28 September 2012

Now THIS is a real self-help book

No simplistic aphorisms. No New Age mumbo-jumbo. No treacly flattery, or cheery exhortations to ‘think positive’. Just science and philosophy, presented by someone who is adept at both.

I’m a regular reader of Massimo Pigliucci’s blog Rationally Speaking, where he and his co-bloggers take a philosophical approach to topics of common human concern: ethics, politics, religion, economics, education, science, technology, art, culture, emotions, consciousness. Pigliucci is a trained biologist who currently teaches philosophy at the City University of New York, and his new book Answers for Aristotle: How Science and Philosophy Can Lead Us to a More Meaningful Life is essentially a physical manifestation of his life’s work: to show how science and philosophy reinforce each other in creating knowledge and wisdom, in helping us understand both the world and ourselves. As he puts it:

The basic idea is to explore “the big questions” (you know, the usual suspects: morality, relationships, politics) from the joint perspective of the best science and the most compelling philosophy available to date. After all, the standard answers to those questions come from either religion or folk wisdom, the first one being based on imaginary entities and their arbitrary pronouncements, and the second being, shall we say, somewhat more fallible than one would wish.

In this respect Pigliucci differs from notable intellectuals like Sam Harris, Stephen Hawking and Lawrence Krauss, since these three (to varying degrees) place greater store by science than philosophy. Pigliucci has taken both Harris and Krauss to task for their dismissive attitude to philosophy and corresponding glorification of science. I used to be sympathetic to Harris’s argument that science can answer moral questions, but Pigliucci’s counter-arguments were very persuasive. While I still dislike the term ‘scientism’ (used pejoratively to imply a reductionist worldview, which I think is inaccurate and unfair), I do agree with Pigliucci that good science requires sound philosophical premises and justifications, and that the ‘big questions’ cannot all be answered by science alone.

Answers for Aristotle is definitely going on my to-read list. I have a feeling that it will be ‘meatier’ than similar self-improvement books by philosophers like Alain De Botton or AC Grayling, due to the science. Judging by his blog posts and magazine articles, Pigliucci is an eloquent, knowledgeable writer who can bridge the (perhaps illusory) gap between science and philosophy for his readers, enriching their lives in the process.


25 September 2012

Ben Goldacre takes on Big, Bad Pharma

Doctor and science writer Ben Goldacre has a new book, Bad Pharma: How Drug Companies Mislead Doctors and Harm Patients, that exposes in meticulous detail what many of us already suspect: pharmaceutical companies fudge the results of their drug trials in order to sell drugs that don’t work, or that are actually harmful. The cynics are right, though it would give them little satisfaction to learn the depressing extent of Big Pharma’s corruption.

The Guardian has published an extract from Bad Pharma, which contains this passage:

Because researchers are free to bury any result they please, patients are exposed to harm on a staggering scale throughout the whole of medicine. Doctors can have no idea about the true effects of the treatments they give. Does this drug really work best, or have I simply been deprived of half the data? No one can tell. Is this expensive drug worth the money, or has the data simply been massaged? No one can tell. Will this drug kill patients? Is there any evidence that it's dangerous? No one can tell. This is a bizarre situation to arise in medicine, a discipline in which everything is supposed to be based on evidence.

Proponents of ‘alternative’ medicine and other New Age quackery will be quick to pounce. They will feel vindicated for their distrust of modern drugs and the corrupt system that makes and markets them. Goldacre’s findings may prove Big Pharma’s critics right about its unethical practices, but these critics commit the logical fallacy known as ignoratio elenchi, or irrelevant conclusion, if they think that Big Pharma’s unethical actions prove the efficacy of ‘alternative’ medicine. They don’t. What they do show is that more scientific skepticism and rigour is needed, not less. The fact that Big Pharma is largely a corrupt industry that puts profits before patients doesn’t mean that homeopathy works, or that vaccines cause autism.

Goldacre is certainly not an ally of the quacks. In his previous book, Bad Science, he debunked pseudoscientific claims about ‘alternative’ medicine, vaccines and consumer products, and also criticised the way that the media misrepresents science, thereby misinforming the public. I highly recommend it as a much needed corrective to the misconceptions and false beliefs that we all have about health matters. And Goldacre is an engaging writer, leavening his statistical analysis with vivid anecdotes and passionate arguments. His new book will no doubt fulfill a similar purpose; to wake up readers with a splash of cold, hard facts, however unpleasant it may be, and to propose solutions to a chronic and widespread problem that affects us all.


19 September 2012

Erdoğan doesn’t get it

Unless you just woke up 5 minutes ago from a decade-long cryogenic sleep, you would know about the Muslim riots in response to an execrable film that insults the prophet Muhammad. Bad taste and dirty tricks aside, the film Innocence of Muslims is the latest work that has elicited a grossly disproportionate reaction from many Muslims. Of course, certain liberals can be counted on to, if not condone, then at least rationalise the murders and violence by blaming the ‘provocative’ critics of Islam for being insensitive, even reckless. Nevermind that the victims of Muslim fanaticism are often innocent people who had nothing to do with the offensive film, or book, or poem, or cartoon. Nevermind that no amount of offense ever justifies physical violence and brutality.

Free speech fail.
These politically correct scolds who refuse to unconditionally condemn Muslim savagery can only encourage those like Turkish prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who wants to outlaw “attacks on religion”. In an absurd black-is-white statement, Erdoğan equated the silencing of religious criticism with respecting freedom of thought and belief:

Freedom of thought and belief ends where the freedom of thought and belief of others start. You can say anything about your thoughts and beliefs, but you will have to stop when you are at the border of others’ freedoms.

If Erdoğan is alluding to that famous catchphrase of individual freedom, “The right to swing my fist ends where the other man’s nose begins”, he only shows just how far he misses the point of that statement. Firstly, offending a person’s beliefs, religious or not, is not the same as physically assaulting them. Secondly, the arbitrary nature of what is deemed offensive makes it practically impossible to avoid offending someone somewhere. Many Islamic beliefs are highly offensive to secularists like me. So do Muslims violate my freedom by simply holding and expressing those beliefs? Thirdly, Erdoğan’s bizarre adaptation of the “swing my fist” statement would mean that no one is allowed to discuss, criticise, debate or even comment on beliefs and ideas that they themselves do not hold.

By Erdoğan’s reasoning, you can’t give your opinion on Marxism unless you’re a Marxist. You can’t point out the flaws of libertarianism unless you’re a staunch free market advocate. And you definitely can’t criticise the regressive, sexist, irrational, violent aspects of Islam unless you acknowledge that there is no God but Allah, and Muhammad is his prophet (even then there is no guarantee that you won’t be viciously set upon by your fellow Muslims for casting aspersions on the faith).

Erdoğan has also compared ‘Islamophobia’ to anti-semitism, saying that “Turkey recognizes anti-semitism as a crime, while not a single Western country recognizes Islamophobia as such.” False equivalence much? Muslims constantly try to deflect legitimate criticism of their beliefs and values by confusing an ideology with an ethnicity. It doesn’t matter that Muslims may consider their beliefs to be indistinguishable from their personhood, because they are wrong to do so. By their logic, anyone who holds particular beliefs, however odious or harmful, is exempt from criticism so long as they identify strongly enough with those beliefs. A Neo-Nazi can therefore justifiably claim to be a victim of persecution when he is criticised, since his sense of self is inextricably bound up with his ideology.

Turkey under Erdoğan and his Islamist Justice and Development Party has become more conservative in recent years, with an increasingly religious bent to its politics. For a country that aspires to be a secular, democratic model for other Muslim-majority countries, its prime minister gives the worrying impression that he seeks to undermine that aspiration, whether for ideological or political reasons.


13 September 2012

Guess I’m turning gay this spring

No, it’s not because I’ve suddenly acquired a carnal desire for my fellow penis owners. It’s because I’ve decided to wear more light colours as warmer, sunnier days arrive in these antipodean lands.

How do I know that my sexual reorientation is impending? Certain Malaysian individuals, in their wisdom and magnanimity, have published a set of government-endorsed guidelines describing the “symptoms” of homosexuality, so that concerned parents may identify and correct their offspring’s budding gayness before it fully and irrevocably manifests. These flagrant signs of depravity include having a preference for “tight and light-coloured clothes”. Since I intend to wear comfortably loose light-coloured clothes, does this make me half gay? I’m also not a fan of “V-neck and sleeveless clothes”, so I must be only one-third gay.

Some examples of gay clothing.

Reading further, I am indeed “attracted to women” and certainly like to “hang out, have meals and sleep in the company of women.” Hey, I’m actually a lesbian!

Progressive, liberal Malaysians should respond with a set of guidelines listing the symptoms of regressive homophobic bigots. Some suggestions:

  • Have a muscular prejudice against non-heterosexuality, and like to show their bigotry with ill-conceived guidelines and irresponsible scaremongering.
  • Prefer conformist and ignorant audience for their message.
  • Attracted to policing people’s sexuality; and
  • Like to bring a big sense of moral superiority, similar to that used by ideological extremists, when hanging out.