You’re not cynical enough

Every occurrence is a mixed bag of good and bad, pleasure and pain.

You’re not cynical enough
Image: Grant Wood — American Gothic

There are two types of people in the world: those who believe that perfection exists in this life, and those who believe that every solution is flawed and that life is but a series of trade-offs. The former position, which I'll label “The Fantastical," is common in creative people and children. The latter position, which I'll label “Cynical Realism," is common in older people, doctors, and soldiers.


The Fantastical person believes that the history of humanity has been one of never-ending progress. Each generation is better off than the one before it, and life is but a series of problems that just need to be “solved."

The Cynical Realist sees human progress as a beautiful and fragile artifact, ready to fall apart at any moment. Like a delicate rainforest plant that needs to be kept in an optimally tuned greenhouse and fed the right ratios of nutrients, it is a rare occurrence that ought to be celebrated and appreciated for what it is — a triumph against all odds. To a Cynical Realist, life is a series of O.K. decisions, since each choice results in some unwanted outcomes.

The worldview of the Fantastical person is much more uplifting and pleasant, and the great revolutionaries of human history have been died-in-the-wool Fantasticals. After all, visions of perfection on Earth, unequivocal progress, and unrestrained freedom are emotionally stimulating and extremely seductive. The problem, however, is that nothing has ever been, or will be, unequivocally good. Every invention, person, culture, or occurrence is a mixed bag of good and bad, pleasure and pain. Cuba, for example, may have good health care (as some claim), but this comes at the cost of human liberty and dignity. Similarly, the United States may have great freedom, but more gun deaths. After all, with more freedoms come more opportunities to do stupid things. There are trade-offs in everything. This more complicated view of the world put forth by the Cynical Realist, however, is much harder to grasp, since it requires one to see both sides of every issue or circumstance. The Fantastical worldview paints the world in easy-to-understand strokes of black and white when reality is a collision of a million shades of gray.

The Taoist and Buddhist traditions understand the Cynical Realist position well, as this classic Taoist story shows:

There is a story of a farmer whose horse ran away. That evening the neighbors gathered to commiserate with him since this was such bad luck. He said, "May be."
The next day the horse returned, but brought with it six wild horses, and the neighbors came exclaiming at his good fortune. He said, "May be."
And then, the following day, his son tried to saddle and ride one of the wild horses, was thrown, and broke his leg. Again the neighbors came to offer their sympathy for the misfortune. He said, "May be."
The day after that, conscription officers came to the village to seize young men for the army, but because of the broken leg the farmer's son was rejected. When the neighbors came to say how fortunately everything had turned out, he said, "May be."

But as the story shows, Cynical Realism can be isolating. The neighbors (prototypical Fantasticals) were all quick to label their neighbor's circumstance as good or bad. He stood alone in equanimity, hesitant to celebrate or moan. In the modern context, Cynical Realists tend to stand alone at parties, and are often seen as out-of-touch curmudgeons. But in the march toward a perfect world of human-made “solutions," we'd be wise to listen to the pleas and warnings of the Realists — since they may be carefully explaining a vision of myriad shades of gray while we're busy navigating a map of black and white.

U.S. Navy controls inventions that claim to change "fabric of reality"

Inventions with revolutionary potential made by a mysterious aerospace engineer for the U.S. Navy come to light.

U.S. Navy ships

Credit: Getty Images
Surprising Science
  • U.S. Navy holds patents for enigmatic inventions by aerospace engineer Dr. Salvatore Pais.
  • Pais came up with technology that can "engineer" reality, devising an ultrafast craft, a fusion reactor, and more.
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Why so gassy? Mysterious methane detected on Saturn’s moon

Scientists do not know what is causing the overabundance of the gas.

An impression of NASA's Cassini spacecraft flying through a water plume on the surface of Saturn's moon Enceladus.

Credit: NASA
Surprising Science
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CRISPR therapy cures first genetic disorder inside the body

It marks a breakthrough in using gene editing to treat diseases.

Credit: National Cancer Institute via Unsplash
Technology & Innovation

This article was originally published by our sister site, Freethink.

For the first time, researchers appear to have effectively treated a genetic disorder by directly injecting a CRISPR therapy into patients' bloodstreams — overcoming one of the biggest hurdles to curing diseases with the gene editing technology.

The therapy appears to be astonishingly effective, editing nearly every cell in the liver to stop a disease-causing mutation.

The challenge: CRISPR gives us the ability to correct genetic mutations, and given that such mutations are responsible for more than 6,000 human diseases, the tech has the potential to dramatically improve human health.

One way to use CRISPR to treat diseases is to remove affected cells from a patient, edit out the mutation in the lab, and place the cells back in the body to replicate — that's how one team functionally cured people with the blood disorder sickle cell anemia, editing and then infusing bone marrow cells.

Bone marrow is a special case, though, and many mutations cause disease in organs that are harder to fix.

Another option is to insert the CRISPR system itself into the body so that it can make edits directly in the affected organs (that's only been attempted once, in an ongoing study in which people had a CRISPR therapy injected into their eyes to treat a rare vision disorder).

Injecting a CRISPR therapy right into the bloodstream has been a problem, though, because the therapy has to find the right cells to edit. An inherited mutation will be in the DNA of every cell of your body, but if it only causes disease in the liver, you don't want your therapy being used up in the pancreas or kidneys.

A new CRISPR therapy: Now, researchers from Intellia Therapeutics and Regeneron Pharmaceuticals have demonstrated for the first time that a CRISPR therapy delivered into the bloodstream can travel to desired tissues to make edits.

We can overcome one of the biggest challenges with applying CRISPR clinically.

—JENNIFER DOUDNA

"This is a major milestone for patients," Jennifer Doudna, co-developer of CRISPR, who wasn't involved in the trial, told NPR.

"While these are early data, they show us that we can overcome one of the biggest challenges with applying CRISPR clinically so far, which is being able to deliver it systemically and get it to the right place," she continued.

What they did: During a phase 1 clinical trial, Intellia researchers injected a CRISPR therapy dubbed NTLA-2001 into the bloodstreams of six people with a rare, potentially fatal genetic disorder called transthyretin amyloidosis.

The livers of people with transthyretin amyloidosis produce a destructive protein, and the CRISPR therapy was designed to target the gene that makes the protein and halt its production. After just one injection of NTLA-2001, the three patients given a higher dose saw their levels of the protein drop by 80% to 96%.

A better option: The CRISPR therapy produced only mild adverse effects and did lower the protein levels, but we don't know yet if the effect will be permanent. It'll also be a few months before we know if the therapy can alleviate the symptoms of transthyretin amyloidosis.

This is a wonderful day for the future of gene-editing as a medicine.

—FYODOR URNOV

If everything goes as hoped, though, NTLA-2001 could one day offer a better treatment option for transthyretin amyloidosis than a currently approved medication, patisiran, which only reduces toxic protein levels by 81% and must be injected regularly.

Looking ahead: Even more exciting than NTLA-2001's potential impact on transthyretin amyloidosis, though, is the knowledge that we may be able to use CRISPR injections to treat other genetic disorders that are difficult to target directly, such as heart or brain diseases.

"This is a wonderful day for the future of gene-editing as a medicine," Fyodor Urnov, a UC Berkeley professor of genetics, who wasn't involved in the trial, told NPR. "We as a species are watching this remarkable new show called: our gene-edited future."

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