Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Antivaccine Post Hoc, Ignorant Reasoning

In a recent edition of BMJ Case Studies, Deirdre Therese Little and Harvey Rodrick Grenville Ward from Australia published a report in which they suggest that a 16-year old girl suffered early menopause as a result of Gardasil, the HPV vaccine. Several anti-vaccine blogs including the Population Research Institute and Gaia Health and  have picked up on the story and run with it, presenting it as further evidence of the dangers of vaccines. Unfortunately, all these people miss the obvious point that the entire case against Gardasil rests on a Post Hoc fallacy in which a temporal correlation is assumed to be a causal relation and an Argument from Ignorance. Let's take a look at the actual case study and the reporting on it to see how this entire case is based on fallacious reasoning.

In the summary of their case study published on the BMJ website Little and Ward write:
Although the cause is unknown in 90% of cases, the remaining chief identifiable causes of this condition were excluded. Premature ovarian failure was then notified as a possible adverse event following this vaccination.
See what little and ward do here. They begin by noting that 90% of the cases of premature menopause have no known cause.  They then conclude that, because they eliminated the 10% of known causes the early onset menopause must have been caused by the vaccine. This is a great example of the Argument from Ignorance. We have no idea what causes this condition, therefore it must have been Gardasil. In addition, the reason for assuming Gardasil must have been the cause is that about a year before she became menopausal, the woman had received Gardasil. So, we have a Post Hoc fallacy combined with an Argument from Ignorance to reach the conclusion that Gardasil caused the amenorrhoea (fancy medical jargon for early menopause). Let's look now at how several antivaccine websites pick up and amplify these errors.

First, Population Reasearch Institute describe the case study as follows:
Dr. Deirdre Little, the Australian physician who treated the girl, has published a complete account in the British Medical Journal. (BMJ Case Reports 2012; doi:10.1136/bcr-2012-006879) Her report explains that the girl's menstrual cycles were regular until she received the Gardasil vaccination in the Fall of 2008. By January 2009, her cycle had become irregular. Over the course of the next two years, her menses became increasingly scant and irregular, until by 2011, she had ceased menstruating altogether.
Look at the reasoning here. In the Fall of 2008 the women gets the HPV vaccine. She then stops menstruating in 2011. We are looking at a roughly three year gap between the event and its supposed cause. I am sure that there were many things that this young girl did in 2008. Why are these not considered as causally related to her amenorrhoea? We need more than a remote temporal correlation to establish a causal relation between these two events. Later in the same post Mosher and Crnkovich write:
While Dr. Little could not confirm that Gardasil caused the destruction of the girl's reproductive system, she was able to rule out all other possible causes. The circumstantial evidence implicating Gardasil is strong.
As we know from the original case study, 90% of these cases have no known cause. Thus, by eliminating all known causes, we are still left with a gaping hole of ignorance. To try and fill that hole by asserting that is must have been the Gardasil is clearly an Argument from Ignorance. Furthermore, as I noted above, the circumstantial evidence implicating Gardasil is actually incredibly weak, amounting to nothing more than Post Hoc reasoning.

We see a similar error in a post by Heidi Stevenson at Gaia Health. She writes:
The girl has been thoroughly examined and tested. There is no known explanation other than the series of three Gardasil vaccinations she had.
This is, again, a classic Argument from Ignorance. Stevenson is arguing that because we eliminated a bunch of known causes it had to have been Gardasil. But, as I noted above, one can't base a conclusion on a lack of knowledge or information. Given that we know so little about what actually causes amenorrhoea, the most that we can conclude is that we don't know.

As a critical thinker, it is very disturbing for me to see such an elementary logical error used as the basis for a case study that was then accepted by a fairly reputable medical journal. These kinds of basic reasoning errors would be grounds for failure if they were committed by my students, yet here are actual medical practitioners committing them in a reputable journal, and these errors are then being amplified by various ideologically motivated bloggers. This point to a sad state of affairs for medicine and science.

h/t to Orac

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

If you don't like what he says, it must be because he's gay.

Dean Chambers of (a website I looked at in an earlier post) is very mad at the respect that Nate Silver of gets for his predictive models about national elections. In a recent article he lays out his case against Silver. Unfortunately, Chambers doesn't have anything intelligent to say about Silver's methodology or record so he he is forced to resort to an Ad Hominem attack, writing:
Nate Silver is a man of very small stature, a thin and effeminate man with a soft-sounding voice that sounds almost exactly like the “Mr. New Castrati” voice used by Rush Limbaugh on his program. In fact, Silver could easily be the poster child for the New Castrati in both image and sound. Nate Silver, like most liberal and leftist celebrities and favorites, might be of average intelligence but is surely not the genius he's made out to be. His political analyses are average at best and his projections, at least this year, are extremely biased in favor of the Democrats.
Because Chambers has no argument against Silver he is forced to resort to personal attacks as an attempt to change the subject. This is a clear example of an ad hominem in which a personal attack takes the place of a reasoned argument. However, as several commentators to the article note, when you look like this:

it is probably not a good idea to attack someone's personal appearance. Glass houses and all that.

Monday, October 29, 2012

Disposition Matrix?

In a story published in the Washington Post last week, Greg Miller discusses how US counterterrorism policies have changed over the course of the Obama administration with a specific focus on US assassination policies. Of particular interest for my purposes are the opening paragraphs of the story in which Miller writes:
Over the past two years, the Obama administration has been secretly developing a new blueprint for pursuing terrorists, a next-generation targeting list called the “disposition matrix.”
The matrix contains the names of terrorism suspects arrayed against an accounting of the resources being marshaled to track them down, including sealed indictments and clandestine operations. U.S. officials said the database is designed to go beyond existing kill lists, mapping plans for the “disposition” of suspects beyond the reach of American drones.
It is this Euphemism "disposition matrix" that I wanted to draw attention to. As the article notes, this is just the fancy term that the US has come up with for the list of people that it plans to assassinate. Like all good euphemisms, "disposition matrix" was designed to hide and obscure what is really going on. The US Government is vaguely uncomfortable with broadcasting the fact that the president is randomly killing people with no oversight and no due process, so rather than actually engage in a policy that is legal and is actually consistent with the expressed values of the US, the Government instead hides behind a euphemism that completely obscures what is really occurring.

h/t to Glenn Greenwald

Friday, October 26, 2012

Lies or Bullshit?

In my critical thinking classes these past few weeks we have been reading and discussing Harry Frankfurt's essay "On Bullshit" (here is a link to an interview from The Daily Show where Frankfurt discusses his essay). In this essay he argues that lies and bullshit are different because a liar is concerned about the truth (so that he can more effectively deceive people) while the bullshitter has no concern for the truth (he just makes stuff up as he goes along). I was reminded of this when I saw the following clip of Congresswoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-FL) who is also Chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee:

I was particularly struck by the fact that when she is asked about Obama's "secret" kill list, she claims that she has never heard of it, and has no idea what the interviewer is talking about. As Glenn Greenwald sees it, this is an example of stunning ignorance on the part of an elected figure:
Anyone who observes politics closely has a very low bar of expectations. It's almost inevitable to become cynical - even jaded - about just how inept and inane top Washington officials are. Still, even processing this through those lowly standards, I just find this staggering. Staggering and repellent. This is an elected official in Congress, the body that the Constitution designed to impose checks on the president's abuses of power, and she does not have the foggiest idea what is happening in the White House, and obviously does not care in the slightest, because the person doing it is part of the party she leads.
I, however, am not so convinced that Rep. Schulz is ignorant. I think the far more likely explanation is that she is simply lying. She knows the truth, she knows the issues involved here, but she pretends that she doesn't. As Greenwald documents, there is ample evidence for Obama's "secret" kill list in the media, not the least of which is this story from the New York Times published on May 29, 2012 with the headline, "Secret 'Kill List' Proves a Test of Obama's Principles and Will." This isn't bullshit as Frankfurt defines it because she isn't just making stuff up, and I think, she is genuinely concerned with the truth, she just wants to hide it. Given all the evidence its existence, it is unfathomable that a person in Rep. Schulz's position would be ignorant of Obama's kill list. It is certainly the case that most politicians are guilty of bullshit, but they also do lie and I believe that this is an excellent example of a politician lying to the face of an interviewer.

h/t to Isaac Russell

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

More dishonest Fox graphics

Fox News continues to use misleading images to mislead and deceive its viewers. A latest example, identified by Media Matters, is the following:

The misleading aspect of this image is that the numbers used to compare the unemployment rate in in 2009 vs. the present day were not derived in the same way. The 7.8% number is the official unemployment rate which represents the percentage of unemployed people who are actively looking for a job. By contrast, the 14.7% figure is the real unemployment rate and also includes people who have stopped looking for work and part-timers who would like a full-time job. By taking two numbers that were calculated using different methodologies and then pretending that they are actually the same, Fox is able to make it appear as if unemployment has almost doubled under the Obama administration. This is an example of a False Analogy (because they are comparing two things that aren't really comparable) and Suppression of Relevant Data (because we are not being told the truth about these numbers and how they are calculated).

In fairness to Fox, they did issue a correction, noting that the number that should have been used for the real unemployment rate in January 2009 was 14.2%.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Cookie Monster in Space (err, on Mercury)!

Craters on the surface of Mercury that resemble the face of the Sesame Street character Cookie Monster.

NASA has just released a photo of a crater on the surface of Mercury taken by the Messenger spacecraft. The image is of a large impact crater with two smaller impact craters that occurred later. The "googly eye" effect is a product of luck in that the image was taken when the shadows were positioned to produce what look like eyeballs. This is, of course, a great example of pareidolia; the psychological phenomenon in which vague or meaningless data are interpreted as meaningful. In this case, the image of a bunch of craters produce the impression of Cookie Monster in the eye of the viewer.

h/t to the AV Club

Monday, October 15, 2012

An ad baculum from a rich asshole

An Ad Baculum is a version of the appeal to emotion, and it is a fallacy in which one substitutes a threat of force for an actual argument. One might imagine that such a fallacy is uncommon because a brute threat seems like such an obvious error to recognize. Nevertheless, an excellent example of this fallacy can be found in an email that this man, David Siegal, billionaire owner of the massive timeshare company Westgate Resorts, sent to his employees.

In the email, Siegal threatens his employees with a loss of their jobs if they fail to elect Mitt Romney president of the US. Siegal writes:
As most of you know our company, Westgate Resorts, has continued to succeed in spite of a very dismal economy. There is no question that the economy has changed for the worse and we have not seen any improvement over the past four years. In spite of all of the challenges we have faced, the good news is this: The economy doesn’t currently pose a threat to your job. What does threaten your job however, is another 4 years of the same Presidential administration. Of course, as your employer, I can’t tell you whom to vote for, and I certainly wouldn’t interfere with your right to vote for whomever you choose. In fact, I encourage you to vote for whomever you think will serve your interests the best. [Emphasis added]
This is about as clear a threat as one could imagine. Siegal then concludes the email by writing:
So where am I going with all this? It's quite simple. If any new taxes are levied on me, or my company, as our current President plans, I will have no choice but to reduce the size of this company. Rather than grow this company I will be forced to cut back. This means fewer jobs, less benefits and certainly less opportunity for everyone.
You see, I can no longer support a system that penalizes the productive and gives to the unproductive. My motivation to work and to provide jobs will be destroyed, and with it, so will your opportunities. If that happens, you can find me in the Caribbean sitting on the beach, under a palm tree, retired, and with no employees to worry about. [Emphasis added]
Leaving aside the absurdity of someone actually claiming that a slight increase in the top marginal tax rate will have any effect on whether or not that person continues to work (if Siegal wanted to retire he could, he already has lots of money and doesn't need to work), the general Ad Baculum in this email should be obvious, and in fact the whole point of the email was to threaten his employees to vote a certain way. In fact, Siegal has employed similar tactics in the past. As Gawker notes:
The Florida-based Westgate Resorts is not a public company. It is the domain of David Siegel, a staunch Republican. In fact, Siegel has publicly claimed credit for George W. Bush defeating Al Gore, saying "I had my managers do a survey on every employee [8,000 total]. If they liked Bush, we made them register to vote. But not if they liked Gore."
So, once again we see wealthy individuals exploiting that wealth in an effort to sway elections in directions that they think will be beneficial to them, often using underhanded and deceptive tactics to do so.

h/t to Digby

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Strawmanning Telecom Immunity

On December 16, 2005 The New York Times published an article revealing that the US government, in collusion with all major telecommunications firms operating in the US, had engaged in a massive effort to illegally eavesdrop on the phone calls of US citizens. This article, already delayed several months to help Bush win reelection in 2004, demonstrated that for many years the US government had illegally eavesdropped on numerous calls (the exact number is not available since, like most of this stuff, it is classified). Despite this clear and widespread pattern of law-breaking, enormous efforts were made to immunize everyone who had participated in this lawless activity. In 2008, for example, a law was passed that retroactively immunized these telecom firms from lawsuits and criminal prosecution for their collusion with the US government in committing these illegal acts. Then, just yesterday, the Supreme Court blocked any possible legal recourse against these illegal activities by declining to review a lawsuit that had been filed against these telecom firms.

In much of the coverage of this issue, there is an enormous amount of straw manning. A Straw Man is a fallacy in which one intentionally distorts or misrepresents an opponent's position. We can see an excellent example of this in CNN's coverage of the Supreme Court refusal to review the issue. The headline for the article reads:

Court upholds U.S. gov't immunity in terror eavesdropping

And the first paragraph of the article says:
The U.S. Supreme Court on Tuesday left in place a law that allows the Justice Department to stop suits against telecommunications companies for participating in wiretaps of potential terrorists.
Both the headline and the opening paragraph completely distort the issue in question. Literally no one has ever suggested that the US government not spy on suspected terrorists. The issue here is that the government was not spying on suspected terrorists, it was spying on everybody regardless of any suspicion or evidence that the people being eavesdropped on were terrorists. To claim otherwise as CNN does in its article is to straw man opponents of illegal wiretapping as terrorist sympathizers when nothing could be further from the truth. The Supreme Court was not upholding the right of the government to eavesdrop on suspected terrosists, it was upholding the right of the government to eavesdrop on anyone for no reason. This is why this case is such a big deal because it demonstrates the further erosion of civil liberties that has occured since the terrorist attack of 9-11. That CNN so grossly misreports this issue is another telling sign of how broken the media system in the US really is.

Here is Glenn Greenwald discussing the issue and providing his, as always, insightful analysis.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

More security, as long as I don't have to pay for it!

After the tragic assault on the US embassy in Libya which killed four Americans including the US Ambassador to Libya, there has been an enormous push to politicize the event. This is not surprising given that we are in the middle of a close presidential race and both sides seek to exploit this event for their own advantage. As should also come as no surprise the Republican effort to politicize this event involves claiming that embassy security was understaffed and underfunded and attempting to blame Obama for this. Unfortunately, as this video from Media Matters shows, there are some inconsistencies in the Republican argument:

So, Congressman Jason Chaffetz is arguing that Pres. Obama should have put more money and staffing into embassy security even though he himself voted to reduce funding for the state department. This is a great example of an inconsistency as Chaffetz's own political position directly contradict the claims he is making about security funding for embassies. It takes remarkable chutzpah to claim that the president should increase embassy security at the same time you are voting to reduce funding for it. This is a great example of inconsistency, and also an important lesson about the politicization of tragedy.

Monday, October 1, 2012

You feel what you see

In a blog post today, Dr. Steven Novella discusses an article recently published in the journal Perception. This article, titled "Visual influence on haptic torque perception" looks at how our brains integrate the inputs from our different senses to create a unified, cohesive picture of the world. In particular, in this study the researchers had subjects hold a stick that was weighted to one side or the other and the subjects were asked to determine on which side the stick was weighted (the weighting of the stick produces torque, hence the title of the paper). Not surprisingly, subject could generally tell by touch which side of the stick was weighted. The really interesting aspect of the study is that the researchers then projected an image of the stick to the research subjects. In some cases the image was veridical (accurately showing which side the weight was one), in other cases the image was flipped so that the weight appeared to be on the opposite side of where it actually was. In these cases, the flipped image cased many of the subjects to perceive the weight as being on the opposite of the side it was actually on. In other words, the subject's perception of the object influenced how the object felt! Proof that in many cases we feel what we see.

As Dr. Novella notes, there was a certain threshold such that the effect disappeared when using really large weights. In addition, the illusion persisted even when subjects were aware that they were being tricked. In other words, even when subjects knew the weight was on the right, if they saw a visual image of the weight on the left, it felt to them as if the weight was on the left!

This all reinforces the idea that our brains do not passively receive an impression of the world from the senses, but instead play an active role in constructing our reality. This is further evidence that we need to be wary about basing conclusion on our own experience or the experience of others because our perceptual faculties can lead us to be systematically deceived, even in situations where we are aware that a deception is occurring.