 billion. In June 2016, Forbes revised their estimate to zero. What happened?

At times of writing, Holmes has been charged with “massive fraud” by the US Securities and Exchange Commission, and has agreed to pay a $500,000 fine and accept a ban from serving as a company director or officer for ten years. It is unclear if a criminal investigation is also proceeding.
At its height, Theranos had a seemingly stellar team of advisors. The board of directors has included such figures as Henry Kissinger, current US Secretary of Defence James “Mad Dog” Mattis, various former US Senators and business figure. In early 2016, in response to criticism that, whatever their other qualities, the clinical expertise of Mad Dog Mattis et al was perhaps light, it announced a medical advisory board including four medical doctors and six professors.

 

Elizabeth Holmes’ fall began in October 2015, when the Wall Street Journal’s John Carreyrou published an article detailing discrepancies between Theranos’ claims and the actual performance of their technology. This was in response to a Fortune cover story by Roger Parloff, who subsequently wrote a thoughtful piece on how he had been misled, but also how he missed a hint that all was not what it was.

 

Theranos’ claims to be able to perform over 200 different investigations on a pinprick of blood were not borne out; and it turned out that other companies’ products were used for the analysis of many samples.

 

The fall of Theranos has led to some soul-searching among the health tech stat up community. Bill Rader, an entrepreneur and columnist at Forbes, wrote on What Entrepreneurs Can Learn From Theranos:

 

     I have been watching first in awe of perceived accomplishments, and then feeling burned, then later vindicated, when the actual facts were disclosed. Don’t get me wrong, I really wanted their efforts to have been both real and successful – they would have changed healthcare for the better. Now, that seems unlikely to be the case.

 

By now, almost everyone has heard of Holmes and her company, and how she built Theranos on hype and secrecy, and pushed investors into a huge, $9 billion valuation. Now everyone in the industry is talking about this and lawsuits are flying.

Just a couple months ago, a Silicon Valley venture capitalist appeared on CNBC’s “Closing Bell” and instead of talking about the elephant in the room, he diverted to a defense strategy for the Theranos CEO.

 

He claimed Elizabeth Holmes had been “totally attacked,”and that she is “a great example of maybe why the women are so frustrated.”

He also went on to say, “This is a great entrepreneur who wants to change health care as we know it.”

 

The last statement was the strangest thing he said. Wouldn’t we all like to change things for the better? But “wanting” and “doing” are two different things.

 

 

 

Rader’s piece is worth reading for clinicians and IT professionals involved in health technology. The major lesson he draws is the need for transparency. He describes being put under pressure by his own board; why wasn’t he able to raise as much money as Theranos? It transpires that Theranos’ methods may make life more difficult for start-ups in the future, and Rader fears that legitimate health tech may suffer:

 

Nothing good has come of the mess created by Theronos secrecy, or as some have characterized, deception. The investor has been burned, the patient has been left with unfilled promises (yet again) and life science industry start-ups, like my company, have been left with even more challenges in raising much needed investment. And worse of all, diagnostic start-ups in general are carrying an unearned stigma.

 

In this interesting piece, Christine Farr notes that the biggest biotech and health care venture capital firms did not invest in Theranos, nor did Silicon Valley firms with actual clinical practices attached. As Farr writes, the Theranos story reflects systemic issues in funding of innovation, and the nature of hype. And one unfortunate consequence may be an excessive focus on Elizabeth Holmes; a charismatic figure lauded unrealistically at one point is ripe to become a scapegoat for all the ills of an industry the next.

 

The “stealth mode” in which Theranos operated in for the first ten years of its existence is incompatible with the values of healthcare and of the science on which it is based. Farr points out how unlikely it would be that a biotech firm vetting Theranos would let their lack of peer reviewed studies pass. The process of peer review and building evidence is key to the modern practice of medicine.

Another lesson is simply to beware of what one wants to be true. As written above, the idea of Theranos’ technology is highly appealing. The company, and Holmes, sailed on an ocean of hype and admiring magazine covers. The rhetoric of disruptive and revolutionizing healthcare featured prominently, as the 2014 Fortune magazine cover story reveals:

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Perhaps a healthy scepticism of claims to “revolutionise” health care will be one consequence of the Theranos affair, and a more robustly questioning attitude to the solutionism that plagues technology discourse in general.

Clinicians and health IT professionals should be open to innovation and new ideas, but also hold on to their professional duty to be confident new technologies will actually benefit the patient.

Review of Oliver Sacks, “The River of Consciousness”, TLS 13th March 2018

I have a review in the current TLS of Oliver Sacks’ essay collection, “The River of Consciousness” . The full article is subscriber only so here is the opening….

Who is the most famous medical doctor in the world today? Until his death in 2015, a reasonable case could be made that it was Oliver Sacks. Portrayed by Robin Williams on screen, inspiring a Michael Nyman opera and plays by Peter Brook and Harold Pinter, Sacks took his followers far beyond the confines of neurology.

In their Foreword to The Rivers of Consciousness, a posthumously published collection of Sacks’s essays, the editors recount the time Sacks appeared in a Dutch documentary series, A Glorious Accident. Along with, among others, Daniel Dennett, Freeman Dyson and Stephen Jay Gould, Sacks discussed “the origin of life, the meaning of evolution, the nature of consciousness. In a lively discussion, one thing was clear: Sacks could move fluidly among all of the disciplines”. Specialists can have a suspicion of polymaths, and professionals can have a suspicion of those with a media profile. In his…

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“They should teach that in school….”

One of the academic studies I haven’t had time to pursue (so only blog about) is a thematic analysis of editorials in medical journals – with a focus on the many many “musts”, “need to s”, “shoulds” and “have to s” imposed on doctors, “policymakers”, and so on.

Education is more prone to this, and from a wider group of people. Everyone has their idea of what “they” should teach, ascribing to schools magical powers to end social ills by simply putting something on the curriculum.

Much of this is very worthy and well-intentioned. People want their children to be prepared for life. That the things suggested may not lend themselves to “being on the curriculum” with any degree of effectiveness is rarely considered.
That curricula are pretty overloaded anyway is rarely considered.

Anyway, the UK Organisation “Parents and Teachers for Excellence” has been keeping track of these “X should be taught in schools calls” in 2018 so far.:

How often do you hear the phrase “Schools should teach…” in the media?
We’ve noticed that barely a week goes by without a well-meaning person or organisation insisting that something else is added to the curriculum, often without any consideration as to how it could be fitted into an already-squeezed school day. Obviously the curriculum needs to be updated and improved upon over time, and some of the topics proposed are incredibly important. However, there are only so many hours in the school week, and we believe that teachers and schools are the ones best placed to decide what their students need to know, and not have loads of additional things forced on them by government because of lobbying by others.

So far, as of today, this is the list:

So far this year we count 22 suggestions for what schools should do with pupils:
Why We Should Teach School Aged Children About Baby Loss
Make schools colder to improve learning
Schools ‘should help children with social media risk’
Pupils should stand or squat at their desks, celebrity GP says
MP’s call for national anthem teaching in schools to unite country
It’s up to us: heads and teachers must model principled, appropriate and ethical online behaviour
Primary school children need to learn about intellectual property, Government agency says
Call for more sarcasm at school is no joke
Schools should teach more ‘nuanced’ view of feminism, Girls’ School Association president says
Schools ‘should teach children about the dangers of online sexual content’
Schools should teach children resilience to help them in the workplace, new Education Secretary says
Government launches pack to teach pupils ‘importance of the Commonwealth’
Schools must not become like prisons in fight against knife crime, headteacher warns
Schools should teach all pupils first aid, MPs say
Call for agriculture GCSE to be introduced as UK prepares to leave the EU
Councils call for compulsory mental health counselling in all secondary schools
Set aside 15 minutes of dedicated reading time, secondary schools told
Pupils must be taught about architecture, says Gokay Deveci
A serious education on the consequences of obesity is needed for our most overweight generation

Teach girls how to get pregnant, say doctors
Start teaching children the real facts of life

I am confident there are a lot more out there PTE haven’t been linked with. From sarcasm to “how to get pregnant” to first aid to intellectual property to resilience.

I do wish someone would do my study on medical journals’ imperatives for me!

Critical thinking about critical thinking

At Aeon, an interesting piece on “critical thinking”, by Carl Hendrick:

Essentially, “critical thinking” as a skill detached from context is meaningless and illusory:

Of course, critical thinking is an essential part of a student’s mental equipment. However, it cannot be detached from context. Teaching students generic ‘thinking skills’ separate from the rest of their curriculum is meaningless and ineffective. As the American educationalist Daniel Willingham puts it:

[I]f you remind a student to ‘look at an issue from multiple perspectives’ often enough, he will learn that he ought to do so, but if he doesn’t know much about an issue, he can’t think about it from multiple perspectives … critical thinking (as well as scientific thinking and other domain-based thinking) is not a skill. There is not a set of critical thinking skills that can be acquired and deployed regardless of context.

This detachment of cognitive ideals from contextual knowledge is not confined to the learning of critical thinking. Some schools laud themselves for placing ‘21st-century learning skills’ at the heart of their mission. It’s even been suggested that some of these nebulous skills are now as important as literacy and should be afforded the same status. An example of this is brain-training games that claim to help kids become smarter, more alert and able to learn faster. However, recent research has shown that brain-training games are really only good for one thing – getting good at brain-training games.

Hendrick concludes:

Instead of teaching generic critical-thinking skills, we ought to focus on subject-specific critical-thinking skills that seek to broaden a student’s individual subject knowledge and unlock the unique, intricate mysteries of each subject. For example, if a student of literature knows that Mary Shelley’s mother died shortly after Mary was born and that Shelley herself lost a number of children in infancy, that student’s appreciation of Victor Frankenstein’s obsession with creating life from death, and the language used to describe it, is more enhanced than approaching the text without this knowledge. A physics student investigating why two planes behave differently in flight might know how to ‘think critically’ through the scientific method but, without solid knowledge of contingent factors such as outside air temperature and a bank of previous case studies to draw upon, the student will struggle to know which hypothesis to focus on and which variables to discount.

As Willingham writes: ‘Thought processes are intertwined with what is being thought about.’ Students need to be given real and significant things from the world to think with and about, if teachers want to influence how they do that thinking.

Medicine of course has had a vogue for “problem-based” learning for over half a century now. The premise of this is similar to that of critical thinking skills, and both have a laudable root of increasing learner engagement and showing the relevance of what they learn to “the real world.” Yet there are all sorts of assumptions, and wishful thinking involved.