Questionable Motives

December 19, 2011

“Can we trust the science?”

I come across this little gem of a question all the time when discussing why religion and science are incompatible methods of inquiry. Accommodationists and apologists for religion raise the specter all the time that many scientific results are later altered or overturned, which indicates to them that we can no more trust ‘science’ than we can trust claims in Oogity Boogity (they use different words, of course). This reveals a fundamental and widespread misunderstanding of what science is: a process of disciplined inquiry (using methodological naturalism) into mechanistic causal effects. The evidence is ubiquitous for establishing just how effective a process this is; we are surrounded by effective technologies based entirely on our understanding of causal effects that work for everyone everywhere all the time.

So how is it that many results arrived at through the use of the scientific method change?

Well, from the theistic perspective, such change in results is bad. It indicates a degradation in trustworthiness. In comparison, the certainty of unchanging faith produces a superior result in trustworthiness. In what, however, is not open to any equivalent inquiry, but holding hard and fast to such an a priori conclusion is assumed in religious terminology to be a virtue: faith.

From a scientific perspective, such change in results shows that the process is is working marvelously well! And it is working because all results are tentative, meaning that results are open to revision from having to account for new evidence from reality. If the results were not open to revision upon encountering new and contrary evidence from reality, the integrity of the inquiry process itself would be undermined, replaced as it would be with a dogmatic and inflexible a priori conclusion based only on first results assumed to be final results. This same assumption that supports theistic belief, namely faith,  in scientific terminology is considered a vice.

So the confusion between understanding ‘science’ representing a method or process of inquiry and representing fixed results reveals the confusion about the compatibility of science and religion. In both cases when compared honestly – scientific method with religious method, scientific result with religious result – we find them incompatible. Only by ignoring the glaring incompatibility in both cases can we keep a straight face and pretend they are like supportive siblings who get along famously. They don’t.  And this is obvious when we look at the contrary claims made about the universe not just between religions and science but by various religions in conflict with claims made other religions! If we are concerned about our inquiries into the universe and everything it contains being the same for everyone everywhere all the time, then we need to be honest in our comparisons between them. As Jerry Coyne clearly observes,

Science and religion have different methods of “knowing” (science depends on reason, observation, doubt and replication, religion on dogma, authority, and revelation); science and religion arrive at different conclusions about the world (e.g., the existence of Adam and Eve or of a sudden creation); and while there is only one form of science that transcends ethnicity or faith, different faiths arrive at different conclusions, so that the idea of religious “truth” must differ from that of scientific “truth.”

The appreciation we hold for the scientific method producing applicable and reliable knowledge needs to be moderated by a better public understanding of why the method is not equivalent to its results. Media – just like each of us – could do a much better job expressing the necessary tentativeness-as-a-virtue of scientific results rather than contribute in such liberal doses to promoting this confusion that the surety of results are equivalent to conclusions of faith… but not as trustworthy.

A perfect example of how poorly served we in the public are by media intent on sales by hype can be shown with gross mishandling of the CCSVI treatment for multiple sclerosis and the political pressures brought to bear on the medical community in response to a badly misinformed public. In contrast, we have an excellent example of good science working its way through an interesting link between the disease and vitamin D. Steven Novella explains the effects of the difference:

The story of vitamin D and MS is a good illustration of how science is supposed to work. A new hypothesis was introduced, which made some sense, and so investigators did preliminary research (observational studies) showing that there was a potential correlation. As the evidence grew, scientific interest grew, and researchers started to look at the question from multiple angles.

So far the hypothesis is holding up under scrutiny, but is far from proven. So researchers are working their way toward large definitive experimental trials. Each step of the way we see that scientists are cautious, thoughtful, skeptical and yet curious and willing to investigate a completely new idea.

Contrast this story to the one of CCSVI – the notion that MS is partially caused by blockages in the veins that drain the brain. Here the plausibility is low, but not zero, warranting some follow up research of the original observation. The follow up research so far is largely negative – the closer  we look at this possible phenomenon the more it seems that it probably does not exist.

So scientific interest in CCSVI is rapidly dwindling, but researchers will likely put a few more nails in that coffin before they are done with it, just to be sure. Meanwhile, there is a huge public controversy over CCSVI – not because of the science, but because of unwarranted hype.

When religious believers hold their faith conclusions to be tentative and subject to revision based on mind-independent evidence from reality, then and only then will science and religion finally arrive on mutually compatible grounds. Until that day arrives, religious belief is not an intellectual stand compatible in any way with scientific inquiry… either in method or results. And we know we can trust the science…


 

March 22, 2011

Why are Priests for Life theological thugs?

First, who is Baby Joesph Maracchli and second, what’s the big deal about his medical care?

Joseph Maracchli, the son of Lebanese immigrants, was born on January 22, 2010, and his parents say they noticed he couldn’t eat or breathe properly and wouldn’t open his eyes or cry. The family, who lives in Windsor, Ontario on the Canada – United States border near Michigan, took him to a Michigan hospital in June 2010, where he was diagnosed with a metabolic brain disease, which the doctor said would make him developmentally delayed. Maracchli was treated and returned to normal after a month. However, in October 2010 he developed a fever and was breathing rapidly and was rushed to the emergency room and later transferred to the London Health Sciences Centre in London (LHSC), Ontario. The hospital said he was in a persistent vegetative state from which he would never recover. Maracchli’s family wanted the staff there to do a tracheotomy so that they could take him home and he could die in the care of his family instead of a hospital. Sounds pretty reasonable, doesn’t it?

What is not reported very widely is that the couple’s first child who suffered from the same condition did receive a tracheotomy, at the parents insistence, and died a horrific death at home. That child suffered from infection, followed by pneumonia and eventually choked to death… it just took six months of additional suffering for this to happen. The physicians were rightly concerned on behalf of the quality of life of their patient to do as the family asked.

Eight physicians at LSHC were unanimously of the opinion that Joseph had no hope of recovery, and there was no possible treatment that could reverse his condition. They quite rightly pointed out what was obvious that he would never get out of bed nor interact meaningfully with his environment. As responsible and caring medical professionals, the doctors sought a second opinion from colleagues in Toronto. The director of the critical care unit for Sick Children’s Hospital in Toronto (a world class facility and recognized leader for pediatric medical care) there agreed that further treatment was futile. Joseph’s doctors therefore proposed removing the tube that was assisting his breathing. If he could breathe unaided, he would go home to be cared for by his parents. If not, he would be given medication to ensure that he did not suffer, and allowed to die. A Canadian Superior Court judge ruled in favor of the Canadian hospital, ordering the life support removed.

Enter our heroes, the Priests for Life, those celibate men of the cloth who (incredibly and without shame) think their religious beliefs equip them with the kind of god-soaked moral knowledge necessary to determine proper medical treatment over and above a team of highly trained and specialized medical professionals who actually care for children as their daily job. Let us keep in mind that there has never been a suffering life these meddling priests have not tried to prolong. The Terri Schiavo debacle immediately comes to mind.

Peter Singer, professor of bioethics at Princeton University picks up the story:

Little Joseph Maraachli is a new poster boy for the “pro-life” movement. But what has happened to him should instead teach us what to do – and what not to do – if we are really serious about saving human lives. The 13-month-old from Canada, who has been having medical treatment for most of his short life, suffers from a severe neurodegenerative disease. He has difficulty breathing on his own. His head is small for his age and has not grown for three months. He has seizures. His pupils do not respond to light or follow a moving object. His movements are not purposeful.

Then Priests for Life, a Catholic -abortion and anti-euthanasia organization stepped in, chartering an air ambulance to fly Joseph from Canada to Cardinal Glennon Children’s Medical Center, a Catholic hospital, in St. Louis, which will perform the operation the parents requested.

“We Rescued Baby Joseph!” says a page on the Priests for Life website. The organization’s director, the Rev. Frank Pavone, says he has been told that it could cost as much as $150,000 for Joseph’s stay in the pediatric intensive care unit. That doesn’t include the cost of the aircraft, which would have added thousands more to the bill. Priests for Life is, of course, asking its supporters to donate to pay these costs.

Here’s the irony. According to the most rigorous charity evaluation agency in the country, GiveWell.org, you can save a child’s life for about $1,000. All you have to do is give the money to their top-rated charity, Village Reach, which delivers vaccines and other urgently needed medical supplies to rural areas in developing countries.

If Priests for Life were really serious about saving lives, instead of “rescuing” Joseph so he can live another few months lying in bed, unable to experience the normal joys of childhood, let alone become an adult, they could have used the money they have raised to save 150 lives – most of them children who would have gone on to live healthy, happy lives for 50 years or more.

We’ve seen such things happen before. In 2005 the anti-abortion movement put a huge effort, and large sums of money, into “saving” Terri Schiavo. In the end, after Congress had been recalled specifically to enable a federal court to hear the case, she was allowed to die. An autopsy showed her brain had been severely and irreversibly damaged.

We can obsess over Joseph and Terri – or we can make an honest effort to save the lives of countless children whose names we may never know. It is our choice.

But the Priests for Life don’t want to save lives in the sense of protecting the dignity of those who are already alive yet suffering; they want to prolong the biological functioning of a body regardless of the suffering… the younger the better and a fetus especially, even if it kills women to do so. Since becoming involved in the medical treatment of Baby Joseph, the Priests for Life have mobilized support from the likes of the Hope Network and the legions of catholics and christians who think these groups do god’s work. Now the medical staff at LSHC have been the recipients of the kind of faith-based love the anti-abortion crowd – championed as they are by Priests for Life – sends out to those who disagree with their beliefs: hate mail and death threats.

Oh, I can hear the faithful claiming loudly that those extremists don’t represent the mainstream religious.

But they do.

You see, Priests for Life and the anti-choice crowd are no different than the mainstream believers in that they don’t give a rat’s ass respecting your life;  they care only for life, which according to their beliefs belongs not to you but their god. And they will continue to act accordingly not to respect your rights and freedoms as an autonomous individual where dignity of personhood must reside, if the term ‘personal dignity’ is to have any personal meaning, but as god’s Stormtroopers out to protect what belongs to him. That’s why they’re theological thugs and are empowered by those who respect their beliefs about what god owns over and above respecting your personal dignity.

November 18, 2010

Do your beliefs about global warming make you a champion of ignorance?

Okay, so it’s no surprise that I am a big fan of methodological naturalism and its epistemology. We call it the method of science. It’s trustworthy, practical, and yields knowledge that works. It’s what drives our technologies. Without knowledge, I don’t think we can understand, and without understanding I don’t think we can make good decisions. When we substitute belief for understanding, faith for knowledge, we are setting ourselves up to embrace ignorance and implement our questionable motives. Such motives are a disservice to others and intellectually dishonest. Hence, the name of the blog.
The latest and perhaps the most avoidable travesty of implementing policies based on such questionable motives has to do with a global problem that continues to be shuffled to the back of the room, the bottom of the agenda, behind other concerns. And that’s the issue of global warming and its effects on climate change within the halls of power… particularly in the US. This issue is an avid example of just how insidious and detrimental faith-based beliefs extended into the public domain can be, and how catastrophic might be the effects derived from such willful and malicious ignorance.
Not content to merely misunderstand and misrepresent why methodological naturalism yields knowledge that leads to understanding, which in turn empowers responsible and informed decisions, certain economic concerns and political forces have united to attack a vital source of our knowledge: the very workforce who toils on our collective behalf creating our knowledge:
For the past two decades, the United States has been officially committed to avoiding “dangerous” climate change. One Administration after another—Bush I, Clinton, Bush II, Obama—has reaffirmed this commitment, even as they all have failed to live up to it. House Republicans and their Tea Party allies reject even the idea of concern. Not content merely to ignore the science, they have decided to go after the scientists. Before the election, congressional Republicans had talked of eliminating the House Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming. Why, after all, have a panel on energy independence and global warming if you don’t believe in either? Now James Sensenbrenner, of Wisconsin, who is likely to become the select committee’s chairman, is arguing that it should be preserved. His rationale? The panel provides an ideal platform for harassing the Environmental Protection Agency, which, in the absence of legislative action, is the only body with the power to regulate carbon emissions. At least one group of scientists is organizing a “rapid-response team” to counter climate misinformation, but, since the misinformation is now coming from the very people charged with solving the problem, that task seems a peculiarly thankless one. (Source)
It’s one thing to personally decide not to believe in gravity or germs. I will call you self-deluded if you choose to do so and suggest some honest self-testing to reveal why such a charge is fully justified. Step out a tenth story window or take a good whiff of ebola and let’s see where the evidence leads you. I’ll wait here. The choice, of course, is to submit your beliefs to personal verification and live with the personal consequences. That’s fine. I’m okay with that. More power to you for being honest enough to find out for yourself. That’s science in action.
But it’s another matter entirely for people wrapped up in the false certainties of the their faith-based beliefs to extend their delusions based on wishful and magical thinking into the public domain and subject the rest of us to the inevitable results of their chosen ignorance. Nothing good will come of it. Nothing good CAN come from it: the epistemology of faith-based beliefs is too biased to be of practical use beyond one’s self and more importantly, there is no way to know if one’s beliefs are wrong except in regards to facts. And either we’re back to science and back to relying on the methodology that empowers it or we delude ourselves to think our beliefs are equivalent because we prefer to view them this way.
The science that empowers so much evidence to be collected that yields knowledge that global warming is real, it’s a growing concern, it’s a problem that will continue to impose climatic changes at an increased rate, is as solid as any other scientific inquiry by tens of thousands of scientists around the world over decades that have produced available peer reviewed research. The science is ongoing yet for about three decades or more there has been a growing general consensus that today’s global warming is a man-made problem subject to man-made solutions… if we act sooner rather than later. We can be reasonably certain that all this science about climate change and its causes and influences has been carried out in a responsible manner and that the general conclusions reached are as valid as any other in the sciences. We know there is always quibbling about specifics in all scientific endeavors  and climate research will have its fair share. We will have some personalities we like, some we don’t, and that these kinds of discrepancies are not at all unusual for any human undertaking involving tens of thousands of people. But none of this disqualifies the science and the body of knowledge climate science has produced.
What we cannot do is simply choose to think that our personal beliefs are an equivalent and legitimate basis for coming to a different conclusion. Our beliefs are not equivalent. Our personal knowledge is not equivalent to the scientific consensus. Our cherry-picking of facts and points that favour only our contrary belief preferences without accounting for all those that do not support us is intellectually dishonest. Whether we wish to or not, we must respect the method of inquiry that yields knowledge – which we implicitly trust with our very lives in other areas like medicine and transportation and communication – in this matter of climate science if we wish to avoid the charge of hypocrisy. No matter how grudgingly we face the scientific consensus about global warming, we must respect its general conclusions  and if we wish to be responsible citizens within our various communities, we must begin to address our culpability to its root causes before we can address how we can begin to mitigate our effects on climate change through global warming.
I don’t for a minute think that we alone drive climate change or that global warming is solely the result of carbon emissions. But I respect the method of science enough to take heed when the consensus tells us that human activity is a major factor in these rapid environmental changes. Whether I want to believe it or not is not my call if I wish to continue to respect the method of science that informs the rest of my life. The results of climatic scientific research are what they are, and the science has built up a body of knowledge about the matter that I can understand. So can you. And we need to act on this understanding in a productive and positive way rather than allow the most ignorant and delusional among us to be voted into public office to then abuse the state’s public power to attack those who tell us something we believe we don’t need to hear.
If you support those who put all of us at such risk by such abusing the power of the state to undermine and attack and discredit by foul means those who produce knowledge, then I question your motives to present yourself as an intellectually honest person and someone worth listening to. As far as I can tell, if you support those who go after people whose job it is to create knowledge in the name of your beliefs, you are a danger to me, my family, my community, my nation, and my planet. You are a champion of ignorance. And that’s not something to be proud of.

June 9, 2010

Why is belief the enemy of knowledge?

Filed under: belief,Bias,Certainty,Knowledge,Science — tildeb @ 10:39 am

A terrific article over at Science-based Medicine by David Gorski about why our beliefs arm us against against acquiring knowledge counter to those beliefs. It is worth the read. But for the condensed version, I have selected a few excerpts and used bold to highlight what I think are some of the important points he raises.

If there’s a trait among humans that seems universal, it appears to be an unquenchable thirst for certainty. It is likely to be a major force that drives people into the arms of religion, even radical religions that have clearly irrational views, such as the idea that flying planes into large buildings and killing thousands of people is a one-way ticket to heaven. However, this craving for certainty isn’t expressed only by religiosity. As anyone who accepts science as the basis of medical therapy knows, there’s a lot of the same psychology going on in medicine as well. This should come as no surprise to those committed to science-based medicine because there is a profound conflict between our human desire for certainty and the uncertainty that is always inherent in so much of our medical knowledge. The reason is that the conclusions of science are always provisional, and those of science-based medicine arguably even more so than many other branches of science.

We see this phenomenon of craving certainty writ large and in bold letters in huge swaths of so-called “alternative” medicine. Indeed, a lot of quackery, if not most of it, involves substituting the certainty of belief for the provisional nature of science in science-based medicine, as well as the uncertainty in our ability to predict treatment outcomes, particularly in serious diseases with variable biology, like several types of cancer.

The simplicity of these concepts at their core makes them stubbornly resistant to evidence. Indeed, when scientific evidence meets a strong belief, the evidence usually loses. In some cases, it does more than just lose; the scientific evidence only hardens the position of believers. We see this very commonly in the anti-vaccine movement, where the more evidence is presented against a vaccine-autism link, seemingly the more deeply anti-vaccine activists dig their heels in to resist, cherry picking and twisting evidence, launching ad hominem attacks on their foes, and moving the goalposts faster than science can kick the evidence ball through the uprights. The same is true for any number of pseudoscientific beliefs. We see it all the time in quackery, where even failure of the tumor to shrink in response can lead patients to conclude that the tumor, although still there, still can’t hurt them. 9/11 Truthers, creationists, Holocaust deniers, moon hoaxers — they all engage in the same sort of desperate resistance to science.

(M)ost recommendations of science-based medicine are not “truth” per se; they are simply the best recommendations physicians can currently make based on current scientific evidence. Be that as it may, the problem with the “truth wins” viewpoint is that the “truth” often runs into a buzz saw known as a phenomenon that philosophers call naive realism. This phenomenon, boiled down to its essence is the belief that whatever one believes, one believes it simply because it’s true. In the service of naive realism, we all construct mental models that help us make sense of the world. When the “truth wins” assumption meets naive realism, guess what usually wins? It ain’t the truth.

Skepticism and science are hard in that they tend to go against some of the most deeply ingrained human traits there are, in particular the need for certainty and an intolerance of ambiguity. Also in play is our tendency to cling to our beliefs, no matter what, as though having to change our beliefs somehow devalues or dishonors us. Skepticism, critical thinking, and science can help us overcome these tendencies, but it’s difficult. Perhaps that’s the most important contribution of the scientific method. It creates a structure that allows us to change our beliefs about the world based on evidence and experimentation without the absolute necessity of taking being proven wrong personally.

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