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Why Do People Develop "Religious" Beliefs About Secular Issues?:

This New York Times story related to the debate over the meritless theory that autism is caused by mercury exposure raises a broader issue that has been troubling me lately: why do people develop such strong beliefs about particular things that no amount of evidence, or for that matter common sense, is enough to sway them? Do take one particularly egregious example example, why do millions of people around he world people believe that water can retain a "memory" of materials diluted away, such that homeopathic remedies that may contain no detectable trace of the supposed "medicine" work?

Justin (mail):
I've heard this same argument in terms of everything from affirmative action to global warming to the war on Iraq, and judging from the civility of such discissions, I doubt much good will come of this thread. But the answer is obvious to any trained sociologist or anthropologist, and I suggest that anyone seriously interested in the social/psychological reasons for the persistence of such "truthiness" start there.
6.18.2007 12:19pm
Zathras (mail):
The major problem is epistomological. It is well and good to say that there is no evidence of X, but how are people to know that is true? You have people on one side or another of an issue who claim that studies show that their position is correct, and who has time to verify these claims? Ultimately, you have to determine who the most reliable source of information is.

For example, if you trust traditional practitioners of medicine, you will believe that homeopathic medicine is quackery. If you don't, you will be more likely to believe homeopathic medicine works, and the placebo effect might give enough confirmation that it does so. You have 2 well-established camps that have the institutional means to put forward their view, and it takes a huge amount of time to determine independently whether one really is better than the other.
6.18.2007 12:22pm
DavidBernstein (mail):
Let's take "public policy" issues like affirmative action off the table. Let's talk homeopathy, chiroprachty (the actual theory behind it), "reiki", JFK conspiracy theories, Holocaust denial, alien abductions, anti-flouridation activists, and so forth.
6.18.2007 12:25pm
plunge (mail):
Yeah, once you understand the host of different psychological "habits" we all seem born with (confirmation bias, compulsion to see patterns regardless of whether they are there or not, pathetic fallacy, etc.), it makes a lot of sense, frankly.

Note that superstitious beliefs or beliefs that persist despite all reason aren't even exclusive to human beings: they seem to affect any animal smart enough to basic pattern recognition skills.

Pigeons, for instance are often used for Skinner conditioning: they learn that they get a food pellet if they do some thing, like push a lever, or move from dark to light on command, etc.

However, what happens when the pellets are given randomly? Well, in that case, many of the pigeons develop what is quite apparently superstitious behavior: they start performing some particular odd movement repeatedly (sticking their head under their wing, hopping on one foot, sticking their heads in a corner) as if they believe it has some connection to the pellets: all because a pellet came when they were doing that, and they built the association from there and just can't let it go.

We're all guilty in various ways too. One of my favorite examples is bowling: many people, myself included, just feel compelled to "steer" the ball once its left your hands. It's almost unconscious: you can't help it, and sometime you don't even notice it.
6.18.2007 12:27pm
CJColucci:
The short version: we're all f**king morons. There's actually a substantial literature on this, none of it particularly controversial, and almost none of it making any use of the "religious" analogy, which probably does more harm than good.
6.18.2007 12:31pm
plunge (mail):
Homeopathy is probably the silliest of them all, because the purported explanation for how it works creates more problems than it solves. If water retains memories of things that have been in it, then every dose of homeopathic cure contains basically a completely random assortment of "memories" and no dose is like any other.
6.18.2007 12:32pm
blcjr (mail):
It is interesting that you should describe behavior that is essentially irrational as "religious." This perhaps betrays a bias on your part. There is, of course, a preconception among many that "faith" is essentially belief in something that cannot be "proven." This runs contrary to the view of many Christians -- count me as one -- that their faith is "reasonable."

So instead of starting from the false premise that the behavior that you are curious about is "religious," why not simply ask why people ever cling to beliefs that are irrational? I'm not sure that makes the question any more susceptible to a satisfying answer, but it least you wouldn't be implying that religious belief is always and inherently irrational.
6.18.2007 12:42pm
plunge (mail):
As a non-believer, I essentially agree with blcjr. While I certainly think that many assertions of faith are subsections in the larger category of "irrational beliefs" I don't think it's particularly fair to simply plop down "religion" in that category, as if all or even characteristically religious practice and belief falls into it without specific cases and arguments for each.
6.18.2007 12:45pm
Curt Fischer:
My views are perhaps somewhat specific to the autism article, but I believe that i) ignorance of statistics and probability, and ii) ignorance of how scientific research is conducted lead to "religious" medical theories.

Uncertainty is the central tenet of statistics and probability, but many people refuse to accept uncertainty -- in essence, they ask "but how can we be sure?", which is a pointless question. For example, the millions of people who are vaccinated with mercury-containing products and do not develop autism provide very strong statistical evidence that exposure to mercury-containing vaccines is not a good predictor of autism. However, this does not prove beyond all doubt that vaccines are not involved. Because even after an analysis of the data we are left with uncertainty, however slight, many people will reject statistical evidence in its entirety. There will always be problematic "true believers", but I think that if the general populace were taught more statistics and probability in grade school and middle school, the influence of the true believers would be limited.

My second point is that lay people do not understand how to set research agendas. Although I am not a biomedical researcher, I have many colleagues who are, and are funded by disease-related organizations. Often they are frustrated by the narrow, short-term foci that are forced upon recipients of disease association money, for reasons that the NYT article makes clear. In essence, "do vaccines cause autism" is a much less useful and compelling question to guide research efforts than "what are the biological underpinnings of autism?"
6.18.2007 12:46pm
Guest101:
Michael Shermer's book Why People Believe Weird Things offers a good starting point for inquiry into this phenomenon, and Carl Sagan's The Demon-Haunted World is an excellent lament of human credulity. The James Randi Education Foundation does a lot of good work combating the frauds who take advantage of widespread failures of critical thinking, including homeopaths and "psychics"-- see www.randi.org.
6.18.2007 12:47pm
Guest101:

There is, of course, a preconception among many that "faith" is essentially belief in something that cannot be "proven."

I'd hardly call that an unfair preconception when many on both sides of the issue generally agree with that definition of faith. If you want to believe that your belief in Christianity is grounded in reason, fine, but that simply means that your religious beliefs are grounded in something more than mere faith, not that the useful distinction between faith (in the widely-acknowledged sense of belief unfounded on reason or evidence) and reason is misguided.
6.18.2007 12:50pm
Eli Rabett (www):
There is a rather simple answer to this which arises out of cognitive studies. It has been described as the Childhood Origins of Adult Resistance to Science. Often direct observation is not possible, or extremely time consuming. People learn to deal with these situations by evaluating the trustworthiness of the source that offers the information. This explains the central role of the teacher in learning and the difficulties associated with issues which have become entangled in faith and politics (evolution, climate change). It also explains why it is important to directly challenge those offering false information. I don't think you are going to like it.
6.18.2007 12:51pm
ys:
I think it is also comforting to believe - not a big revelation. In case of autism, it is comforting to think that the cause is found, even if the consequences are not reversed. Not to mention that money compensation is a relief in more ways than one.
6.18.2007 12:57pm
Lively:
I'll go against the grain.

I have read testimony after testimony how a child was normal and then, all of a sudden developed autism (there are well-known writers who have autistic children). While not all children may be susceptible to the mercury, there could be a percentage of the population who is.

Another thought: I went to a large high school. We had every imaginable mental/physical handicap. Yet there was no autism. I'm not trying to say this is a scientific study, I'm saying something in the past 20-30 years has changed.

Today I know autistic children.
6.18.2007 1:08pm
Esquire:
Well, I do know folks who believe that drinking alcohol is always unhealthy, on religious grounds, and no medical study about cardiovascular benefits, etc., would ever change their minds. Of course, it strikes me as perfectly rational (which can only be evaluated relative to one's starting premise) to epistemologically prioritize what one believes to be divine revelation over and above any finite, fallible man-made source.

I think it gets back to the philosophical question of whether this dichotomy between scientific/empirical issues and "opinion" type issues is really as stark and rigid as many seem to suggest nowadays (and perhaps by extension, the eminently subjective question of whether the scientific method is always necessarily the only and/or highest source of knowledge). As we saw on the creationism thread(s) below, some secularists seem to presuppose (as a matter of "faith") that no supernatural truth could even potentially trump science (as we modernly define it).

The fact is, at the most fundamental level, we all use some kind of inductive intuition to determine what evidence we find convincing or persuasive. Short of logical impossibility or utter falsifiability, what might be "overwhelming evidence" to one person could easily not be to somebody who assigns different weights to various "evidence." To be clear, I do not find any of the purported evidence for the theories mentioned above to be convincing in the least -- but, who's to say that that proves anything?

People are as passionate in both directions on most of these issues. After all, it's the global warming alarmists who are the most dogmatic about their infallibility, while the other side is just calling for more discernment and less emotion; yet, the "skeptics" get called anti-science!
6.18.2007 1:11pm
AppSocRes (mail):
A couple of points:

(1) Humans are about as well hard-wired to deal with probabilistic arguments as they are to do quantum physics . Chairmen of respectable math departments mailed vituperative letters to a columnist who posted the correct answer to the "Monty Hall" problem claiming that she just didn't get probability. A couple of years ago a member of the conspiracy posted a problem about strategies for selecting one of two boxes when one contains twice as much money as the other. It turns out that this is a still unresolved problem involving extremely high-level mathematics.

(2) Humans are actually extremely well-equipped to make snap judgments with limited information: Our non-ancestors weren't and died horrible deaths as a result.

The conclusion: The instances where human beings act in a truly non-rational manner are actually quite rare but are becoming commoner as society becomes more complex.

Even education can't overcome this. I'm amazed at how many physicists I know fail to comprehend basic statistical or economic arguments, how many economists fail to understand scientific arguments, and even how many statistically trained people fail to apply their training to everyday affairs. In my work I am surrounded by people with MPHs and Ph.D.s in epidemiology and public health (many from the alpha male, Ivy League university) who still believe that random cancer clusters are evidence of chemical poisoning, that breast implants cause auto-immune diseases, and that mercuric preservatives in vaccines are somehow associated with autism.

Short of massive genetic engineering of the human genome I don't expect that this problem will go away. It's the best argument against democracy.
6.18.2007 1:12pm
rarango (mail):
I think those commenters who describe our human need for certainty are on the mark. Living with uncertainty is not something every one is enjoys IMO. With respect to medicine, it is my impression that even though practictioners identify themselves by MD, DO, DC, etc, I doubt many users even think about the underlying theory of the doc they are seeing. They focus on the Doctor part.
6.18.2007 1:19pm
Mark Field (mail):

Humans are about as well hard-wired to deal with probabilistic arguments as they are to do quantum physics .


I know this is nitpicking, but quantum physics IS probabilistic.
6.18.2007 1:19pm
Anonymous Jim (mail):
In the case of autism, I suspect that it is because the tools of rationality used by Doctors and scientists are not currently able to adequately explain what causes autism and (more importantly) how to "cure" it. In the absence of an adequate rational explanation, parents seek out irrational ones particularly ones which do not blame them and which may bring them some compensation.
6.18.2007 1:20pm
Zathras (mail):
"Humans are about as well hard-wired to deal with probabilistic arguments as they are to do quantum physics"

Taleb's recent bestseller The Black Swan is an excellent exposition of this point.
6.18.2007 1:22pm
crane (mail):
Belief in the vaccine-autism connection may also draw strength from the human tendency to want a scapegoat for anything bad that happens. Parents of autistic children *could* believe that autism strikes randomly and there's nothing they can do about it, but it's much more comforting to believe that their children would have been fine if not for the thimerosal.

As for quack theories in general, being scorned by "the establishment" probably increases the devotion of their followers. Most of them already advertise themselves as hidden/lost wisdom that the government/AMA doesn't want you to know, so being mocked by mainstream scientists only confirms that claim to people who already find the quack theories plausible.

Being part of an embattled minority trying to spread the truth against all odds makes life so much more meaningful - like being one of the early Christians, spreading their faith in the pagan Roman empire.
6.18.2007 1:25pm
Randy R. (mail):
We like answers. And we like things to be wrapped up in neat explanations so that we don't have to think about it anymore.

Perhaps this is why so many people are upset over the last episode of The Sopranos -- it didn't wrap up any story lines neatly, it didn't explain anything. It made people think about what the next few minutes might be for the Soprano family, and the endless possibilities. Or it didn't, and so they ranted and raved against the show's directors instead of coming up with their own thoughts.

Also, people like to absolve themselves of all responsibility. So it's nice to think that bad things happen that have nothing to with anything *I* said or did. We need easy answers to explain away our guilt so that we don't have to take responsibility and improve the world ourselves.

Which, on second thought, might be a good thing too...
6.18.2007 1:25pm
plunge (mail):
Esquire: "As we saw on the creationism thread(s) below, some secularists seem to presuppose (as a matter of "faith") that no supernatural truth could even potentially trump science (as we modernly define it). "

Please don't try to summarize the positions of others and then do so inaccurately.

The issue with supernatural truth is that there is no epistemology to it that's connected to the common reality we all live in. People care about science because it relates to the physical reality we all share: it's basic assumptions mirror those that we all make when we act and interact in this world. That is NOT a claim that this world is all there is, and you may well be in possession of special spiritual truths, but there's no way for me to ever tell whether they are true or not. I don't live in your beliefs, so the point is moot. Hence, we are stuck with science, and we are also stuck having to defend the realm of science from those who want to claim the mantle and authority of scientific findings without actually playing by any of the rules.
6.18.2007 1:27pm
guest (mail):
For me, the difference between superstition and religion is the moral component. Both are based on faith but the religious portion includes the judgement of whether a person is doing good or evil. I consider the discussion about global warming to be religious. (e.g. Good people recycle. Good people care about the Earth.) I do not however, see that same component in the autism debate. (There is no catechism, there are no acts of moral compliance.) I know you took Affirmative Action off the table, but that qualifies to me as a religious stance whether one supports it or not because of the moral weight. Chiropracty and homeopathy may or may not have scientific merit, but in the end they are supported by superstitious clientele, not religious ones. One does not visit a Chiropractor because one seeks to be a better person but because one's back hurts. If the results help--even as a placebo--then its the person's superstitious choice to continue, not a religious choice.
6.18.2007 1:37pm
some physicist:
It is a very strange phenomenon. Even people who should know better will develop these "religious beliefs" about some topics. Even people who are aware of these "religious beliefs" will hold them. E.g.:

In quantum physics, there is an irrational bias (a "scientific consensus") amoung physicists in favor of the copenhagen interpretation of the schrodinger equation (certain other interpretations are equally valid, i.e. are guaranteed to agree with all possible experiments).

At lunch, I often speak with a proponent of one of the other interpretations. He is well aware of the social factors that happen in the scientific community to push one theory over another irrationally.

Nevertheless, he refuses to believe that such factors could possible influence certain other politically charged fields where he has strong views (climate modelling and civilian casualty estimates in iraq are two such topics I've discussed with him).

I suspect there will never be as solution to this problem.
6.18.2007 1:38pm
Hattio (mail):
blcjr;
Doesn't Christianity define itself as based on essentially irrational faith? After all Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen. That sounds pretty irrational to me. Build an ark in a desert because you believe God is talking to you (even though no one else can hear him). Once again pretty irrational. Most of the miracles in the OT consist of this basic pattern. God says do something that seems crazy, after struggling with doubt, the person does it and is rewarded for their faith. It doesn't mean faith is bad, but it's definitely irrational. More importantly, God demands irrational obediance.
6.18.2007 1:38pm
guyinadiner (mail):
Those Christians who consider their religion to be rational or reasoned may have some difficulty in reasoning through bread and wine being transformed into the body and blood of Jesus Christ in a recreation of His sacrifice (after which He rose from the dead and ascended into heaven) to redeem our souls from the curse of original sin. Just sayin'...
6.18.2007 1:41pm
Esquire:
Plunge, I certainly didn't mean to imply that *all* secularists were in the Dawkins-style, faith-is-intellectually-illegitimate campt; indeed your position is much more reasonable than that line of thought...

"we are stuck with science, and we are also stuck having to defend the realm of science from those who want to claim the mantle and authority of scientific findings without actually playing by any of the rules"

I think what some question, though, is whether those "rules" are really as objective as often represented. For example, many alternative-medicine types believe that Western medicine has too high of a threshold for "proof," and I'm not sure that Francis Bacon would have taken sides on that.
6.18.2007 1:42pm
alkali (mail) (www):
Amplifying a couple of points made above:

1) Further to AppSocRes: People have a strong impulse to use rules of thumb (what Kahneman and Tversky call heuristics) to answer questions. These heuristics made sense for the East African Plains Ape but are occasionally fallible in addressing the problems of our modern society.

2) Further to crane: At least some ideas are subject to self-reinforcing feedback effects. For example, at least some conspiracy theories of the JFK assassination assert that the disparagement of conspiracy theories is the result of efforts of the conspiracy to cover up its wrongdoing. Accordingly, criticism of the conspiracy theory, however well-founded, serves to provide additional evidence in support of the theory.
6.18.2007 1:45pm
Tom952 (mail):
People believe what they want to believe. But why do they want to believe in chiropracty, homeopathy, UFOs...?

I'll opine it goes back to ego and reinforcement of a view of the world that is in some way comfortable to the viewer in an emotional sense. They seek reinforcement of their comfortable viewpoint regardless of rationality.
6.18.2007 1:46pm
Esquire:
I was thinking about the idea of "common reality" as an advantage of science over other epistemological sources...but how "common" can it really be said to be, when a majority of the population believes there's at least something (even if they don't all agree on what) that can (at least occasionally) trump it? I suppose we could still say it's "partially-common," but that's much less satisfying since everybody wouldn't even likely agree on which subset(s) of science is or isn't supernaturally "trumpable."
6.18.2007 1:49pm
Richard Aubrey (mail):
Nobody likes to think they are completely unable to influence or control their world and what happens to them.
In primitive societies, magic is used as technology. It is not a religious system.
It doesn't work, but bias in remembering sequences, the absolute necessity of thinking there is at least something one can do mean people are likely to believe it.
As to recent assassinations, nobody wants to think a giant was brought low by a pissant.
6.18.2007 1:50pm
SeaDrive:
Once upon a time, I was taught, humans made up stories (we now call them myths) to explain natual phenomena they couldn't understand. I now see that humans still make up stores even for things that we, as a species, do understand but the explanation is either too difficut or unattractive.
6.18.2007 1:52pm
Thief (mail) (www):
Plunge brought up B.F. Skinner. I think that's entirely right, and not just for pigeons.

Skinner found that human beings (indeed, all vertebrates,) are hard-wired to believe that correlation automatically implies causation. Now, that belief doesn't always have to be true, depending on the stakes involved, even a 1% random event is enough to create such a belief. (This is why post hoc ergo propter hoc is a logical fallacy, even though sometimes correlation does, in fact, indicate causation - it's a case of a heuristic (a logical statement that is right in more cases than it is wrong) being used as an algorithm (a logical statement that is always right.)

When human beings operate under inductive reasoning (i.e. 95% of the time), even random events are analyzed and broken down to determine a "cause" (even if the cause is ludicrous,) so as to rationalize why these events occur, rather than admit that we have no idea what the hell is going on. Hence, when faced with a traumatic event, like finding out your child is autistic, or seeing the events of 9/11, many, many people begin grasping at whatever piece of information they can, not on the basis of reason, but because of a deep-seated psychological need to cope, to find some cause for seemingly random events that they have no control over.

This is neither good nor bad, just the way the human brain is wired. We should all aspire to do better than this, but the failure is perfectly understandable. What is inexcusable is basing public policy on rationalizations constructed around random or uncontrolled events without a willingness to question our rationalizations and ourselves.
6.18.2007 2:02pm
Sk (mail):
An interesting expansion of the point. Why do so many people believe in medicine to begin with? As an engineer married to a medical student, I am amazed, seeing medicine from the inside, how much of it is really SWAG-work gussied up by formal sounding titles (M.D.). Certainly not with respect to injuries (if your leg is broken, its broken). But for patients coming in with collections of symptoms, there's alot of 'try this, then try that,' followed by a little hope and a little time.

I'm not implying that traditional medicine is no more reliable than homeopathy. But I am implying that they are similar systems-probablistic-in which one is right more often than the other (yes, alot more often). In short, we ALL invest in irrational faith in a system (medicine) and a few of use invest irrational faith in a different, far less reliable system (homeopathy).

Less reliable? Maybe not. Get cancer, or a neurological disorder, and see how objectively effective medicine is (nevertheless, see how much irrational, subjective hope you will invest in that system...).

Sk
6.18.2007 2:07pm
plunge (mail):
Esquire: "Plunge, I certainly didn't mean to imply that *all* secularists were in the Dawkins-style"

Well then who are you talking about? I don't think you are even talking about Dawkins. Can you give me an example of why you do?

"I think what some question, though, is whether those "rules" are really as objective as often represented. For example, many alternative-medicine types believe that Western medicine has too high of a threshold for "proof," and I'm not sure that Francis Bacon would have taken sides on that."

I don't see why not. These people want to argue that their treatments accomplish x,y,z in the real world then I think it's highly misleading for them to claim that and then spin around and whine when folks want some evidence for the claims, yeah?

"I was thinking about the idea of "common reality" as an advantage of science over other epistemological sources...but how "common" can it really be said to be, when a majority of the population believes there's at least something (even if they don't all agree on what)"

But agreeing on what is pretty darn important if you want to run around calling things another manner of truth that trumps everything else we know and experience, don't you think? Not really a "ah we'll worry about that later" sort of deal.

If folks want to assert that their beliefs trump physical reality in their own minds and appraisals, that's one thing. But when they want to assert that their beliefs trump physical reality on its own terms with implications for everyone else, then they've jumped into the ring of trying to demonstrate it to everyone's satisfaction. And we really have no other way, at that point, then the "put up or shut up" approach.
6.18.2007 2:14pm
plunge (mail):
Sk: "But for patients coming in with collections of symptoms, there's alot of 'try this, then try that,' followed by a little hope and a little time."

Maybe that's how you see it, but I think that's pretty much mostly a caricature. Modern medicine is generally evidence based, which means that its all about showing that your diagnosis and treatments are justified by research, not just handwaving.

There are, however, often a host of different problems that some constellation of symptoms could be, and nailing down exactly what takes a lot or time and is often very expensive and there really are a lot of things we don't know (to which the doctors response is not "ah, demons!" but rather, "hmm, lets try to find out as best we can). I don't think it's fair to turn honestly acknowledged lack of knowledge into claims of irrational faith. Modern medicine really does have results to show for its approaches in ways that these other treatments generally do not.
6.18.2007 2:21pm
blcjr (mail):
There's a long tradition of thought, spanning at least from Locke through C.S. Lewis, for the notion that one can come to a Christian worldview through reason. As for the quote from Hebrews, what is induction but arguing from evidence to what is not seen?

There are many who can only view religious faith as irrational because that is the only way they can rationalize their rejection of religion. But we all are creatures of faith, whether we admit it or not. That is, we all have our beliefs -- our creeds, if you will (from the Latin credo) -- hence we are all creatures of faith. To argue otherwise is a waste of time. The relevant point for discussion is whether religious faith is inherently irrational. I concede that scientfic faith -- what scientists believe -- is ideally rational. But as we see from the debate over global warming, scientists can be as irrational in what they believe as religious fanatics. Should I project onto science as a whole the credulism of scientists who say that the science of global warming is settled? No? Then do not project to all people of religious faith the credulous notion that faith is intrisinctly blind.
6.18.2007 2:27pm
Ted F (www):
"I'm saying something in the past 20-30 years has changed."

We'll leave aside the fact that there were autistic children in my high school 24 years ago, since, indeed, autism diagnoses have increased. But we can be confident that it's not mercury, because the diagnoses have not decreased since thimerosal was removed from vaccines.

But it's true a lot has changed in 20-30 years:

1) Mild autism is much more likely to be diagnosed. I was a relatively antisocial child obsessed with baseball statistics and who practiced doing lengthy multiplication in my head, and not only did no one think boo about it, but the Houston schools gave me trophies for winning math contests. I sometimes wonder what would have happened if I had been growing up now, whether I would be diagnosed as mildly autistic (the 12-year-old version of me scores off the charts on the Baron-Cohen test), and how much worse my life would be because of it.

2) There is more assortative mating now than 40 years ago. The geeky engineer is now marrying another geeky engineer. If autism is on a spectrum ranging from profound to mild to Asberger's to nerdy to conventionally socialized, assortative mating could well result in larger variance on that spectrum, resulting in more autism diagnoses.

3) If autism is related to sperm quality, American fathers are substantially older now than 40 years ago. Among coastal elites, it's no longer usual to have children in one's twenties. Perhaps autism is more likely among older parents.

4) And, finally, let's not forget the laws of economics: there are substantial financial benefits available for those diagnosed with autism and other learning disabilities, and, at the margin, some parents are responding to those incentives.
6.18.2007 2:28pm
Ken Arromdee:
I've heard this same argument in terms of everything from affirmative action to global warming to the war on Iraq, and judging from the civility of such discissions, I doubt much good will come of this thread.

The problem, most of the time, is that it's used as a shortcut for an ad hominem: "You obviously don't really believe this as a product of reasoning. I don't need to treat you as an equal in a discussion. Instead I have this psychological/sociological explanation of why you believe as you do."

Most targets of this argument are not so unarguably false that it makes sense to treat them that way. Holocaust denial and homeopathy, sure. But when it's used to target opponents of (or believers in) affirmative action, to "explain" why people think the Iraq war can be won, etc. it is secondarily an argument about human psychology--and primarily a way to say "no thinking person can come to any political conclusion other than mine."

Of course that'll lead to uncivil discussion. It's inherently uncivil.
6.18.2007 2:32pm
JosephSlater (mail):
So wait, the reason my beloved Pistons lost to the Cavs in game six of the NBA eastern conference finals was NOT the way I was sitting or the clothes I was wearing?
6.18.2007 2:37pm
Charlie Tips:
A more interesting question, perhaps, is how belief works so powerfully. For example, I had an MD colleague in the 70s who consulted with Pennsylvania hospitals on treatment of Mennonite and Amish patients. Typically, the "gold standard" treatment sequences left them no better off, while application of poultices and plasters would effect the cure.

I'm afraid, Plunge, that SK's position is well supported. I recall the results of one statistical study that claimed barely more than 10 percent of western allopathic medicine produces clearcut benefit. In another 10 percent, including presenting conditions like SK describes, a patient has a better chance of a good outcome by not seeking medical attention.

According to my old management professor (who started as a rocket engineer) trial-and-error is standard operating procedure in any case. It's easy to see then that a bit of credulity would assist the species in speedily determining the next trial to undertake.
6.18.2007 2:48pm
Rob Hafernik (mail) (www):
Uh, I think the answer, already mentioned above, is:

Thinking is hard. Few people bother.

It's much easier to get on a bandwagon of some sort and just ride along in conformist comfort.
6.18.2007 2:49pm
Esquire:
"I don't think you are even talking about Dawkins. Can you give me an example of why you do?"

There's one chapter in particular where he makes some pretty stong assertions, but to be fair I suppose he leaves a bit of room open (and in the title, no less) by saying it's merely "almost" certain there's no God...as I recall, Russell and others have said a lot of very similar things, but with more of an agnostic tone than the hard-atheistic one. He is a great writer, though -- which is probably why he gets so far doing so much philosophy as a scientist...

"If folks want to assert that their beliefs trump physical reality in their own minds and appraisals, that's one thing. But when they want to assert that their beliefs trump physical reality on its own terms with implications for everyone else, then they've jumped into the ring of trying to demonstrate it to everyone's satisfaction. And we really have no other way, at that point, then the "put up or shut up" approach."

But once you concede that its legitmate (on an individualized basis, at least) to hold a belief in X which is unprovable/unproven (to others' satisfaction), then don't the believers in X become just as impervious to arguments grounded in the otherwise-common reality as the non-believers would be to X itself? In other words, I doubt that opposite medical philosophies view each other's premises as shared or common, and yet both sides seem to want to say the other side should have to accept their "universal" knowledge...

Your concern about the "ah we'll worry about that later" approach gave me another thought. It strikes me that you're appealing heavily to what I'd call "pragmatic" concerns (like the need to function in the "real" world as a "practical" matter, etc.). These certainly are important and we wouldn't survive long without them, but can we necessarily assume that that's the soundest/highest basis for ultimate epistemological inquiry?
6.18.2007 3:00pm
Dave Griffith (mail):

For example, many alternative-medicine types believe that Western medicine has too high of a threshold for "proof," and I'm not sure that Francis Bacon would have taken sides on that.


Considering that medicine actually has a problem with the threshold for proof being too low (google for "spinal fusion"), this is quite amusing.
6.18.2007 3:00pm
plunge (mail):
"I'm afraid, Plunge, that SK's position is well supported."

Sorry, but I'm going to have to ask for a cite. Your recollection is not helpful on something like this, particularly because there are any number of ways in which such figures could be extremely misleading (depending on what they are actually measuring and what they are being compared to), even setting aside the possibility that they are simply wrong (since purveyors of pseudoscience regularly circulate crummy studies and claims of this sort).

I'd love to see a poultice cure that fixes a heart attack or allows juvenile diabetics to live past childhood or manages a massive electrolyte imbalance. And somehow, the Amish keep coming to Western doctors for their serious medical issues.
6.18.2007 3:07pm
Charlie Tips:
Au contraire, Mr Hafernik, thinking is easy. Everybody does it.

However, even with fairly confined ponderables, the variables soon multiply out of manageable size and the brain bogs down like tractors in one of those pull events where the weight moves steadily forward on the trailer.

That's when we switch from analytical deduction to intuitive induction. The mind has many, many more modes than a single process called "thinking".
6.18.2007 3:08pm
Dave N (mail):
I agree with many of the above posters that we as humans want rationality and order--and we want things explained that are otherwise unexplainable.

I remember being amazed that when Hitler allowed the purge of the S.A., the final words of some of the condemned was "Heil Hitler."

Like the fascists, the religious intensity of the Communists is also amazing. People willingly put aside all that they were taught to be "right" and "moral" and performed depraved acts for the State--since the State or Revolution was more important than even themselves.

As a side note, I think anytime anyone says, "I am right, you are wrong, and we cannot discuss your position because it has no value and you are wrong" then the speaker has made their cause "religious" in the sense that they don't want to talk about it; they just want to believe it.
6.18.2007 3:13pm
Richard Gould-Saltman (mail):
I just had a realization regarding the mercury = autism stuff.

Until I looked just now, it simply had not registered for me that thiomersal has (or had) a common trade name in the U.S.: "Merthiolate". Those of us of a certain age remember it, under that name, and its equally colorful chemical relative, merbromin (dibromohydroxymercurifluorescein) (you know it as "Mercurochrome"!), being liberally painted on cuts, scapes, and minor childhood open-wound traumas on into the 1960's ; its use started in the 1920's-30's. It was also apparently swabbed on sore throats (on the inside...) sprayed up nostrils, etc.

So, I'd I'd be curious to know how much blood-stream mercury the average three-year-old got from, e.g., having a badly-school-yard-abraided pair of knees repeatedly slathered with this stuff, as compared to the amount even in three or four vaccinations...

. . . and yet there was no resulting "epidemic" from its use as an topical antiseptic for three-four decades?
6.18.2007 3:18pm
plunge (mail):
"But once you concede that its legitimate (on an individualized basis, at least) to hold a belief in X which is unprovable/unproven (to others' satisfaction), then don't the believers in X become just as impervious to arguments grounded in the otherwise-common reality as the non-believers would be to X itself?"

I'm not sure what you mean by impervious. If you refuse to acknowledge that I even exist then obviously you'd be impervious to my arguments. If you refuse to assume that chairs have any solidity then you probably won't sit in them: so? If they remain in their heads, then yes, they are impervious to all other arguments.

The issue arises when they want to try and convince other people. Then the question becomes how

"In other words, I doubt that opposite medical philosophies view each other's premises as shared or common, and yet both sides seem to want to say the other side should have to accept their "universal" knowledge..."

Well, tough tities for them. The claims these philosophies make are claims of effectiveness in the real world. People who claim that autism is caused by vaccines don't even just want to be acknowledged as right: they want, for instance, government compensation from a special fund set aside for vaccine harm.

"It strikes me that you're appealing heavily to what I'd call "pragmatic" concerns (like the need to function in the "real" world as a "practical" matter, etc.). These certainly are important and we wouldn't survive long without them, but can we necessarily assume that that's the soundest/highest basis for ultimate epistemological inquiry?"

Well, that's probably irrelevant, because we have no access to the "soundest/highest basis for ultimate epistemological inquiry" and no real hope of ever agreeing on what that is or how it works. If you think otherwise, then at some point you are going to have to explain how. That might itself be a pragmatic concern, but hey: we're beings of limited scope. We gotta work as best we can with what we got.
6.18.2007 3:19pm
Hattio (mail):
Joseph Slater;
You're missing the point. The irrationality has everything to do with you loving the Pistons, rather than believing the clothes you were wearing effected their chances. It's inherently irrational to love the Pistons over other obviously more loveable teams. Therefore, you must be irrational.
6.18.2007 3:24pm
plunge (mail):
"As a side note, I think anytime anyone says, "I am right, you are wrong, and we cannot discuss your position because it has no value and you are wrong" then the speaker has made their cause "religious" in the sense that they don't want to talk about it; they just want to believe it."

Again, this is back to making religion into a category of irrational dogma, rather than irrational dogma perhaps overlapping some things in some religions. What is fairer to say about your example is that it is anti-scientific.

I think Jon Rauch said it best: the liberal scientific method has two core principles:

1) No one is a final authority on anything
2) There is never any final end to the debate

Of course, I think it's worth being aware that accusations of dogmatism are not always fair, and refusals to debate specific people or arguments in some contexts are not always violating that spirit.
6.18.2007 3:25pm
Charlie Tips:
Plunge, I wish I could find that article again. It has great relevance to the desire of some to stuff all of western medicine into a Comprehensive Healthcare Plan. (Clearly, according to that study, we'd be wise to confine ourselves to at most the clearly advantageous ten percent, largely trauma care.)

My recollection is certainly not unhelpful. I was a science editor at a university press reading peer-reviewed journals and major science-oriented publications, almost nothing out of the mainstream.

And, yes, western medicine has got significantly better of late intervening in heart attack, but according to my cardiologist they still don't have the first clue how to reverse heart disease. Why then so in a hurry to glorify western med, a discipline with large realms of admitted ignorance?
6.18.2007 3:27pm
James in AZ:
I think that one of the problems here is the nature of statistical studies, and how poorly prepared the general population is to interpret statistics.

I want to outline a generic study, and point out how the results are (usually) misinterpreted. Let us say that the goal is to measure the effect of factor A on disease D in some population. Divide the population into two groups: B and C (remembering to adjust for all other possible important factors: age, sex, social status, etc.). Administer A to group B. Measure the rate of the occurrence of D in groups B and C. One of two possible statements will be true: a statistically significant difference exists or a statistically significant difference does not exist.

So if we examine children who were given vaccines containing mercury and ones who were not, and the rate of autism is the same in both, all we can conclude is that mercury does not cause a statistically significant increase in the rate of autism. However, we can NOT say that mercury in vaccines does not cause autism. This is the fundamental nature of statistics. However, it is very common for results that show abscence of a link to be interpreted as evidence against a link. This is a misuse of the statistics involved.

Furthermore, even claiming a statistically significant difference does or does not exist is problematic. A statistical test must be selected, an arbitrary cut-off must be chosen, and care must be taken to avoid the common pitfalls associated with statistical tests. Making and interpreting statistical claims is generally hard for laypeople.

Finally, all statistical test are grounded in the "frequentist" interpretation of probability. While there is an analog is the "Bayesian" school of probability, it is reasonable to be a mathematician and think that all statistical test are basically junk.

In summary, repeated scientific studies that fail to show a link are not the same as the abscence of a link. It is possible that a certain result (such as mercury causing autism) occurs in a relatively small number of cases, not enough to be statistically significant, but enough to cause actual harm for individuals. The question becomes the following, which risk is greater: that of autism from the vaccine or the diseases that the vaccine guards against? This is inevitable another personal decision that most people are poorly prepared to make.

N.B. I personally have mixed feelings about the link between autism and mercury in vaccines. There certainly are compelling personal stories, but there is also a lack of scientific evidence for a link. I am just glad that I do not have children (yet) and have been forced to make a decision.
6.18.2007 3:32pm
David M. Nieporent (www):
So wait, the reason my beloved Pistons lost to the Cavs in game six of the NBA eastern conference finals was NOT the way I was sitting or the clothes I was wearing?
No, actually, their loss was your fault. (I read it in the Bible.)
6.18.2007 3:38pm
plunge (mail):
"My recollection is certainly not unhelpful."

Sure it is: without the study itself we don't know what it was really measuring, with what methodology, compared to what, or any of the things necessary to make a judgment about it. The point of journal articles is not just their recalled apparent or interpreted conclusions, but the details that allow us to know HOW the conclusions were come to and specifically about what.

"Why then so in a hurry to glorify western med, a discipline with large realms of admitted ignorance?"

I have no idea why you call it "glorifying" anything: the goal here is to be accurate. Half the ADVANTAGE of western med is that admitting the areas of our ignorance is a core part of the practice.

"And, yes, western medicine has got significantly better of late intervening in heart attack, but according to my cardiologist they still don't have the first clue how to reverse heart disease."

You can cherry pick things modern medicine can't do all day long. The fact that we don't currently have effective treatments or understandings of every last thing in the human body has, really, nothing to do over whether it is more reliable to use proven treatments and evidence as a method rather than handing someone a jar of dried and crushed tiger testicles and claiming it will ward off heart problems just because "that's what we've always done" or "because tigers are strong, make your heart strong."
6.18.2007 3:39pm
Anonymous432653476:
Perhaps we could usefully generalize the question further: why do people develop religious beliefs? As a scientific question, homeopathy is no more difficult than trans-substantiation or resurrection -- or, for that matter, the existence of a god or an afterlife. But in the throes of misplaced dinner-table diplomacy, most people -- even atheists -- give a pass to god-worshippers. I bet that if you delve into the issue, you'd find that the same psychological effects trigger the formation of traditionally religious beliefs, superstitious beliefs, and pseudo-scientific quackery. It begins with something that people either want to be true or fear to be true; generally there is an element of social suggestion or coercion; and finally well-known psychological fallacies such as confirmation bias and endowment effects take over and cement the belief. This is an easy question with a well-known answer, and the answer explains all kinds of religion, in areas traditionally designated as secular and in areas traditionally desginated as non-secular.
6.18.2007 3:44pm
plunge (mail):
James: "It is possible that a certain result (such as mercury causing autism) occurs in a relatively small number of cases, not enough to be statistically significant, but enough to cause actual harm for individuals."

It's possible, but in the absence of any compelling evidence, how is it any more or less possible that apples cause the harm? Or grapes? Or watching Lost?

The whole POINT is how we know something. If we suspect something, but the suspicion isn't based on a demonstrated connection we can establish, then the likelihood that we are just grabbing onto something and then sticking with it because of confirmation bias becomes very high.

"The question becomes the following, which risk is greater: that of autism from the vaccine or the diseases that the vaccine guards against?"

You can't magic that question into being: we can't weigh the "risk" against something else when the risk has no evidence behind it. Not unless you want to consider all the other possible risks you could imagine but also cannot prove.
6.18.2007 3:46pm
DavidBernstein (mail):
Re medicine, there is a fair amount of quackery, of various levels, within "mainstream" medicine, because evidence-based medicine is not something that is always practiced, and doctors are subject to the same biases (confirmation bias, etc.,) as everyone else. The question should not be "alternative" vs. "traditional" but for remedies that have evidence behind them, and those that don't.
6.18.2007 3:57pm
JosephSlater (mail):
David M. Neiporent:

Well yeah, that's what I thought.

Hattio writes:

It's inherently irrational to love the Pistons over other obviously more loveable teams.


Sir, I have had disagreements and even exchanged insults on this blog before, but this goes TOO FAR. Shall we say pistols at dawn? I choose Rasheed Wallace as my second.
6.18.2007 3:59pm
Charlie Tips:
Plunge,

First, you now know that in the recollection of at least one responder here, you and others may have cause to doubt your knock on Sk's position. Where is your support for calling Sk's position "a caricature"?

No, you are quite correct that gaps in western medical knowledge mean little one way or the other about its efficacy. But it does lend credence to Sk's point and my support of it. At the very least, you should be aware of the tremendous and growing extent of iatrogenic and nocosomial conditions in modern medicine.

My original point, which you seem to also differ with, had been a more interesting one, that simply believing in the power of poultices or tiger testicles can sometimes (often? predictably?) give them efficacy in instances where treatments of known efficacy in supposedly objectively proven courses of treatment do not produce like benefit. To the extent that is true, it makes for a good topic point in a thread about medicine and belief, don't you agree?
6.18.2007 4:00pm
arbitraryaardvark (mail) (www):
Truth is one factor, but hardly the only factor, in the memetic fitness of a meme, here, the idea of a link between autism and mercury in vaccines.
Is the truth value easy to test for oneself? Here, no.
Is there a reliable trusted source which can easily test the truth value of the meme? Here, no. The same government-military-industrial-scientific complex which might have the answers, has a habit of lying to us about stuff like this, and appears to have a vested interest in people being vaccinated, floridated, etc.
What does our general background knowledge tell us?
Well, let's see, mercury, and other heavy metals like lead or arsenic, tend to be neurotoxins, affecting mental and physical health. Is mercury-by-vaccine somewhat correlated with a rise in autism spectrum disorders? Yes.
Does mercury in vaccines cause autism? I don't know.
Am I concerned that my personality may have been affected by mercury exposure growing up (near jersey, in the 70s)? Heck yes. Do I know where to go get tested and how much it would cost and how reliable the results would be? Well, no.
So, the autism-mercury link has some initial plausibility, is hard to disprove,and there's reason to expect disinformation. In that memetic environment, the meme could be expected to flourish.
6.18.2007 4:05pm
Aleks:
Re: As a scientific question, homeopathy is no more difficult than trans-substantiation or resurrection -- or, for that matter, the existence of a god or an afterlife.

Homeopathy makes specific predictive claims for the here-and-now which can be proven or disproven by the empirical methods of science. The other things you mention either do not involve predictive claims, or else their claims (e.g., an afterlife) transcend the observable space-time contiuum, so they are not amenable to scientific experinmentation.
6.18.2007 4:17pm
Stormy Dragon (mail) (www):
>I have read testimony after testimony how a child was
>normal and then, all of a sudden developed autism (there
>are well-known writers who have autistic children).

This is because autism is generally impossible to detect before two years. It's not that the child suddenly became autistic, it's just that the disorder only became detectable at that point. Since this happens to be around the time they receive vaccines, some people assume vaccines to be the cause. But you might as well blame autism on toilet training or the switch to solid food.

>While not all children may be susceptible to the
>mercury, there could be a percentage of the population
>who is.

Use of thermisol in childhood vaccines was banned in 2002. If it was a significant cause, we'd have seen a significant drop in autism rates over the last five years. We haven't.

>Another thought: I went to a large high school. We had
>every imaginable mental/physical handicap. Yet there was
>no autism. I'm not trying to say this is a scientific
>study, I'm saying something in the past 20-30 years has
>changed.

Two things have changed: 1.) severely disabled children are no longer routinely institutionalized, so you're far more likely to come in contact with them, and 2) the defintion of autism has been severly expanded, so that people who 30 years ago would have been considered just eccentric are considered mildly autistic.
6.18.2007 4:23pm
James in AZ:
James: "It is possible that a certain result (such as mercury causing autism) occurs in a relatively small number of cases, not enough to be statistically significant, but enough to cause actual harm for individuals."

plunge: It's possible, but in the absence of any compelling evidence, how is it any more or less possible that apples cause the harm? Or grapes? Or watching Lost?

plunge: The whole POINT is how we know something. If we suspect something, but the suspicion isn't based on a demonstrated connection we can establish, then the likelihood that we are just grabbing onto something and then sticking with it because of confirmation bias becomes very high.

All I meant here was that it seems a little high-handed to refer to these claims as "meritless" instead of "not scientifically supported". A basic rule of statistics is, 'abscence of evidence is not evidence of abscence'. I am not familiar enough with autism related claims to know if the proponents of the mercury-autism link have any substantial or reasonable claims from a medical standpoint that could be disproven, but you cannot disprove the claims by saying that scientific studies have not shown the existence of a connection.

Also, in the penultimate paragraph of my post, I should have put the word "risk" in quotes, since I was referring more to the perceived risk (as seen by people who believe that a connection exists), rather than the actual risk.

One further point, earlier today while reading Bruce Schneier's Cryptogram (essentially an e-mail newsletter sent once a month) I discovered a book titled: "The Psychology of Judgement and Decision Making", written by Scott Plous. I have only had time to take a quick look at it, but it looks like a very good book that discusses how people interpret information and use it to make decisions. It might be of interest to anyone who wants to know "why" people hold to ideas that are poorly supported statistically.
6.18.2007 4:28pm
plunge (mail):
"Charile:First, you now know that in the recollection of at least one responder here, you and others may have cause to doubt your knock on Sk's position."

No, I don't. The claim that someone I don't know saw something a while ago that said something with no identifying details or context is not in the least a good basis for knowledge.

"Where is your support for calling Sk's position "a caricature"?

Well first of all because, like Sk, my wife is a physician too, and his view of what she does all day, as well as everything I've ever read about medicine suggests to me that it is at best a caricature.

"No, you are quite correct that gaps in western medical knowledge mean little one way or the other about its efficacy. But it does lend credence to Sk's point and my support of it."

That modern medicine is mostly just shooting in the dark on faith or that only 10% of treatments have worthwhile benefit? No, not really.

"At the very least, you should be aware of the tremendous and growing extent of iatrogenic and nocosomial conditions in modern medicine."

Well sure, but by their very definition those are not problems caused by lack of knowledge about disease but rather all the other problems with treating it economically and by human beings working in a bureaucracy.

Again, as DavidB noted, it's important not to confuse the pragmatic realities of western medicine with the idea of evidence based practice itself. Most doctors I know would love to practice a LOT more preventative medicine than they do, but insurance companies often won't pay for it, and of course patients are often resistant to listening to it (which is often ironic: they'll glom onto some fad herbal remedy for, say losing weight and ignore the doctor's counseling that they need to exercise more and improve their diet)

"My original point, which you seem to also differ with, had been a more interesting one, that simply believing in the power of poultices or tiger testicles can sometimes (often? predictably?) give them efficacy in instances where treatments of known efficacy in supposedly objectively proven courses of treatment do not produce like benefit."

I don't know what you mean by efficacy. If you think they have efficacy, then you are going to have do demonstrate it in more than an anecdotal fashion. Some folk cures do, in fact, have real effects that sometimes even do help treat the diseases they are meant to. But that doesn't mean that a lot of the rhetoric around them and their usage is valid. Nor does it mean that they are more effective than modern medicine equivalents.

Take herbal medicine for instance. A lot of herbs really DO have medicinal effects on the body. But the way that "herbalists" proscribe things for various conditions are often all over the map: there's little agreement across herbalists for instance, and that's a pretty clear problem for the idea of consistent effectiveness. Second of all, herbs tend to include TONS of different chemicals in a very wide range of different amounts, leaf to leaf. Some of the right chemical components may be mixed in with bad ones, or they may vary wildly in the dose amount (which isn't then matched very well with the weight of patients, and so on).
6.18.2007 4:29pm
plunge (mail):
James: the meaning of meritless is precisely that they don't have anything to recommend them: they are scientifically baseless. I think that's fair. Arguing from a LACK of evidence, for all anyone knows, thermisol actually PREVENTS autism in those rare rare cases where it has any effect at all: the ones that escape statistical findings.

"A basic rule of statistics is, 'absence of evidence is not evidence of absence'."

While that's true, what you describe is not, in fact, an absence of evidence. When a well designed study with randomly assigned groups is done, failure to find effects that are claimed to be causal results of some treatment IS dispositive: it DOES count as evidence against the claimed link. Subsequently revising the causal claim to be an extremely rare occurance outside of statistical measure is a very different claim. The claims made about the link aren't rare enough to fall outside of notice.
6.18.2007 4:36pm
Fub:
James in AZ wrote at 6.18.2007 2:32pm:
So if we examine children who were given vaccines containing mercury and ones who were not, and the rate of autism is the same in both, all we can conclude is that mercury does not cause a statistically significant increase in the rate of autism. However, we can NOT say that mercury in vaccines does not cause autism. This is the fundamental nature of statistics. However, it is very common for results that show abscence of a link to be interpreted as evidence against a link. This is a misuse of the statistics involved.
Just a point of information: such a statistical study has been done, and reported in JAMA.

David Bernstein linked to it in a VC post in July, 2006.
6.18.2007 4:43pm
Charlie Tips:
So, if I understand you correctly, Plunge, taken all in all your position is that your solitary say-so trumps that of any other commenters, even if they happen to agree one with the other and are able to recall (tho not cite) having read reports in support of their position. That's a pretty strong position; reminds me of ol' Abe Flexner; think I'll adopt it too.

PS: I loved the anecdote about your wife being a physician. Where's your proof?
6.18.2007 4:43pm
plunge (mail):
I don't think the basic effectiveness of modern medical treatments is based on my "solitary say-so" no. The whole existence of evidence based medicine is premised on having very specific data for the effectiveness of various treatments for various conditions, and reading nearly any medical journal at all is going to supply ample description of the effectiveness (and measured ineffectiveness) of its interventions.

And yes, I really DO think it's reasonable to doubt data based on an article you can barely even recall. For all YOU know alone, you could be mistaken about the scope of the article, or it could have been subsequently discredited later on in a later article you didn't happen to read.

I mentioned my wife's profession merely because Sk mentioned his. I don't doubt his relationships, I doubt his interpretation/characterization of the profession. I think probably his significant other would agree that it is overly cynical.
6.18.2007 4:54pm
Voorhies (mail):
It's the adaptive mind; read Paul Rubin's "The Evolutionary Origin of Freedom"
6.18.2007 5:04pm
Hattio (mail):
Joseph Slater;
Sheed can't be your second until we find out if he is going to be a "beloved Piston" next year. If not, you have to settle for Tayshaun. And, as you challenged, I have the choice of weapons. I pick Epee, and I fenced for three years in college.
6.18.2007 5:12pm
Harry Eagar (mail):
'Then do not project to all people of religious faith the credulous notion that faith is intrisinctly blind.'

OK, I won't, just as soon as you explain what reasons someone could present to make you change YOUR faith.

People do change faiths, and that is, to me, a lot more mysterious than believing in homeopathy.


As for the argument that all people, even scientifically-minded, are really just expressing different faiths, spare us the PM straw-clutching. I don't just have faith that I need to drink water every day. I know it.
6.18.2007 5:18pm
James in AZ:
plunge: While that's true, what you describe is not, in fact, an absence of evidence. When a well designed study with randomly assigned groups is done, failure to find effects that are claimed to be causal results of some treatment IS dispositive: it DOES count as evidence against the claimed link. Subsequently revising the causal claim to be an extremely rare occurance outside of statistical measure is a very different claim. The claims made about the link aren't rare enough to fall outside of notice.

Perhaps I was not being clear enough in my earlier posts, I have always thought that any possible links between vaccines and autism were confined to a few rare cases. Since we know very little about the causes of autism it has always seemed possible that mercury, possibly in combination with other factors that were insufficient to cause autism by themselves, was a contributor to autism.

I want to summarize my position, as separate from what anyone else may claim. Obviously, autism existed before vaccines and continues even in places were mercury has been removed from vaccines. So it is unreasonable to claim that vaccines are a major driver of autism. Furthermore, I fully believe that the statistical evidence clearly shows that vaccines do not create a risk of autism that is significantly higher. However, I still think that it might be true that in a very small number of cases the vaccines caused (or possibly even prevented, we have no way of knowing) autism or autism-like symptoms in children.

Regarding your claim that medical studies are dispositive, I will have to think carefully about this. You are probably right, and I was probably a little hasty with some of the things that I said. However, all too often I see people trying to claim that statistical studies showed things that it is not possible to show using statistics (and for some reason it really sets me off. I am also a Bayesianist, but that is a different matter.)

I had not given much thought to this subject until today. But after a review of some associated scientific literature, I do not see a reason to hesitate to have children vaccinated, even if the vaccine contains mercury. Since the potential cost (i.e. what the vaccine prevents against) is much greater that a statistically insignificant chance of the child becoming autistic. However, I might be inclined to halt a course of vaccination (again, mercury-based) that was being given to a child that developed autistic symptoms after the first vaccine was given. Despite the fact that I deal with statistics on a regular basis, I am not willing to base all decision on statistics, sometimes emotions win out.

Thank you for an interesting discussion.
6.18.2007 5:25pm
jimbino (mail):
I was a mathematical genius as a kid, and in chemistry experimentation in high school we nerds drank pure ethanol and took home mercury to coat our copper coins.

Funny thing happened: After ingesting enough ethanol and mercury I found I could talk to girls on their level for the first time!
6.18.2007 5:25pm
JosephSlater (mail):
Hattio:

Given the trade rumors, I don't know who will be a beloved Piston next year, so I should be able to pick from the current roster. Also, while normally the challengee picks the weapons, I believe David Kopel would tell you that any dueling agreement made on the VC must involve GUNS, not the effeminate toad-stickers of cheese-eating surrender monkeys. Good day, sir.
6.18.2007 5:30pm
IgorK (mail):
I think we can all agree that there are multiple variables, some of which are merely hypothetical, for the human tendency to irrationally believe a given proposition.

Currently, few atheists would refuse to acknowledge the possible existence of a supernatural being(s). Similarly, few (if any) scientists would claim infallibility of any given theory. In fact, the principle of falsifiability is one of the foundations of the scientific method. In this respect, the scientific inquiry, although hardly infallible, is, currently the most reliable source of knowledge about the this world. Although often hindered by political motivations and various other biases, the self-correcting nature of science ensures a steady improvement of the constantly increasing body of knowledge.

When it comes to various religious views, superstitions, and conspiracies, the majority demand immunity from the traditional burden of proof, instead placing it on the opponents. In worst cases, the proponents of these beliefs employ scientific research (rarely their own) in an attempt to prove the belief or discredit current scientific theory. Even scientists, when confronted with complex topics outside of their areas of expertise would have tough time refuting many of these arguments. To a lay person, a fallacious argument cloaked in complex scientific terminology may seem even more authoritative. And, realistically, who has time to verify every single source and acquire all the knowledge to efficiently understand every aspect of any given scientific theory.
6.18.2007 5:37pm
plunge (mail):
James: "However, I still think that it might be true that in a very small number of cases the vaccines caused (or possibly even prevented, we have no way of knowing) autism or autism-like symptoms in children."

My point is simply that this could be true or not for virtually any substance at all: the focus on thermisol alone seems to be mostly a self-fulfilling prophecy.
6.18.2007 5:43pm
Charlie Tips:
You are quite right, Plunge, that the article I am thinking of could be fuzzy in my mind or even discredited (though a bit of common sense thinking on the matter shows that unlikely). What makes it challenging to discuss this with you is that

* Your position is somehow unassailable despite reference by you to any outside support whatsoever

* Sk has a wife who is a physician; you likewise have a physician wife and therefore can pronounce his insights a caricature

* You challenge my use of the word efficacy and then turn right around and build an argument on the notion of effectiveness.

* You readily concede, even bring up yourself, that extensive ignorance, bureaucracy, cost concerns and physician-induced disease and conditions are a feature of the medical landscape, yet argue against a model that says some areas of medicine are likely to produce better outcomes than other areas.

Through the 1800s in the US (you can ask your wife about this when she comes home), anyone could hang out a shingle claiming to be physician, doctor, surgeon. By the turn of the century, most were acquiring schooling from medical schools that followed several different healing philosophies.

Among Andrew Carnegie's fetishes was an insistance on professional licensing. The Carnegie Foundation funded the survey by Abraham Flexner that endorsed the AMA and allopathic medicine (the germ-theory school, basically) against all others and presented its findings to Congress.

Congress did not insist that all methodologies adopt objective ways of demonstrating effectiveness (to use your word). Congress shut down all non-AMA-approved medical schools, well over half.

The results of this have largely improved medicine but have also had major repurcussions.

1. The monopoly enjoyed by allopathic medicine has shut down competition from methodologies that had plenty of successes of their own to point to and thus limited choice for Americans when it comes to brand of medicine prefered.

2. To this day, hospital finance people genuflect at the mention of ol' Abe. After all, he created the medicine as cartel model with physicians as the gatekeepers for drugs. The number of medical practitioners was cut by well more than half well into the 30s as doctor salaries rose steeply (a fact you will no doubt savor).

3. Only osteopathic and chiropractic managed to survive. Both have a number of objective studies to show that their methodologies are effective. Accupuncture and other eastern practices have been introduced subsequently, to much professional hostitility, yes, but not to the organized resistance Flexner represented.

4. What knowledge did we lose then when bioelectric, herbalist (which you yourself claim offers much promise), homeopathic and a number of other schools were simply shut down?

I have no stake in any of those fallen practices nor animus against current medical practice. All I have been saying is let's make prudent inquiries into what works and what doesn't without the blinders of entrenched bureaucracies, huge lobbying organizations (AMA), major self-interest and the blinkered passion of men who have a spouse in the profession

Let's restore open inquiry and competition to the medical world, and, emphatically, before we go setting our whole economic scheme on its head by bringing medicine under government control, let's figure out what parts of it actually do provide bang for the buck. Maybe it's more than 10 percent or even more than 50 percent, but it damn sure ain't 100 percent. (Read the PDR sometime: A commonly listed side effect for many gold-standard pharmaceuticals is "death".)

PS: Exercise and improved diet are not medical advice. Runners World was extolling those long before the AMA jumped on the bandwagon. just ask your wife if she got a course in nutrition in med school.
6.18.2007 5:51pm
hey (mail):
In terms of how to deal with Chriopractors and Homeopaths, I've found that the best diplomatic answer is to say that their approach has some value (such as the whole system approach in homeopathy) and that some of their treatments may be useful. Usually they're not sophisticated enough to realize that you're patting their head and "saying that's nice, you might have accidentally stumbled on something, like a zoo animal "painting"). If they are sophisticated enough, they get really angry, but it's the best thing you can say!

Folk remedies can be valuable (digitalis is but one drug that is also used in a folk remedy), but any attempt to place them beyond the bounds of empiricism (such as homeopathy tries to do) makes it a religion rather than a true attempt to deal with the physical world (like the idea that magic doesn't work if you don't believe).

As to religions being the result of cognitive biases and logical fallacies... not totally. They're also a useful method of policing prisoner's dilemmas and free rider problems inherent in large group living, reduce stress (uncertainty and lack of control are very hard for humans to deal with mentally and physiologically), and can be used for social control (hindu castes, divine right of kings, focusing on kingdom of god rather than that of man...). They have both positive and negative impacts on society, depending on the other currents in a given society.

What one does have to do is to acknowledge that there are limits to empiricism and that the scientific method is unable to judge the "Truth" behind a religion (Jesus the Son? Buddha's teaching on reincarnation? Moses' tablets?). We can judge all testable hypotheses coming out of a religion and decent, mature religions acknowledge this, as evidenced by the change in relations between the Catholic Church and science. Religions rightly take on the unexplainable and avoid making testable predictions, while foolish leaders risk their religion by making testable predictions (everyone who gives a date for Armaggeddon).
6.18.2007 6:09pm
Kelvin McCabe:
I like charles sanders pierce's epistimeological philosophy - we believe to assuage the irritation we feel when we have doubt. If we dont know an answer to a particular dilemma, our brains actively make one up.

Our minds instinctively try to come up with reasonable hypothesis to solve the problem or to provide an answer. If the doubt is about a subject in which our feeble minds only come up with unreasonable answers, we pick whichever one best relieves or removes the feeling of doubt and be done with it. This is the fixation of belief.

Think of an ancient little child (say 4,000 yrs ago) who asks his father where ligntning comes from. The father tells him it comes from the god of lightning. There being no other rational explanation for the phenomena of lightning, this would assuage the kids doubt and he would then likely BELIEVE, however incorrectly, that lightning does in fact come from the lightning god. IF the father told the same kid the actual (current) scientific explanation for the cause of lightning (in addition to the god hypothesis), this explanation, although objectively correct to us humans today, likely would have sounded more ridiculous at the time to the kid than the God hypothesis , and so the kid would still believe lightning is caused by the god of lightning as opposed to electrons, etc... Belief's dont have to be objectively reasonable or even 'rational'. They only have to satisfy the belief holder and put his mind at ease to be accepted - and once accepted, the are not easily removed.

Likely for some people, there being no rational explanation for how their child became autistic, a belief that some substance (mercury) is the cause provides an answer they desparately want to hear because it removes the question of "how did this happen"(removes the irritation of doubt) and they become fixated on this one belief/answer no matter what anybody else says.
6.18.2007 6:11pm
Toby:

we believe to assuage the irritation we feel when we have doubt. If we dont know an answer to a particular dilemma, our brains actively make one up.

And those who belive nothing have greater doubt. "Those who believe in nothing will believe anything" is the standard formulation.
6.18.2007 6:31pm
Michael B (mail):
"I like charles sanders pierce's ..."

Forgive the minor correction, but it's "Peirce," not "Pierce," pronounced "purse." Fyi, there's a reference covering many of Peirce's terms, here.
6.18.2007 6:38pm
Waldensian (mail):
I've got 9-year-old fraternal twin boys with autism. At the outset, note that I'm not talking about the "autism" suffered by slightly eccentric people who write letters to the editor complaining about their oppressed minority group. My sons have the real deal -- they lack conversational speech, have bizarre and obsessive interests and mannerisms, and have little chance of ever living independently. In fact, the more severely affected of the two is an accomplished escape artist, often fails to sleep through the night, has no real sense of danger, is fully capable of running across a busy highway for no reason at all, and will almost certainly require 24-hour supervision and care for the rest of his life.

The "letter to the editor" autistic people are one thing. My family's brand of autism, on the other hand, is a big, big deal, at least to me. A generation ago, both of my sons would likely have been institutionalized at an early age. Most of the people reading this blog probably didn't go to school with kids like my sons. I certainly didn't.

I know a lot of parents of children with autism. Some of them blame vaccines. The evidence strongly suggests these parents are wrong, of course. I've read many (all?) of the studies, and there is just no good reason to believe that vaccines cause autism. And by now, there are lots of reasons to think they don't cause it.

We continue to waste research dollars on this discredited theory, however, because wrong-thinking parents are a powerful lobby. This makes me angry, but at some level I understand it.

There is no great mystery here. Parents of kids with autism in general are a very, very stressed group of people. Their kids get much, much harder to take care of as they get older.

Parents of kids with autism don't know who will take care of their kids when the kids are adults. They don't know how to pay for the care the kids desperately need now (insurance usually doesn't cover such services, and government assistance can be non-existent). Living with an autistic child can also be extremely stressful.

Blaming vaccines simply provides an outlet for anger and stress. It holds open the possibility of compensation, some day. In particular, blaming vaccines lets parents vent their frustrations at a medical establishment that still has very little to offer them, even though the thing that has happened to their children looks for all the world like an illness or disease that a doctor should be able to treat.

Also, keep in mind that a lot of what you are seeing in the media about autism and vaccines is being driven by plaintiffs' lawyers. I have found very few truly "grass roots" anti-vaccine organizations. Plaintiffs' lawyers show up on the boards of autism support groups, etc. etc. One of them tried to recruit me as a plaintiff once. He was utterly uninterested in whether the evidence actually supported the autism/vaccine link. Alas, many parents apply the same scientific standard.
6.18.2007 6:40pm
TruePath (mail) (www):
Alright, I'll bite. I don't see the slightest difference between religious belief and thinking that mercury in vaccines causes autism. Believe what you want about your religious belief but I can prove to you that most religious belief is neither reasonable or justified.

Ultimately the position that all religion is the adoption of reasonable beliefs simply won't fly. It's logically impossible for any two of Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism and so forth both to be true (yes they may claim each others prophets but in incompatible ways). These aren't just minor dogmatic differences but disagreements about things people view as fundamental to their faith (was Jesus the son of god or wasn't he). So the proponents of most major world religions must be radically wrong in their beliefs.

If we have a bunch of inconsistent theories it we just can't be warranted to believe all of them. The total probability can't add up to more than 100%. In light of the best evidence at most one religion can be more likely than not to be true. Yet even when exposed to different religious traditions people stick to their religious belief. Most Jews do not convert to Christianity just because they live in the states, Hindus and Muslims are no less devoted because they heard about the arguments made by the Christians. No matter what you want to believe simple logical consistency requires you to agree that the majority of the worlds faithful are dogmatically holding on to their religious views in spite of the evidence. It gets even worse than this. Unless you think all the members of other religious faiths are faking their profound feelings of certainty, knowledge of god and the like you have to also admit that having faith/knowing/feeling your religion is corrent is usually not reliable.

Of course you can go two ways with this. You can claim that your religion has some particularly compelling justification and it's only the members of the other faiths who are acting out of irrational dogmatic belief or you can conclude that all religions are doing so. Either way you end up with the conclusion that MOST religious belief is irrational and dogmatic (by irrational in this post I mean a belief in tension with that person's evidence).
6.18.2007 6:43pm
Michael B (mail):
Since C. S. Peirce has been invoked and given the subject at hand, his thoughts on reasoning as such should be of some interest.
6.18.2007 6:50pm
plunge (mail):
Charlie: you obviously have a much larger agenda than I have much stake or interest in. I certainly have no interest in arguing that the current systems for providing medical care in the US is perfect or even laudable: there is a LOT to criticize there and I have done so.

But that all seems offtopic from the perspective of whether medicine as practiced is really as useless and rootless as you and Sk have implied (and frankly, I'm not sure Sk is really even with you: his position seems to be more a cynicism about the limits and irritations of the job and the way people view medicine as a cure-all than a belief that medicine is nearly ineffective), or if all its restrictions and regulations are merely to enrich a monopoly of doctors. I'm still curious as to exactly what you want me to cite, specifically. I would think that even you would at least concede that the idea that western medicine is pretty much considered to be the best standard of care and general evidence-based medicine to be the best methodology on which to provide treatments for most conditions. Again, the only reason I'm NOT citing specific studies is that the evidence for my position (as opposed to yours) is so general and so obvious: nearly ANY article on testing some treatment will show measures of its effectiveness (and its side-effects and limitations), and nearly everyone in the world recognizes western medicine as the gold standard treatment.

Your history of the AMA seems completely one-sided: completely ignoring half of the legitimate reasons for these changes, which happen to be the fact that fraud and quackery used to be rampant. Again, I'm not interested in defending the idea that that history is without blemish that never tossed out good ideas with bad, but as far as I can tell, most of what you are arguing is wrong is outside the scope of things like basing treatments on good evidence. Nothing in the workings of modern medicine prevents worthwhile treatments from becoming used IF they can be shown to work.

Heck, that's why OMT and DOs are still around (and are, unlike chiropractors, real doctors: many chiropractors are "mixers" which means that some or all of their treatments are based on legitimate manipulative therapies for treating limited scopes like back pains, but real chiropractic methodology is unquestionably quackery), for one thing. That's why leeches are still around.

So mostly I guess I'm not sure what you mean about "competition"? You think that we should encourage more people to see people with less medical training and fewer empirically established treatments? If not, then I don't get it: what are you proposing?

And the idea that there is no "inquiry" in the medical professional seems utterly laughable, especially in comparison to the alternatives, most of which have no consistent standards or even much of an interest in developing any (as I noted with herbal treatments).

And for goodness sakes: "(Read the PDR sometime: A commonly listed side effect for many gold-standard pharmaceuticals is "death".) "

This is where you are being overly glib. Yes, a lot of pharmaceuticals ARE, in fact, pretty dangerous and have some pretty significant risks.... so? Again: what's your alternative? In a lot of cases, the things being treated are extremely hard to treat: these drugs are unfortunately the best we have. No amount of chiropractic or acupuncture will cure cancer or restore failing kidney function (and can herbs replace dialysis?) A lot of the time, western medicine can't cure these things either (though often it can prolong life to a degree that no other interventions can). Presenting these things as evidence against western medicine is, frankly, silly.

These issues of human health are not easy ones: there are endless complications, from moral hazard to the fact that the more we can cure, the more things we never would have treated in the first place will start inducing demand.
6.18.2007 6:54pm
blcjr (mail):
Harry Eagar:
OK, I won't, just as soon as you explain what reasons someone could present to make you change YOUR faith.
From the tone of this challenge, I wonder if you really expect a reply, or there's anything that I could possibly say that would matter to you. But so as to not let the challenge go completely unanswered (though I do not expect that either of us will likely continue the dialog), there are MANY reasons someone could present to make me change my faith.

A simple one: present me with compelling evidence that a person named Jesus Christ never existed. Even theological liberals, who discount the NT portrayal of the person known as Jesus, at least acknowledge his existence. Present evidence that he never existed, and I will change my faith.
6.18.2007 7:02pm
plunge (mail):
blcjr:"A simple one: present me with compelling evidence that a person named Jesus Christ never existed. Even theological liberals, who discount the NT portrayal of the person known as Jesus, at least acknowledge his existence. Present evidence that he never existed, and I will change my faith."

Not my fight here really, but given that most Muslims, Jews, and even atheists all agree that a historical person Jesus almost certainly existed, is this really much of a dispositive? It's like a 9/11 truther saying that they are reasonable because they'd give up their beliefs if it were proven that New York never existed.
6.18.2007 7:22pm
American Psikhushka (mail) (www):
plunge-

It's like a 9/11 truther saying that they are reasonable because they'd give up their beliefs if it were proven that New York never existed.

Are you saying that there is nothing strange about some of the events surrounding 9/11? Is everyone that questions the official explanations or advocates investigating some of the stranger events crazy or irrational?
6.18.2007 8:09pm
American Psikhushka (mail) (www):
And the same questions about the JFK assassination.

What's the difference between a historian or amateur historian who thinks there is an alternative explanation for the outcome of a particular historical event, and someone classified as a "conspiracy theorist" (shudder, gasp)? Can I call anyone studying the causes of the Great Depression that has an outlook and worldview different from mine a conspiracy theorist?
6.18.2007 8:15pm
Charlie Tips:
Plunge, I'm simply not sure you know what you are arguing. You are just arguing. Right up front in your last reply you concede a fundamental basis for my point... there is a lot to criticize.

What is there to criticize? Wasn't it Thomas Jefferson who famously said that self-interest leads to, well, myopia? Allopathic medicine, the survivor of the congressional conferal of monopoly status, is centered on the germ theory. Well and good, it's a good theory, but to this day it leaves aside diet and nutrition. This is an area you brought up as important to health.

Similarly, bioelectrics was devoted to the study of electronics and our nervous system, a potentially fruitful area of discovery, but one that was shut down because it had nothing to do with the germ theory. Such practices were labeled quackery not because of fraud or even lack of promise, only because Abe Flexner was incredibly successful at getting a monopoly declared for his preferred paradigm.

Medicine and medical research have become in important respects like the drunk famously confining his search for his lost car keys under the street lamp where the light is better. How much has preference for capital-intensive methods skewed medical research? For example I was privy almost 20 years ago to medical imaging research out of Stanford that promised to put the equivalent of CATscan/MRI technology in every general practitioner's office. Did it fail, or did it go against the gatekeeper model, or...?

About the same time, I had a reoccurence of body fungus and asked my young, with-it doc what she suggested. She suggested a systemic toxin with a listed side effect of death. I demurred. I called an old friend who I remembered also had suffered from the same condition. She said it resulted from B-vitamin deficiency. I started taking B's and the fungus was gone in 3 or 4 days (much shorter than the toxin's cycle). When I told my doc that B's did the trick, she acted as though I was not even speaking. Is that the allopathic paradigm at work? Or is there simply no profit in simple nutritional remedies? Or what?

Allopathic medicine is still largely hostile to the concept of preventive medicine, a concept I imagine we agree stands to produce significant healthcare cost savings over the treat-it-after-the-fact model. And, FYI, objective studies have shown chiropractic care more effective, healthwise and costwise, than back surgery.

Far from claiming that western medicine is "useless and rootless", I claimed that some component of it is highly effective. Another chunk of it provides a net negative. The remainder can be chalked up as may or may not help all that much. You have concurred, sometimes knowingly, in much of my argument on this point.

Do you not agree then that it would be wise, as much as possible, to reduce the influence of self-interest, of giant lobbying groups and bureaucracies and the economics of the gatekeeper/capital-intensive model when it comes to medical research and setting medical policy?
6.18.2007 8:26pm
plunge (mail):
"Are you saying that there is nothing strange about some of the events surrounding 9/11? Is everyone that questions the official explanations or advocates investigating some of the stranger events crazy or irrational?"


Insofar as the 9/11 truth movement alleges that the towers were destroyed by space borne laser weapons, blown up by explosive charges inside the buildings, or that there were no planes crashing into buildings (all of which are the major implications of the 9/11 truthers), then yes, I think they are crazy and irrational.
6.18.2007 9:42pm
plunge (mail):
Charlie, maybe you're not sure what I'm arguing. I'm not arguing that the healthcare system is perfect, particularly the way insurance works, but that's not the same thing as talking about evidence based medicine, licensing doctors and making them go to medical schools with some sort of accreditation process, and so forth. All of those remain very good ideas.

Furthermore, I don't think there is a good case to be made that major illnesses have any other sensible recourse to anything that is even remotely as effective as western medicine. The fact that hospitals make mistakes and proscribe the wrong medications, or even that some of the interventions have dangers, is not the same thing as these treatments not having any proven effectiveness.

"Allopathic medicine is still largely hostile to the concept of preventive medicine, a concept I imagine we agree stands to produce significant healthcare cost savings over the treat-it-after-the-fact model."

I disagree. In my experience, doctors are highly supportive of preventative medicine. As I noted, however, the major issue is that the insurance companies do not want to pay for it, and generally patients do not want to bother with it: they want to be told that they can just pop a magic vitamin instead of changing their lifestyle: which just so happens to be the one thing that's really proven to work when it comes to healthy living (aside from fairly dangerous surgeries like stapling).

And I'll still trust nutritionist that has an MD and research degrees over some guy selling a book about miracle minerals.

"And, FYI, objective studies have shown chiropractic care more effective, healthwise and costwise, than back surgery."

For back pain, yes (but then pain treatment is a tricky issue). But this is why you go to a DO trained in OMT to do it rather than someone who believes in vertebral subluxation, which is quackery, imho.
6.18.2007 10:54pm
Andrew20 (mail):
Reading this thread, I'm struck that most writers have jumped at the epistemological question. What I think is most interesting about Mr. Bernstein's question is not why we jump at irrational correlations, but why such correlations are attractive. That is to say, why do irrational conclusions to secular issues persist as quasi-religious beliefs?

It's simple, really. Skinner's pigeons notwithstanding, God is dead.

Religion and the spiritual are no longer the preeminent forces or first principles of our public, shared lives. They have, for the most part, retreated to private experience. (Most likely because of the epistemological arguments I've seen above.)

Yet human beings seem to need an experience similar to that which religion and the supernatural affords them. I'm not willing to chalk it up to laziness, dumb people, or childhood socialization (although the smugness that seems to accompany such a position is somewhat appealing). It seems to be related to community, identity, and something more. Like SeaDrive noted, we've always made myths to explain what we can't understand. I'm not sure it's because the explanation is too difficult or too boring; rather the mythical/religious explanation is more seductive. As ad men are wont to say, it's sexy.

Because God is dead, we cannot blame it or the Devil for our troubles. Because God is dead, there are no more miracles. Yet we seem to want these things and we attribute them to natural phenomena.

That we attach morality tales to these mythical explanations also raises questions. Is our need to moralize the supernatural part of the religious need, or a leftover from earlier religious traditions? Like autism and the mercury preservatives in vaccines, the cause for the affliction is attributed to a moral transgression, i.e., a sin--greed, despoiling the earth, or man's arrogance at playing God. The same can be said of climate change, homeopathy, etc.

I, for one, cast my lot with establishment science, and largely for the epistemological arguments. I simply find them more credible.

However, any empirical observer of our world has to understand the need humans have for the religious and the supernatural. If one doesn't then an otherwise rational viewpoint becomes irrational in the face of conflicting data. At that point, one's commitment to empirical observation becomes a preconceived value system which is used to rationalize, explain, and forcibly evangelize the aforementioned value system--in sum, a secular religion.

Like I said, God is dead.
6.18.2007 10:57pm
Chimaxx (mail):
David N:
As a side note, I think anytime anyone says, "I am right, you are wrong, and we cannot discuss your position because it has no value and you are wrong" then the speaker has made their cause "religious" in the sense that they don't want to talk about it; they just want to believe it.


Except when this isn't true.

I mean, I really couldn't think of anything else to say to the man on the el who challenged me to prove that 9/11 *wasn't* the result of a conspiracy between the Queen of England and time travelers from four centuries hence--a theory he had explained in an exquisitely detailed chain of cause and effect. And my stop was coming up next.
6.18.2007 11:01pm
Charlie Tips:
"All of those remain very good ideas."

As you'll see, Plunge, that's what I stated.

As for western medicine being tops in the treatment of major illness, no question. Along with trauma care, it's one of the areas where it excels.

Sk's original comment had to do with people presenting with a collection of symptoms. This is an area where your outcome may well be better if you not see a physician at all and simply trust to fate. Indeed, my own brother this past winter tested positive for lyme disease after 15 years of taking his vague symptoms to doc after doc, all of whom threw up their hands, several while making terribly snide and demeaning comments. How much money did he spend for zero benefit?

As for your portrait of don't-bother-me patients, Kaiser did a break-out of its patients into six (seven?) categories, only one of which closely resembled your statement. Another group was similar, maybe even worse, waiting to the acute stage to seek care. But the other groupings were more amenable to preventive measures. Indeed, a couple of the larger (and more profitable, incidentally) were keen on it.

Yes, preventive medicine has made great inroads, but it has faced broad hostility and, as you point out, is far from surmounting all hurdles. I'm not pushing preventative medicine; I'm simply saying such slow adoption of such a promising concept serves merely as one more example of the price we have paid for Congress giving a near-total monopoly to one single medical mindset.

The important concept is to test objectively what has legs, what works, what delivers true benefit for the outlay. This will not be possible relying on people who, as you seem to be, are blindly loyal to and self-interested in the dominant paradigm. Yes, some catastrophic outcomes are unavoidable in any complex system. However, if you ran over a couple of pedestrians because of blind spots in your car, I bet you would fix the view or change cars. Modern Western Medicine does not do an especially good job of identifying and fixing the blind spots. I bet if you ask your wife, she will pretty much agree with that statement.
6.18.2007 11:53pm
Michael B (mail):
Given DB's original post it's supremely ironic that the syllogistic form repeated several times and used both explicitly and implicitly herein is:

1) A
2) I really, really, really believe A
3) I'm eminently comfortable with A
4) A, A, A, A, A, A, A
Therefore:
5) A

Intellectually formidable stuff, that.
6.19.2007 1:10am
TruePath (mail) (www):
Ohh I forgot to add it into my original remark but while I don't think there is any good reason to buy into Christianity the whole body/blood thing isn't a good reason to criticize it.

I mean there is even a worked out metaphysical theory of how it works (at least for the catholics). They claim that it is a change of essence but not of substance. In other words the physical behavior of the material remains unchanged but it nevertheless genuienly instantiates the properties of jesus's body and blood. Sure it's not the most intuitive explanation in the world but it's not like god (assuming he exists) couldn't have made the world to work in such a manner.

I think there are huge epistemic problems with religious belief but criticizing it just on the grounds that you find it 'weird' or counterintuitive isn't any more reasonable than believing mercury causes autism because it seems appealing to you. I mean the physical world is pretty damn counterintuitive (quantum mechanics) so if you grant that this was created by god why should you expect the spiritual world to always be intuitive?
6.19.2007 2:05am
American Psikhushka (mail) (www):
plunge-

Insofar as the 9/11 truth movement alleges that the towers were destroyed by space borne laser weapons, blown up by explosive charges inside the buildings, or that there were no planes crashing into buildings (all of which are the major implications of the 9/11 truthers), then yes, I think they are crazy and irrational.

There are far out beliefs in nearly every area, like the christian fundamentalists that handle snakes and drink rat poison. Do you think the police and firefighters that reported sounds similar to controlled demolition charges are crazy and irrational? How about lightly damaged Building 7 collapsing directly into its own footprint? Not everything related to the 9/11 truth movement is crazy and irrational.
6.19.2007 8:32am
American Psikhushka (mail) (www):
As far as the mercury-containing vaccine theory of autism goes, I'm not sure that it's "meritless".


This article has some very interesting information, like this passage about "synergistic toxicity":
(Sorry for not hypertexting, don't know what's wrong with the link function.)

http://www.lewrockwell.com/miller/miller14.html

Another important factor with regard to mercury on the mind, which officials at the CDC, FDA and the professors in the IOM do not consider, is synergistic toxicity -- mercury's enhanced effect when other poisons are present. A small dose of mercury that kills 1 in 100 rats and a dose of aluminum that will kill 1 in 100 rats, when combined have a striking effect: all the rats die. Doses of mercury that have a 1 percent mortality will have a 100 percent mortality rate if some aluminum is there. Vaccines contain aluminum.

There are a lot of other cited references in the article, including reports of autism rates declining after thimerosal was banned. The article also mentions that most mainstream journals will not publish articles implicating thimerosal.

The Times article also mentions the "vaccines vs. genetic cause" debate. The article linked above illustrates that they may both play a factor, certain genetic backgrounds have trouble clearing mercury from the brain, and at least one study indicates many autistic children have this background.

Another item I thought was interesting is how the Amish, who do not vaccinate, seem to have no autism rate. See:

http://www.upi.com/ConsumerHealthDaily/view.

php?StoryID=20060728-111605-3532r (paste as all one line)

So it seems there's a lot of ambiguity there, from looking at the data I wouldn't claim that anyone who believed that vaccines may play a role is being irrational about it. I know I'm going to be very leery about vaccines when I have children, and may not allow it.
6.19.2007 9:42am
blcjr (mail):
plunge: I imagine that this discussion is winding down, but to reply...I didn't say that my faith was based only upon the historical existence of the person Jesus. I merely used that as an example of something which, if proven to be false, would cause me to change my faith. Remember, that was the original challenge to me, as if to imply that nothing could ever cause me to change my faith, ergo it cannot be reasonable or rational. Consider the particular fact of Jesus' historicity a necessary, but not sufficient, condition for Christian faith. I do not deny that Christian faith ventures into the scientifically unprovable, i.e. the resurrection of Jesus. But underpinning that assertion is a considerable amount of historical evidence that a reasonable mind can accept as credible, and if this historical evidence were ever to be shown, credibly, to be patently false, or faked, then the entire ediface of faith would crumble.

In this sense, Christian faith is little different than ordinary common sense or reasoning: we believe some things because of other things, and whenever the evidence for those other things is shattered, then our belief, or faith, in the things that depended upon the other things is affected.

I certainly do not deny that a lot of belief and conduct rationalized in the name of religion is often irrational. But this doesn't make religion, or religious faith, intrinsically irrational. Irrational belief and conduct can be found in all walks of life, including science. Does that make science intrinsically irrational? Of course not.

Again, there are many who, for various reasons, have rejected religion, and by extension, religious faith, and seem incapable of rationalizing that rejection without believing that relgious belief is itself intrinsically irrational. In light of this whole discussion, there is incredible irony in that, don't you think? I do.
6.19.2007 11:22am
plunge (mail):
"Consider the particular fact of Jesus' historicity a necessary, but not sufficient, condition for Christian faith."

Sure, but given that the historicity of some figure like Jesus is a near certainty _already_, you aren't giving up or risking very much in the way of reasonableness by laying THAT out as a condition for changing your mind, that's my point.
6.19.2007 11:31am
plunge (mail):
"Sk's original comment had to do with people presenting with a collection of symptoms. This is an area where your outcome may well be better if you not see a physician at all and simply trust to fate. Indeed, my own brother this past winter tested positive for lyme disease after 15 years of taking his vague symptoms to doc after doc, all of whom threw up their hands, several while making terribly snide and demeaning comments. How much money did he spend for zero benefit? "

I dunno, but what's the alternative? The reality is that there are many conditions which really are hard to diagnose: that even trained intelligent people can be thrown off the trail of.

If you alternative really is to "trust to fate" then I hope your brother enjoys having every muscle in his body paralyzed, eventually culminating in being unable to breathe, because that would be his "fate."

Of course, it's perfectly possible that he only recently had contracted lymes, and that his prior symptoms were from something else. Or his lyme's test could be a false positive. As I said, medical realities are often a lot more complicated than glib summaries can do justice to, and even once we have good diagnosis, we may not have a final answer.

But still, what I want to know is why you think this is a systematic failure of western medicine as a concept as opposed to what are just some really difficult to decipher medical problems. How is an acupuncturist going to do better in these cases?

"I'm simply saying such slow adoption of such a promising concept serves merely as one more example of the price we have paid for Congress giving a near-total monopoly to one single medical mindset."

But what's your alternative mindset? How are crystal experts going to do any better at diagnosing, let alone treating lupus?

Frankly, my opinion is quite the opposite: quackery and nonsense is, in fact, largely unregulated and its fraud unprosecuted. The dietary supplement industry is mostly a sham, but make huge business. Chiropractioners promise benefits they have no capability of providing. Kevin Trudeau, a convicted felon, is out hawking his book of boobery and he has the free speech right to do so. He's making millions, and no one has millions with which to warn people about him.
6.19.2007 11:45am
Aleks:
Re: If we have a bunch of inconsistent theories it we just can't be warranted to believe all of them.

Believe them all? No. But in the absence of evidence we lweave open the possibility that at least one of them might be true, and perhaps even favor one of them for reasons which may or may nor be strictly rational. Science faces this situation in areas like String Theory, which is not testable and may never be testable.

Re: Are you saying that there is nothing strange about some of the events surrounding 9/11?

Please define "strange" in some way that allows us to rationally analyze whether there are "strange" events involved in the atrocities of 9-11. In one sense of course the entire business is "strange": a mass, successful terror attack like that is not an everyday occurance, it is foreign and alien to our quotidian experience. On the other hand, simply tacking the word "strange" onto a rare and emotional event as a way of furthering conspiracy theories about that event is nothing more than a frank appeal to emotion, a sort of "god of the gaps" theory which claims "There are unexplained facts here, therefore my conspiracy theory must be true."

Re: Do you think the police and firefighters that reported sounds similar to controlled demolition charges are crazy and irrational?

I think in the high excitment and horror of that morning it would have been passingly bizarre if they hadn't heard all sorts of strange and unusual noises. How often do buildings like the Two Towers burn and collapse after being hit by airplanes? Did anyone present that morning have anything to compare it to?

Re: How about lightly damaged Building 7 collapsing directly into its own footprint?

Gravitation is straight line force. Unless already in lateral motion, or acted on by other forces, all falling objects do fall straight down toward the center of the Earth. Making a mystery of commonplace and easily explained facts is a common technique of conspiracy theorists.
6.19.2007 4:02pm
American Psikhushka (mail) (www):
Aleks-

On the other hand, simply tacking the word "strange" onto a rare and emotional event as a way of furthering conspiracy theories about that event is nothing more than a frank appeal to emotion, a sort of "god of the gaps" theory which claims "There are unexplained facts here, therefore my conspiracy theory must be true."

You're being just as disingenuous as you claim 9/11 Truthers are - who said anything about a particular theory? What if I just wanted to investigate unexplained facts in an objective manner to try to find reasonable explanations for them?

I think in the high excitment and horror of that morning it would have been passingly bizarre if they hadn't heard all sorts of strange and unusual noises. How often do buildings like the Two Towers burn and collapse after being hit by airplanes? Did anyone present that morning have anything to compare it to?

Yeah - many of them have been to fires or guarded the scene at fires where parts of buildings collapsed - so they did have something to compare it too. I'll wager that some of them observed or guarded the scene at some demolitions as well. Some firefighters or police officers are engineering buffs as well, so some have probably seen controlled implosions too. Granted, nothing on the scale of the towers.

Controlled demolition charges are pretty loud and characteristic because they have a specific function - a number of simultaneous explosions have to be coordinated so supports on all sides are broken down at the same time so the building falls straight down.

Gravitation is straight line force. Unless already in lateral motion, or acted on by other forces, all falling objects do fall straight down toward the center of the Earth. Making a mystery of commonplace and easily explained facts is a common technique of conspiracy theorists.

You're proving my point for me. When a building falls straight down into its footprint it is because the supports on all sides were taken out at once so there was no resistance to gravity. If there was uneven support on one or more sides the building might have only partially collapsed or fell to one side. So how did all of Building 7's supports on all sides get taken out simultaneously when the main damage was burning debris falling on the roof?

There are "mysteries" there - facts that are unexplained or don't mesh together well - I don't need to "make them up". And trying to claim anyone who is skeptical about some of the explanations and official stories about what happened on that day is crazy or irrational is insulting, patronizing, and intellectually dishonest.
6.20.2007 7:12am
plunge (mail):
In any situation, especially one that's chaotic and traumatic, there will be anomalies: no situation is exactly the same. But hunting for anomalies is not the same thing as having evidence of real mysteries or unexplained events with further implications.

All of the conspiracy theories and anomalies in question have been well debunked elsewhere: I think before suggesting that there's something "here" you need to deal with those debunkings: I think the skeptics in this case are those who have looked at the 9/11 Truth claims and found them wanting. If the facts don't seem to mesh together well, then perhaps another possibility is that you don't have all the facts.
6.20.2007 11:34am
American Psikhushka (mail) (www):
plunge-

If the facts don't seem to mesh together well, then perhaps another possibility is that you don't have all the facts.

And that could just as easily be the case for the "skeptic" side as well.
6.20.2007 12:51pm
American Psikhushka (mail) (www):
plunge-

And I forgot - much of the debunking has been counter-debunked. Give me your debunking links and I'll take a look at them.

And that's another thing - when the skeptics just dimiss theories and arguments as "ridiculous", "crazy",
"irrational", etc. and refuse to look at the evidence, or additional evidence, it doesn't mean they are more rational, healthy, intelligent, etc., although I'm sure many like to think it does. You might say it is like a comforting belief - faith that popular, mainstream explanations for important events are always correct and that anyone who questions these is a kook.
6.20.2007 1:06pm
plunge (mail):
Well, I've read both sides, and yes, I've formed a judgment that the truther movement is riddled with bad evidence and poor judgment, as well as sloppy, incomplete presentations of facts. I don't judge them kooky sight unseen: I judge them kooks because a) their facts and claims have repeatedly turned out to be misleading b) the mainstream explanations really ARE more credible and c) the claimed implications of all the anomalies are patently ridiculous. The counter-debunkings are no better than the original claims.

In the case you are putting, simply put, there is no way anyone set up a controlled demolition of Building 7. Demolitions of that sort are done on gutted buildings, and they are quite obvious: they cannot be secretly wired with the hundreds of people inside not noticing, let alone the trained firefighters inside, let alone having NONE of these explosives go off when the building is hit by debris and then gutted by fire. Furthermore, the building collapsed starting from the most heavily damaged point (which happened to be a huge hole almost 20 stories high): how exactly is a planned demolition supposed to take that into account? For that matter, how are the supposed conspirators to know that 9/11 was even going to happen in order for them to take advantage of it in the first place? That makes the conspiracy even more outlandish, and cannot help but put us back into the space laser/CGI trickery/missles territory.

Your evidence so far is some strange noises on an utterly unprecedented day (remember, these were incredibly huge buildings: contrary to what you claim, I very very much doubt most of the firefighters and witnesses had ever seen such huge skyscrapers collapse from damage anywhere near that extensive) and buildings collapsing from fire not flying outwards for no reason when collapsing. Why is that in the least compelling?
6.20.2007 1:26pm
plunge (mail):
Just an example, take a look at this page:
http://911research.wtc7.net/wtc/attack/wtc7.html

Note that the only photo shown is of the north side of the building, and the discussion just brushes over the fact that most of the damage and fires were seen on the south side. In fact, all the later investigations and photos of the south side (none of which this "research" site includes) show. The "research" article also leaves out things like the filmed fault lines forming just before collapse, and the unorthodox architecture of the building that explain just fine how and why it fell. It quotes preliminary findings from FEMA but nothing from the far more extensive reviews done subsequently.
6.20.2007 1:44pm
American Psikhushka (mail) (www):
plunge-

I don't have time for a lengthy debate on this, but:

In the case you are putting, simply put, there is no way anyone set up a controlled demolition of Building 7.

Then why did Larry Silverstein say he ordered one in a PBS documentary?

Furthermore, the building collapsed starting from the most heavily damaged point (which happened to be a huge hole almost 20 stories high): how exactly is a planned demolition supposed to take that into account?

If you claim it collapsed, why was the collapse so orderly? Why wasn't it lopsided? Why did it collapse at basically free-fall speed into its own footprint? Why didn't it just collapse surrounding this huge hole you emphasize?
6.20.2007 3:17pm
plunge (mail):
"Then why did Larry Silverstein say he ordered one in a PBS documentary? "

I don't know what you are talking about, but if you mean the "pull it" remark, then you are being ridiculous. First of all, he didn't and wasn't in a position to order anything: he was talking to the fire chief (who apparently is in on the conspiracy too, along with all of his men, who somehow magically placed explosives in a burning, destroyed building without anyone else noticing?), and second of all, he and virtually everyone else say that this was a discussion about the evacuation of the building. It wasn't safe to try and take the building down like that. It wasn't even considered safe enough to pull the building down with cables as was done with some other structures.

"If you claim it collapsed, why was the collapse so orderly? Why wasn't it lopsided?"

Have you watched the video, the full video of its collapse (and not just the final few sections generally shown)? As the central support structure weakens and gives way, the penthouse on just one side sinks into the building first (how exactly does that fit into a controlled demolition anyway?) and then later followed by the other and then the entire building. So it was a lopsided sequential collapse: it's just that the major structural going down elements were on the inside of the outer walls.

"Why did it collapse at basically free-fall speed into its own footprint?"

Because it's central support structure went out first (and from the bottom due to the fires and destruction caused by WTC debris smashing into it), leaving only the outer walls bearing the weight, none of which could support the floors on their own, and so which all gave way basically under the same pressures on every side.

I'm not sure how else you expect it to fall. I also never quite understand how people think they are experts on how buildings like this "should" fall. When exactly WAS the last time you or anyone else has seen a building of that height with that relatively strangle internal support structure and with that much damage fall down? What are you comparing your expectations to?

"Why didn't it just collapse surrounding this huge hole you emphasize?"

I have no idea what you mean: the building DID collapse first from the bottom and the south side: this is what started the collapse of the central support structure. All of this is what all the major follow up examinations have supported.
6.20.2007 5:28pm
American Psikhushka (mail) (www):
plunge-

I don't know what you are talking about, but if you mean the "pull it" remark, then you are being ridiculous. First of all, he didn't and wasn't in a position to order anything: he was talking to the fire chief (who apparently is in on the conspiracy too, along with all of his men, who somehow magically placed explosives in a burning, destroyed building without anyone else noticing?), and second of all, he and virtually everyone else say that this was a discussion about the evacuation of the building. It wasn't safe to try and take the building down like that. It wasn't even considered safe enough to pull the building down with cables as was done with some other structures.

This site:

http://www.wtc7.net/pullit.html

(sorry again for not linking, link function is messed up)
...has some information that contradicts your argument.

According to the site above, the FEMA report states that there were no manual firefighting operations in Building 7, therefore there was no one to evacuate. The term "pull" was also the term used when Building 6 was intentionally taken down.

Have you watched the video, the full video of its collapse (and not just the final few sections generally shown)? As the central support structure weakens and gives way, the penthouse on just one side sinks into the building first (how exactly does that fit into a controlled demolition anyway?) and then later followed by the other and then the entire building. So it was a lopsided sequential collapse: it's just that the major structural going down elements were on the inside of the outer walls.

So you're telling me that enough of the steel supports on a 47-story building were burned away for it to collapse basically into its own footprint in 6-7 hours, when the fire had started on the roof? You realize you are basically claiming that the fire burned downward through 47 stories and then burns uniformly out to take all the steel supports out relatively uniformly, all in 6-7 hours? The site above claims that fires have never before or since caused a steel-frame building to collapse.

Because it's central support structure went out first (and from the bottom due to the fires and destruction caused by WTC debris smashing into it), leaving only the outer walls bearing the weight, none of which could support the floors on their own, and so which all gave way basically under the same pressures on every side.

Again, you're claiming that the fire burned through all or nearly all 47 stories, and then outward, taking all the steel supports out relatively uniformly so that the building collapsed into its own footprint. All in 6-7 hours. Sure, I'm not an engineer or a demolition expert, but that sounds like a pretty improbable theory in its own right.
6.21.2007 7:15pm
American Psikhushka (mail) (www):
Correction: Two of the sentences in the 4th paragraph (my 3rd paragraph) above are nearly identical, one should have been deleted.
6.21.2007 7:18pm
plunge (mail):
"According to the site above, the FEMA report states that there were no manual firefighting operations in Building 7, therefore there was no one to evacuate."

This is more Truther doublespeak. There was no attempt to control the FIRES in the building, but there were firefighters and evacuations going on. Even a cursory examination of the witness testimony and transcripts makes this plainly obvious in a way that quoting a few words in a misleading way from a prelim report does not.

Of course, if there was no firefighters in the building, who exactly was it that was carefully planting explosives at critical points throughout the building and then magically making the rubble vanish into thin air? Keebler elves?

"So you're telling me that enough of the steel supports on a 47-story building were burned away for it to collapse basically into its own footprint in 6-7 hours, when the fire had started on the roof?"

Um, what? The fire and damage started near the bottom: the building was hit with debris from the towers and burned for hours, weakening the central support structure enough that it could no longer take the weight. There's nothing mysterious about any of this. You are basically saying that you can't chop down a tree unless you chop it down every two inches or so. No: you need to weaken the trunk in just one place. Gravity does the rest.

It didn't burn through every story (who said that???): all it had to do was weaken the central support columns: that's why the penthouses sink first. Once these could no longer bear the weight, the weight was taken by the outer walls, which could not support it.
6.22.2007 3:18pm