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03 April, 2007

Credit Cards, Human Hearts And A Technical Fix For Global Warming

It’s a funny old world, as my old friend Steve used to say. Steve himself was an illustration of the fact. He was an ugly bloke with a personality that drove most people to want to thump him sooner or later, yet he played the guitar with more skill and innate musical ability than anyone I have ever known. Oh yes, and he was a policeman.

I’m often struck when reading the news, that Steve’s far-too-often-repeated homily, is pretty much on the money. It actually is a funny old world. And what makes it so funny? Why people, of course.

Take today, for instance. I find an article on the British Psychological Society’s website describing some research that suggests people who let debt accumulate on their credit cards (thus incurring interest charges) are precisely those people who pick credit cards with low annual fees and high interest rates – which is exactly the wrong strategy. These people have what the researchers call ‘unrealistic optimism’ about paying off their monthly balance, or, as it is described in another study, ‘wishful thinking’, so the low fees seem like a good deal to them. In a caring society, we would make people take personality tests when applying for credit so that the bank could be forced to issue appropriate cards to them.

Then, turning away from tales of sad losers, I read that Professor Sir Magdi Yacoub and a team at the Harefield Hospital in the UK have grown a heart valve from stem cells. They predict they could be using artificially grown heart components like this in patients within three years and possibly transplanting whole hearts in ten. Doesn’t it seem strange to you that in the same world there are people who can’t judge which credit card is best for them while others are out there growing new body parts?

My guess is that the same people who get the credit card thing wrong are also unrealistically optimistic about whether they will get heart disease from eating Big Macs. They may even indulge in wishful thinking about their chances of suffering smoking-related heart disease. It’s just as well then, that there are people around like Magdi Yacoub and his team who have spent the last ten years of their lives working on how to grow spare parts for wishful thinkers – not to mention the thousands of other scientists and clinicians all over the world who have contributed to this incredible achievement.

Of course, the people who are presently stuffing their faces with hot dogs and smoking four packs a day in the unrealistically optimistic hope that it’ll all be alright in the end, might actually turn out to be the smart ones – when they are rolled into the operating theatre, ten years from now, and their surgeon slots in a nice, freshly-grown heart for them. I bet those guys on Magdi’s team are going to feel pretty stupid thinking about the two decades they spent peering into microscopes late into the night when they could have been at home with their feet up drinking Coke and smoking cigars.

Oh, and the global warming thing? I guess we're all just wishful thinkers.

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