The Bane of Complex Problems: Mugabe, Obama and the Gut Microbiome

Obama’s Scientists – Why are Probiotics so ineffective? – Lunch with a Biochemistry Professor – On Drones and Bombs 

About a month ago, I left the comfort of my lab to listen to a talk by a former Obama Employee, Jo Handelsman, at the University of Georgia. Dr. Handelsman worked with Obama as the Associate Director for Science at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. She gave an inspiring talk on the microbiome – the community of microbes in our environment, that surrounds, and live inside us.

As something rather tangent in her lecture, she mentioned the work of a 19th century Nobel Laureate, Elie Metchnikoff. He had a theory that bacteria in the gut produces toxic compounds that causes aging, and hypothesized that because of the dependency of the gut microbes on the food we take in, we could effectively replace the harmful microbes with beneficial ones. To test his hypothesis, he resorted to take sour milk containing lactic acid bacteria every day until he died in 1916.

He was shown to be generally right and these beneficial microbes are called probiotics. This is of course very appealing given the link between our gut microbiota and diseases like cancer and autoimmune diseases.

Now we know that such appeal has some major dents: apart from the inconclusive proof of effectiveness of probiotics, if you want these benefits, you must be taking probiotics every single day, since the ‘good microbe’ don’t replace the ‘bad’ ones in the gut. Pointing right at our lack of understanding of the complexity of the gut microbiome, “while aren’t they recolonizing?” she asked in the concluding session of her talk.

I ate lunch with a Biochemistry Professor afterwards, and because I am from Africa, he mentioned Mugabe and what I had thought about his ouster and its appeal (immediately the microbiome talk came to my mind). I said, whatever took place in Zimbabwe was almost pointless. It is akin to taking probiotics daily, but, unfortunately, we are not afforded the flexibility of taking such daily pills at that huge scale. It is also important to note that such enthusiastic appeal exposes our lack of understanding of Africa’s complex problem.

In short, we are indulging ourselves in unnecessary euphoria. To improve a system, a complex system at that, one needs to understand it’s workings, and the removal of a ‘Mugabe’ will not change much, that’s if it doesn’t exacerbate current problems. In other words, people like Mugabe are not the (main) problem of Africa. The problem is something much deeper, relatively more difficult to define, and much nastier to deal with.

And how do we recognize this ‘something’, fortunately there is a heuristic: it is a thing, that when changed, will not lead to such euphoria that we get from events like the Mugabe removal or a Gaddafi’s death at the battle of Sirte.

Needless to say, this problem of unnecessary euphoria is across board: such was the euphoria of the blacks when Obama took office, if anything happened, the ‘black’ problem probably got worse. Such was the euphoria when The US Military killed Osama bin Laden, if anything changed since then, it was the birth of ISIS, (except I have missed something in the news). Such was the euphoria doing the Arab Springs; friends, I go on forever.

If we resort to solve any complex problem effectively, the solutions are almost, always never attractive. Blowing up Jihadi John is attractive, very attractive, what is not attractive is targeting the crude education that gave rise to people like Jihadi John, blocking terrorist’s financiers, et cetera. Similarly, removing a ‘Mugabe’ is attractive, what is not, is de-cluttering the mindset of the men and women who watched him rule for 37 years in Zimbabwe, completely muted, suffering and smiling.

And here is gist, it is not that there is something inherently bad with the removal of a Mugabe, or the election of an Obama (for the blacks), no, it is the unnecessary, seductive euphoria that it generates, because it distracts us from the most important things.

(Photo Credit)

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