The Moral Landscape – A Four Part Review (Part 3)

More thoughts on Sam Harris’s insightful new book, The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values, 2011. I am reading it with two friends.

Would you like to join us?  It would be great to have your comments as well. As we read, we are each identifying key ideas we agree with, and statements where we disagree.

Chapter 2 follows:

The Moral Landscape, Chapter 2 – Good and Evil

Agreements (and my rewording/additions in italics):

Harris is an Ethical Naturalist. Some ethical statements are true, and derive from real physical aspects of the universe. Harris is also a Utilitarian. Striving to maximize the overall good, create the greatest good for the greatest number. Harris is also a Consequentialist. The consequences of one’s conduct, actual or potential, are the ultimate basis for any judgment about the rightness of that conduct. Thus Harris (and many of us) can self-describe our morality as Naturalist Utilitarian Consequentialist. Now doesn’t make you feel better? 🙂

Religious believers who seek to justify thoughts or behaviors based on consequences which do not or cannot occur in our natural world can easily be immoral.  

We may have theistic beliefs, but those beliefs should always be consistent with and constrained by natural-world consequences, potential and actual. Supernatural consequentialism, to the extent that it conflicts with natural-world consequences, can easily become immoral. It gives us the wrong priorities, or causes us to lose sight of the real consequences that matter, in favor of imagined consequences that are both untestable and wrong. Examples: Christian theism that sometimes devalues science and natural and social progress in the physical world, or which diverts or constrains our feeble and finite cognitive resources to fundamentalist thought or behavior, or to converting others to nonadaptive beliefs. Islamic theism that sometimes legitimates religious violence, etc.

The moment we accept there are right and wrong answers on questions of well being and progress, we accept there are many who are wrong about their answers. It is often difficult to determine the net long-term moral consequences of an event, a problem philosopher Dan Dennett calls the Three Mile Island Effect. We do our best anyway.

We value total well being and progress over the average well being or progress of all. We may sacrifice ourselves to improve total well being or progress, ideally both.

In some domains, as in our valuing of family and subgroups, or of monogamy (or other limitations on polygamy) over open relationships, we want a bias toward the well being or progress of the subgroup.  In other areas we want equality of treatment, opportunity, and access, or a lack of bias, as much as is practical. Whether we want bias or not depends on the total consequences, for well being and progress, of the value preference.

Calculations of fairness drive reward related activity in the brain, according to neuroimaging and behavioral economics. Our brain is a fairness computing and emoting machine.

Kant’s Categorical Imperative: Act always in a manner that you hope is consistent with universal law.

Jonathan Haidt: We make moral judgments intuitively and emotionally. Our reasoning is usually post hoc (constructed after the fact), and has limited ability to change our intuitive-emotional judgments. Amen.

Genuine altruism, benefiting others without reciprocation, includes altruistic punishment, the sacrifice of self to punish norm violators, with personal harm incurred in the process.

Altruistic punishment is both a powerful and a dangerous concept. If we were individually more courageous, more willing to sacrifice ourselves to punish norm violators (for example more of the 90% willing to go to jail to thwart or block unfair actions by powerful corporations, the ultrawealthy, the government, and other members of the top 10%), we could have much better society, but if this were done poorly, we could also easily have a much more violent and complexity-poorer society. The morality of a contemplated altruistic punishment strategy depends on the consequences to society. This in turn depends on the context, intelligence and proportionality of the behavior. As with Democracy, which could not flourish as a beneficial form of governance until societies had literacy and mass communications, mass scale altruistic punishment (sacrifice of individual freedoms, wealth, etc. in order to punish the transgressions of much more powerful groups) may only become a generally net positive development once we have cybertwins guiding our democratic activities post 2020, intelligently channeling us into more effective mass activism, such as sitdowns, strikes, boycotts, purchases of true competitors products, strategies that will bring negative consequences and shame to the 10%, and other forms of civil disobedience. There are some great scenarios and stories to be written here!

Consciousness expands choice, so it is an evolutionary good. The more consciousness we have, the more proactive choices we have as to how to decide a thought or behavior (logic, emotion, random chemical oscillators, coin flips, horoscope, etc.) That is what free will is. Freedom is conscious awareness of and increased control over cognitive choice. Like consciousness, it is variable and transient, but freedom is no illusion!

Disagreements:

Pat Churchland: “No one knows how to compare the headache of 5 million against the broken legs of two.”

Disagree. We make economic estimates for these all the time. Actuarial science, insurance, risk mgmt are big industries, in fact, and increasingly quantitative.

Paul Slovic, in Psychic Numbing, has shown we are more distressed by violence to single individuals than to large populations. We grow numb as numbers rise.

Harris finds this illogical, but it seems quite logical for those who believe their ability to influence or control environmental outcomes decreases as the number of actors rise. We steadily lose hope and empathy as numbers rise, and this seems a reasonable way to view the world. We pick fights that we think we can win. As long as our hope and empathy remain strong in systems of smaller numbers, we can continue to move the system forward. 

Derek Parfit’s “Repugnant Conclusion” for using total well-being as your standard of value: hundreds of billions of barely surviving can be preferable to 7 billion happy. Average well being can prevent even worse problems.

But if we value well being and progress together, the “logic problem” of Parfit’s model falls away. Total well being and progress are what seem most useful to care about, not average (we also care about the distribution of the total, or the social divide, a topic you haven’t mentioned). There are also inescapable real-world tradeoffs between these values. More of us choosing individually to sacrifice in certain ways can often get us total progress faster, and we can be sold on and willing to test such strategies.

Loss aversion (cognitive bias). We are more averse to real losses than real forsaken gains. So we preserve the status quo more than risk.

Harris questions the value of this, but to me this also sounds like prudence, a strategy likely to be generally adaptive. Part of our psychology is seems to be set up to seek progress, and part to appreciate what we have (think of Type A and Type B personalities). In my own head, when I have a forsaken gain, I remind myself of how lucky I am, and take stock of what I do have. When I have a real loss, however, it’s clearly a regression.  

“We cannot give a rational explanation of why it is worse to lose something than not to gain it.”

Yes we can, or at least I think we can. Loss sets us up to see a regressive pattern, and imagine further regression. Not gaining pushes us to value what we have, and imagine stasis, a more preferable fate. 

“Can the disparity between our desires to satisfy our own desires (eat well) and to end the suffering of others (global starvation) be morally justfied? Of course not.”

Disagree. There is always a judgment of efficacy. We estimate our efficacy. We can do little to end global suffering, and much to increase our and friends pleasure.We all personally know abusers who don’t quit when we try to alleviate the conditions of the abused. Many social games occur inside systems so broken (education, government, unions) they are “no win.” This is similar to Psychic Numbing. It is adaptive to focus on the well being we know we can achieve and progress we can make — starting with ourselves and our loved ones.

“We are now poised to consciously engineer our further evolution, thus escaping evolutionary dynamics.”

Not so. Respectfully, this kind of language is I believe unaware of the limits of reason, which is one form of memetic evolution. We can’t escape evolutionary processes, no matter our level of development, if we live in an evolutionary developmental universe.

“Free will cannot be squared with our growing understanding of the physical world.”

Disagree. The will of all living organisms seems to be on a continuum of constraint. There are degrees of freedom, and the more conscious the organism, the more its will is free to follow the dictates of rationality, emotion, intuition, random chemical oscillators (see Martin Heisenberg’s work), or any other strategy it can see, chosen with some measure of proactivity, vs. reactive and unconscious thought or behavior. That sliver of thought or behavior that is conscious in any organism, at any moment in time, has some degree of choice to follow a range of decision rules available to its awareness. Less conscious and unconscious animals simply have far fewer of those choices.

“It seems clear that retribution rests upon a cognitive illusion of free will, and is thus also a moral illusion.”

Disagree. Conscious will is much freeer/more voluntary/choice rich, and to the extent a crime is more conscious, it is more immoral, and should be punished (and rehabilitated where possible) as such, whenever the social consequences would be better than no punishment (and rehabilitation). The utility of socially agreed and broadcast punishments for various crimes, the act of retribution/punishment for a committed crime, and rehabilitation, are all morally meaningful with more conscious, choice-capable human beings, and they are less morally meaningful (socially consequential) with psychopaths, mentally ill, substance-addicted, children, etc. In the latter cases we need other methods to deter crime than punishment or the threat of punishment, such as increased social transparency to identify and rehabilitate or monitor individuals who have less free will/choice/consciousness than the norm. 

Thoughts? Comments? Let me know, thanks.

BBC Doc: People’s Century, Ep 7, Breadline – The Great Depression, Fascism and Full Employment

Today I’m watching episode seven of People’s Century*, 1995, the amazing 26 part BBC series, 54 minutes each, that chronicles our entire 20th Century. I now realize it is likely to be the most impressive documentary series I’ve seen so far, so I’ve decided to selectively blog some of the insights it provides.

I hope that you will consider watching all 26 episodes for yourself at some point in your life, and showing it to and discussing it with your children. It is a singular experience. If it stays as good as it has been to date, I think it should be part of the core curriculum in every enlightened high school or college. The critical thing documentaries with this kind of scope in time (100 years), and breadth in subject (the whole world) provide is what computer scientist David Gelernter calls topsight, the ability to see and understand the whole of a system, from a vantage point that allows you to see an unusually large amount of it, in its essentials. People’s Century, at least the episodes I’ve seen so far, will give you unparalleled topsight into the nature of human life, the perennial opportunities and challenges of civilization, and our relentless and uplifting history of accelerating scientific, technical, and social complexification.

This episode is about the Great Depression. The greatest lesson I got from this is how simplistic and intransigent our capitalist governments of the time (Ramsay MacDonald in the UK, Herbert Hoover in the US) were, and how little they understood that only governments in modern market economies have the unique ability and responsibility to intervene in the business cycle, to make the inevitable bubbles shorter, and the inevitable crashes milder. Most importantly, their governments needed to save and spend countercyclically, as the economist John Maynard Keynes would eventually argue, as one of the foundational ideas of what we now call Keynesian economics.

In a depression, when no one in the business sector has money to spend (or is willing to spend, as with our big corps today), the government needs to keep shoes on everyones feet, keep the mines and the shipyards running, and do its best to create or subsidize jobs for the 20-40% of people who are forced out of work by the market system’s natural volatility, and by the increasingly rapid (yet increasingly short lived) waves of technological advance causing technological unemployment.  In a boom, the government needs to save while the businesses and consumers are spending more than they should, so the country won’t incur huge debts during the crash, by printing money none of us have. Our politicians since Hoover, with rare exception, don’t seem to have learned that second part of the cycle.

At least in this Great Recession many have unemployment insurance, health care, and we are seeing major fiscal interventions. In the US, the majority of our new weapons against unemployment truly can be traced back to the insights and convictions of Franklin Delano Roosevelt and his canny request in 1933 for and acquisition of executive powers to rival his powers under war, so that he could engage in a war on unemployment through his New Deal. Yet with all the advances we’ve made since the 1930’s, these films make clear how poor our policies remain relative to their potential.

It was fascinating to learn in the film that Sweden’s Social Democratic Government was actually the first of the advanced democracies to offer a New Deal style intervention against unemployment, not the US. Using major debt-incursion by the state, and serious public work projects for all, they’d largely recovered by 1934, while every other country was still in high unemployment. An American journalist, Marquis Childs, wrote Sweden: The Middle Way, in 1936. Roosevelt was excited by this book (see his quote at the book link), and sent a team to study Sweden’s cooperatives, businesses owned by their users for mutual benefit. I would love to know how much Roosevelt’s New Deal was influenced by the Swedish Social Democrats programs of intensive public intervention, which started when they came to majority power in 1932, a year before Roosevelt in the US. What is clear is that the Social Democrat’s Minister of Finance, Ernst Wigforss, is often credited with inventing and implementing Keynesian economics before Keynes.  Here’s a crazy Wikipedia quote: “John Kenneth Galbraith writes in his book A History of Economics: The Past as the Present, 1991, that it “would be more fair to say ‘The Swedish Economic Revolution’ than the ‘Keynesian revolution’ in economics, and that Wigforss was first in this transformation of thinking and practice about economy”. Yeah Sweden!

Another of the great ideas in the film was mentioned with respect to one of the megaconstruction projects, I believe it was the Tennessee Valley Authority. The worker noted that they’d had a chance to create three eight-hour shifts or four six-hour shifts to fill their 24-hour construction cycle, and went with the latter to maximize job creation. That’s a 25% sacrifice on the part of the eight hour workers who were instead paid for six hours a day. Imagine if we had a President bold enough to ask folks to voluntarily cut back, for a full year, the hours they are paid to work by 10-25%, in order to create more temporary (year-long) “training jobs” for all those presently out of work. The job-creating workers could spend the unpaid time on themselves or family, or they could use it to help train those getting the temporary training jobs. How many people (3% of us? More?) would gladly take turns, each year of a protracted depression, volunteering make such a sacrifice once they truly understood the hope, self-respect, and industry this action would stimulate for America? How many temporary new jobs could we create with such a scheme, and how soon would the economy grow enough for some of those jobs to become permanent? I don’t hear this kind of thinking from our administration today, and it is a major shame. Folks like that exist, and they should be given the ability to rise to the call, and their actions would shame or inspire a much larger fraction of Americans into helping out in less dramatic ways.

Have you heard of Oswald Mosley? I learned about him watching this episode.  Mosley created and led the British Union of Fascists 1932-40. The BUF flag is left. Look a bit like the Swastika? No surprise, Mosley was inspired by and friends with the Nazis. He left the UK parliament in 1930, when the do-nothing classical capitalist government of the time rejected his plan for any state intervention to create more employment. At the time, Hitler and Mussolini were promising full employment and state intervention in the Depression under Fascism in Germany and Italy. This promise of intervention, of at least doing something to get people employed, seems to have been the primary appeal at the time of the fascists to the common voter. The fascists, for all their unsettling extremism, were at least promising some kind of state intervention, when MacDonald (UK) and Hoover (US) were counseling “belt tightening” and had squat else to offer. This was a great failure of nerve and vision on the part of the capitalists.

The 1920’s was, if you think about it in historical context, the last gasp of the libertarians. Their policies became untenable from this point forward. As much as I appreciate their desire to bring fiscal responsibility to our very irresponsible modern governments, Ron Paul and his ilk today haven’t sufficiently learned the lessons of history. The more complex a social system gets, the more regulation, and the more intelligent regulation, it needs. The Great Depression made it clear we needed some kind of intervention, and fascism got its day because it at least offered serious intervention, when the capitalists were being the cold-hearted and short-sighted bastards they can so often be. Of course, as the lessons of the 1930’s and 40’s taught us, you have to be very careful who gets the keys to the house. I’m looking forward to seeing those in coming episodes.

To bring this post back to the present, I propose our current economic policies, and the messages of our governmental, corporate, and social leaders, fall far short of what history teaches us in at least four major ways:

1. We remain ignorant of defining, measuring, and managing technical productivity, the scientific, technological, and knowledge capital that is the real productivity base and foundation of every modern society. Technical productivity can be defined as all the elements and processes of a society that most directly drive its accelerating complexification, to the best of our current theories of machine and social intelligence. Gross domestic productivity is a very poor proxy for technical productivity. Entertainment, aesthetics, religion/philosophy, philanthropy, defense, and many other aspects of human commerce and activity, for all their many evolutionary benefits, simply do not have the same survival importance to modern society as a complex system as science or engineering, and never will. (If you doubt that large scale defense budgets are less important to society today than ever before, read Steven Pinker’s new masterpiece, The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined, 2011). Even the financial industry is also not of the same critical importance. Wall Street could vanish tomorrow and we’d rebuild our financial, credit, and monetary systems quickly, as long as Main Street had sufficient engineers and know how to run all the machines that modern society depends upon. In fact, sometimes debt forgiveness and starting over is the best thing for a financial system that has become too uncompetitive, too biased to reward the few players at the top. Evolution would argue that we need as much diversity and specialization of activity as possible to increase our wisdom and resilience, but development would argue that some products and services are much more important to social resilience and acceleration than others, and we need to recognize this, and do our best to support, subsidize, and advance the social, economic, scientific and technological policies that will accelerate technical productivity.

2. We need much smarter and more aggressive job-creation policies during a recession, some of which, like the job-training idea described above, don’t require extra spending, just some sacrifice, extra mental and physical effort, can-do spirit, and boldness from business, government, and media leaders. Corporations, the state, and the media can do a massive amount to combat unemployment in a recession without going to the unacceptable extremes of state socialism or fascism, methods of creating full employment that may work in the short run but are ultimately unsustainable.

3. This said, we also need to create consequences for spending money we don’t have. Countercyclical spending only works as intended if you’ve done countercyclical saving. Spending money you don’t have can only go on for so long, before the debt you create is worse than not spending. We need to know where that point is, and there need to be serious consequences, including the loss of political office and inability for reelection for those who cross it. We need to revise our governments rulesets so in the future, unless we are in a serious recession, politicians can only spend a bit over what they’ve saved. And if we are in a serious recession, there also need to be severe consequences to the politicians (loss of office, loss of ability to lobby after leaving office) and the wealthy and corporate leaders (new recession taxes imposed) who let us get there.

4. We need to address fifty years of growing corporate and social income and wealth divides. We have to recognize that the corporations and their lobbies fully captured the governments some time near the middle of the 20th century, as their wealth grew far faster than governments because of mass markets, connectivity, and globalization, and we need to take steps to getting corporations back under the control of democracies. Govt reform, tax policy reform, rich poor divides, far better regulation of the financial industry, and many related issues fall under this challenge.

Lots to do, but we can count on accelerating technical productivity delivering an ever more capable human civilization to empower our reform efforts as well. If accelerating complexification is a universal developmental process, as I think it is, then the acceleration will continue whether we grow wise enough to recognize and actively guide it, or not. It will continue whether we grow humble enough to recognize the laws of the universe seem to be doing most of the work, and we just need to stop getting in the way so much with our short term and selfish desires, or not.

*Finding People’s Century online isn’t easy at present. Episode 2, Killing Fields (WW I) is available free, if you have Amazon Prime, on Amazon Instant Video. A few more can be found online here. For now, to see all 26 you will have to go to the torrent or usenet sites (use an anonymizer of some type so your ISP doesn’t throttle your connection), or buy a VHS copy ($99 for the series) off Amazon or eBay. DVDs don’t appear to be available at any price. As I’ve written in How the Television Will be Revolutionized, until streaming or DVDs emerge that are reasonably priced (we all know what reasonable is), I have no qualms going to the internets for this, and heartily recommending others to do the same. Be a soldier in the war for affordable global access to quality educational video!

Objections? Additions? Omissions? Let me know. Hope you can find time to watch the series, it’s amazing.

Rapid Ear Wax Removal System – My Favorite Home Solution So Far

Have ear wax blockage? Here’s an easy and fast home ear wax removal system that really works. Share it on!

I. My Favorite Home Solution So Far

1. Buy a Water Pik. I recommend the WP 450 Cordless Plus. Available at Amazon for $42 (free shipping with Prime), or right away at Target for $55. You can also use it to replace daily flossing, saving time there as well.

2. Buy three bottles of hydrogen peroxide. Also at Target, or your local supermarket. 50 cents a bottle. Charge the Water Pik, put the peroxide in the reservoir, and set the pressure setting on low.

3. Kneel over your tub and irrigate your ear. It takes just 2 minutes (two 45 second reservoirs full with peroxide) to clear a typical impaction, in my experience. As long as you use common sense (see below), it is totally safe.

If you are one of the 6% of people (18+ million Americans, 400+ million worldwide), like me, who have to live with excessive ear wax buildup (we are “overproducers”), and who get clogged ears and ear wax-caused tinnitus at least once a year, I think you’ll love this solution.

If you have someone who can look in your ear before and after you irrigate it, to visualize the wax and your eardrum, feel free to get an otoscope too. Dr. Mom Slimline Otoscope is a popular one on Amazon, $27.

Common Sense Warning:

If your ear is painful, or you’ve had a blocked ear for days, one that might be inflamed, I’d use one of the other much slower home solutions below, or go your doctor. An inflamed eardrum can be delicate, and you might perforate it with a jet of high pressure liquid in your ear. Even doctors cleaning out ears with syringes or scoops are reported in the medical literature (in the few studies that exist on this) to perforate the tympanic membrane in the eardrum in up to 1% of cases. So be careful. But if you’ve just recently blocked your ear with wax, and you don’t use this in any way that will cause you pain, I think the Water Pik is your best solution by far.

Don’t put the Water Pik deeply into your ear, just get the tip into the canal, set it on low, and let the rapid flow and the peroxide strip away the ear wax. Again, in my experience it takes at least two reservoirs of peroxide to clear a typical impaction. Take a break every 10 seconds to clear your ears, and stop as soon as your hearing clears up. If you still hear faint ringing an hour or more later, you may still have some wax stuck to your eardrum. If so, do it again for another 10-40 seconds, wait an hour, and listen again. Soon even the faintest ringing will stop and you’ll be hearing wonderfully again. Also, be sure not to use cold peroxide. It should be room temperature or even a bit warm (feel free to put the peroxide you’ll be using, not the Waterpik, in the microwave for 10 seconds) if you want it even more efficient. Cold water in your inner ear can make some folks nauseous or dizzy. For people with really hard wax plugs, you might want to take a 20 minute sauna or steam room visit before you use your WaterPik. That makes it the most efficient. Most of us don’t need that, fortunately, when our ears get plugged.

Want to spend a whole lot more for very little extra value? There’s an older model Water Pik with a tip that directs the water to the sides of the ear canal, rather than directly at the eardrum. Its called the Bionix OtoClear Ear Lavage system, and it costs $230 (!). Here’s a video of it in action.  Most of us would never pay that, and fortunately we don’t have to. Just use your Water Pik on low, and direct its jet at the side of the ear canal rather than the back. YouTube now even has a few videos of Water Piks being used for ear wax removal by physician assistants, so I see what I thought was my own little secret is out.

If you overproduce ear wax you may end up using your Water Pik for a minute or so every few months, just to manage wax buildup before it becomes a problem. If you are a swimmer, you might use it for just 5-10 seconds in each ear when you get home after a swim, to keep your ears clean and infection free.  Just be sure not to use this device to clear out all the wax, which is there to protect your ears from bacteria. Again, use your common sense.

Feel free to ask your doctor about the WaterPik solution. Some physicians now OK this solution for their patients when they tell them about it (see reader comments below). Others, not wanting their patients to risk even minor self-inflicted harm, wouldn’t recommend their patients use either the $230 Bionix or the $42 Water Pik for their ears. I’ll be curious to see what kinds of formal guidelines eventually emerge. Ideally, the AMA would get involved in offering a set of guidelines for users and manufacturers for home irrigation, rather than leaving us to figure them out for ourselves. Fortunately, regardless of what they eventually do or say, you can still do it yourself. If you are a responsible human being, who has good common sense, I think you deserve to have the most powerful and affordable tools at your disposal. For ear wax removal, that’s definitely the Water Pik. So I hope the more independent-minded readers will take it upon themselves to try this the next time they have a blockage, rather than take their problem to a physician. You deserve to be able to solve this problem yourself, immediately, whenever it occurs. Good luck!

Below is some additional info on ear wax removal.  You can skip it, unless you want more and alternative removal tips:

II. Nonsolutions

1. Q-Tips. These are both ineffective and dangerous. As almost all of us know, Q-Tips will very occasionally get the wax out, but most times they just compact it deeper in the ear canal, creating a plug. The big problem is that if you push too hard, you’ll rip your eardrum. An ear wax removal startup called Clear Earpitching in minutes 21-28 in this video, estimates that 20,000 people perforate their eardrums with Q-Tips every year worldwide. Think of how many people dig at their ears to get this level of injuries, and you see the magnitude of the ear wax removal problem.

III. Other Home Solutions

1. Ear Wax Removal Syringe. Acu-Life makes a great Ear Wax Removal Syringe, $5, with a tip that diverts the liquid to the sides of the ear canal, so you can push the plunger as hard as you want. But the flow ends up being pretty mild, so even if you load it with peroxide it will take up to an hour, sitting in the shower with it, using it 40+ times on your ear, to dislodge heavy plugs. If you have that kind of time and want to save money, go this route. If you don’t have that kind of time, I’d get the Water Pik. Again, use warm peroxide, as cold water in your inner ear can make you dizzy or nauseous.

2. Debrox, or Murine ear wax removal systems. These cost $6-$8 a pop, and use carbamide peroxide (a relative to hydrogen peroxide), but in very small amounts. You are supposed to use them for several days in a row to soften the plug before you irrigate it with the ineffectual little squeeze bulb (forget that, use a syringe instead). They’ll eventually work, but they take days of effort. I’d use this very slow and inefficient solution only if your ear is painful or has been impacted for several days, and you’re worried it may already be infected. Alternatively you might use it for a few days (or the cheaper homemade solutions below), if you have a hard plug, to soften it up, and then use the Water Pik.

3. Homemade solutions. Commonly recommended are vinegar, mineral oil, isopropyl alcohol, and hydrogen peroxide. Some recommend mixing these, in various ratios. Hydrogen peroxide will dissolve the ear wax (it attacks bacteria and other oxidizables in the wax, and the heat of oxidation dissolves the wax), isopropyl alcohol will also dissolve ear wax (though I find it a bit harsh to use regularly), and oil or vinegar will slowly penetrate behind the plug, making it easier to pop out.  To use the oil or vinegar, lay down for awhile with them in your ear (30 minutes) then use a syringe or the Water Pik to flush out the plug. The hydrogen peroxide takes only 3-4 minutes before the bubbling slows down and you can put in a new batch of hydrogen peroxide. I’d recommend using the isopropyl alcohol even more briefly, if at all. Topical alcohol can actually penetrate into your cells when you apply it, and it’s mildly toxic to them when concentrated.

4. Sauna or steam bath visit. Taking a 20 minute sauna or steam bath before any of the above will soften up your ear wax quite a bit, sometimes enough for it to come out when you flush it even with the weak syringe.  For really hard plugs you might combine the 20 minute vinegar or mineral oil ear soak, the sauna, and then the Water Pik with hydrogen peroxide.

IV. Two-Person Solutions

1. Ear wax scoops. These are popular in Asian cultures, though their ear wax tends to be crumbly and easier to scoop out than Caucasian ear wax. If you want to try this, you might use Jobar’s Lighted Ear Wax Scoop on Amazon, $4. If the person using the scoop wears a lighted magnifier, $5, it may also help them visualize the wax while they are working. I’d also use an otoscope before and after. I wouldn’t use the scoop yourself, as you can’t see the wax.

V. Physician Removal Solution

Going to your physician is a common response to a blocked ear, and ear wax removal is a surprisingly big business. Wikipedia says about 150,000 ears are irrigated each week in the US alone, by doctors and their aides, and 40,000 in the United Kingdom.  Health Care Blue Book says the average cost of an ear wax removal treatment is $88. Thus in the US alone, there’s a $690 million dollar business here, waiting to be eliminated. Globally, that’s perhaps $1-2 billion of annual health care expenditures that could be prevented with a good cheap home ear wax removal solution. Ideally it would be a quarter of the cost of the one I’ve got here. I’ve been to my physician a few times in my life to get ear wax removed, after my shenanigans couldn’t get it out. Each time I’ve asked if the heavy duty syringe they used in the office was something I could purchase. No dice. Fortunately you don’t need a prescription or a medical license for the Water Pik, and if you use it, consider it a small step you can take to combat the developed world’s epidemic of out-of-control health care costs.

VI. More on Water Pik

Water Pik is a smart little company. It was founded in 1968 by engineer John Mattingly  and dentist Gerald Moyer, and is presently owned by private equity firm The Carlyle GroupThey introduced the first massaging showerhead in 1974, a very cool innovation for its time. Recently they figured out that cordless Water Piks are way more desirable for most people than countertop Water Piks, which take up far too much space, can’t be used in the shower, and don’t deliver much extra value for all their added complexity. Their new line of cordless Water Piks are not the best built, but they are better than their earlier ones. The WP 350 Cordless, for example, had a recharging terminal that corroded rapidly, so the unit needed to be replaced after a year or two. The WP 450 is apparently better built, but we’ll see.

Also, Water Pik finally got its act together with respect to doing scientific studies, and now they state on the box that they are “clinically proven to be twice as effective as string floss for improving gum health,” and that they are “proven in laboratory tests to remove 99.9% of plaque with a 3 second application to the treatment area.” For years people had no idea whether these devices actually worked, and their reputation suffered. I’m sure it will take them several years before people start using these for flossing, as they went so many years without quoting any good studies on their packaging. What may have saved the category was kids with braces. Water Piks are quite good at getting food out of braces. So they’ve been a success even in spite of themselves, as is often the case in many businesses.

My hat is off to Water Pik for steadily improving their product, and sticking around long enough for us to find a great new application for it. I expect we may see warnings on future Water Piks not to use them for cleaning your ears, just like with Q-Tips. Unless Water Pik embraces this use and gets usage and safety studies for it, and makes a deal with Bionix OtoClear for their safety tips, it may take years before a truly affordable physician-approved ear cleaning Water Pik comes out. In the meantime, you don’t need anyone’s permission, just common sense. You can just Do It Yourself.

Comments? Corrections? Know any other cheap, fast, and effective solutions not mentioned here? Let us know, thanks!

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