We humans tend to regard ourselves as the masters of the world. But we are simply part of the ecosystem. There are more bacteria cells in and on our bodies than human cells. There are enormous amount of virus in and on our bodies as well.
We treat microbes as harmful in general. That is why we actively sterilize our environment. But most microbes around us are beneficial to us overall. Bacteria help us digest. Many viruses eat bacteria, preventing those bacteria from multiplying exponentially inside humans. The most potent antibiotics are produced by fungi. Penicillin, the most widely used antibiotics, is produced by Penicillium, a type of fungi. If antibiotics kill too many bacteria, fungi will overrun human bodies, for harmful fungi are no more checked by bacteria. Different kinds of microbes, by constraining each other, keep humans healthy most of the time.
Some bacteria probably do more harm than good. We try very hard to eliminate them or reduce their presence. We are more successful in developing vaccines or treatments against DNA based organisms, which are more stable and easier to target. But RNA viruses mutate very fast. It is more elusive to target the ever changing RNA viruses accurately. Many recent epidemics, such as HIV, influenza, and coronaviruses, are caused by RNA viruses.
When we suppress one type of microbes, we celebrate our success. But from the ecological perspective, we merely open a rich ecological niche, human bodies, for new hosts. This is why superbugs flourish in hospitals, where most known microbes are suppressed. When we eliminate one type of bacteria, it makes it easier for those weaker and less competitive pathogens to invade us. RNA viruses mutate very often. They make so many mistake. It is very difficult for them to compete with more stable, more powerful DNA organisms. But when humans eliminate DNA organisms, RNA viruses face less competition. It is we ourselves who make RNA viruses so successful invaders.
Are we hopeless facing microbes? We really need to assess our situation from a bigger picture, from a longer time frame. Are microbes our biggest threat? Not really! From ecological perspective, any society with below replacement fertility is doomed. The biggest threat to our society is the below replacement fertility. What is the cause for such a low fertility? There can be several reasons. One could be the overdrive of our immune systems in a sterile environment. When our immune systems face less external invaders, they often turn to our own cells. This could be the reason more auto immune diseases occur in clean environment. Women’s immune systems could also attack the cells of fetuses. There are evidence that the existence of some parasites is correlated to higher fertility rate.
From the ecosystem perspective, our war against microbes is futile over long term. In a society which could not reproduce itself, such a war is counterproductive.
We develop models to predict the unfolding of events. Models in turn guide our responses to the unfolding of events. In the current pandemics of novel coronavirus disease, many governments adopt the policy of “herd immunity”. We attempt to "flatten the curve". It is to slow down the speed of infection. This is also to acknowledge, at least implicitly, we can do little to influence the total number of infections. We reach this conclusion based on the mathematical models of epidemics. But how accurate do these models describe the process of infection?
One type of popular models on epidemics is called SIR models. S, I, and R each represents a segment of the population. S represents the susceptible. I represents the infected. R represents the recovered, or removed. The SIR model consists of three ordinary differential equations, each representing the rate of change of S, I, or R. In the standard SIR model, we can adjust behaviors to "flatten the curve". But we can do relatively little to change the total number of infections. This is the theoretical foundation for the policy of “herd immunity”, which let every susceptible get infected and hopefully get recovered, (or removed, i.e., dead).
Does the model capture the main factors in epidemics? One of the most important factors in epidemics is the total number of infected. Many public media trace this number constantly and many people pay close attention to this number. However, this number does not appear in the SIR model. In SIR model, I represents the number of currently being infected, not the total infection number. With higher total infection number, more people and organizations adjust their behaviors. This will affect the rate of infection. When we put the total infection number into the model, the predicted results will change as well. In particular, not all or most susceptible have to be infected before the pandemics runs its course. If most individuals and institutions can adopt strong enough response, the pandemics can be stopped early on. Indeed, most infectious diseases do not infect majority of the population. Our behaviors not only affect the shape of the infection curve, but also the total infection number.
Other than SIR models, some simulations also explore the possible outcomes of epidemics. These simulations and other intuitive arguments suggest that our behaviors can not only flatten the curve, but also change the total number of infections. However, the dominant academic opinion seems to be that the majority of the population will be infected. This theory is presented as “science”. This theory forms the foundation of policies for many governments. There is no such thing as “science”. What we called “science” is usually the most established academic theories. Since the establishment of the SIR models, there has been no global public response as strong as the current coronavirus pandemic. Theories adequate enough in the past may not be able to represent the current situation. In this time of critical moment, we especially need to re-examine the foundation of the dominant theories that greatly influence our policies. It could save a lot of lives.
For detailed discussion on the mathematical models, please check
Recently I get a message inquiring about my world view. I don’t think about this topic that much. Maybe I just list some of my thoughts about research.
Like many others, I want to understand life. That is my basic drive.
To really understand something, we need to be able to present it as a mathematical theory. We may think we understand something very well. But there can be many inconsistencies in our understanding. Only when I can develop a mathematical theory of life, I can satisfy myself.
A mathematical theory has to be consistent with physical principles. Otherwise, the theory can’t describe much reality. To be specific, thermodynamic processes are the most universal processes in nature. A sound theory of life must be built on thermodynamic theory. The fundamental equations to describe life processes must be thermodynamic equations.
Currently, most equations that describe life processes and economic processes are ordinary differential equations. It is natural to start with ordinary differential equations because they are simpler. Actually, many popular ordinary differential equations, such as those in chaos theory, are simplified from original thermodynamic equations. However, we have to be aware that these equations do not represent reality accurately. We have to be careful when applying theoretical results to interpret reality.
One popular theory is the butterfly theory. It states that the flapping of wings by a butterfly in Brazil can generate a tornado in US. The theory was originally developed from equations on weather, which are thermodynamic equations. Since the original equations are too complex, they were simplified into ordinary differential equations. The butterfly effects were derived from simplified equations.
Do these simplified equations describe weather accurately? No, they don’t. We all know a butterfly in Brazil cannot generate a tornado in US. That is why we can forecast weather conditions very accurately for several days.
However, the theory of butterfly effect is still very popular in social sciences. It has been used to cover up deep structural problems in our social systems. Few researchers point out that the butterfly theory is not based an equation that describe reality accurately.
What I have done is to develop an analytical theory of life and human society based on physical and economical principles. The combination of physical and economical principles is very crucial. A living system is a physical system that generate nonnegative returns on average.
Some say living systems are too complex to be described by a mathematical theory. But living systems are physical systems. And they are subject to additional constraints, the economical constraints, than general physical systems. Living systems, in particular human societies, must be easier to understand than general physical systems. Indeed, until several centuries ago, we have no clue how solar system works. But our ancestors can handle daily activities successfully for millions of years.
Some say human societies can’t be described accurately by a mathematical theory for humans have free will. When we drive on the road, we don’t think drivers on the opposite direction have free will. We know most of them want to drive safely. Occasionally, some drivers may be impaired. Rarely, some drivers may intentionally collide into other cars. Human mind, just like human body, is evolved to help us survive successfully in this world. There are general patterns how humans think. Human mind is not free.
Our theory consists of three parts. The first part is the entropy theory of mind. Mind is a reflection of reality. Mind is more efficient if it captures the most important aspects of the world. Entropy law is the most universal law of nature. Entropy flows are what drive the directional movement of the world. The entropy theory of mind provides simple understanding to many psychological patterns.
The second part of our theory is the entropy theory of value. All living systems survive by extracting low entropy from the environment. It would be natural to develop an entropy theory of value. Why such a theory faces great resistance? There are several reasons. One is Arrow’s statement. He investigated the possibility of entropy theory of value. He observed that Shannon’s entropy measure doesn’t carry weight. So it is not very useful in economics. That was a simple mistake. Information measure does carry weight. A sentence can carry more information than a single letter. Everyone makes mistakes. But when an emperor makes a mistake, only he himself, or his close associates, can legitimately correct the mistake.
The third part of our theory is the production theory. It is an analytical theory of major factors in economic activities, such as fixed cost, variable cost, duration of investment, discount rate and uncertainty. Fixed rate and variable costs, asset duration are the basic quantities in accounting. Governments fine tune economic activities mainly by adjusting interest rates. Our theory was inspired by Black-Scholes option theory. Black had anticipated a general theory on economic activities based on similar method.
Our theory provides a concise and consistent understanding of biological and social activities. It has been around for about two decades now. Yet the established researchers, mainstream or not, take scant attention to it. Why is that?
Social theories are developed to advance the interests of themselves and their groups. The dominant groups hope to maintain the current social structure. They will promote an equilibrium theory, or end of history theory. The marginal groups hope to change the current social structure. Yet to make their theory attractive, they will claim their alternative social structure is the optimal or equilibrium state. Attractive social theories for dominant and marginal groups, such as general equilibrium theory, Marxist theory, major religions, are all equilibrium theories.
Our theory is a non-equilibrium theory. Human societies are part of the biological systems. This is consistent with the non-equilibrium theory of biological systems in science. Our theory provides a unified understanding of biological and social systems. Our theory provides simple and coherent understanding of vast array of social phenomena. In standard social theories, most social phenomena are attributed to imperfectness, incompleteness, irrationality or externality.
The standard social theories may provide psychological comfort. We all need psychological comfort. It can be provided by religions with much lower costs than the dominant "social science" theories. This is why religions are advancing rapidly in today's world.
Our theory does not provide psychological comfort. It provides solutions to the problems in this world. It is time to leave psychological comfort to religions and leave the study of truth to sciences. The theories of "social sciences" are not consistent with science. The theories of "social sciences" uphold politically correct, and hence suppress factually correct.
Current coronavirus pandemics is spreading rapidly all over the world. While few countries are completely spared of this scourge, countries with aging demographics are hardest hit.
The coronavirus disease was originated from China. It has adopted a strict one child policy for many years. As a result, in a typical family, a couple at working age have to support four aging parents. This put great strain to many families and communities.
Other areas hard hit by the coronavirus disease, such as South Korea, Iran, Europe and North America, all have aging demographics. The areas with younger populations are less devastated by the advance of this disease. Why demographics makes such a great difference in the face of pandemics?
The existence of microbes is not the sole reason for pandemics. Microbes have existed for billions of years. Sometimes they cause pandemics. Sometimes they don’t. They may cause pandemics in some populations. They may not cause pandemics in other populations. The occurrence and spread of pandemics is the result of interactions of the whole ecosystem. Specifically, there can be several reasons.
First, older people generally have weaker immune systems. In a population with higher percentage of older people, more people are likely to get sick from the spread of microbes.
Second, in a society of older population, more effort is made to sterilize the environment. As a result, the environment contains less microbes than otherwise. However, the most effective antibiotics are often excreted by microbes, to protect themselves from competing microbes. Penicillin, the most important antibiotics, is produced by Penicillium, a type of fungi. That is why new microbes, such as superbugs, often thrive in highly sterile environment, such as hospitals. The paucity of existing microbes in an environment makes it easy for new microbes to take over the available niches. Since the advance of new microbes faces less resistance from existing microbes, people are more vulnerable to new microbes in a more sterile environment.
Third, with the aging of general population, the work force is aging as well. Many people work to the age of sixty five and beyond. The advent of any stress factor will greatly stress the work force and compromise their ability to carry on the routines.
Fourth, the medical system and other service systems are already stretched thin even in normal times in an aging society. There is little spare capacity to cushion the extra burden. Furthermore, the arrival of a pandemics often significantly reduces the capacity of the social system. The impact of microbe invasion, or other disturbances, are much more pronounced in an aging society than in a young society.
In most of the Western societies, the birthrate has dropped below the replacement rate for several decades. Yet the policymakers pay scant attention to this vital indicator. To them, the financial markets are the leading indicator of the society. They take many measures to pop up the financial market, most of which further depress the birthrate. In Canada, pension deduction rate has been increasing continuously over time. This infuses more money into the financial market but reduces the amount of money to support young families at their most fertile period. In US, low interest rate and quantitative easing fuels the longest bull market in history. The same policies also diluted the few resources to ordinary families. Its birthrate has dropped to the lowest level in record.
Our society is not supported by the stock market. Our society is supported by food, electricity and fuels. Our society is supported by grocery stores cashiers and stockers, farmers and workers. This becomes plain and simple during crisis. We need more people, more young people with strong immune systems, more young people who can work effectively under stress. To achieve a younger demographics, we can’t keep our eyes glued to the financial indicators. We have to pay attention to birthrate and other vital biophysical indicators. This is the first step we need to take.
HIV, flu and recently coronavirus have caused havoc to human societies. These viruses are all RNA viruses. Are RNA viruses very strong? On the contrary, they’re very weak. If so, how can they cause so much damage?
Many of us, as babies or parents of babies, have read Three Little Pigs. In that story, one little pig built a straw house, the second little pig built a stick house, the last little pig built a brick house. RNA viruses are the straw house. DNA organisms are the brick house. Our immune systems can destroy RNA viruses easily, just like a wolf can destroy a straw house easily. So why RNA viruses can cause so much trouble?
It is much easier to build a straw house than a brick house. It takes a lot of time, effort and especially cost to build a brick house. When the last little pig struggled to build his brick house, the first little pig had already settled down in his straw house, raising many young piglets with his wife. Those piglets in turn build many new straw houses and raise many new babies.
RNA viruses are the same. Comparing with DNA life, RNA viruses are very cheap to make. So RNA viruses can multiply very quickly in our bodies, although most of them are quickly destroyed by our immune systems.
Brick houses need some design standards. The shapes of doors, windows have to follow specific designs. Straw houses, on the other hand, are much more flexible. There is really no need for a building code for straw houses. Similarly, the structures of RNA viruses are are more flexible than more complex DNA life. RNA viruses are very unstable and mutate very fast. This makes it much harder for immune systems to develop specialized antibodies to efficiently eliminate RNA viruses.
Many people expect the arrival of vaccines will eliminate coronavirus soon. However, the record of developing vaccines against RNA viruses is mixed. We have not been able to develop HIV vaccine, despite tremendous efforts. Flu vaccines are not very effective, because flu viruses, as RNA viruses, mutate very fast. DNA pathogens, such as smallpox viruses, are more stable. It is easier to develop vaccines against DNA pathogens in general. So we might not be able to find effective vaccines against coronavirus soon.
RNA viruses can mutate very fast. It is very easy for RNA viruses inhabiting non human hosts to acquire segments of viruses that inhabiting human hosts. It is relatively easy for RNA viruses to evolve the ability to inhabit human hosts. Even if vaccines against novel coronavirus turns out to be successful, new RNA viruses may emerge to host human species. RNA viruses can jump from species to species easily. We will face constant threat of new RNA virus pandemic, giving the high density and high mobility of human population.
So are we hopeless in dealing with RNA viruses? If RNA viruses are so successful, maybe we can learn something from them. The key of RNA viruses’ success is their low cost and simplicity. Our modern society is too expensive to maintain. As a result, our families couldn’t afford to have two children on average. With less and less young people, our population ages. This makes our society very vulnerable to any disturbances.
In fact, we don’t need to look into RNA viruses for insight. Many societies have much higher fertility rates and much younger populations than the western societies. But because of their simple social structures, we often patronize them. Very often, those could not afford a single child rush to help those having seven or eight children. Some couldn’t see the simple fact that a society with above replacement fertility rate is more youthful, more energetic and more dynamic than a society with below replacement fertility rate.
We demand heavier and heavier armor to protect our aging society. But the heavy armor only wears us down. When the nimble viruses break through our containment, we are utterly exposed and helpless. To revive our aging society, we have to abandon the heavy and restrictive armor. We need to reduce our burden. We need to light ourselves up. We need to rejuvenate our society with more babies and juveniles.
RNA life are more ancient than DNA life. RNA life are simple, agile and versatile. RNA viruses have weathered all attempts to eliminate them by large and complex DNA life. The complex and clumsy machineries of human society will never eliminate the eternally young RNA life. We have to be humble, to live with them, to accept discipline from them and to learn from them.
Broad spectrum medicines: Our first choice against new diseases
When we face new diseases, such as novel coronavirus disease, we often feel powerless and get panic. Is there any method we might follow to protect ourselves? Our own immune systems provide some wise guidelines.
Our immune systems include innate systems and adaptive systems. When we encounter new pathogens, our immune systems don’t have targeted methods against them. Our body will enlist broad spectrum innate immune systems to fight off the unfamiliar invaders. The heavy bombardments can be brutal, often causing damages to our own cells and tissues as well. But they are the best available weapons.
At the same time, our immune systems will study the new pathogens, with the hope to develop specific antibodies in the future. These antibodies will target those specific pathogens if they invade us again. This method will target and destroy invaders precisely. It will cause little collateral damage to ourselves. This is part of our adaptive immune systems.
In summary, our immune systems consist of two major parts: broad spectrum innate systems and targeted adaptive systems. When we encounter new pathogens, our primitive and broad spectrum innate immune systems will defend ourselves against unfamiliar intruders. We should adopt the same strategy protecting ourselves from unfamiliar new diseases. We should use primitive and broad spectrum medicines defending ourselves against new diseases, until and if more specialized medicines become available.
What are the broad spectrum medicines we have? Antiseptics kill most germs. They are the true broad spectrum medicines. Among antiseptics, alcohol is the most commonly used. Since ancient times, alcohol based drinks have been used as clean drinks and as medicine. A routine rinse of mouth with hard liquor, such as whisky, probably provide good protection against many new and old pathogens.
Other than alcohol (ethanol), phenol has been used as an antiseptics for more than a hundred years. Phenol based throat spray, such as Chloraseptic, is available without prescription. It is easy to get over the counter, cheap and convenient. In recent years, Dr Li Yuehua has advocated the use of phenol as a broad spectrum medicine for many kinds of illness, including the current novel coronavirus disease. Phenol throat spray may provide good protection against many pathogens. As the toxicity of phenol is high, we should follow the instruction of its use carefully. In particular, we need to spit out the spray.
With the advance of a new diseases, the medical system may get overwhelmed. The whole society may become panic. At such a time, we should be more self reliant. We should also recognize that the medical systems may not be able to provide more effective service against the new pathogens than the readily available broad spectrum medicines, such as alcohol and phenol. The medical system may market some sophisticated drugs. But until these drugs prove to be effective against new pathogens clinically, we should not have high expectations on them. Our body doesn't have high expectations on our adaptive immune systems when we encounter new pathogens.
Finally, get a lot of sunshine, drink plenty of hot water and be happy. They are the best broad spectrum medicines.
The following are pictures of some of the phenol throat sprays on the market.
On unimportant issues, few have incentives to distort truth. Truth is easy to find. On important issues, many have incentives to distort truth. Truth can be difficult to find.
How do we tell truth from lies? We don’t. We pick up stories based on our own interests, not based on truth. If a story is aligned with our interest, it is an interesting story. We get interested. If a story is not aligned with our interest, it is not an interesting story. We don’t get interested.
If you know where your interest lies, you know which story to believe and to share. There is no need to know truth. If you don’t know where your interest lies, why are you so curious about truth? In movies, someone accidentally witnessed truth is often ruthlessly hunted down. If you are not seeking trouble, why do you seek truth?
Of course, truth is not always suppressed. Sometimes, truth may be aligned with the interest of powerful parties, even dominant parties. It is when truth is mostly aligned with the interest of dominant parties, scientific breakthroughs flourish. This is rare in human history. Today is certainly not such a day.
Humans are social animals. We all need social approval. It is natural to write and share stories. But just stop asking if a story is true. That destroys all the pleasure in socializing.