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In an awful Reddit thread that started by heaping abuse on Jen McCreight of Blag Hag I found a silver lining: A fine illustration of how I think the skeptic/atheist community deals well with its big names, lauding heroes without resorting to hagiography.

Quoth some pillock:

She also stopped respecting Richard Dawkins or reading his books because of a very minor issue that offended her militant feminist sensibilities (if you can call them that). I can understand being offended, but totally dismissing a dude that's done more for atheism and the understanding of evolutionary science in the public sector than most anyone else? Just because he made a slightly sexist comment? Really? What makes it worse is that she used to consider him a personal hero. So, he goes from hero to scumbag over one thoughtless, slightly offensive comment he made in a blog comment somewhere. It's like he's not allowed to be human.

This was of course in reference to “Elevatorgate”, wherein Richard Dawkins made a truly awful and lamentable comment and Jen McCreight called him out on it. She said, in fact,

…You're kind of an idol of mine, and it makes me want to cry a little when you live up to the stereotype of a well-off, 70 year old, white, British, ivory tower academic. But let me spell it out for you instead of just getting mad (though I'll do that too).

But what about going from hero to scumbag? It’s hard to see that in the post, and on Reddit she replied:

I'd like a source where I say that I've lost all respect for Dawkins and stopped reading his books. Oh, wait, you won't find one, because I never said that. In fact, I had a very congenial conversation with Dawkins at The Amazing Meeting and am looking forward to buying his new children's book.

To hell with the pillock and the idiots over at Reddit. I want to hold this up as an example of how the skeptic movement actually behaves very well, because Jen McCreight responded in precisely the right way: Call Dawkins out on what he said because it was terrible, but don’t excoriate him for it. Don’t give anyone a free pass on poor behaviour just because they’ve done good, but don’t deny the good they’ve done just because they acted poorly. We’re skeptics; we do not and should not expect our leaders to be perfect. (I hesitated to write “leaders” because of the cat-herding nature of that enterprise, but let’s be fair: People like Dawkins, PZ Myers, Hitchens, and so on do have a lot of influence.) Contrary to the sometime creationist belief that if one jot of the Inerrant Word of Darwin can be disproved we must throw out the Scripture of Origin, we are all about looking at things more critically and figuring out (and pointing out) what’s good and what’s bad, what’s correct and what’s incorrect and what just needs refinement, in every text and speech.

No one ever claimed that Dawkins is the Perfect Man. He’s an old British man who has written some truly great books on evolution, lent a powerful voice to atheism, and (I think) said some pretty good things about women and feminism (in particular decrying the misogynist notion that women are confined to emotional thinking because reason and logic are “male ways of knowing”), and we should respect him for it; he’s also said some dumb things, and the Elevatorgate comment ranks high on that list. We’ll give him appropriate credit for both. But so what?

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PSA: In spite of a recent press release from an organisation no less respectable than the WHO, and the consequent media furor from less respectable sources, there is in fact no good reason to think that cell phones are responsible for increases in cancer. A few facts:

  • The WHO has reported on the same research before. Last time, they interpreted it as meaning that cell phones don’t increase risk of cancer. This time, they seem to interpret it as meaning that they do. As far as anyone knows, nothing’s changed except their reporting.

  • There have been many studies on this, the general concensus of which are that there’s no link between cell phone use and incidence of brain cancers. In fact, it’s not even plausible on a basic science level.

  • The “smoking gun” study has an enormous flaw: It’s a retrospective study based on asking brain cancer patients about their cell phone usage a decade ago. Would it be surprising, given their circumstances, and given that they know that the possibility of causation has been floated about, if they accidentally overestimated their usage?

  • Even after what looks to be jumping to conclusions, cell phone usage has been placed in the same rather tentative risk category of cancer causation as—pay attention—pickled vegetables and coffee.

More here (good and succinct and fairly brief), and here (comprehensive and not at all brief).

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From the SBM article Compare and Contrast by Mark Crislip:

There were two reviews concerning chiropractic safety published recently. Safety of chiropractic interventions: a systematic review, which found

[…] The search identified 46 articles that included data concerning adverse events… Most of the adverse events reported were benign and transitory, however, there are reports of complications that were life threatening, such as arterial dissection, myelopathy, vertebral disc extrusion, and epidural hematoma. The frequency of adverse events varied between 33% and 60.9%, and the frequency of serious adverse events varied between 5 strokes/100,000 manipulations to 1.46 serious adverse events/10,000,000 manipulations and 2.68 deaths/10,000,000 manipulations.

That is impressive complication rates, although the authors suggest the data to support the rates are not robust, for an intervention that only has at best proven efficacy for low back pain and safer alternatives. Also published recently was Deaths after chiropractic: a review of published cases.

Twenty six fatalities were published in the medical literature and many more might have remained unpublished. The alleged pathology usually was a vascular accident involving the dissection of a vertebral artery.

That is about three times the number of deaths from trovafloxacin, an excellent antibiotic that we abandoned in the U.S. as too dangerous.

Emphasis added. Note that evidence generally seems to support chiropractic as a moderately efficacious treatment for low back pain on par with a massage, but ineffective for any other indication (though it is touted as allegedly effective for all manner of improbable symptoms). Thus, when evaluating the risk/benefit calculation for these deaths, keep in mind that these are at best deaths in exchange for temporary relief of back pain, and at worst deaths in exchange for profiteering by means of bogus treatments.

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Here’s me, looking un-photogenic as usual, hanging out with a niche celebrity:

PZ at the pub

Note that I’m rocking my Warrior Plumbers t-shirt by Raptor Bandit Industries (Christopher Hastings et al, also responsible for The Adventures of Dr. McNinja).

On a perhaps more interesting note, here are someone’s thoughts on PZ’s talk, itself.

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I recently came across a wonderful essay by Isaac Asimov called The Relativity of Wrong. You can, and should, go read it, e.g. here. I will quote what I feel are key parts to understand his arguments, but you really, really ought to go read the whole thing. Really.

I RECEIVED a letter the other day. It was handwritten in crabbed penmanship so that it was very difficult to read. Nevertheless, I tried to make it out just in case it might prove to be important. In the first sentence, the writer told me he was majoring in English literature, but felt he needed to teach me science. …

The young specialist in English Lit, having quoted me, went on to lecture me severely on the fact that in every century people have thought they understood the universe at last, and in every century they were proved to be wrong. It follows that the one thing we can say about our modern "knowledge" is that it is wrong. The young man then quoted with approval what Socrates had said on learning that the Delphic oracle had proclaimed him the wisest man in Greece. "If I am the wisest man," said Socrates, "it is because I alone know that I know nothing." The implication was that I was very foolish because I was under the impression I knew a great deal.

My answer to him was, "John, when people thought the earth was flat, they were wrong. When people thought the earth was spherical, they were wrong. But if you think that thinking the earth is spherical is just as wrong as thinking the earth is flat, then your view is wronger than both of them put together."

The basic trouble, you see, is that people think that "right" and "wrong" are absolute; that everything that isn't perfectly and completely right is totally and equally wrong.

In the early days of civilization, the general feeling was that the earth was flat. This was not because people were stupid, or because they were intent on believing silly things. They felt it was flat on the basis of sound evidence. […] Another way of looking at it is to ask what is the "curvature" of the earth's surface Over a considerable length, how much does the surface deviate (on the average) from perfect flatness. The flat-earth theory would make it seem that the surface doesn't deviate from flatness at all, that its curvature is 0 to the mile.

Nowadays, of course, we are taught that the flat-earth theory is wrong; that it is all wrong, terribly wrong, absolutely. But it isn't. The curvature of the earth is nearly 0 per mile, so that although the flat-earth theory is wrong, it happens to be nearly right. That's why the theory lasted so long.

…The Greek philosopher Eratosthenes noted that the sun cast a shadow of different lengths at different latitudes (all the shadows would be the same length if the earth's surface were flat). From the difference in shadow length, he calculated the size of the earthly sphere and it turned out to be 25,000 miles in circumference.

The curvature of such a sphere is about 0.000126 per mile, a quantity very close to 0 per mile, as you can see, and one not easily measured by the techniques at the disposal of the ancients. The tiny difference between 0 and 0.000126 accounts for the fact that it took so long to pass from the flat earth to the spherical earth.

…The earth has an equatorial bulge, in other words. It is flattened at the poles. It is an "oblate spheroid" rather than a sphere. This means that the various diameters of the earth differ in length. The longest diameters are any of those that stretch from one point on the equator to an opposite point on the equator. This "equatorial diameter" is 12,755 kilometers (7,927 miles). The shortest diameter is from the North Pole to the South Pole and this "polar diameter" is 12,711 kilometers (7,900 miles).

The difference between the longest and shortest diameters is 44 kilometers (27 miles), and that means that the "oblateness" of the earth (its departure from true sphericity) is 44/12755, or 0.0034. This amounts to l/3 of 1 percent.

To put it another way, on a flat surface, curvature is 0 per mile everywhere. On the earth's spherical surface, curvature is 0.000126 per mile everywhere (or 8 inches per mile). On the earth's oblate spheroidal surface, the curvature varies from 7.973 inches to the mile to 8.027 inches to the mile.

The correction in going from spherical to oblate spheroidal is much smaller than going from flat to spherical. Therefore, although the notion of the earth as a sphere is wrong, strictly speaking, it is not as wrong as the notion of the earth as flat.

Naturally, the theories we now have might be considered wrong in the simplistic sense of my English Lit correspondent, but in a much truer and subtler sense, they need only be considered incomplete.

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An article I recently read boldly claims that The G-spot 'doesn't appear to exist', say researchers. I read this with a sigh, as I know from experience how greatly distorted any research findings can get when they are published in mainstream media. Clearly, this was an instance of such distortion. I was curious to see what the actual study said, and went off to find it. You may read it here, if you are curious.

Sadly, it wasn’t very distorted after all.

In fact, the press release from the Department of Twin Research & Genetic Epidemiology was worse than the articles I had read. It presents the following conclusion from their study:

The complete absence of genetic contribution to the G-Spot, an allegedly highly sensitive area in the anterior wall of the vagina which when stimulated produces powerful orgasm, casts serious doubt on its existence, suggests a study by the Department of Twin Research to be published in the Journal of Sexual Medicine.

The investigators carried out this study by recruiting 1804 female volunteers from the TwinsUK registry aged 23-83 years. All completed questionnaires detailing their general sexual behavior and functioning, and a specific question on self-perception of the G- Spot. The researchers found no evidence for a genetic basis. This led to the conclusion that – given that all anatomical and physiological traits studied so far have been shown to be at least partially influenced by genes – the G-Spot does not exist and is more a fiction created by other factors e.g. an individual’s own sexual and relationship satisfaction or self-report is an inadequate way to assess the G-Spot and researchers should in future focus more on ultrasound studies.

The impression I took from the mainstream press articles, and which was reinforced by the institute’s press release, was that the existence of the G-spot was inferred to correspond to study participants’ reports of whether they had one. If this were so—if we could determine anatomy by poll—I expect I could find some people with more spleens than kidneys and more livers than lymph nodes.

I took the trouble to read the actual paper (it’s fairly short and quite accessible). The reality turns out not to be quite so bad. The main point—well, let me make an aside here and say that I find it extremely odd that what seemed to be the main point emphasised in the paper was considerably de-emphasised in the press release and consequent mainstream articles, seriously reducing their credibility. Anyway, back to the point:

The main point of the paper is that if the G-spot exists, it is an anatomical structure; if it is an anatomical structure, it is presumably genetically inherited. Even if some women have it while some don’t, we expect to find a strong correlation in twins. Since heterozygotic twins share 50% of their genome, and monozygotic (‘identical’) twins share 100% of their genome, if it’s genetically heritable at all, we should see a correlation in twins, especially monozygotic ones: If one twin has it, the other should (more often than is the case with unrelated people); if one twin does not, the other shouldn’t. Because twins are typically raised in extremely similar environments, even environmental factors should be similar. In particular, monozygotic twins should be more similar to each other than heterozygotic twins for heritable (but not environmental) factors.

Well, this turned out not to be the case: Heterozygous twins report that they have G-spots about as often as do monozygous twins, and this is the real point of the paper. It’s not as spectacular as the mainstream news articles, but I’m surprised that they so failed to emphasise this in their own press release. Ah well, such is the hunt for fame, I suppose.

In the conclusion of the real, scientific paper, the authors are of course forced to admit that

A possible explanation for the lack of heritability may be that women differ in their ability to detect their own (true) G-spots.

They, of course, do not believe this to be the case. We may reasonably ask, why not? And how good is your evidence? My thoughts will be very tentative, because I’m not an expert in any related field; but we may at least reason about it.

First, I will note that the study’s exclusion criteria were, at times, a bit puzzling.

Women who reported that they were homo- or bisexual were excluded from the study because of the common use of digital stimulation among these women, which may bias the results.

I daresay it may bias them! For example, if the G-spot exists, it’s a specific anatomical location inside the vagina. Because it is postulated to be a very specific location, it may be difficult to stimulate with the penis, which is after all not prehensile and may not be angled so as to optimally stimulate a specific location. This postulated spot could perhaps be more easily located and stimulated with the fingers. Therefore, if it does exist, and if we are restricted to self-reporting as evidence, I would expect to find much stronger evidence for this in a population with common use of digital stimulation. The people I would ask first are the people whose answers they discarded. I would be very curious to see how their data are affected if they include this population. What was their rationale for the exclusion criterion? Was it determined beforehand, or after the data were in? Would it contradict their conclusion? What if this population were considered exclusively?

This looks like a very serious weakness to me, as the exclusion criterion seems to be specifically geared towards reaching a particular conclusion. (I can’t think of anything much more damning I could possibly say about a study.) It’s not the only thing that makes me raise an eyebrow, though (but it is the strongest).

Another thing is that, well, some traits just aren’t very heritable. (This is why we measure heritability; if there weren’t variation in how strongly phenotypic traits are associated with genes, there’d be no need.) I suppose the authors may reasonably expect their readership to be familiar with not just the concept of heritability (as I am), but also what kind of numbers we should expect (as I am not). Is a “close to 0” heritability common, or unusual, or rare, or impossible in variable phenotypic traits? Still, it is possible that heritability of the G-spot—not necessarily its existence, but perhaps its precise location and orientation, or its sensitivity—is relatively low. Is the study still powered to detect it? How does this render it more vulnerable to other confounders?

There are various criticisms leveraged against twin studies in general. Twin studies are potentially wonderful tools because monozygotic twins offer unique opportunities to investigate heritability. (Personally, I think the most interesting ones are of that rarity of rarities, pairs of monozygotic twins raised apart; the surprising similarities they show in a very wide range of behavioural traits is strong evidence of genetic conditioning.) But they are not perfect.

And finally, I make the observation that the institute—the Department of Twin Research & Genetic Epidemiology—maintain a database of twins (an awful lot of them: Some 11,000 people). This is great; it enables them to efficiently perform twin studies. However, studying the same sample over and over again is problematic. If you look at the same N people, examining them for different properties over and over again, you’re bound to find an apparent correlation eventually. Think about it: If you pick 100 names at random from a phone book, you’ll expect about half of them to be male, half female; and about 8–15 of them to be left-handed…but if you examined them for blood pressure, and dietary habits, and sexual preferences, and number of children, and so on for any number of questions, it would be bizarre if they were an average sample in every respect. This is a problem with data mining. Clearly, the department’s database is pretty large, but then they’ve already published over 400 research papers. At what number of papers should we statistically expect to find spurious calculations?

All in all, the study was a bit more sensible than mainstream media had me thinking at first, but as research papers go, I found it surprisingly unimpressive. In particular, the exclusion criterion that discarded answers from gay and bisexual women smells very fishy, and I wouldn’t be terribly surprised if it “biased” the results so far as to invalidate their conclusion.

In a general sense, I trust science—I trust the scientific method, and (to a lesser but considerable degree) I trust that scientific consensus will move toward the right answers: Science is often characterised as an asymptotic approach to the truth (we may never know it exactly, but we will get ever closer). However, when considering a single study, one should be cautious. Never trust what the mainstream press says about it at all, whether you like what it says or not—ordinary reporters lack scientific savvy, good science reporters are rare, and after the editors have their say, it’s often dubious whether the scientists behind a finding would agree with anything the press has to say about them except, perhaps, the scientists’ names.

And while the scientific method is excellent, and the scientific consensus is the best approach we have to knowledge, some studies just aren’t worth the paper of the webpages they’re published on. If you want to adjust your opinions according to a single study, read it. Read it critically.

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I’ve been meaning to make a brief post on this “Climategate” thing, but I’ve held off, both because of the annoying lack of creativity that went into coming up with that name, and because the whole thing seemed like a shining example of a storm in a teacup. In fact, I—

—Well, thankfully, I don’t need to explain what I think. Just when I started to feel neglectful for not having done so, I chanced upon this video which not only expresses what I thought, but also adds a bunch of facts I was not aware of.

The short-short version (and my comment when I first saw a snippet of one of the emails) is that the people who think it’s obvious fraud are obviously ignorant of scientific jargon.

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An astonishing story has been making the rounds in the news lately. A man, Rom Houben, who has been diagnosed as being in a Persistent Vegetative State for the past 23 years is now claimed to have been misdiagnosed—conscious for these past two decades and more, but unable to control any muscles (locked-in syndrome). Such a misdiagnosis is horrific beyond words. I’m not trying to be melodramatic; I honestly can’t imagine anything worse that could possibly happen to me. Imagine being locked inside your body, aware of your surroundings but unable to communicate for twenty-three years…! It is claimed, furthermore, that he is now able to communicate with the aid of an assistant who can help him type by assisting his arm and hand movements.

This is absolute bogus, and unspeakably tragic.

Facilitated communication is the name of the technique whereby a “facilitator” helps guide a patient’s hand to type, by, it is claimed, detecting minute muscle contractions. Most famously, it has been used with severely autistic people. Most infamously, it has lead to some very serious problems. Facilitated communication, you see, doesn’t work—it could perhaps sometimes be fraud, but is generally considered to be a manifestation of the ideomotor effect, where you subconsciously make movements without being aware of your control. (Consider Ouija boards.) It turned out that once facilitated communication was tested by asking questions about things that the patients could see things but the facilitators could not, it failed utterly. The facilitators were doing all the work, and the patients were not actually communicating. This is rather ghastly in the face of the fact that it lead to substantial numbers of allegations of sexual abuse, tearing families apart and ruining lives.

Nothing quite as sinister as allegations of sexual abuse is going on in the current media case. However, there are two possibilities, and both are disturbing:

  1. Houben is actually in a persistent vegetative state after all: Completely unconscious. His family are effectively being deceived by the facilitator (who may be a fraud, but more likely believes in her own imagined abilities). This is tragic in itself, but not nearly as bad as the alternative:

  2. Houben isn’t in a persistent vegetative state. He really is conscious and suffering locked-in syndrome. He is aware of what is going on. …But the facilitated communication is still bogus. He is still trapped in his own body, unable to interact in the slightest with the world, forced to sit silently and watch as the facilitator effectively pretends to be him, putting a false story in his mouth. If anything is worse than being a locked-in syndrome sufferer misdiagnosed as PSV, it is surely this.

How can I be so convinced that this FC really is bogus? How can I place my ‘faith’ so absolutely in the skeptical bloggers who have discussed the case? I don’t need to (though the evidence against FC was already solid enough). Videos show Houben “communicating” by typing quite rapidly on a touchscreen (no haptic feedback, no way to find the keys without looking)…with his eyes closed, but the facilitator intently watching the on-screen keypad.

Many skeptical and medical bloggers have already written about this. Thus far, I think the writeup I liked best was Orac’s.

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Doing my part to echo reason in the skeptical blogosphere, I’ll make a brief mention of what I’ve read about the new USPSTF guidelines, which you may have heard of. If not, Dr. David Gorski explains and deconstructs. The short version is, a group belonging to (but not setting policy for) the US government has altered its recommendations for mammographic screening to

  1. not screen women aged 40–49 anymore (rather, wait until 50)
  2. screen once every two years, instead of annually

Naturally, a lot of people misunderstand this and some of the less reasonable among them start crying about misogynism and the Obama administration’s death panels. These people miss a lot of obvious points.

  • These are screening guidelines. They have nothing to do with recommendations for symptomatic women (examining them is not screening, but diagnosis). It also does not apply to women with known risk factors. It’s a change in how they suggest screening of asymptomatic women should happen.

  • The group was not set up by the Obama administration. The US authorities do not condone these guidelines. In fact, most groups do not, though if Dr. Gorski is right, a gradual shift in this general direction may happen over time. Either way, the USPSTF just makes recommendations; they have no power to dictate policy.

  • The tricky one: The guidelines actually make a lot of sense. Excessive screening does more harm than good.

It may sound bizarre that more cancer screening could be harmful, but it’s true. Apart from discomfort and angst caused by false positive diagnoses, there’s very real pain and even small danger in performing biopsies on harmless lumps (even good medical interventions are never completely risk free). And, not all cancers will kill you—a few may spontaneously go away, but much more significantly, a lot of cancers are just so slow-growing that they shouldn’t be on your list of worries. With the average life expectancy around 80, a tumour that will absolutely kill you by your 110th birthday is…really nothing to worry about. You’re more likely to live longer without the harsh regimen of surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation necessary to treat the cancer, even though that same regimen is an absolute life-saver if you have the sort of cancer that would kill you before you’re certainly dead by natural causes.

There are also other factors, such as lead time bias (highly recommended reading). It’s easy to say that If we screen 40-year-olds, most diagnosed cancer patients survive on average 15 years; if we only screen 50-year-olds, we find that our average patient only survives 5 years and think that early screening lets people live longer (15 years versus 5!)…but I’ve just described two scenarios with people dying at age 55; the difference is how long they live with the knowledge that they have cancer. This sort of thing happens, it is significant, and it confounds trials and policy making. Detecting cancers earlier is only helpful if interventions actually turn out to save lives.

I won’t say much further, because this is obviously not my area of expertise, but because a moral panic has sprung up around the internet, I figured I would say something in case you stumble across my blog. If these issues concern you, I highly recommend David Gorski’s write-up, the SkepChick counter to a bad Feministing report, and Orac’s direct deconstruction of the canards and conspiracy theories.

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The traditional argument against the claim that vaccines cause autism is that it’s bunk because there’s no evidence that it’s so, and that the perceived increase in autism prevalence is due to diagnostic substitution and changes in diagnostic criteria. This is most likely true, but somehow not very comforting (even if it makes sense to teachers…), and diagnostic substitution and critereon changes are fairly obscure: They don’t (in themselves) prove that there has been no increase; they merely make it impossible to tell by looking at prevalence data alone.

A more recent study by the British NHS did something different, and provided data completely consistent with this theory, but perhaps more digestible. They measured autism prevalence across age cohorts. If vaccines did cause autism, then the increase in vaccination over the past few decades should correlate to an increase in autism, which would be reflected in an age skew among the autistic: More young people should be autistic than old people, because old people would have been adults by the time mandatory vaccinations were introduced!

Unsurprisingly, it was found that autism prevalence is not associated with age cohorts: The rate is a constant 1% regardless of age (1.8% in men, 0.2% in women). As Dr. Steve Novella put it,

This is vital blow to the vaccine-autism hypothesis, because the vaccine schedule has been increasing over the last 20 years, the MMR was introduced in the early 1990s, and thimerosal exposure has risen and then fallen to almost nothing. Throughout all of these changes, autism rates have remained stable. This is important because in order to demonstrate toxicity you need to demonstrate a dose-response – the higher the exposure to the alleged toxin the greater the risk or severity of the disease or disorder you think is caused by the toxin. This burden of proof was met for smoking and lung cancer – there is a clear dose-risk response. This is no detectable dose-risk link between vaccines and autism.

It will be interesting to see how the antivaxers attempt to explain this away.

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Whenever the autism conmanufactroversy rears its head, and whenever someone claims that it has increased greatly in prevalence (an epidemic) over the past few decades, I point out that because diagnostic criteria have changed and broadened, there’s just no evidence that it’s true at all, and it actually gets very difficult to tell: Because the criteria have changed, many children now diagnosed as “autistic” or having an “autism spectrum disorder” would not have been labelled thus a few decades ago; and because the criteria have no clear mapping, the true prevalence is difficult to measure.

This is a very rigorous and true refutal, I think, but it admittedly lacks emotional clout.

I was mentioning this in very, very brief terms to my mother a couple of weeks ago. She’s been teaching elementary school since before I was born (in fact, she met my father on the job as they taught at the same school), and when it comes to anecdotal data, it’s hard to trump the sheer number of children an elementary school teacher sees over the course of three decades of teaching. Her reaction to this struck me as mild surprise that it was even an issue worth discussing. To her, it was simply a matter of course that there has been no change, and if she thinks about it at all, it is only to recall those labelled as, say, “difficult children” twenty years ago and note that today, they would be diagnosed with some form of ASD.

I suppose the next time this comes up in a discussion, I’ll have anecdotal evidence to back up my logic with emotional clout…

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An analgam of someone I knew, various remarks (held in various degrees of conviction), and many things I have read, holds a position on objective fact that I find peculiar, to say the least. A conversation might artifically run somewhat like this:

Petter: …As an example of a sex difference, men tend to be stronger than women.

Amalgam: I find that offensive. Many women are as strong as, or stronger than many men. Besides, sex isn’t binary, you’re over-simplifying.

Petter: Yes, that’s all true, but that doesn’t change the fact that on average, men are stronger than women. Look, I’m not arguing that men are better; I’m just observing that—

Amalgam: What’s a ‘man’ and a ‘woman’, anyway? Lots of people have ‘abnormal’ chromosomes, like XXY or XXYX, or have other intersex conditions.

Petter: So what? I’m not trying to say “A is a man, B is a woman, therefore A is stronger than B”. I’m just making an objective observation—that, as a matter of fact, without attaching any valuation to it, men (“XY individuals with motile sperm”) are on average physically stronger than women (“XX individuals with functional ovaries”). The existence of exceptions and of individuals who do not fit neatly into this scheme does nothing to contradict that generalisation.

Amalgam: But your binary division is artificial. Sex isn’t binary. Your distinction isn’t useful. What is it good for? So what if we “know” about this difference between “sexes”, or other differences—how does that make anything better? It just creates more grounds for people to discriminate on.

At this point, of course, I am invariably rather close to beating my head against a wall. I am a rationalist and naturalist, I am fond of objective truth, and I am rabidly obsessed with precision; but let’s try to calm down and look at this in a detached fashion.

It is of course true that lots of people don’t fit into any given definition of “male” and “female”. Your body may not match the typical representation of your chromosomal configuration, or you may not have a common chromosomal configuration at all, or you may even be a chimera, with different chromosomes in different tissues. But so what? I’ve never come across a sane argument that my casually proposed definition does not match a great majority people, and if it matches a great majority of people, then it suffices to make generalisations.

It’s also true—painfully, obviously true—that the generalisation does not apply in every case; but then, that’s inherent even in the definition of a generalisation. Physical strength (like most natural attributes) is distributed in a continuous distribution, probably something like a bell curve; the “men” curve will have a higher mean than the “women” curve (that’s exactly what my claim says), but there’s lots of overlap. Certainly there are many women stronger than the average man, and vastly more women stronger than weaker-than-average men. But, again, that in no way contradicts the claim that the mean strength of men is greater than the mean strength of women.

Objectively, then, it seems pretty obvious that I was factually correct (quibbling about what’s ‘normal’ aside). The final objection, however, was that my distinctions (and conclusions) aren’t useful. In fact, one particular person has gone further and indicated, in so many words, that it is therefore better not to hold a belief, even if it happens to be factually correct, because (e.g.) it may affect undesirable social trends, such as (in this case) perhaps a condescending attitude of men toward women in contexts of tasks that require physical strength.

I find this objection ludicrous on several grounds. First, I don’t necessarily care about the social impact of knowledge in the abstract: That is, I am interested in things without any regard to their social impact. I think it’s tremendously interesting that the reason why the sky is blue is Rayleigh scattering, but as far as I know this has no impact on any social phenomenon at all—the sky, after all, is blue regardless of whether we know why or not; it remains blue regardless even of whether we know it or not. I think that knowledge for the sake of knowledge is a very noble pursuit, and that if having knowledge leads people to make bad moral choices, then we need to focus not on limiting knowledge, but on improving moral education—or perhaps rather on combatting errors in thinking such as the naturalistic fallacy, the inveterate tendency to conflate “is” with “ought”.

Second, the latter part of that objection applies to pretty much anything. Even if we decide not to investigate sex differences, and don’t teach anyone that men are (on average) stronger than women, the facts remain facts. Reality is objective, and whether we believe it or not has no impact thereupon. Thus, even if we try our best to ignore the facts, it still remains true that when push comes to shove, men are better at it (pushing and shoving, that is). Biology doesn’t give a damn about political correctness. The facts, therefore, are there to be rediscovered. I fail to see how hushing them up does anyone much good—only ‘well-intentioned’ people will consent to it, and malicious people who would base their malice on unfortunate facts are always able to do the research for themselves, with the considerable advantage that they can objectively demonstrate that they are right. By avoiding the knowing of unfortunate facts, we have silenced the discussion that might have taught us to properly deal with them.

Third, denying that differences exist seems to me counterproductive even in social contexts. Men are physically stronger than women. There are many other differences. So what? That doesn’t make men morally superior to women, any more than the differences make women morally more valuable than men. Not only should we be smart enough to treat people with dignity regardless of such biological differences, but the refusal to seems to me to cast aspersions on other interactions. If we pretend, in the interest of “equality”, that men were no stronger than women, for instance, then we are implicitly saying that equality of strength is socially and politically important—which makes me wonder what we’re supposed to think of people with physical conditions that cause their strength to atrophy. At this point, I may have to pull out something more controversial and brain-related, and point out that men consistently score higher than women on 3-dimensional visualisation tasks: If we deny this, are we not implicitly saying that individuals with inferior skill in this narrow domain are somehow more generally inferior? This, it seems to me, follows logically; therefore I find the premise reprehensible.

Fourth, given that (as per #2) there do exist real differences, having a statistical notion of what they are is the only way we can intelligently formulate policies to deal with them. It’s very easy to say that we shouldn’t, that we should treat everyone as an individual and not “assume” that we know things about them based on narrow and superficial criteria like sex or race—but while that’s certainly true in personal interaction, sometimes we do have to deal with masses of people. If I were to allocate a health budget, for instance, then knowing that black people are more prone to sickle-cell anemia than white people, I would allocate more money to deal with this particular problem in areas with a greater proportion of black people in the population. If we wish to raise awareness of conditions that affect predominantly men, or women, or black people, or white people, or fat people, or skinny people…then simply knowing about the general correlation may help us focus our concern on the more vulnerable segment of the population. Certainly, this does sadly leave highly exceptional people in the less-targeted segments, but since no health budget exists that can deal with every problem, isn’t it our moral duty to address the problem as well and as specifically as we can? (It also happens that the needless testing we’d have to perform on the ‘normal’ majority of people in order to find the very few with undetected ‘abnormalities’ would probably create more problems than it solves, even apart from budgetary exhaustion—“more testing” does not equal “better health”, and may often lead to reduced quality of life. Sad, but true.)

I am not going to tie this together into a conclusion—I think that there are several, and they are fairly neatly listed in point form. And, to be perfectly honest, my strongest visceral reaction to conversations of this kind is “That’s just preposterous!”, because I cannot wrap my brain around the idea that knowing something is a bad thing. If your ethics object to reality, then adjust your ethics, or change reality to match them—but actually change things; don’t just try to change perception. If (and this is hypothetical and quite possibly counterfactual) we observe that women are less educated than men, then the correct response is not to smile and assure the girls that they are just as good as the boys—no, the answer is to find out why and to do something about it!

As for those things which biology forces upon us, whether we like it or not—such as my running example of physical strength—well, so what? We can choose to deal with it in various ways. In an awful lot of contexts, it only makes sense to evaluate people on individual merit, anyway. (We might regard the cost of evaluating people of the generally-less-suitable segment of the population as an acceptable cost for fairness.) In other situations, it actually seems to make sense to freely accept that our conditions differ: So, for instance, very few people object to sex divisions in sports—and ss a fan of combat sports, I am glad: The muscular differences between men and women would make it a rather brutal affair, and watching a man fight a woman would just be unpleasant, even apart from cultural baggage. (In such cases, though, it does become difficult to know what to do about people who constitute exceptions—I don’t know whether the woman in the story has any chromosomal abnormality, but the fact that it is an issue is enough to note that it’s a troubling area.)

Finally, I want to make it very clear that I am perfectly well aware that many of the differences between the sexes are not “biologically determined” even probabilistically, but are strictly the products of our cultures and social conditioning. There are many worthy causes there, and I won’t say much about them because I’m not really qualified to speak intelligently on the matter. However, anyone who seeks to gain me or people like me as allies there (and it shouldn’t be too difficult) had best be careful about steering away from the post-modern muddle-headedness that would alter reality just by changing our perceptions, because the more you refuse to acknowledge the reality of those differences which objectively do exist, the less I am likely to take you seriously when you speak about those imposed on us by a patriarchal cultural heritage¹.

¹ This very explicitly does not apply to certain regular readers…

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No atheist should call himself or herself one… A more appropriate term is “naturalist”, denoting one who takes it that the universe is a natural realm, governed by nature’s laws. This properly implies that there is nothing supernatural in the universe. […] People with theistic beliefs should be called supernaturalists, and it can be left to them to attempt to refute the findings of physics, chemistry and the biological sciences in an effort to justify their alternative claim that the universe was created, and is run, by supernatural beings.

A.C. Grayling, Against All Gods

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(In case of embedding problems, click here.)

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The other day, I picked up Why Evolution Is True by Dr. Jerry Coyne from the library. A few days later I had finished it, and a few days after that, I want to write a few lines on what I think about it.

The book’s aim—as very straightforwardly implied by the title—is to lay out in concise form a reasonably comprehensive (and comprehensible) body of evidence for evolution. As such, it spans a pretty wide range of areas—biogeography, palæontology, genetics, and so forth. At only ~300 pages, it has to go at a pretty good pace, and it does—but it’s largely a good thing. The book is accessible, but not dumbed down; it is brief and concise, but not superficial. It lays out a huge breadth of evidence with plentiful references (many internet references) for those who want more depth.

My brief opinion is: This is one of the best, and possibly the best book I have read in terms of laying out precisely what the title claims: Why Evolution Is True.

The funny thing is, when I put it down, my mind was actually full of gripes. I was constantly wondering about the tone—it wasn’t very technical, but couldn’t it have been simplified in places? I now think that, yes, it could have, but I don’t think it would have been to its advantage. It’s simple enough to be accessible to laymen, and that is enough. Let’s not pretend that it isn’t science, don’t give the impression of condescending, and don’t sacrifice precision by avoiding scientific terminology altogether.

I also found one argument missing that I might have liked to see—one that Richard Dawkins has made wonderfully lucid in more than one book—that of the difference between “single-step” and cumulative selection: The counter to the old “747 in a junkyard” argument¹. In fact, its omission irked me very greatly because I think it is such an excellent counter to fairly common creationist/cdesign proponentsist objections to evolution by natural selection as being statistically impossible.

However, I think that the reason why this irked me so very greatly may be because virtually every other persuasive argument is either explained or alluded to; and the focus of the book is, after all, on evidence rather than argument. If someone near you suffers under the delusion that evolution is not a fact, and the neo-Darwinian synthesis is not a very solid scientific theory, you could scarcely do better than to recommend this book to them—perhaps with an explanation of cumulative selection to solidify the deal; or have them graduate to Dawkins, e.g. The Blind Watchmaker, which takes a complementary approach of theoretical argument (though on a very accessible level!) as contrasted to Coyne’s straightforward presentation of evidence.

¹ The “747 in a junkyard” argument stems from this quote by astronomer Fred Hoyle:

A junkyard contains all the bits and pieces of a Boeing 747, dismembered and in disarray. A whirlwind happens to blow through the yard. What is the chance that after its passage a fully assembled 747, ready to fly, will be found standing there? So small as to be negligible, even if a tornado were to blow through enough junkyards to fill the whole Universe.

Hoyle was not a creationist—but never mind his motivation. Creationists have hijacked this quote and use it to point out a perceived implausibility of evolution. The chance of something so complex as an eye, for instance, arising by chance, is of course minuscule. How can “Darwinists” claim that it arose purely by chance? The answer is, of course, that they don’t, because nobody thinks that the eye sprung forth fully formed from a single mutation, but rather incrementally, and if it was improbable, it was a matter of cumulative selection.

What do I mean by “cumulative probability”? I mean that we can build up on past successes. Take, for example, a coin flip. The odds of getting heads on a single flip is ½. The odds of two flips simultaneously resulting in heads are ½×½ = (½)² = ¼. Three heads at once? ½×½×½ = (½)³ = ⅛. —And so on. The odds of, say, 100 heads all at once are 1 in 2100: Less than one in a thousand billion billion billion. If we flip our 100 coins once a second, it will take us on the order of a million billion billion years to flip all 100 heads at the same time. That’s about 100,000 billion times the age of the universe. This is single-step selection: We’re looking for a specific result, and we need to get it in a single step: The simultaneous flip of 100 coins.

But natural selection doesn’t require this. The theory of evolution by natural selection predicts that any helpful change will be “saved up” and passed down to further generations—it doesn’t have to be perfect—it just has to be an improvement, however small. If we flip 100 coins, we’ll almost certainly get some heads—the odds of getting 0 are the same as getting 100, and that will virtually never happen. We’ll probably get about 50 heads. Now we’re allowed to save them, and only have to re-flip the 50 tails. Probably about half of them will be heads. —And so forth. If we assume that we get half heads, half tails every time, we’ll have 100 heads—on average—after 7 flips or so.

You will note that 7 is rather less than a thousand billion billion billion. We can now accomplish the task of flipping 100 heads in about 7 seconds rather than 100,000 billion times the age of the universe (if we can sort through them quickly enough…). The argument is vastly simplified, and obviously none of this applies at all closely to biology.

What should be clear—and the point of the argument—is that there is a huge (in fact, a geometrical) difference between single-step and cumulative selection.

haggholm: (someone is wrong on the internet)

It would be disingenuous to imply that non-vaccination might not lead to an increased incidence in vaccine-preventable illness. It would be equally disingenuous to state that this possibility poses a great threat to America's children.

Dr. Jay Gordon, quoted at Respectful Insolence

It would be…disingenuous to state that this possibility poses a great threat to America’s children.

Never mind polio, which killed or crippled thousands of children every year before it was eradicated by vaccines, the fear of which ruled some people’s childhoods.

Never mind smallpox, an epidemic disease with an average fatality rate of 30%, also eradicated by vaccines.

Never mind Hemophilus influenza type b (HiB), a disease now nearly forgotten in pediatric wards thanks to vaccination, but which used to cause disease in one of every 200 children under the age of 5—whereof ½–⅔ developed meningitis, with a mortality rate of 5% and rate of permanent brain damage of 30%.

No—none of these, nor any of the other among the dozens of vaccine-preventable diseases now eradicated or dramatically reduced, pose a great threat; thus, because there’s no great threat, we should cautiously withhold vaccination just in case we ever find evidence that they cause any harm. We have no such evidence, but why jump the gun? It’s not like they prevent any great threat.

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Over the course of many a fruitless religious debate, one book that my ‘opponents’ have often urged me to read is Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis. I had never done so, but when I found out that the whole thing was available online (here), I went ahead and read it—in stolen snippets of two days, at that; it’s short and a light read. My very brief conclusion is that C.S. Lewis is an entirely different brand of apologist from the raucous, idiot, Ray Comfort kind to which I have previously been exposed. I get every impression that he was being quite sincere and honest. He may also very well have been intelligent. —I say “may” because this book provides no evidence that he was, but nor do I think that it provides strong evidence that he wasn’t.

That said, in the early chapters of Mere Christianity, comes off as honest, sincere, quite possibly intelligent, and completely unconvincing and to all appearances dead wrong. (This review originally contained a part explaining why I consider it coherent to be intelligent, honest, and completely wrong; that aside grew into this.) So unconvincing and so wrong, in fact, that while I consider it entirely possible that he was intelligent, and while some of his fans may very well be very intelligent (with the same rationale), anyone who was convinced by it must have had their critical thinking faculties shut off for the day. Much as a palæontologist accepts a single fossil or a physicist a single relativistic experiment, you may accept Mere Christianity as fitting into a worldview, but it is no more sufficient to build a complete theory upon. Unlike fossils and physical experiments, however, Mere Christianity attempts logical arguments, and—well, we shall see how it succeeded.

The book is written in a compelling way—easy, conversational language, and a structure where each chapter builds directly and explicitly on the one before it. Thus, he starts off by establishing a universal moral law; shows that the universal law must reflect some underlying reality; shows that this underlying reality must be an Intelligence; shows that it must be an Intelligence rather like the Christian God—and so forth. He is not mealy-mouthed, nor needlessly offensive, nor does he sound insincere. All of this gives me a rather favourable view of him as a person.

As a logician and persuader, however, I can’t give him much respect. My initial reaction to the first few chapters was that, with some minor restructuring, they could easily be retitled according to which logical fallacy he built each chapter’s claim upon. Thus one early chapter took St. Anselm’s failed Ontological Argument and applied it to moral law: We can conceive of a moral law better than our own; therefore there must be a Perfect moral law. (Not true: We might have and fully grasp the ultimate moral law but fail to recognise that it’s perfect.) Another was based on Equivocation (descriptive natural laws with prescriptive moral laws). Another, while not a formal fallacy that I’m aware of, was based on equivocating percepts with objects: That is, he went from All humans feel that there is something rather like X to Therefore, there exists an X with some sort of independent reaction. (Nonsense! If we find that all humans feel X we have indeed discovered a fact, but it’s a fact about human brains, not about the world outside them.) These percepts, once reified, were deified in short order.

Unfortunately, the book went rather downhill from this point. In the early chapters, I can really respect what Lewis was trying to do. Of course, I find that his arguments were not in fact valid, but he clearly believed the premises were true, he obviously believed in his conclusion, and as I have said before and will gladly repeat, it is often very difficult to find flaws in your own inferences when they make a path whereby, as far as you can tell, you get from the right starting point to the right end point. And in these early chapters, I am inclined to agree that if his arguments had been valid and sound, as he believed, then he had some very right and very valuable things to say; and he does lay out his arguments, however flawed, clearly and lucidly.

But this, alas, was not to last. Having once established (in his mind) that there must be a deity that shares some important, basic traits with the god of Judeo-Christian mythology, he went on to implicitly assume a whole slew of Christian dogma, and he did it so suddenly and unselfconsciously that it took me a chapter or two before I went Hang on a minute…! It is as though, once you accept a good, omnipotent creator deity, Moses, the Ten Commandments, Jesus, Judas, and the whole cabaret just followed naturally. This was a huge disappointment—he didn’t even try to show his work in this part of the examination.

The redeeming aspect of this part of the work was that if you once accept his assumptions, a lot of the things he says are very cogent and sensible. But that is not much help if you haven’t accepted those assumptions! He also argues an awful lot by metaphor. This is fine—he manages to explain a number of very weird things in Christian dogma in a way that made a lot of sense to me. So far, so good. However, a critical feature of an explanation by metaphor is that you have to be able to show how it reduces back to the real issue. Again, Lewis doesn’t fail to do this—he never even attempts it. It felt very much as if it never occurred to him that this had to be explained.

And I found this very peculiar, because C.S. Lewis was by all accounts an atheist, and he was brought to believe in all these things. How did this happen? I feel as though he must have had more of a story to tell, because the argument he lays out is completely insufficient to take an intelligent person from atheism to Christianity. Even if his initial arguments had been sound, there just wasn’t a chain of logic available to bring an atheist any further than a sort of nebulous proto-Judeo-Christian monotheism with no specifics of ritual or dogma, let alone such esoteric notions as the Trinity (which, by the way, he explains in lucid, wonderful metaphor that he completely neglects to show to be equivalent to any underlying reality). I supppose Lewis, if he was an atheist before, must not have reached that point by skepticism so much as more specific disappointment with points of dogma.

The part of the entire book that I found the most rewarding to read was, and this might surprise you, the two chapters on Faith. Now, I make it no secret that I regard the concept of faith with derision and contempt—faith, as I generally see it used and defined, refers to belief without evidence, and in some circles (particularly US fundamentalists) even belief in spite of evidence, which is lunacy and the least ethical and virtuous thing you can possibly do without involving others. However, C.S. Lewis defines faith very differently. I can do the concept no better justice than to quote him:

Roughly speaking, the word Faith seems to be used by Christians in two senses or on two levels, and I will take them in turn. In the first sense it means simply Belief—accepting or regarding as true the doctrines of Christianity. That is fairly simple. But what does puzzle people-at least it used to puzzle me—is the fact that Christians regard faith in this sense as a virtue. I used to ask how on earth it can be a virtue—what is there moral or immoral about believing or not believing a set of statements? Obviously, I used to say, a sane man accepts or rejects any statement, not because he wants to or does not want to, but because the evidence seems to him good or bad. If he were mistaken about the goodness or badness of the evidence that would not mean he was a bad man, but only that he was not very clever. And if he thought the evidence bad but tried to force himself to believe in spite of it, that would be merely stupid.

Well, I think I still take that view. But what I did not see then—and a good many people do not see still—was this. I was assuming that if the human mind once accepts a thing as true it will automatically go on regarding it as true, until some real reason for reconsidering it turns up. In fact, I was assuming that the human mind is completely ruled by reason. But that is not so. For example, my reason is perfectly convinced by good evidence that anaesthetics do not smother me and that properly trained surgeons do not start operating until I am unconscious. But that does not alter the fact that when they have me down on the table and clap their horrible mask over my face, a mere childish panic begins inside me. I start thinking I am going to choke, and I am afraid they will start cutting me up before I am properly under. In other words, I lose my faith in anaesthetics. It is not reason that is taking away my faith: on the contrary, my faith is based on reason. It is my imagination and emotions. The battle is between faith and reason on one side and emotion and imagination on the other.

With this second definition of the word faith, it actually makes sense. What this teaches me is that when I next meet someone extolling the virtues of faith, I need to explicitly establish what, precisely, this person means, because he or she may not be referring to it in the sense that I am used to encountering it. If someone believes in the virtues of faith¹, they are beneath being reasoned with. Faith², on the other hand, is in fact a positive thing! I do not need to be persuaded of its virtue; I agree with it! On the other hand, faith² is not a way in which religion can be reached. If somebody tells me that You won’t find God by evidence; you just have to have faith, they are using faith¹ and I will continue to dismiss them. If they take offence at this, I can now not only explain why, but also point out that C.S. Lewis regarded that claim as stupid.

haggholm: (Default)

A reasoned belief is one that is founded on empiricism and a logical argument. Hopefully, we’ll all agree that logic is sound. If you argue that logic doesn’t work, then there’s no point in discussing anything at all with you, because no chain of reasoning can—well, reasoning depends precisely on logic! Thus, I will presuppose that we agree on logic, though you may or may not agree that empiricism is necessary, and some would even claim that empiricism is not epistemologically sound.

First, let me define what I mean by empiricism (I am no philosopher; there may be more precise terms). I do not mean that what I see is necessarily reality (au contraire, I am well aware that our senses are flawed and our brains are prone to certain types of delusion). What I mean by empiricism is simply the following assumption: There exists a systematic relationship between external reality and the percepts of a healthy brain. I must define the brain as healthy: If it is not, it may not follow logic, and it may be plagued by hallucinations to the point where it cannot follow any sort of external reality. If so, alas, I posit that this brain is beyond help. It is not, I admit, impossible that this applies to any given brain, including my own; but absent evidence to this fact, it cannot serve me to believe it or to behave as though it were true, so I will assume that the percepts in my brain do systematically reflect an external reality. I do not, however, need to assume that the relationship is perfect—strictly speaking, all I need is statistical significance.

If I am allowed to assume both logic and empiricism (in the sense above), I can build up a consistent and coherent world view. It doesn’t matter (in principle) that the system is noisy—that some of my logic will be faulty and some of my perceptions incorrect. The assumptions suffice to formulate experiments, which allow me to verify my logic against observed reality, and cross-check my perceptions as much as I want. Repeated experiment lets me overcome the effects of noise in both argument and perception.

I will even take a controversial step and claim that logic needs empiricism for validation—the two cannot be extricated from each other. You cannot, after all, use logic to prove that logic is true—it’s circular (it only works if logic is true to begin with). If you are mathematically inclined, you may note that logic can be represented as a form of mathematics—I wonder if perhaps Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorem can provide a formal version of this verbal argument?

In any case, empiricism supports logic. The reason is as follows: If you assume both empiricism and logic, you can formulate experiments so that, given percept A, you can make a statistical expectation on percept B. This, however, presupposes logic. If we don’t have logic, we have no reason at all to suppose that B will follow A with any degree of certainty. Because we can empirically observe that experiments do bear out, this supports the logical reasoning that we used to make the predictions.

Of course this is far from iron-clad (and even in its weak form does also presuppose logic), but then we can’t really expect too much of an argument that tries to provide evidence for logic itself, now can we?

Having explained why I think that empiricism is a necessary assumption to make any sense of the world whatsoever, I suppose I should mention—however briefly—why I dismiss alternatives. The most obvious alternative is solipsism, the notion that none of the external world has any reality to it and all you can really know is your own mind. That’s not exactly nonsensical, but it’s not worth considering because it tells you nothing—it won’t get you anywhere. It provides no epistemological framework useful for interacting with anything (if everything you interact with is in your own head, why expect it to behave systematically?). It provides no reason to take logic seriously. It allows you no conclusions.

And, quite frankly, I think that all systems that reject empiricism and scientific thinking suffer of different degrees of the exact same thing. What you claim to intuitively know I may very well intuitively doubt, and if we are to settle it independently—well, we need logic and empiricism. If you claim that reality is somehow subjective and depends on your point of view, that your reality is not necessarily the same as mine, we lack a framework to interact, and it is self-defeating because you have no standing to declare that my view of reality as objective isn’t right (if you do so declare, you are making a distinctly universal and objective claim).

A logical argument, in its most basic form, looks like AB; A; ∴B. In English: “If A is true, then B must be true; A is true; therefore B is true.” A and B are both propositions, roughly “truth claims”. A is the premise. AB is the inference that drives the argument. B is the conclusion. Now, there are four ways to be wrong:

  1. You believe in proposition B without any logical or empirical reason. This is just silly.
  2. Your premise is correct (A really is true), but your argument is not validA doesn’t necessarily imply B.
  3. Your argument is valid, but not sound: Your premise, A, is not actually true.
  4. Your premise is false and your argument is invalid.

Note that it is quite possible to go from false premises to a true conclusion, or true premises to a true conclusion via an invalid argument. Reaching a correct conclusion is not proof of sound thinking!

The point of this discussion is that if once you believe in a set of premises and in a conclusion, it’s pretty easy to overlook flaws in the inference. If I know I believe B because A is true, and nothing occurs to gainsay either A or B, I’m not likely to revisit the inference AB with a very critical gaze, because clearly, it worked. However, this is not a reasonable thing to do if this argument is my only reason for believing in B—and since I may have made a mistake in any argument, I should try to be critical of all of them (it may not be my only reason for believing something, but the other reasons may be unsound arguments, so I should treat each one as important). To me, critical thinking lies in scrutinising the premises, but especially of watching inferences very carefully. I pay less attention to conclusions (in a debate, I am unlikely to attack them), because they will flow naturally from the argument if once a sound argument is established.

haggholm: (Default)

The US National Institute of Health department, the National Centre for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NC-CAM), whose aim is to find evidence for alternative medicine, found to its chagrin that alternative medicine doesn’t work. Key snippets:

Ten years ago the government set out to test herbal and other alternative health remedies to find the ones that work. After spending $2.5 billion, the disappointing answer seems to be that almost none of them do.

Echinacea for colds. Ginkgo biloba for memory. Glucosamine and chondroitin for arthritis. Black cohosh for menopausal hot flashes. Saw palmetto for prostate problems. Shark cartilage for cancer. All proved no better than dummy pills in big studies funded by the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine. The lone exception: ginger capsules may help chemotherapy nausea.

As for therapies, acupuncture has been shown to help certain conditions [though if I read it aright, That finding was called into question when a later, larger study found that sham treatment worked just as welled.], and yoga, massage, meditation and other relaxation methods may relieve symptoms like pain, anxiety and fatigue.

…Critics say that unlike private companies that face bottom-line pressure to abandon a drug that flops, the federal center is reluctant to admit a supplement may lack merit — despite a strategic plan pledging not to equivocate in the face of negative findings.

"There's been a deliberate policy of never saying something doesn't work. It's as though you can only speak in one direction," and say a different version or dose might give different results, said Dr. Stephen Barrett, a retired physician who runs Quackwatch, a web site on medical scams.

Critics also say the federal center's research agenda is shaped by an advisory board loaded with alternative medicine practitioners. They account for at least nine of the board's 18 members, as required by its government charter. Many studies they approve for funding are done by alternative therapy providers; grants have gone to board members, too.

[The Centre’s methodology] is opposite how other National Institutes of Health agencies work, where scientific evidence or at least plausibility is required to justify studies, and treatments go into wide use after there is evidence they work — not before.

In a federally funded pilot study, 30 dieters who were taught acupressure regained only half a pound six months later, compared with over three pounds for a comparison group of 30 others. However, the study widely missed a key scientific standard for showing that results were not a statistical fluke.

In other words, NC-CAM, which was founded with the intent of finding evidence for the quackery that the sponsoring Senators were already convinced by (to look for a yes, in other words, rather than objectively assessing credibility), is perfectly happy to spend millions upon millions of US tax dollars on investigating ludicrous fantasies like distance faith healing, energy healing, and homeopathy (dollars that could be spent on valid research), is biased by a board of proponents, tends to publish lackluster studies with missing controls…and still can’t come up with a single positive result beyond noting that ginger may (may) help with nausea.

If that’s the best they can come up with the cards stacked unreasonably in their favour, then it’s time to pull the plug and spend the next $2.5 billion dollars on something useful.


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