Friday, August 31, 2012

Misisng the Point on Child Sexual Abuse

In a recent interview (since redacted due to the comments I will be discussing) with the National Catholic Register, Father Benedict Groeschel made some rather startling comments about the Catholic sex abuse scandal, in effect arguing that the priests who committed the abuse should not be blamed because the were seduced by the young children they abused:
[Father Groeschel]: A little bit, yes; but you know, in those cases, they have to leave. And some of them profoundly — profoundly — penitential, horrified. People have this picture in their minds of a person planning to — a psychopath. But that's not the case. Suppose you have a man having a nervous breakdown, and a youngster comes after him. A lot of the cases, the youngster — 14, 16, 18 — is the seducer.
This is an excellent example of Missing the Point as Father Groeschel appears to have absolutely no understanding about what is so objectionable about this abuse scandal. Let's assume for the sake of argument that there is a 14 year-old boy who is attempting to seduce a priest (a dubious assumption at best). If the priest then succumbs to that seduction does this in any way absolve him of his crimes? Given that the priest is an adult in a position of authority over the seducer, he has a moral and legal obligation to resist that seduction. Even if a 14 year-old is asking for it, the adult needs to be an adult and rebuff those advances, while hopefully explaining to the seducer why such advances are inappropriate. That Father Groeschel seems to miss this obvious fact calls into serious question his mental competency and also raises some additional disturbing questions about what the Catholic hierarchy is thinking.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

It's not forced, just mandatory

Mitt Romney speaks to coal miners 

In the above photo from a campaign rally in Ohio on August 14 it appears that Mitt Romney has garnered the support of the coal industry and its workers. He is surrounded by coal minors and the little sign affixed to his podium reinforces the support of these workers for the Romney campaign. However, if we dig a little deeper into the true story behind this image we can see that it is actually an elaborate lie. As broken by WWVA radio host David Blomquist, the workers at this campaign rally were actually forced by their employer to attend the event.

Now the employer in question, Murray Energy claims that no one was forced to attend the event. As quoted in The Raw Story, Chief Financial Officer Rob Moore said:
There were no workers that were forced to attend the event. We had managers that communicated to our work force that the attendance at the Romney event was mandatory, but no one was forced to attend the event. We had a pre-registration list. And employees were asked to put their names on a pre-registration list because they could not get into the event unless they were pre-registered and had a name tag to enter the premises.
And this is an excellent example of the Appeal to Force. An Appeal to Force is a fallacy in which a threat or coercion is used to support a conclusion rather than a reasoned justification. In this case, we have employees being told that an event is mandatory, but no one is being forced to go. One might immediately ask, how can an event be mandatory but not forced? The distinction seems to be that no one dragged the coal miners there in chains, and in that sense it wasn't forced. However, when an employer tells an employee that an event is mandatory, that is a clear threat leveled at one's job. The employer was implying and the employees understood that failure to attend the event could result in the loss of a job, and in that sense, the workers were clearly forced to attend under threat of losing their jobs. Thus, the apparent support of coal miners for Romney was coerced via an Appeal to Force.

To add insult to injury, because the mine was closed that day, the coal minors were not paid, even though they were forced to attend a political rally. This is really shameful and disgusting behavior on the part of Murray Energy and Rob Moore.

h/t to Atrios

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Fox News Eduction Redux

In an earlier post I discussed how Fox News used eduction (taking a quotation out of context) to make it appear as if President Barack Obama was claiming that small business owners did not create their businesses. In reality, Pres. Obama was merely claiming that they didn't build the roads and bridges that small business (and all businesses) depend on.

The Republican Party has decided to run with this piece of misinformation and make it a centerpiece of their national convention.  As Politico has reported, the theme for Tuesday night of the convention is "We Built It." As the Republican National Committee (RNC) Chairman Reince Priebus has noted, this is a direct adoption of the misquoting of Obama discussed in my earlier post. From a press release issued by the Convention:
At a campaign rally in Roanoke, Virginia, last month, President Obama declared, “if you’ve got a business, you didn’t build that.”  Priebus said that Tuesday’s convention proceedings “will remind America that we are a nation made great not by Washington but by the men and women who summoned the inner drive, discipline and persistent effort to achieve their dreams within the free enterprise system.”
So, clearly the RNC is following the lead of Fox News, and is actively adopting the false impression of Obama created by eduction. As the article form Politico notes, it is increasingly difficult to distinguish between the Republican Party and Fox News, and it clearly appears that Fox is now simply a media and messaging outlet for the RNC (or perhaps it goes the other way with Fox developing the agenda and messaging that the RNC adopts).

Monday, August 27, 2012

When is a planet not a planet? When it's a dwarf planet.

I have already made a few posts about definitions, discussing persuasive definitions and why properly defining terms is important. Today I want to extend this discussion by looking at Theoretical Definitions. A Theoretical Definition is a definition that seeks to create a theoretically or scientifically useful description of the objects to which the term applies. In other words, it is an attempt to formulate a definition that serves some theoretical or scientific function or has some theoretical or scientific use. Particularly in the realm of science, a dictionary definition just isn't good enough and our scientific theories require more precision and clarity.

As a case in point, we can look at the redefinition of the term "planet" by the International Astronomical Union (IAU) in 2006. Prior to this date, there was no formal definition of the word "planet" and people generally understood that our solar system had nine planets (Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Neptune, Uranus, Pluto). However, there was a problem here in that as astronomical skills and observations improved, we found ourselves discovering more and more objects that would also seem to qualify as planets. In particular, astronomers discovered a number of objects in our solar system that were larger than Pluto (such as Eris). If Pluto was a planet, then these other large bodies would also need to be called planets. In addition, it seemed likely that more such bodies would be discovered and that the number of planets would have to be increased significantly.

This all came to a head at the 2006 meeting of the IAU when the group met and debated various potential definitions (as well as the option of doing nothing). Ultimately, the decision was made to change the definition of planet to the following:
The IAU therefore resolves that planets and other bodies in our Solar System, except satellites, be defined into three distinct categories in the following way:
(1) A "planet" is a celestial body that (a) is in orbit around the Sun, (b) has sufficient mass for its self-gravity to overcome rigid body forces so that it assumes a hydrostatic equilibrium (nearly round) shape, and (c) has cleared the neighbourhood around its orbit.
(2) A "dwarf planet" is a celestial body that (a) is in orbit around the Sun, (b) has sufficient mass for its self-gravity to overcome rigid body forces so that it assumes a hydrostatic equilibrium (nearly round) shape, (c) has not cleared the neighbourhood around its orbit, and
(d) is not a satellite.
(3) All other objects, except satellites, orbiting the Sun shall be referred to collectively as "Small Solar-System Bodies".
As a result of this redefinition, Pluto was reclassified as a "dwarf planet." Again, this was all done in the interests of making the jobs of astronomers easier, and providing them a set of terminology that is more precise and more useful.

Saturday, August 25, 2012

The vagueness of hope.

If you want to sound meaningful and profound without really saying anything, Vagueness is the way to go. Vague words are words in which what is being denoted is unclear or ambiguous. Thus, one can appear to be saying something important or significant, but when we really dig into the statement it becomes clear that one isn't really saying anything.

An excellent example of Vagueness is the iconic Obama campaign poster from 2008, designed by Shepard Fairey:


The word "Hope" at the bottom of the poster (the word is "Change" in some other versions) sounds profound, but if we really ask what is actually being said, it quickly becomes apparent that it could mean anything. Hope for what? This is part of the brilliance of this poster as it allows someone to read whatever they want into the message. If you are hoping for an increase in taxes on the wealthy, or a single-payer health care system, you can look at this poster and imagine that Obama will offer that to you. Again, the term "Hope" is very vague and can apply to whatever different people hope for, even if those different people are hoping for incompatible things. By using vague language Obama is able to broaden his appeal, something he wouldn't be able to do if he made more specific, unambiguous claim. 

And this is why Vagueness is such a valuable tool for politicians and advertisers (when it comes to political campaigns, the goals of both groups are the same, to sell a product). By not making specific claims, one is able to broaden the appeal of one's product (a candidate) by encouraging one's customers (voters) to think the candidate represents and supports whatever policies and ideals the potential voter supports. If the candidate were to make specific claims, then this might alienate some voters when they find that they disagree with the policies of the candidate. Thus vagueness is a much more successful strategy.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Appeals to authorities that really aren't

Following up on my earlier discussion of Rep. Akin's absurd comments about rape, it is worth thinking a bit about the evidence Rep. Akin's sites for his beliefs. As he put it in the clip, his opinions were formed on the basis of "what I understand from doctors." As I further noted, the doctor in question appears to be a fellow by the name of Dr. John C. Willke who first made his claims about magic vagina death venom in a book he co-authored with his wife Why Can't We Love Them Both: Questions and Answers About Abortion, first published in 1971. As a recent article published by Salon demonstrates, Willke is anything but a fringe character among anti-abortion groups on the right.

I bring this up as an opportunity to discuss the Appeal to Authority. This is a fallacy in which one appeals to the authority of some individual or group as support for one's position, where that supposed individual or group isn't really qualified to be an authority on that topic. This, of course, is exactly what Rep. Akin did with his claim that his position on rape and abortion was based on his consultations with doctors.

At this point, one might object by noting that Dr. Willke is an MD, having earned his degree from the University of Cincinnati in 1948. Furthermore, he practiced family medicine for much of his career, so doesn't this qualify him as an expert on this subject? The simple answer to this question is no, for several reasons. First, the fact that Dr. Willke was a practicing MD does not mean that he has expertise on how the female reproductive and endocrine systems operate. This is often confusing to people, but we must remember that the human body is incredibly complex and specialized such that knowledge about one area of the body does not generalize to another area of the body. For example, my mom was a cardiovascular pharmacologist for many years, having just retired fro the University of California, Irvine. She has a great deal of specialized knowledge about her discipline, but if she had other questions about medicine, or even about other branches of pharmacology, she would turn to other experts on the topic because, while her knowledge is quite deep, it is not very wide. This is, of course, exactly what we would expect from a medical researcher.  By contrast, in the case of Dr. Willke, as a family practitioner, he has a wide range of knowledge, but none of that knowledge is particularly deep. Again, this is exactly what we would expect from a practicing physician. The key point here is that his experiences as a family practitioner do not give Dr. Willke any expertise or authority on a topic as complex as the female endocrine system. For that, we would need to consult a medical researcher in that field, not a practicing doctor.

This brings up a second, larger issue, one discussed in the above referenced Salon article, which is the tendency of certain politicians, particularly on the right, to basically pick and choose the experts they want to believe. In addition, there is a tendency to pick out someone with a scientific credential who can then be counted on to generate scientific sounding information that supports whatever ideological position one has already decided on. In addition to Akin's views on rape, we can see this as well in the Republican party's dismissal of anthropogenic climate change. The key here is that when we are looking at a complex issue like female reproduction or climate change, we can't just defer to the judgment of one scientists or doctor, rather we need to look at what the consensus view among scientists who study the topic is. In the case of Rep. Akin's comments or global warming denial, the consensus view among scientists is clearly against these positions. And that is why people like Rep. Akin who rely on cherry-picked scientific evidence or one "expert" in the field are guilty of the Appeal to Authority.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Don't look at this, look over there!

Despite a general condemnation from both sides of the aisle of Missouri Rep. Todd Akin for his asinine comments about rape and pregnancy, a few have stepped forward to defend Akin. Because Akin's comments were so objectively wrong, defenders must resort to fallacious arguments in order to provide cover for him. The favorite of these individuals is the Red Herring, which in this case amounts to an attempt to distract attention from what Akin said by introducing an unrelated element into the conversation. As a case in point, here is the comment from Glenn Reynolds of Instapundit:
BY THE TIME I NOTICED THIS STORY, IT WAS OVER, but Todd Akin’s “legitimate rape” remarks pale in comparison with Whoopi Goldberg’s.
UPDATE: Here’s the Whoopi Goldberg “Rape-Rape” Video.
So, According to Reynolds, we should give a sitting member of Congress and a member of the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology a pass for his comments because two years ago a talk show house said something equally dumb (Yes, Goldberg's comments were dumb, but certainly no dumber than what Rep. Akin said, check for yourself). This is a great example of a red herring as we can clearly see Reynolds attempting to side-track the discussion by introducing an unrelated element into the conversation.

Similiarly, CNN pundits Dana Loesch and Erik Erikson committed Red Herrings of their own in defense of Akin with Loesch tweeting:
And Erickson tweeting:
In both cases, they are committing Red Herrings by trying to distract people from the comment Akin made by introducing a discussion of an unrelated issue. One might still decide to vote for Akin over McCaskill despite his idiotic comments, but neither of the points made are at all relevant to the question of of the truth or falsity of what Akin said.

h/t to Digby

Monday, August 20, 2012

Bullshit Anti-Abortion Rhetoric

It used to be the case that even opponents of abortion still allowed for exceptions when the pregnancy was the result of rape or incest or posed a threat to the life of the mother. No more. As the Republican party has grown more extreme, there are now efforts underway to outlaw all abortion no matter what. Unfortunately, this position strikes many as heartless and vindictive (should we really force a 12-year old girl forcibly raped by her father to carry that child to term?). As a response, some have taken to inventing rationales for their extreme anti-abortion positions. Enter Rep. Todd Akin, a Republican nominee for the Senate in Missouri:

So, according to Rep. Akin (and he is not alone), pregnancies resulting from rape are rare because the female body has some kind of natural mechanism that prevents her from becoming pregnant as a result of rape.

Now this seems like a moronic view, but as good critical thinkers we should ask if there is any evidence for this claim. Fortunately, Dr. Jen Gunter has done the work to track down what appears to be the likely source of Akin's claim. She suggests that Akin got his view from an anti-abortion group, Physicians for Life who have posted a position paper written by Dr. J.C. Willke titled, "Assault Rape Pregnancies are Rare." In this Dr. Willke suggests that there are between 4 and 10 rape pregnancies per state per year (Some lousy statistical work when we compare the population of a state like Rhode Island to that of California), which should amount to 200-500 rape pregnancies per year. This is a good example of a Red Herring as the number of pregnancies caused by rape seems fairly irrelevant to the question of whether or not we should allow women who have been raped to get abortions. Even if it were just one woman a year, that wouldn't change the question of whether or not such abortions were legitimate. Putting this aside, Dr. Willke go on to argue that:
Finally, factor in what is certainly one of the most important reasons why a rape victim rarely gets pregnant, and that's psychic trauma. Every woman is aware that stress and emotional factors can alter her menstrual cycle. To get and stay pregnant a woman's body must produce a very sophisticated mix of hormones. Hormone production is controlled by a part of the brain that is easily influenced by emotions. There's no greater emotional trauma that can be experienced by a woman than an assault rape. This can radically upset her possibility of ovulation, fertilization, and implantation.
This seems to be the source of Akin's assertions, but where does this information comes from? As Dr. Gunter notes:
The Physicians for Life site quotes 3 sources, only one is original research. The one article was authored by Goth and published in the New England Journal of Medicine, 1977 (yes, 1977) and in NO WAY SUPPORTS THE NOTION THAT RAPES ARE RARE OR THAT THE STRESS RESPONSE LOWERS THE PREGNANCY RATE. It is an article about sexual dysfunction among rapists. Put another way, the Physicians for Life have not provided a single published article to support their claims.
Akin also shows that Physicians for Life have drastically understated the number of pregnancies resulting from rape:
There are obvious difficulties in studying rape outcomes as “only 16 to 38% of rape victims report the rape to law enforcement, and only 17 to 43% present for medical evaluation after rape; one-third of victims of rape never report the assault to their primary care doctor.” (NEJM  2011). However, a scientific estimate (i.e. from research) is between 25,000 and 32,000 pregnancies from rape a year in the United States (American Journal Obstetrics and Gynecology 1996 and American Journal of Preventative Medicine 2000). [Here is a link to the American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology article]
So, what he have here is is a good example of Bullshit. Physicians for Life have invented and Akin has repeated a claim with no basis in fact that supports their extremist position. They have adopted a position and are willing to make-up evidence to support that position regardless of the basis of that evidence in reality. These aren't lies, because Akin and Physicians for Life don't care whether or not these claims are true. All they care about is finding a justification for their ideologically motivated position. And this is the textbook definition of bullshit: making assertions with no regard for the truth or falsity of those assertions. (As a side note, it is extremely disturbing that Akin is a member of the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology)

h/t to Pharyngula

Friday, August 17, 2012

The Meaninglessness of "Terrorism"

In a lengthy and well-researched post, Glenn Greenwald discusses how the term "Terrorism" is essentially meaningless, and is merely a tool employed to support the military industrial state and keep the population fearful and compliant. His focus in the article is the "Terrorist Expert" industry and the various incentives (primarily financial) that keep these folks in business. Since Greenwald does such a good job (as always, I wish I could write like him) I really recommend just reading his post, but I do want to focus on the following passage:
The best scholarship on this issue, in my view, comes from Remi Brulin, who teaches at NYU and wrote his PhD dissertation at the Sorbonne in Paris on the discourse of Terrorism. When I interviewed him in 2010, he described the history of the term — it was pushed by Israel in the 1960s and early 1970s as a means of universalizing its conflicts (this isn’t our fight against our enemies over land; it’s the Entire World’s Fight against The Terrorists!). The term was then picked up by the neocons in the Reagan administration to justify their covert wars in Central America (in a test run for what they did after 9/11, they continuously exclaimed: we’re fighting against The Terrorists in Central America, even as they themselves armed and funded classic Terror groups in El Salvador and Nicaragua). From the start, the central challenge was how to define the term so as to include the violence used by the enemies of the U.S. and Israel, while excluding the violence the U.S., Israel and their allies used, both historically and presently. That still has not been figured out, which is why there is no fixed, accepted definition of the term, and certainly no consistent application. [Emphasis added]
 As Greenwald notes here, when the term "terrorism" is used, it generally has no widely accepted definition, but is instead an example of a Persuasive Definition. That is, it is a definition, the purpose of which is not to shed insight into a concept or identify some newly discovered phenomenon, but is there simply to influence attitudes and stir emotions. As the bolded sentence above states, the purpose of the use of the word "terrorism" is not to label a specific phenomenon, but rather to attack our enemies while at the same time insulating ourselves from criticism when we do exactly the same things that our enemies do.

As an illustration of this later point we can look at what has come to be known as the "double-tap" policy. Glenn Greenwald discusses this at length in another post that is also worth reading. The basic idea here is that the US will bomb a group of suspected terrorists (often killing large number of civilians in the process) and then when rescue groups show up to help the victims of the first bombing they will then bomb those people as well, apparently under the assumption that anyone helping out someone suspected of being a terrorist must also be a terrorist. As Greenwald notes in his analysis, it appears that the US may have learned of this technique from observing the activities of various terrorist groups. Or perhaps military planners have been reading The Hunger Games.

This ties back into the larger point about persuasive definitions because it demonstrates the meaninglessness of the term "terrorism." If the US and so-called terrorist groups are employing exactly the same tactics and methods, there is no legitimate way to argue that one is legitimate while the other is not. If it is wrong to target civilians, medical personnel and other first responders, then it is wrong regardless of who does it. The only way to avoid this unsettling conclusion about the immorality of US actions is to hide behind language and persuasive definitions as the US does in its application of the words "terror" and "terrorism."

Juan Cole adds to the discussion by discussion the differences between White Terrorists and Others. As with Greenwald, he says it better than I could, but it again points to how meaningless the term "Terror" is, and how it is basically a tool (a persuasive definition) used to criticize and demonize people we don't like while avoiding an examination of our own shortcomings and deficiencies.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

White people's rights group? What could that be?

Recently, the Scranton Times-Tribune published an article with the headline, "Moosic says no to white rights group celebration." The first paragraph of the article reads:
Moosic will forbid a white people's rights group from having a celebration at a borough park Saturday because its leader lied when he applied to use the park, council President Joseph Mercatili said Wednesday.
I want to focus particularity on the phrase "white people's rights group" because this is an excellent example of a Euphemism. The correct term for the group in question is "White supremacist" or "Neo-Nazi" as this article clearly demonstrates.

This, of course, raises some interesting questions about the Scranton-Times Tribune editorial choices.  Why did they select the more innocuous sounding "white people's rights group?" Were they trying to appeal to a certain segment of their readership? Are there that many racists in Pennsylvania that they thought maybe they could broaden their readership? I am really not sure, but I do find it disturbing to see people in the media fail to describe things as they actually are, and instead allow the people they cover to dictate the nature of that coverage (a problem that I will discuss at length as the presidential campaign heats-up). This is not healthy for journalism, and certainly not healthy for democracy.

h/t to Atrios

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

It's still crazy even if a bunch of people like it.

With Mitt Romney's selection of Paul Ryan as his Vice-Presidential candidate, there has been a great deal of discussion about Ryan's economic plan with many in the media suggesting that Ryan was a great choice because of his knowledge of economics (he has a BA) and the popularity among Republicans of his comprehensive budget plan introduced into Congress earlier this year. One such media figure is Joe Nocera who, in an op-ed in the New York Times today provides an excellent example of an Ad Populum. He writes:
Simply dismissing these ideas [Ryan's budget plan] as crazy is a mistake. There are many people in the country who agree with Ryan — as they showed two years ago, when they elected 87 Republican freshmen, many of them Tea Party-backed political novices, to the House of Representatives, who went to Washington vowing to shrink the federal government. Although they have had only marginal success so far, it hasn’t been for lack of trying. Their desperate urgency gave us, among other things, the debt-ceiling crisis, in which they risked putting the government in default.
Essentially, Nocera is arguing that we should take Ryan's plan seriously because many people agree with and like the plan. In fact, as many respectable economists have noted, Ryan's plan is junk combined with wishful thinking designed solely to make the rich even richer at the expense of everyone else. As Paul Krugman argues:
Look, Ryan hasn’t “crunched the numbers”; he has just scribbled some stuff down, without checking at all to see if it makes sense. He asserts that he can cut taxes without net loss of revenue by closing unspecified loopholes; he asserts that he can cut discretionary spending to levels not seen since Calvin Coolidge, without saying how; he asserts that he can convert Medicare to a voucher system, with much lower spending than now projected, without even a hint of how this is supposed to work. This is just a fantasy, not a serious policy proposal.
For Nocera to argue that we should take the plan seriously because many people like it is an excellent example of an ad populum. Given the complexities of economics and the lies and distortions people like Ryan are willing to spew, the fact that many people like Ryan's plan is only evidence of the wrongness of many people, and provides no justification for taking Ryan's budget proposals seriously.

h/t to Tristero

Monday, August 13, 2012

Lies, damn lies, breast cancer, and statistics

One of the most infuriating things about statistics is that one can generally find a statistic to support whatever claim one is trying to make. In many cases, this isn't necessarily a matter of dishonesty, but merely a choice one makes about which statistics to include, or which method of calculation one uses. This point was really brought home to me while reading a post from Orac on the benefits or lack thereof of mammography.

The issue at question is whether or not regular mammography screenings for women in their 40's with no risk factors for breast cancer are beneficial in terms of detecting cancers early and thus allowing women with breast cancer to live longer. Orac's post has an enormous amount of detail on this debate (in his real life, he is a clinical oncologist specializing in breast cancer), but the issue I want to focus on is a passage in which he discusses the impact regular mammography screenings have on reducing the risk of death from breast cancer. He writes,
Woloshin and Schwartz also point out that for women between the ages of 40 and 49, mammographic screening is associated with a reduction in risk of dying of breast cancer over 10 years from 0.35% to 0.30% (a relative risk reduction of 14%); between the ages of 50 and 59, from 0.53% to 0.46% (a relative risk reduction of 13%); and between the ages of 60 and 69, from 0.83% to 0.56% (a relative risk reduction of 33%). When examined on a relative basis, a risk reduction of 13 to 33% looks impressive. However, when examined on an absolute basis, these risk reductions sound a lot less impressive. It is generally a truism in medicine that, if you want to make the apparent benefit sound as good as possible, you use relative risk reductions but that if you want to make relative risk reductions sound as unimpressive as possible you use absolute risk reductions. That’s because absolute risk reduction incorporates the risk a person has of developing the condition being intervened against. This is the same issue that comes up when discussing improvements in five year survival brought about by chemotherapy in cancer. For instance, I can tell you that, if you have a stage I cancer, chemotherapy will improve your five year survival by 30%. That’s a relative number. However, if I cite it in terms of absolute risk reduction (rounding to make the numbers easy), it is a 3% absolute improvement in survival (from 90% to 93%). Personally, I believe in quoting both figures.
The key take away from this is that one can take the same piece of data, the reduction in risk of dying from breast cancer with regular mammography, and present that information in two different ways that could support two diametrically opposed conclusions. If one wants to argue that mammography is not very useful, then one can use the reduction in absolute risk, say from 0.35% to 0.30%, a reduction that appears insignificant. By contrast, if one wants to argue that mammography is beneficial, one can focus on relative risk and say that mammography reduces the risk of death from breast cancer by 14%. In either case, one is accurately reporting the same information, but one is looking at it in different ways, the difference between absolute and relative risk reduction, and potentially reaching different conclusions.

So, statistics can be illusive, but they are also extremely valuable tools for taking a great deal of data (the death rates from cancer in the US) and making it easily accessible and comprehensible. As critical thinkers, however, we must exercise caution when using and discussing statistics to make sure that we are being honest and that we are not being taken in by dishonest manipulations of statistics. We must make sure we know exactly what the statistics we are confronted with actually mean as well as how they were calculated, and we most always look and see if there are other ways to accurately present the information in question. I find Orac's strategy of presenting both figures to be the right way to go.

Friday, August 10, 2012

Black people run faster because they are descended from slaves?

Sometimes, when one tries to come up with a ridiculous title, it turns out that you can't out ridicule reality. As a case in point, check out this "commentary" on black athletes from the BBC:

According to the commentator in this clip, black people are good at running because slavery exerted an evolutionary pressure on them that made them faster runners. This is a good example of a Non Sequitur and a Post Hoc fallacy combined with a bit of straw manning. The straw manning comes from the misrepresentation of evolutionary theory and the ideas of eugenics. The commentator in question clearly doesn't have a very good grasp of this topic and uses a very cursory analyis of evolutionary theory to develop his points.

The non sequitur arises in that his conclusion just does not follow from his premise. The reconstructed argument seems to be as follows:
  1. Evolution proceeds by natural selection and survival of the fittest.
  2. West Africans were slaves and were subject to enormous evolutionary pressure such that only the fittest West Africans survived the slave passage and made it to the Americas.
  3. All successful (in terms of Gold medals and world records) runners are of West African descent.
  4. Therefore, their success is due to their descent from slaves.
It should also be clear that this is a post hoc fallacy in that the commentator is assuming a causal relation between slave ancestry and skill at running, when there is, at best, a correlation. There are likely a variety of other factors at work here besides mere descent from slaves. Furthermore, as PZ Meyers notes,  the evolutionary story doesn't even make sense:
…because, obviously, being able to survive shackling in a slave ship and a lifetime of menial stoop labor in the cotton fields clearly selects for genes of benefit in short foot races.
If anything, it would seem that slavery would select against speed over short distances as the last thing a slave owner would want is for his slaves to be able to run away!

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Why the Bible is not a good source of scientific information

An Appeal to Authority is a fallacy in which one argues that something must be true because some authority said it. This fallacy often arises when the authority in question doesn't really have any expertise on the topic in questions (that is, the "authority" isn't really one). We can see a very nice example of this in a recent post on Answers in Genesis titled "The Origin of the Universe" by Dr. Werner Gitt. In the post, Dr. Gitt argues that evolution and the Big Bang Theory of the origin of the universe must be wrong because the Bible says so:
The earth and all the stars in the universe did not originate in a big bang; they were created independently and on different days. On the first day, God created the universe containing no stars, but only the earth. Only on the fourth day—when plants already existed—the stars and other planets were created. Thus, all stars are of the same age, excluding the three creation days. This differs completely, conceptually, and fundamentally, from the evolutionary model. The earth did not start its career as a glowing ball of fire, but it originally had water on its surface (Gen. 1:2). It is not the accidental by-product of a cosmic explosion, but—as is the case for the entire universe—it was made for a purpose: “In the beginning you laid the foundations of the earth, and the heavens are the work of your hands” (Ps. 102:25). During a conversation with Job, God clearly explained to him the conceptual (the foundation of all astronomical and physical data) and the geometrical dimensions of the establishment of the earth: “Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation? Tell me, if you understand. Who marked off its dimensions? [or: drew up its constructional plans] Surely you know! Who stretched a measuring line across it?” (Job 38:4). In the light of the biblical revelations, the evolutionary view of the origin of the earth and the universe is proved to be a series of false statements. [Emphasis added]
This is an excellent example of an appeal to authority. Dr. Gitt is arguing that because the Bible contradicts evolution and the Big Bang Theory, therefore evolution and the Big Bang Theory must be wrong. The only evidence for this claim is some passage written down several thousand years ago, before people had even a basic understanding of the nature of reality and science. These biblical passage were written by people who did not understand that germs cause disease, had no ideas about electricity or magnetism, didn't have calculus, didn't know about dinosaurs, etc. That the writings of these individuals (and yes, they were people, God did not write or publish the Bible, this was done by people) should be taken as authoritative simply boggles the mind, especially in light of the abundance of evidence provided by science on these topics.

In addition to this appeal to authority, Dr. Gitt also commits an interesting Inconsistency when he writes:
The physical law of the conservation of energy states that in our universe energy cannot be created out of nothing, neither can it be destroyed. Now what was the origin of the energy in the universe? The only possibility is an act of creation.
The inconsistency here is that Dr. Gitt is trying to use scientific discoveries to attack science. He relies on a scientific principle (a principle, I might add, that appears nowhere in the Bible) to attack other scientific principles. You really can't do this. Either you endorse science and the scientific method and follow its conclusions wherever they lead, or you reject it in favor of a life of ignorance. You can't selectively choose which science to believe and which science to ignore. You either buy it all or reject it all, and to selectively pick bits of science to support your position while rejecting others is a clear example of inconsistency.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012


A recent meta-analysis published in Environmental Health Perspectives has led to a wave of headlines announcing, "Harvard Study Finds Fluoride Lowers IQ." This is the result of a press release published by the NYS Coalition Opposed to Fluoridation, Inc. and picked up by a number of news outlets including Reuters. The press release is filled with scary sounding quotations from the meta-analysis and paints a very damning picture of water fluoridation. For example:
Harvard University researchers' review of fluoride/brain studies concludes "our results support the possibility of adverse effects of fluoride exposures on children's neurodevelopment." It was published online July 20 in Environmental Health Perspectives, a US National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences' journal (1), reports the NYS Coalition Opposed to Fluoridation, Inc. (NYSCOF)
"The children in high fluoride areas had significantly lower IQ than those who lived in low fluoride areas," write Choi et al.
Further, the EPA says fluoride is a chemical "with substantial evidence of developmental neurotoxicity."
All of which suggests that this new meta-analysis provides the smoking-gun evidence against fluoridation and clearly demonstrates the harms fluoridation poses to children. However, a closer look at the actual text of the meta-analysis reveals none of this to be true, and clearly demonstrates that the authors of the press-release are guilty of Eduction and Accent. Basically, they misrepresent how the study was conducted and what control groups were used. The best summary of what the meta-analysis actually said comes from Dr. Steven Novella, an academic neurologist at Yale University School of Medicine. He writes:
In other words – fluoridated water in the US has the same level of fluoride as the control or low fluoride groups in the China studies reviewed in the recent article, and the negative association with IQ was only found where fluoride levels were much higher – generally above EPA limits.
So, the meta-analysis actually showed that the levels of fluoridation in the US are generally safe, and are not associated with neurological damage to children, but that very high doses (higher than legally allowed in the US) could be damaging to children. Thus, in order for the authors of the press release about this meta-analysis to make their case, they needed to selectively misrepresent the original article and only emphasize the points that supported their anti-fluoridation position while ignoring the full scope of the report as it did not support their preconceived conclusions. And this is exactly what eduction and accent allowed them to accomplish. The problem is then further compounded by folks in the media mindlessly distributing the press release without first checking to see if the press release was accurate.

h/t to The Skeptic's Guide to the Universe

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Circular Arguments can lead us to war

The Daily Show with John Stewart provides a very nice example of a circular argument from the run-up to the US invasion of Iraq in 2002. Stewart does a very nice job of explaining the circularity. I have had difficulties with embeds, so here is a link for it: 

The circularity of course comes from former Vice-President Dick Cheney citing as evidence for his claim that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction his own claim that he leaked to the New York Times. We can paraphrase the argument as follows: Iraq has WMD because the New York Times said so, and the New York Times said so because that is what I told them.

Monday, August 6, 2012

Reality is not a democracy

In a rather bizarre article trying to argue that plants aren't alive (yes, really), Henry Morris III, CEO of The Institute for Creation Research provides a very nice example of an Ad Populum. An ad populum is an appeal to popularity in which one argues that because a certain belief is widely held or popular it must be true. That this kind of reasoning is fallacious should be obvious: just because a bunch of people believe something, doesn't make it true. Reality is not a democracy. Here is the ad populum:
If that were the only battle to fight, the scientific accuracy of the creationist model would be rather easy to demonstrate. In spite of the generations-long effort of the academic world to foist evolutionary naturalism on the world, 46 percent of the U.S. population still believes that “God created human beings in their present form at one time within the last 10,000 years” (Gallup poll released June 1, 2012). Intuitively and observationally, people “know” that plants and animals are not the same and that human beings are vastly different from everything else on the planet.
There are a number of fallacies in this passage besides the ad populum, but let's deal with that first. Here, Norris is trying to argue to that because many (though less than half) Americans don't believe in evolution this is somehow evidence of the falsity of that theory. Again, just because many people believe something, that doesn't make it true. In this case, it seems clear that 46% of Americans are just wrong.

Furthermore, this fact about popular opinion doesn't actually support Morris' thesis that plants are not alive. Even if 46% of Americans don't believe in evolution, I imagine that if you polled these people they would all think that plants are alive. The opinion of people about the truth or falsity of evolution tells us nothing about their opinion on whether or not plants are alive. This is a good example of a non sequitur.

Lastly, we can see a good example of a straw man in the last sentence. I (and I imagine most evolutionary biologists) would certainly agree that it is obvious that plants and humans are different. Just look at them.
An image of the DC comic book character Swamp Thing.
Maybe not this guy.
However, these radical differences don't tell us anything about common descent. In fact, evolutionary theory does a very good job of explaining how the diversity of life we observe on our planet all descended from a common ancestor. To claim otherwise is to misrepresent the claims of proponents of evolution.

h/t to Pharyngula