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The Torturous History of Trying to Measure Pain

November 3, 2019 in History

By Becky Little

Early researchers used horse hairs and burning machines to try to quantify people’s physical suffering.

How have medical professionals measured pain throughout history? Not very well, it turns out.

In one famous test in the late 1940s, two American male researchers performed pain experiments on , or pain points, with horse hair. Specifically, he’d select hairs of varying stiffness from a horse’s tail and attach them individually to sticks. Then he’d used the stick to press the hair against someone’s skin.

“The stiffer the hair, the more pressure it took for the hair to bend.” McMahon says. “Each would exert a different force before they bent… He used them to test the sensitivity of skin, and you can still find them today; they’re plastic today, they’re not made of horse hair.”

Using this method, Von Frey could record the amount of pressure at which a person started to feel pain from a particular hair. He and others involved in psychophysics also employed other methods of testing skin sensitivity, like hot or cold rods. Their research, McMahon says, “drove the development of a whole number of scales and techniques.”

READ MORE: 7 of the Most Outrageous Medical Treatments in History

The ‘dolorimeter’

A dolorimeter seen in a report of the Committee on Artificial Limbs of the National research Council, 1947.

One group of researchers influenced by these experiments were James Hardy, Helen Goodell and Harold Wolff. In 1940, they announced they’d invented a new device to measure pain thresholds called the “dolorimeter.” It used heat to inflict pain at various levels, and was strong enough to give people second-degree burns—which it did when Hardy and another researcher named Carl Javert tested it on pregnant women in labor several years later.

Hardy and Javert seemed to have little regard for the complaints of the pregnant women they tested the dolorimeter on, writing that one “patient became so hostile that attempts at further measurements were abandoned… [T]his failure to obtain valid measurements was due mainly to an unwillingness on the part of the patient to cooperate.” In their research, they published a graphic picture of what one woman’s hand looked like after they used the dolorimeter on her at its highest setting.

READ MORE: Heroin, Morphine and Opiates

Questionnaires and nonverbal assessments

The commonly used Wong Baker Pain Scale has six steps starting out with a smiley face – with a …read more


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Hate Speech Laws Are Unconstitutional and Harmful to Democracy

November 3, 2019 in Economics

By Walter Olson

Walter Olson

Key point: America thrives when people can express their ideas and where the best ones rise and the bad ones naturally fail.


When Establishment figures declare that they’ve changed their mind on free speech and now think there should be less of it, know that the speech they expect will get throttled is yours, not theirs.



This new Washington Post opinion piece (“Why America needs a hate speech law”) is by Richard Stengel, a former editor of Time magazine and the State Department’s undersecretary for public diplomacy and public affairs from 2013 to 2016. In that post, he was charged with representing America’s values to the world.

Honestly, could Stengel’s argument be any weaker? “Even the most sophisticated Arab diplomats that I dealt with did not understand why the First Amendment allows someone to burn a Koran. … it should not protect hateful speech that can cause violence by one group against another.”

If the prospect of violence by offended groups is what causes us to censor, we are well on the way toward closing down speech at the whim of whichever mobs, here or abroad, decide to be violent. Perhaps the position the sophisticated Arab diplomats urged on him was not the last word in sophistication. And while Stengel might be expecting that persons much like himself will be in charge of defining “hate,” that is not how it always works. 

Stengel’s piece was not a Post editorial but an opinion piece contributed from the outside. Both newspapers regularly run pieces that do not necessarily represent their editors’ views.

But it is noteworthy as well as disturbing that Establishment voices like Stengel’s are saying these things and that places like the Post are increasingly treating them as just part of the range of respectable opinion.

Remarkable detail: Stengel served as chief executive of the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia from 2004 to 2006.

Walter Olson is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute. …read more

Source: OP-EDS