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!


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 good educational video that is reasonably priced for middle classes (in every society) emerges, we should have no qualms going to the internet for them, and recommending others to do the same.

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

Rapid Ear Wax Removal with Water Pik – The Absolute Best Home Solution!

Have ear wax blockage? Can’t hear? Below is the best ear wax removal system in the world. Take it to your doc or nurse if you have any concerns. Share it on!

First, a warning: Never use the Water Pik if you have any ear pain. That usually means an infected ear canal. In that case, call your health care professional.

Next, a comment: Since I wrote this in 2011, several articles have been written to warn people against using Water Piks for ear cleaning. Some mention folks who have used them stupidly, at high pressure, causing ear pain or even eardrum perforation. You, of course, won’t use this amazing tool stupidly. So Just Ignore Those Articles, and read on!

I. The Best Solution for Rapid, Safe Ear Wax Blockage Removal – The Water Pik


Water Pik Aquarius

1. Buy a Plug-In Water Pik. I recommend the Aquarius (picture right) You can order it online in lots of colors. Pick one that you’ll like to look at (purple does it for me) because you’ll use this baby regularly, as you’ll see below. You can get the Aquarius  at Amazon for $65 (free shipping with Prime), at Walmart or Target for $50 or on eBay used for $40. You can get the Ultra (their older model) even cheaper, but the lid design is awkward to use. The travel-ready Water Pik Sidekick ($130 on Amazon) is also a good but pricier alternative to the Aquarius.

Unless you like ear pain, don’t get a cordless Water Pik, as all cordless models today have just two pressure settings, high and low. Low is still too strong for some folks to use in their ears. You need a Water Pik with a pressure dial that goes from 1 to 10 (or maybe, 11 🙂

2. Buy five or more bottles of 3% hydrogen peroxide water. Also at Target, or your local supermarket. These used to be just 50 cents a bottle in 2011. Now they are a buck or more. That’s serious inflation! 🙂 Open the Water Pik, put one full bottle of peroxide water in the reservoir, and set the pressure setting on 2 (two) to start.

3. Lean over your sink to get your blocked ear down near the counter, or if you want to keep your counter free of spray, kneel over your tub, or get in your shower and irrigate that blocked ear. (You may need an extension cord if you use it in your tub or shower, and keep the Water Pik out of standing water, of course). It takes just 2-5 minutes to clear a typical ear wax impaction with this amazing machine, on a pressure setting of 2, using up just 1 or 2 bottles of peroxide. There is no other ear wax removal solution in the world that is as fast, safe, inexpensive, or as reliable as the Water Pik at present, in my experience.

Take a brief break every 30 seconds or so if you like, then start again. Very hard or big impactions may require up to five bottles of peroxide water. I haven’t heard of any ear blockage ever taking more than five bottles yet (see reader comments below). Let me know if you break a record! 🙂 If you want to use plain old water instead (warm is best), keep in mind that you are going to need a LOT more water and time, and you’ll want to flush afterward with distilled water or hydrogen peroxide, so you don’t leave any bacteria in your ear.

Even though it will feel at first like nothing is happening, keep going. The flow of peroxide water will heat and soften up the wax, oxidizing it (bubbling) and stripping it out imperceptibly down the drain. It will also be disinfecting everything as it goes.  All of a sudden, after what seems like hours but has only been a few minutes, big ol’ chunks of wax will start coming out. Shortly after that, you’ll have a clear, clean ear!

At a pressure setting of 2, the flow is so gentle that you can put the tip right into your ear canal just a little bit (please don’t go deep inside the canal, and keep kids and animals away so no one accidentally jams that tip up into your ear, as you could perforate your eardrum). At a setting of 2, it doesn’t matter where you aim it. As you get more experienced, if you use any higher settings, like 3 or 4, be sure to aim the flow at the sides of your ear canal  (you can rest the tip of the Water Pik on the canal itself), not directly at your eardrum. If you don’t, when the water flow suddenly breaks through the wax and the stream hits your eardrum, it can hurt, and leave your ears ringing uncomfortably. You might even perforate an eardrum on the highest settings (5 or above), so just don’t use them, and of course, keep the kids away from the dial while you are doing this.

If you want to visualize the ear wax blockage in your ear before and after you irrigate it, to see when you finally have a clean eardrum with no wax sticking to it, feel free to get an otoscope. If someone else can look for you, get a scope like the Dr. Mom Slimline Otoscope, $27 on Amazon. If you want to visualize it yourself, get a $30 smartphone otoscope to look in your own ear, using your Apple or Android smartphone.

In reality, you don’t need an otoscope however, because at a certain point in your irrigation, your hearing will come flooding back, and you will thank your lucky stars that you are alive and have the gift of hearing again!

That’s it!

Common Sense Warning:

If your ear is painful, or you’ve had a blocked ear for weeks, it might be inflamed. In that case, I’d use one of the much slower alternative 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. A perforation will take weeks to heal, and you might need antibiotics to make sure you don’t get an infection in your middle 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.

On the other hand, if you’ve just recently blocked your ear with wax, and you don’t use this in any way that will cause you pain, the Water Pik is your best solution by far.

Again, don’t put the Water Pik deeply into your ear canal, use their standard tip, and just get the tip a tiny bit in, so you can rest it on the side of the canal, set the pressure on 2, and let the rapid flow and the peroxide water strip away the ear wax. Stop as soon as your hearing clears up, as you want to leave some protective wax on the inside of each ear canal.

If you still hear faint ringing an hour or more after your hearing clears up, you may still have some hard wax stuck to your eardrum. That’s when an otoscope would help you figure that out. If there is still wax down at the bottom, flush again for another 10-40 seconds and look again, or 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 (you can put the bottle in hot water for a few minutes or in the microwave for 10 seconds) if you want it even more enjoyable and efficient at softening and stripping out wax. Cold water in your inner ear makes some folks nauseous or dizzy. For anyone who regularly gets really hard wax plugs, consider taking a 20 minute sauna or steam room visit just before you use your WaterPik. That will make your cleaning session particularly fast. Fortunately, most of the time we don’t get super hard wax plugs.

Want to spend a whole lot more money for very little extra value? There’s a 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 a low pressure setting, and direct its jet at the side of the ear canal rather than directly down the center. Since 2009, YouTube has a few videos of Water Piks being used for ear wax removal by physician assistants, so this secret is increasingly getting out. People need to realize they can just Do This Themselves.

Ear wax removal is a 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 UK.  The average US cost, to each of us, via our health insurance premiums, of one ear wax removal session is $88. Then there’s all the lost time, transportation, and irritation of having to depend on others to fix something you can do yourself. Just in the US alone, that’s a $690 million dollar business waiting to be eliminated by this life hack. Globally, I’d guess that about $3 billion of annual health care expenditures will eventually be eliminated with this easy and permanent solution.

Fully 6% of people in the world (18 million Americans, 400 million folks worldwide), are what are called ear wax “overproducers”. I’m one of them! Many overproducers get one or two blocked ears and ear wax-caused tinnitus at least once a year.  These are the folks whose lives are permanently changed by this solution.

Bonus 1: Use Your Water Pik to Prevent Ear Blockages

If you overproduce ear wax, consider using your Water Pik for a minute or so of maintenance cleaning once a month in each ear, just to manage wax buildup, so you don’t get any more regular blockages. If you use an otoscope to look into your ears after you do it the first few times you’ll find an irrigation time that will leave some protective wax on your ear canals, where it belongs, but also keep wax from building up so much that it blocks your eardrum. For my particular level of wax production, a minute or so in each ear once a month does the trick. I leave my WaterPik out on my bathroom counter with a bottle of peroxide next to it, and do it at the beginning of each month, so it is a fast and easy habit to keep.

Bonus 2: Use Your Water Pik to Prevent Ear Infections after Swimming

If you are a swimmer or water sports enthusiast, I’d recommend a peroxide ear flush for just 5-10 seconds in each ear when you get home after any ocean, lake, pool, or hot tub swim, to keep your ears clean and infection free. I’ve been doing this for over fifteen years now. I discovered this solution in 2006, and finally got around to sharing it in this blog post 2011. I have had a few nasty ear infections, which can easily last for weeks, after surfing in sketchy water, swimming in public pools, or using hot tubs in previous years. This infection prevention routine really works.

Bonus 3: Use your Water Pik in Family First Aid

If anyone in your family gets a deep cut, especially with dirt, wood, or organic matter getting into the wound, do a peroxide water wound flush with the Water Pik on a low but still piercing setting, and then dab the cut dry with tissue before you bandage the wound. A penetrating spray of 3% peroxide is an ideal deep disinfectant, and it will flush out anything that might otherwise fester (suppurate) in the wound.

Bonus 4: Use your Water Pik to Floss and Clean Your Teeth After Eating

Water Piks are great for flossing, and for cleaning your teeth and your kids braces after eating. They even have a “Pik pocket” tip that older folks with advanced gingivitis (infected gums) can use to regularly clean out (and help retighten) loose gum pockets.

Several decades after inventing Water Piks, way back in 1962, the execs leading Water Pik finally developed the foresight to commission some scientific studies about their effectiveness. As a result, they can now claim 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.” Those studies also allowed them to call their devices Water Flossers, to better communicate their value to the vast numbers of folks who aren’t willing to take the time and hassle to floss with string. So good for them!

But like all companies, they can always improve their game.

That said, here are three things I’d like to see Water Pik do next:

  1. Because is a hassle to load water reservoir, and to use them with our mouths closed tight, and because we get so much water mess on the counter when we don’t, many folks don’t floss regularly with Water PiksWe need a Water Pik for the shower, with a mirror that let us see our teeth and gums as we floss. This Water Pik would always have water, and we could now use them with our mouths open. We’d all floss with these at least once a day.  Many of us would step in the shower to use them more often, even while fully dressed, as they’d be easier, faster, more accurate, and less messy than using them on the counter.
  2. Make a smaller Aquarius II with a flat plug that doesn’t stick out from the wall, a non-kinking white cord, and a splitter so we don’t have to remove it to use the coveted bathroom plug. All this will make it easier to keep it on the counter.
  3. Make a cordless Water Pik with a pressure dial (1-10), so we can take them when we travel, for our teeth, ears and first aid. Thanks!

I’ve sent these ideas to Water Pik, twice, but only received crickets in response. We’ll see if they or some other competitor acts on them.

Seeking Professional Advice: A Rant on Safetyism and Managing Risk

As I’ve said, please feel free to ask your doctor, nurse, or physician assistant about any of these Water Pik health care applications. But brace yourself for potential resistance as well, and please remember to evaluate all professional advice with an appropriately critical ear 🙂

DIY ear cleaning that works fast and well may be a new idea to them, and it hasn’t been vetted yet (that I know of) by the appropriate health care bodies, like the AMA. Even doctors can perforate eardrums in up to 1% of cases. This 1% number is based on one single study, the only one I could find in the literature when I searched it circa 2011. I’m sure many of those cases involve health care professionals using more primitive, less consistent technologies than the Water Pik, technologies like syringes which can generate variable and very strong bursts of water.

Recognize that when someone else is doing the cleaning, they can’t determine what pressure is painful, until after they have caused pain. So unless they are using a Water Pik on a constant low pressure setting, they may be using a less effective standard of care than you could use on yourself, after just a bit of practice, and that realization may not be welcome news to them. Again, no studies that I know of have been done comparing professional with self-administration eardrum perforation rates, in various forms of ear wax blockage removal. Let me know if you find any!

Some docs may advise you to “play it safe” and “let a professional continue to do your ear cleaning.” All docs who say that surely do so with your welfare in mind, but recognize that some professionals, in giving you that advice, may also be doing so to avoid any professional liability for your misuse of the tool, and any lawsuits from you based on their advice, especially until any guidance comes to them from their professional bodies. If the latter is indeed a motivation behind their advice, realize that they are the ones “playing it safe” in that scenario, not you.

Some docs will tell you about real risks, like getting a chronic middle ear infection after an eardrum perforation (if they do, ask to quantify that risk, and what can be done to reduce it), or requiring eardrum reconstruction surgery after a perforation (such surgeries are never perfect, too), or people who have lost most or all of their hearing in one ear after a perforation (again, ask about risk rates and how to reduce the risk, whether they or you are the ones doing the cleaning).

Realize that all of these risks are real, but please also do a reality check when you think about risk. Ask yourself if you can reduce and manage your real risks by smart behavior, and ask yourself what real benefits to your future self and family, in permanently lost time, money, and resources, you are giving up or giving to others by avoiding that risk. Then, after a bias-mitigating risk assessment, make your decision!

In reality, life is inherently risky, and we must constantly choose and manage our risks as well as we can. Remember that we all reap the benefits from taking well-prioritized and well-calculated risks, every day. A small number of people are always hurt by any potentially risky behavior. Vaccines almost always hurt a few to help the vast majority of us. Almost any behavior can kill you, in the wrong circumstances.

The key risk questions in any life choice is whether the risk can be reduced and managed by smart behavior, and whether the benefits outweigh the risk. You have to decide that for yourself, with every risky behavior.

Now for the rant:

As many older folks like me who remember a different America know, a number of new social factors, including our great wealth, our litigiousness, an education system that doesn’t stress personal responsibility, an entertainment culture that often ignores reality, and a media that thrives on manufacturing crises have given us, along with other recent maladies, an epidemic of safetyism. Our new safetyism bias keeps us from doing lots of potentially beneficial but slightly risky things, it causes some of us to avoid taking vaccines, it causes us to ban peanuts in schools instead of retraining the dysregulated immune systems of those few folks who have severe allergies, it causes us to ban “trigger words” and deny speakers on college campuses instead of teaching students conflict resolution skills, and it causes us to retreat into disempowering filter bubbles, where we are “safe” to see only things that confirm our own limited views of the world. Read Lukianoff and Haight’s The Coddling of the American Mind (2019) for more on this topic.

Safety bias also keeps companies from recommending common sense solutions until they’ve been exhaustively tested by some official body, and it keeps some doctors from recommending anything that might cause the slightest risk or pain to a patient. I believe America will climb out of our current dystopia of safetyism, back to a world where people are more personally empowered and responsible for their own actions, they actively manage their own risks, sieze more opportunities, and our society prioritizes experimentation, progress, and innovation the way we did in the mid-20th century. But we must recognize we are at a low point for such things at present. If you’d like to know about a transformative technology that I believe will help us get to a more adaptive America, read my Medium series on Personal AIs (PAIs). I think the vast majority of us will be using PAIs in the 2030s, the way most of us use smartphones today, and making many more evidence-based decisions around real risk and opportunity, the rest of our lives. Let me know what you think, and what I’m getting wrong.

Again, I believe that people deserve to be able to do things themselves, even when it can be a bit painful and risky when we do things wrong. We aren’t children. If you resist safetyism, and adopt a common sense, DIY ethic, you’ll find, use, share, and benefit from good solutions like the ones on this page, years or decades before they finally become officially approved. You’ll fix your problems faster ever before.

I’ll be curious to see what kinds of AMA guidelines for Water Pik health care use eventually emerge. Fortunately, regardless of what they eventually do or say, you can still do it yourself, right now. You are a responsible human being, who has good common sense. If you don’t, you can get it, if you are willing to learn from your mistakes.

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, at present. 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!

2019 Addition: 

Swig for 1 Min w/ 3% Hydrogen Peroxide Before You Brush Your Teeth, Every Day

HydrogenPeroxideBottleOK, you’ve read this far, so now let me tell you about four fantastic daily uses for some of that hydrogen peroxide you just bought that you’ve probably never heard of. There are many other good uses for it that you can find on the web, but I bet this page is the first one on the web to explain the following four benefits, just as this web page was the first to recommend the Water Pik for ear use back in 2011.

If you swig your mouth with 3% hydrogen peroxide for one full minute before you brush your teeth (don’t swallow it, of course!), swish it around with your cheeks (keep it moving, to maximize coverage and penetration), and keep it in long enough to spit out white foam, then four amazingly beneficial things will happen to you, friend. Here they are!

1. You’ll Prevent Bacteria Getting Into Your Brain (Alzheimer’s)

This is the most incredible benefit of all. It turns out that every time we brush our teeth, we get transient bacteremia. We literally drive small but significant doses of living bacteria through our gum wall and into our bloodstream. Apparently electric toothbrushes, which clean our teeth and plaque even better than regular brushes, can cause even more temporary bacteremia at the gum line. What’s worse, some of these bacteria, while still alive, can escape from our bloodstream into our brain, through something called the blood brain barrier, which gets a bit leaky every night when we sleep. We know this because at the center of many amyloid plaques in Alzheimer’s brains, we find dental bacteria. The brain’s microglia (immune cells) use amyloid, and other molecules, to wall off these invaders. It turns out that a common mouth bacteria called P. gingivalis is one of the major kinds of bacteria that continually gets into the brain. Here’s a nice 2019 Science article on this finding.

When you swig and swish around hydrogen peroxide in your mouth, holding there until you get foam, and then spit it out before you brush your teeth, you’ve killed your mouth bacteria dead, even the ones sitting in a protective biofilm on your teeth. Now you’ll only be driving dead bacteria into your bloodstream when you follow that peroxide swig and spit with tooth brushing. They won’t be able to get into your brain, and you will have prevented what appears to be one of the key causes of Alzheimers, continual bacterial assault on the brain.

Hydrogen peroxide is less expensive and more effective than antibacterial mouthwash as well. Fresh peroxide will foam up in your mouth in just 60 seconds. Go ahead and time it, if you don’t believe me. That foam is evidence that your mouth is being disinfected. So buy a lot of it, and keep it on every bathroom counter, next to your tooth brushes, so it is easy to use.

You might even consider a peroxide swig, swish and spit before you eat, if you are going to eat any foods that are hard and sharp, like popcorn or nuts. Again, in those situations, simply eating food will make small cuts in your gums and drive small numbers of living mouth bacteria right into your bloodstream. If you swig before you eat, those bacteria don’t go anywhere but to your waste removal systems. They’re dead.

2. You’ll Prevent or Greatly Reduce Receding Gums

The older we get, the more our gums recede against the assault of mouth bacteria. I am convinced that daily swig and spit of 3% hydrogen peroxide before teeth brushing will greatly reduce receding gums. My gums feel fresh after a peroxide swig, and they get pink with new blood flow, like a kid’s gums. I’ve just killed the bacteria that were causing them to recede, and reperfused my gum tissue.

When you go to a periodontist, because of gum disease, or to a dentist who does deep cleaning, they will put a hydrogen peroxide gel into your infected gum pockets, to kill the bacteria. Cleaning out the living bacteria in those pockets is critical to gum repair. When you swig peroxide before you brush your teeth, two or three times a day, you’ll greatly reduce the bacterial load in your mouth. You give your mouth a rest, and cause new blood flow. Hydrogen peroxide’s two “approved” medical uses are for wound disinfecting and oral debridement (cleaning out oxidizable gunk and bacteria). Most people don’t know its very good for the second use, but now you do.

Roughly once a month, when I swig and swish peroxide water, one small area on my gums will hurt a bit for the minute I hold it in my mouth. After spitting the foam, my gum line looks white at the place where it hurts. I know enough medicine to know that this hurt is good for me. That hurt has just disinfected an open wound on my gums. I can help that open wound to heal, by swigging a bit more often over the next few days, and by taking a daily multivitamin with C, D ,E, A, and K to accelerate healing, or eating the good foods that will give me those vitamins. I’m sure that healing those wounds will protect my gums from receding further and keep bacteria out of my brain. If I didn’t get the pain, I wouldn’t even have known they were there.

I’ve vetted everything I just said to you by email with a respected periodontist at U.C.S.F. They think this is a reasonable hypothesis. There are no ten or twenty year human studies to validate any of this however. That means you have two choices: ignore this info, and let your gums recede for the next ten years, or try it and see. Take this page to your doctor or dentist if you need a second opinion before you start.

3. You’ll Greatly Reduce or Eliminate Bad Breath

A good fraction of our bad breath comes from bacteria in our mouth and from dead stuff and infections in our gums. This is particularly true for older people, who get a very peculiar kind of “old person’s breath” to accompany their deeply receded gums and active gingivitis. Swigging with peroxide water several times a day will greatly reduce your bad breath, especially if you have any gingivitis. Again, I don’t have studies to quote you, but I am sure the studies will come. In the meantime, feel free to ignore this advice, or try it and see. If you have bad breath, your partner will be able to tell you if it works. After just a few days of three-times-a day peroxide swigs, a few of my older friends have reported to me that their partners noticed a significant reduction in breath odor. Again, try it and judge for yourself.

4. You’ll Whiten Your Teeth

Peroxide is a mild bleach, so it takes about a week of use before you’ll notice that stains that were previously on your teeth are now gone, and that they are much whiter. You can spend a lot of money and time on teeth whiteners, or visiting your dentist for cosmetic whitening to get that bright smile, or you can just use peroxide every day. Again, it’s your choice.

It’s a pain at first to remember to swig and spit before you brush, but after a few weeks it becomes automatic. You won’t look at a toothbrush without thinking about that peroxide swig as well. You’ll start to really enjoy the clean feeling in your mouth, and you may even do it any time your mouth seems like it needs a refresh. You may even keep a bottle in your car, as I do (along with an old peroxide bottle with a cap that you can use as a spitoon) so you can get a few more of those swigs in during the day, without wasting any time.

OK, that’s enough of a pep talk! Either you’ll try it or you won’t. I hope you will, to get these four benefits, and I hope you will pass this tip on, friend!

Less Important Stuff

Below is additional info on slower, lower cost solutions and nonsolutions for ear wax removal. You can skip it, unless you really  want to see all the curious stuff we inventive humans do to try to manage this problem.

I. 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.

II. 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 too 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.

III. 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.

IV. Physician or Nurse Removal Solution

Do this if you must, but keep in mind that you can now avoid a clinic trip entirely with solution above. Before I dreamed up the Water Pik solution, I visited the doc a few times in my life to get ear wax removed, after my shenanigans couldn’t get it out. Each time I 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. If you use it, consider it a small step you can personally take to combat the developed world’s out-of-control health care costs.

A Slow, Inexpensive, but Effective Solution for Ear Wax Removal – Hand Irrigators


Houseables Sprayers – Home Ear Wax Buildup Prevention

If you don’t want to spend the money on a Water Pik, try this:

1. Housables Spray Bottles with Twist Adjustable Nozzles  ($10, pack of 3 on Amazon. Sure wish Amazon had $3 single items. When will someone make that happen?)

2. Swan 3% Hydrogen Peroxide Bottles (should fit your Housables sprayer) ($9, pack of 2)

Since 2014, a number of ear wax hand sprayers have finally become available on Amazon, including Elephant Ear, Wax-Rx, Hear Ear, Ear Gator, etc. These are all ridiculously overpriced at $30 to $50, and they are also much slower and less effective than the Water Pik, so I don’t recommend any of them at present. Just use the solutions above and save your money.

Comments? Corrections? Advice? Know any other good solutions not mentioned here? Please let me know in the comments. Thanks for reading.

You are amazing!

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