16 April 2013

They keep using that word. I do not think it means what they think it means.

There was a science and skepticism conference in Manchester last weekend, where a lot of smart people got together to give their critical thinking skills and scientific skepticism some healthy flexing. Yet what was otherwise a commendable affair was marred by the frankly silly title (and topic) of one discussion panel: Is Science the New Religion?

How can fluent English speakers so egregiously misuse the word ‘religion’? Do they need to have its proper definition tattooed on the inside of their forearms for convenient reference?   

One person who won’t be facepalming with me in solidarity is the journalist Brendan O’Neill, who was on that ridiculous panel and uttered suitably ridiculous things about science and politics. O’Neill thinks that politics is in danger of being influenced by too much science. He warns us:

The worst thing is that politicians’ increasing reliance on science, and some scientists’ willingness to go along with this, shrinks the space for public, mass engagement in policymaking. The more politics becomes an experts’ pursuit, the less room there is for the public’s ideological or passionate or angry or prejudicial views.

And this is a bad thing? O’Neill gives voice to a sadly common anti-intellectualism displayed by those who think that, in the words of Isaac Asimov, their ignorance is just as good as an expert’s knowledge. O’Neill also confuses the (very real) problem of politicians cherry-picking scientific data that support their biases with the actual process of science; the former is a subjective vice on the part of dishonest politicians, while the latter is a provisionally objective pursuit of knowledge about reality that isn’t beholden to partisan views on government. Science is certainly affected by politics through government funding, laws and regulations, but no amount of political pressure can force physicists to change the laws of nature, or get biologists to concede that the theory of evolution is false.

The comedian and science populariser Robin Ince was on that panel with O’Neill, and he was “startle-eyed” by the copious amounts of inanity gushing from his fellow panelist. Ince comments on O’Neill’s anti-expert rhetoric in a sharply humorous blog post, which includes this observation:

There is a gaggle that seems to consider that expertise is an unfair advantage, that all opinions are equal; an idea that people who are experts in climate change, drugs or engineering are given unfair preference just because they spend much of their life studying these things. I do not think it is fascism that heart surgeons seem to have the monopoly of placing hands in a chest cavity and fiddling with an aorta. Though I have my own opinions on driving, I have decided to let others do it, as I have never taken a lesson. I do not consider myself oppressed by the driving majority. I own an umbrella and a thermometer, but I do not believe this is enough to place me on a climate change advisory body.

A charitable reading of O’Neill’s arguments might suggest that he is simply decrying ‘scientism’: the unjustified belief that science holds all the answers to all our problems, including ethical ones. I’m not convinced that O’Neill is actually criticising scientism. His comments clearly show that he is uncomfortable with scientific expertise itself, with the idea that politics is improved by the input of the best scientific knowledge we currently possess in various fields. O’Neill’s position is in stark contrast to that of the philosopher Massimo Pigliucci, who is a strong critic of scientism yet is a champion for science. In the aptly titled chapter ‘The Limits of Science’ in his book Answers for Aristotle, Pigliucci writes:

The idea underlying this chapter is that science is neither the new god nor something that should be cavalierly dismissed. As a society, we need a thoughtful appreciation not only of how science works but also of its power and its limits. This isn’t just an (interesting, I would submit) intellectual exercise: how we think about science has huge personal and societal consequences, affecting our decisions about everything from whether to vaccinate our children to whether to vote for a politician who wants to enact policies to curb climate change. We cannot all become experts, especially in the many highly technical fields of modern science, but it is crucial for our own well-being that we understand the elements of how science works (and occasionally fails to), that we become informed skeptics about the claims that are made on behalf of science, and that we also do our part to nudge society away from an increasingly dangerous epistemic relativism.

Pigliucci has an acute, even wise, understanding of both the limits of science and its power to affect change for the better, especially when politicians grant it the respect it deserves. O’Neill on the other hand just doesn’t like uppity nerds oppressing common folks like him with their ‘facts’ and ‘expertise’.


04 March 2013

The problem is when stamp collecting isn’t just about collecting stamps

This is another A C Grayling-related post; turns out he has written a new book. Defenders of religion will likely not be persuaded by the arguments contained within Grayling’s latest work, but hopefully fence-sitting readers will be convinced of the superior values of humanism. One such religious sympathiser who clearly wasn’t impressed with Grayling’s book is Peter ‘brother-of-Christopher’ Hitchens. The younger Hitchens is in many ways the ideological opposite of his more (in)famous brother. Here’s an excerpt from his review:

‘Atheism is to theism,’ Anthony Grayling declares, ‘as not collecting stamps is to stamp-collecting’. At this point, we are supposed to enjoy a little sneer, in which the religious are bracketed with bald, lonely men in thick glasses, picking over their collections of ancient stamps in attics, while unbelievers are funky people with busy social lives.
But the comparison is flatly untrue. Non-collectors of stamps do not, for instance, write books devoted to mocking stamp-collectors, nor call for stamp-collecting’s status to be diminished, nor suggest — Richard Dawkins-like — that introducing the young to this hobby is comparable to child abuse. They do not place advertisements on buses proclaiming that stamp-collecting is a waste of time, and suggesting that those who abandon it will enjoy their lives more.

The (by now clichéd) point that atheism is a religion like not collecting stamps is a hobby was meant to demonstrate the absurdity of the claim that atheists are as ‘dogmatic’ or ‘faithful’ as religious believers in precisely the same way. That’s rubbish, of course. But Hitchens’s argument – that the comparison is indeed inaccurate, but only because atheists are often mean and obnoxious, unlike non-stamp collectors – sounds reasonable. I admit that immediately after reading the passage quoted above, I nodded my head conceding that he had a point.

But not so fast. Jerry Coyne wrote a post responding to Hitchens’s negative book review, and found a serious flaw in his argument. Coyne rebuts:

At first this sounds like a good riposte to Grayling—until you think about it for a minute. If stamp collectors tried to force others to collect stamps, vilified or condemned those who did not see the licking of stamps as a holy rite, told people that collecting stamps requires that you abstain from premarital sex, or sex with someone of your gender, imposed fatwas on noncollectors or threatened them with eternal fire, terrorized children who try to collect coins instead of stamps, tried to kill those who insulted stamps, or generally strove to insert their sticky fingers into the public realm, then we wouldn’t need atheistic books, bus posters or mockery. There aren’t special “stamp schools” in the UK supported by public money, nor does one see stamp collectors given special deference over, say, those who play tennis or prefer to read books. There is not an organized conspiracy of stamp collectors raping children by using their Great Authority Over Bits of Paper, with the Head Collector having the power to cover it up.



27 February 2013

For the elebenty bazillionth time, Nazism and Stalinism were NOT caused by secular, rational, scientific values

It’s like whacking gophers in that classic arcade game; no matter how many times you debunk the argument that too much reason and science gave us Nazism and Stalinism, it keeps popping back up. Which it did in a Facebook discussion I participated in recently. Apparently, all one has to do is promote reason, critical thinking and the scientific method as the only paths to (provisional) knowledge and eventually someone will feel obligated to play the ‘rational totalitarianism’ card as a corrective. Someone like the quitting Pope Benedict XVI, or the philosopher John Gray, the latter being schooled by his confrere A C Grayling on why making a tenuous connection between 20th century totalitarianism and Enlightenment values – which include a healthy respect for science – is so full of fail.

In his typically elegant prose, Grayling demolishes the idea that Nazism and Stalinism were the logical culmination of overzealous rationality and ‘scientism’:

As to the weary old canard about the 20th-century totalitarianisms: it astonishes me how those who should know better can fail to see them as quintessentially counter-Enlightenment projects, and ones which the rest of the Enlightenment-derived world would not put up with and therefore defeated: Nazism in 17 years and Soviet communism in 70. They were counter-Enlightenment projects because they rejected the idea of pluralism and its concomitant liberties of thought and the person, and in the time-honoured unEnlightened way forcibly demanded submission to a monolithic ideal. They even used the forms and techniques of religion, from the notion of thought-crime to the embalming of saints in mausoleums (Lenin and Mao, like any number of saints and their relics, invite pilgrimage to their glass cases). Totalitarianism is not about progress but stasis; it is not about realising a golden age but coercively sustaining the myth of one. This indeed is the lineament of religion: it is the opposite of secular progressivism.

Other critics of scientific rationality like Max Horkheimer and Theodor Ardono are also guilty of false equivalence when they paint science as just another kind of totalitarian ideology, with the same capacity to oppress. In the introduction to The Britannica Guide to the Ideas That Made the Modern World, Grayling again rebuts these critics by pointing out the fallacies of their arguments. He writes:

In the crisis of the 1930s and 40s the oppressive power that Horkheimer and Adorno had in mind was Nazism, which they saw as the Enlightenment’s self-fulfillingly paradoxical outcome: in their terminology, “instrumental rationality” had been transformed into “bureaucratic politics”. In effect, Horkheimer and Adorno were claiming that the Enlightenment empowered capitalism and with it a deeply oppressive form of managerialism that served its interests to the exclusion of all others. 
This analysis does not survive scrutiny. Nazism drew its principal strength from a peasantry and petit-bourgeoisie that mostly felt threatened by capitalism, so it is not the latter which was the source of oppression, but in fact the former, viewed as descendents of the various constituencies that had most to lose from Enlightenment and which therefore reacted against it. The votaries of Nazism, had they lived in the eighteenth century, would have defended the traditions of absolutism, whether in Versailles or in heaven, against the “instrumental rationality” which expressed itself in the eighteenth century as secularizing and democratizing impulses.

And the key passage, with my emphasis in bold:

As this implies, the same answer can be addressed to the other example cited by critics as an inheritor of Enlightenment principles, namely Stalinism. The general point to be made is that totalitarianism, of which Nazism and Stalinism are paradigms, is a monolithic ideology that demands the unwavering loyalty and obedience of all. Whether in the form of a religion or a political movement, it is precisely opposed by the Enlightenment values of individual liberty, freedom of thought, consent of the people, rational argument, the constraints of evidence, and the absence of controlling hegemonies.

Not exactly rational guys.

So, for the umpteenth time, a commitment to reason and science does not lead to genocide, or gas chambers, or gulags, or personality cults, or delusions of ethnic superiority. Quite the opposite.

I’ll let Grayling have the last word, since he says it so well.

By resisting the counter-Enlightenment pessimism of Horkheimer and Adorno in this way one sees, by the intended contrast, how much of the Enlightenment remains operative in the contemporary world as the same force it was historically intended to be: a force for progress, for liberty, for rationality.


18 February 2013

Dr Oz thinks that promoting quack medicine “empowers” people

The New Yorker has an article by Michael Specter on Dr Mehmet Oz, a heart surgeon who is also the host of ‘The Dr. Oz Show’, a hugely popular US television program watched by millions of Americans. Dr Oz is notorious for his refusal to disavow ‘alternative’ medicine as unscientific and unproven; he promotes quackery like ‘miracle’ foods and cures, anti-GMO and anti-vaccine propaganda, Reiki, acupuncture, homeopathy and psychic powers alongside real, effective medical advice. To quote one of his critics, the cardiologist and professor of genomics Eric Topol, Dr Oz’s lack of discrimination between evidence-based medicine and alt-med can mislead people, since “how are consumers to know what is real and what is magic? Because Mehmet offers both as if they were one.”

Echoing the singer Tim Minchin, Specter writes:

Scientists often argue that, if alternative medicine proves effective through experimental research, it should no longer be considered alternative; at that point, it becomes medicine. By freely mixing alternatives with proven therapies, Oz makes it nearly impossible for the viewer of his show to assess the impact of either; the process just diminishes the value of science.

Neurologist Dr Steven Novella (who has been a guest on ‘The Dr. Oz Show’) is another critic of Dr Oz, writing in a blog post that “Promoters of alternative medicine [like Dr Oz] only pay inconsistent lip-service to science, but the core of their philosophy is that science is optional,” and that this is “a very dismissive attitude – the casual dismissal of scientific evidence simply because it contradicts a pet belief.

The problem of shoddy methodology in medical science, whether in research or in the media, is also touched on by the physician and writer Dr Ben Goldacre in his book Bad Science. As a media personality, the issue of how entertainment values and populism subvert medicine is pertinent to Dr Oz’s case. He seems to think that truth is a democracy, that facts are determined not by the careful examination of reality but by popular vote. These personal beliefs about truth and facts are a core factor in Dr Oz’s promotion of quackery, as this passage from Specter’s article reveals:

”Either data works or it doesn’t,“ I [Specter] said. “Science is supposed to answer, or at least address, those questions. Surely you don’t think that all information is created equal?” 
Oz sighed. “Medicine is a very religious experience,” he said. “I have my religion and you have yours. It becomes difficult for us to agree on what we think works, since so much of it is in the eye of the beholder. Data is rarely clean.” All facts come with a point of view. But his spin on it – that one can simply choose those which make sense, rather than data that happen to be true – was chilling. “You find the arguments that support your data,” he said, “and it’s my fact versus your fact.”

Dr Mehmet Oz is an epistemological relativist; to him, there is no such thing as objective truth, and unsubstantiated medical claims are just as valid as those backed by a mountain of evidence. With such a rotten ideological foundation, should it surprise us that his house of medical knowledge is so unsound? The tragedy is that Dr Oz has an impressionable audience of millions, many of whom may be harmed, not empowered, by the relativism of ‘America’s doctor’.


04 February 2013

Evidence-based medicine should include ALL the evidence

Medicine has a dirty little secret: not all clinical trial results for drugs are reported, with positive results being “around twice as likely to get published as negative findings”, according to Dr Ben Goldacre, a medical science writer. Dr Goldacre calls this bias “a cancer at the core of evidence-based medicine” and has written a book, Bad Pharma, that addresses this widespread problem.

Evidence-based medicine (EBM) should take into account all clinical trial results, and not just cherry-pick the outcomes that match the drug manufacturer’s expectations, or quietly sweep the failed tests under the carpet. It isn’t evidence-based medicine if it doesn’t include all the evidence, even the negative ones. Those of us who criticise ‘alternative’ medicine for its lack of rigour and flawed methodology should be just as critical of similar trespasses in EBM. In fact, by claiming to be scientifically committed, EBM should be held to a higher standard of conduct.

There’s a petition calling for private and public medical researchers to publish all clinical trial results, both successes and failures, with test methods clearly described. Please sign it to show your support for evidence-based medicine that truly lives up to its name.

Here’s a TED talk by Dr Goldacre on the pernicious bias shown by drug researchers for positive clinical trial results, and why it has to stop. You will not find a more passionate, or animated, defender of proper evidence-based medicine.