2nd of October 2020
Bakery disease and the fallen tree paradox
In this blog post, I have posted my metaphorical interpretation of ‘the protein paradox’ which is omnipresent in the book Brain Fables by Alberto Espay and parkyvist Benjamin Stecher. It’s about realising how circumstantial evidence informs our hypotheses.
Once upon a time
Once upon a time, there was a village named Park town. Life went smooth, the grain came in, the bakers baked bread in their bakeries and the villagers thrived.
Then, a storm of previously unknown proportions came along, unseen and unheard by anyone but the writer of this story. Now Park town was quite young, out in the open, no trees to protect it from the wind, so the village was struck hard. When the villagers woke up, some bakeries were severely damaged, rooftops were gone, ovens devastated. In the days to come, the grain was still piling up, but the bread necessary to feed all couldn’t be baked. No one understood what had happened overnight.
Slowly but surely, the news of other villages reached Park town. Broken bakeries supposedly were all around and a nationwide action was set up to help all villagers with nonfunctioning bakeries. Oh, how lucky they felt when helicopters arrived, dropping off the bread. At least now they could survive. In fact, as long as the bread was miraculously coming in, there was hardly any need to fix the bakeries or to figure out what went wrong.
Operation bakery replacement
Life more or less resumed, but in some villages, the storm secretly came to visit on numerous occasions. Here, the bakeries would continue to decrease in number and more and more bread needed to be flown in.
The awareness grew that this couldn’t go on. So, from now on, the choppers no longer only flew in bread but also flew in equipment to restore the bakeries. Operation ‘bakery replacement’ had started. Some villages enjoyed their repaired bakeries for a while, but when the next storm came, some bakeries were broken all over again. It was then that a crew of investigators was hired to find the cause of what was now commonly known as the bakery disease. Bakery replacement obviously had its limits.
The investigators soon hit jackpot. They found a family that lost all of their bakeries overnight. They were eager to find out what this family had in common, for it would surely mean that they were on the way of finding the cause of the ‘bakery disease’. The investigators compared the villages of the family and found one great similarity: The relatives of this family all lived in an area so rich with trees that they were everywhere, also (a bit too) near the bakeries. All of their broken bakeries were found surrounded by fallen trees and – importantly – trees had also fallen on the bakeries (which in general isn’t the tip of the day to keep bakeries in business).
Putting one and one together
People started putting one and one together and diverging stories emerged. At the press conference of the aggregation of mayors it was argued that since trees had fallen at the same time that bakeries broke, trees must be the cause of the bakery disease. For without trees, they surely wouldn’t have fallen. The village reporter of Park town objected and asked how this could be the cause of all bakery diseases. Her town had been completely without trees and still, bakeries had been destroyed overnight. “Can it not be that trees close to the bakery are just as dangerous as no trees at all?“, she asked. Something was mumbled which started with exception and ended with rule.
Soon after, a bureau was set up to register all villages with broken trees and bakery disease. They would receive free bread while the researchers were searching for a cure. Lots of villages came forward to show their lands with fallen trees and broken bakeries. With the promise of free bread, they left out the fact that their bakeries had been deteriorating long before trees started falling. Some bakeries had been vulnerable because they lacked highly skilled personnel to maintain it and keep it in good shape. There were bakeries with rusty ovens and for others, the bakery itself needed some paint and new timber. Some just couldn’t find skilled bakers. A process of decay had already kicked in long before any storm was to arrive.
To add to the story, rumor had it that a substantial number of villages with fallen trees had intact bakeries. How could this be? These villages obviously hadn’t been in the spotlight of attention, because they were still baking their own bread. So, they just hadn’t come forward. Obviously, the village reporter of Park town had gotten curious. Very curious. In her eyes, contradictions were nothing else but friendly reminders to revisit assumptions.
The fallen tree paradox
The village reporter started touring villages with and without bakery disease, and with and without fallen trees. What she found was remarkable: The severity of bakery damage throughout the country was in no way related to how much trees had fallen. With such convincing evidence that bakery disease could never have just one cause, she decided to write a paper for the Bakery Journal, asking the community to come up with alternative explanations for the facts she presented. She asked the readers:
- Could it be that in some cases the trees protect bakeries? That the falling of trees is a mechanism that actually prevents the bakery from being damaged?
- Could it be that bakeries are at a higher risk of being damaged when trees are planted too close to the bakery?
- Could it be that a higher state of maintenance of the bakery decreases the chance of bakery disease?
- Could it be that villages with an extreme density of trees – trying to protect itself from an unknown attack that might never come – could set itself up for a shortage of trees to use as fuel for the bakeries’ ovens or as timber for regular repairs (just to name one of the possible functions of trees)?
- Could it be that fallen trees sometimes only mean that an attack of unknown origin has visited? No more, no less. That some bakeries will only deteriorate when such an attack repeatedly arrives. And as long as it doesn’t come often, the bakery will be quite all right?
- Could it be a combination of all the above, meaning that each case of bakery disease has its own disease fingerprint?
The aggregation of mayors reviewed the paper and didn’t find this line of questioning very helpful: “Before we know the answer to all of these questions, the bread will be out of stock!”
In its efforts to contain the bakery disease, the aggregation of mayors was quite strict in its measures: In all villages with broken bakeries, all trees – fallen or not – were to be banned from the premises. And it was forbidden to plant new trees because they might fall too!
The village reporter didn’t rest easily. She would keep on writing letters with unpopular opinions. She would keep on stressing that the story was way more complex than assumed. That it was the location where trees were planted that mattered more than the amount. That broken bakeries could be the result of factors that had nothing to do with (fallen) trees whatsoever. But, most of all, that the measure to ban all trees that surround bakeries, could in fact lead to some bakeries’ destruction. Park town had been the perfect example of a village without trees that had gotten the bakery disease overnight.
The carpenter’s rebellion
The aggregation of mayors certainly didn’t mind keeping on opposing the village reporter. “She thinks too much of herself!“, the mayors would repeatedly exclaim. But what the mayors hadn’t realised, is that a strike of carpenters would shortly follow. “Life’s no good without wood!“, the carpenters shouted. Without trees it had become quite difficult to build houses, tables, chairs, boats, and, well …. bakeries, just to name a few.
The movement grew so big that the headlines no longer mentioned Bakery disease. It was the loss of wood that put carpenters out of work and the country entered a state of emergency. It was then – and only then – that the aggregation of mayors lifted the ban on trees. It was decided that each case of bakery disease would be judged as if it existed on its own. “To cure one of them will surely mean we will learn something for all the other bakery diseases. One for all. All for one!“, the mayors exclaimed.
And even though the village reporter of Park town was happy about this change of mind, she wasn’t too sure that to cure one bakery disease would help cure others. But that was something to worry about later on.
What a beautiful, creative story to relay such important oversights. And how the stories we tell ourselves are when it comes to Parkinson’s and other neurodegenerative diseases, literally the source of life or death. I will read this story again. It is pure nectar!
Alberto, thanks! I’m very glad you like it