McPherson and the End of Life “Debate”

The Inconsistency of Our Views

If we genuinely care about alleviating suffering, making people’s lives better, decreasing suffering or perhaps maintaining moral duties, it is inconsistent for us to deny the voluntary right to die. Many people and, more importantly, States oppose voluntary suicide (VS) because of some hang up or slither of of sanctity, even if it’s never explicitly laid out as such. “Sanctity”, or sanctity of life, says there is something almost supernaturally “special” about human life, that it must not be destroyed or diminished to any significant degree. Indeed, it states, human life or living should be promoted, whether on an individual or species-wide capacity.

I find this idea inconsistent with our views in other areas. If it was true that States care about promoting the length of citizen’s lives then all matter of restrictions should be in place: we should not be driving, smoking, drinking alcohol, etc. Why do we allow for these things, which are proven to cause suffering and hasten death, whereas we deny people the means to avoid suffering but bring on a quick death? It is inconsistent and arbitrary. There is no good reason to oppose someone wanting to take his life.

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David Hume on Obfuscatory Philosophy

I came across a wonderful quotation by the great David Hume. In An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding (1777) Hume unpacks his targets and what he hopes to avoid. In the very first section, “On the Different Species of Philosophy”, he considers the cases of some “metaphysical” philosophy which is obscure because it is not “science”. This is not to say that because it is not science it is worthless, but that a good red flag is something that revels in not being science, bathing itself in obscurity and obfuscation. (Which today identifies such things as obscure New Age nonsense, astrology, and homeopathy.)

To Hume, because “man is a reasonable being”, “science [is] his proper food and nourishment”. This is the famous paragraph, where he dissects the contradictory nature of “man” and ends off with (personified) nature telling us: “Be a philosopher; but, amidst all your philosophy, be still a man.”

Of course, here there was little differentiating between the kind of philosophy and science we ought to do. Both should be focused on remaining “human”. “Indulge your passion for science, says she [nature], but let your science be human, and as such have a direct reference to action and society.” (Emphasis added.)

I take such words to heart, considering the applicability of my thoughts, research and philosophical focus. I do not want to indulge in irrelevant navel-gazing on publicly meaningless topics. A danger, I think, in many disciplines.

And this is the paragraph I want to quote; where Hume admonishes all who would indulge in obscurity, superstition and meaningless drivel (I’m looking at you literary theory). Every academic should have this paragraph on their door; or above their keyboard or quill or whatever academics write with these days. Says Hume:

But this obscurity in the profound and abstract philosophy, is objected to, not only as painful and fatiguing, but as the inevitable source of uncertainty and error. Here indeed lies the justest and most plausible objection against a considerable part of metaphysics, that they are not properly a science; but arise either from the fruitless efforts of human vanity, which would penetrate into subjects utterly inaccessible to the understanding, or from the craft of popular superstitions, which, being unable to defend themselves on fair ground, raise these intangling brambles to cover and protect their weakness. Chaced from the open country, these robbers fly into the forest, and lie in wait to break in upon every unguarded avenue of the mind, and overwhelm it with religious fears and prejudices. The stoutest antagonist, if he remit his watch a moment, is oppressed. And many, through cowardice and folly, open the gates to the enemies, and willingly receive them with reverence and submission, as their legal sovereigns. (Enquiry, I: Par. 11)

Hume teaches everyone, not just philosophers. Indeed, anyone can benefit from this man’s powerful and beautiful writing, thought and grace. His sobriety and clarity is second to none.

“Marry a Muslim or You Die!” and other tales of woe

I’m getting tired of reading reports about thuggish Muslim idiots who, by virtue of having specific chromosomes and genitalia, thrust said properties into their conduct. No doubt some of you remember the Italian Muslim mother and daughter assaulted by their male side of their own family. What was the reason the men attacked their own family? Continue reading

Surfing the Slippery Slope of the Abortion Debate

UPDATE: The irritatingly sober Blaize Kaye, mentor and mitrailleur of all fuzzy thinking has written a brilliant post, which raises points I did not. Look there before. You probably won’t need to read mine anyway.

When people strap on boots of “moralising” and start raging through the territory of ethical debate, many things get crushed in the process. Spurned by emotion, people often overlook arguments that have refuted their own ones or, more importantly, improved on them. I’m an advocate of clarity and openness in the academic world, especially in philosophy; this is not an attempt to tell “laypeople” – for I am also a laypeople – to shut their traps about moral philosophy. Indeed, in many instances it is philosophers making boring noises about moral philosophy that should quiet down. Nevertheless, with that disclaimer out the way, I want to point to an instance where muddled-thinking, combined with the tightly worn boots of moralising, are seen in full display. Columnist Khaya Dlanga, at News24.com, has made some silly noises regarding abortion that deserves scrutiny.

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In Reply to Power Balance’s Statement that They’re Not Actually Frauds

Power Balance has released a statement, concerning their wristbands. Please read it in full here.

I will now proceed to tear it apart, piece by piece.

Nonsense on Wrists

  • Power Balance stands by our products

Wouldn’t be much of a business if they didn’t.

  • Millions of people around the globe are wearing Power Balance products and are thrilled with the results.

Argumentum ad populum – the fallacy appealing to numbers to justify itself. “Millions of people can’t be wrong!” seems to be the implication. But a mistake or lie doesn’t become true the more times you say it or believe it. Many believed the earth was flat. Belief does not alter the planet’s shape.

Truth is not yelled into existence, reality is not made on the hot air of stridency. All that Power Balance indicates here is the amount of people it’s duped into believing its unfounded claims.

  • Dozens of high profile professional athletes swear by the results they’ve experienced from wearing our products.

Another version of the argumentum ad populum. The Fallacy Navigator, linked above, calls this “Snob Appeal” which is “the fallacy of attempting to prove a conclusion by appealing to what an elite or a select few (but not necessarily an authority) in a society thinks or believes.” Sportspeople are not (necessarily) scientists. So what if they “swear” by it? Power Balance’s claims remain unfounded.

If “dozens of high profile professional athletes” said they could fly, had wings made of rainbows and were all from planet Zog, would we believe them?

We may be justified if they were, say, physicians or biologists who found these results after testing the wristbands. But these “high profile professional athletes” are simply the higher-paid, more famous victims duped by Power Balance.

  • CNBC recently named Power Balance as the “Sports Product of the Year for 2010.” Our bracelet was also one of Amazon’s “Top 5 Best Sellers” during the recent holiday shopping season.

Based probably on sales, since most of us sceptical of Power Balance have been seeking evidence for their claims. It is unlikely CNBC and Amazon gave it for scientific credibility and biological breakthrough – in fact, considering Power Balance’s claims, if Power Balance were serious, they would be announcing their winning the Nobel Prize for Physics not Amazon’s Top 5 best-sellers.

They’re also not saying much when Amazon also had Dan Brown and Twilight in their top products, too.

  • We are the clear leader in the market for performance technology accessories and we owe it all to our customers who wear and believe in the product.

“Technology”? No, no. This sentence is incorrect. It should say: “We are the clear leader in the market for performance placebos and we owe it all to our customers who wear and believe in the product”.

Also, either the tech works or it doesn’t. A lightbulb doesn’t work based on your or your friends’ belief. It doesn’t work even if Shaquille O’Neal told you he believes your broken, shattered lightbulb will work.

To get an understanding, imagine getting a lightbulb box that says: “Believe in our product”. Imagine “believe in our product” under any other piece of technology: iPads, computers, televisions, microwaves, etc. If you claim it’s a piece of technology, why do you need belief?

  • However, there has been some negative press about our products coming out of Australia recently. In addition, we have recently been subject to several class action lawsuits in the United States. That said, we wanted to set the record straight.

They say “negative press”, we say “asking for evidence like anything else”. Instead of writing about belief and making fallacious claims, why not give us some evidence that it works. And, no, testimony doesn’t work since anecdotal evidence is not good scientific evidence.

  • Contrary to recent assertions in the Australian press, Power Balance has not made a statement that our product is ineffective. This is simply untrue. The truth is that, apparently, some of our previous marketing claims in Australia were not up to ACCC standards – changes were made and approved, and the issues were believed to have been resolved.

“Ineffective” is not the same as “scientifically credible”, which they admitted themselves of not being. As they said “We admit that there is no credible scientific evidence that supports our claims”.

“Ineffective” implies it does not have an effect. There is an effect; after all, people “swear by” them. The effect in this case is the placebo effect, not being energised like a Power Ranger to perform impressive physical feats.

The problem is the mistaken connection consumers make. They, firstly, assume they are improving in their performance. They might feel they are, but objectively they might not be. And we can be our own worst assessors, as Kaye and Gruneberg highlight in their brilliant assessment of PB’s claims.

Secondly, if their performance is improving, it is because of expectation and, therefore, as the statement indicates: belief. Remember technology does not depend on belief but efficacy and scientific credibility. A psychic’s readings are effective, as we notice with their clients’ tears; creationists’ claims might be so effective they get evolution textbooks banned. But none of these effects are good or true.

PB is confusing effect with scientific credibility, when they are two different things. Though naturally there are effects tested by science. But we don’t need to get into that discussion for now.

  • We remain committed to bringing our products to every athlete in the world, from professional to amateur to recreational.

Once again, we expect no less from a business.

  • We are also confident that the future will be even brighter for Power Balance. A preliminary study, conducted by an independent third-party, was recently commissioned to determine the different performance variables of the product and the findings have determined that wearing the product does in fact provide a “statistically significant” result on the wearer’s performance.

There is no link to this study. Consumer advocate group, CHOICE, said in October: “The band was tested at CHOICE under controlled lab conditions which showed it did little else than empty purchasers’ wallets.”

As I say, I am genuinely interested in the scientific findings. Indeed, I imagine most scientists would be. Why then are they not freely showing us these so-called findings? Naturally, we would find it doesn’t work better than a placebo, that people are paying for self-assurance and confidence – which can be obtained elsewhere like good friends, good coaching and deep-breathing.

Also, “statistically significant” doesn’t remove the placebo effect. And one test does not cut it (there are other tests from Australia that found the same).

  • We are committed to further evaluating the performance parameters of wearing the product so that we can continue to provide products that enhance the wearer’s lifestyle.

Good. Let us know when you have continued your evaluation and provide us with the results, methodology and research.

  • Power Balance will do whatever it takes to make our products available to every consumer around the world appropriately, and with honor and integrity.

And reasonable people will continue to call you out as unscientific frauds, your products as gimmicky ho-hum, based on sciency-sounding terms like energy and vibrations, and a hip-sounding Eastern mystical nonsense.

Run along now but don’t fall over.

UPDATE: This comic is just brilliant.

Sunday Sacrilege: 09/01/2011

Today I will recommend some incredible stories, but it seems to be a week for sceptical/skeptical triumph (yes, a jagged red line suddenly birthed itself beneath itself beneath the ‘c’ sceptical. Tut, tut.)

As usual, in no particular order:

1.

We have the ‘Skeptic Detective’, Angela Meadon, finally (!), writing something along her usual trajectory of informative, in-depth and clear explanations of supernatural claims. My pick has to be her latest focus on rhino horns as an aphrodisiac. The title is bit misleading, I think, but her article is short and excellent, containing the necessary links for further investigation. The word ‘aphrodisiac’ itself comes from the Greek goddess of love, Aphrodite, who was widely desired. Similarly, the purpose of an aphrodisiac is “to enhance … sexual virility”, as Meadon says; yet it does not necessarily make the user more desirable to the desired person. It can but it doesn’t necessarily mean it will.

What’s more problematic in the whole affair is the typical human assumption that we can use non-human animals for our own benefit. As Meadon puts it, summarising some scientific articles which investigated the claims made of rhino horns’ efficacy, “They all arrived at the same conclusion: rhino horn is of no use to anyone except the original owner.” (Original emphasis.)

2.

Another post, is my friend Dr Kenneth Lipp, at Cambridge who is spreading the word for Paul Kurtz’s new society: the Institute for Science and Human Values. The Institute’s mission, as Lipp had indicates, states:

“We are committed to the enhancement of human values and scientific inquiry. This combines both compassion and reason in realizing ethical wisdom. It focuses on the principles of personal integrity: individual freedom and responsibility. It includes a commitment to social justice, planetary ethics, and developing shared values for the human family.”

Whilst I am, um, sceptical of things like niceness, optimism, happy toleration, etc., I am very glad for the Institute’s existence. It is certainly an honour to be mentioned in this post, and I will gladly help out where I feel comfortable. Considering my enormous respect for Paul Kurtz, it is certainly an important institution to keep an eye on.

Lipp’s other posts somehow manage to weave a comfortable thread through WikiLeaks and AIDS policies in Africa, with the same encyclopaedic and clear command of insight that can only come from the Dark Lord Cthulhu. How else Lipp manages this, whilst studying as a Cambridge Fellow, I cannot fathom. Whilst he has an overblown perception of my abilities – I’m struggling to keep up with him as it is! – he is incredibly important to all interested in the culture wars, of science, religion and human rights (the latter, an idea I’m not 100% sure about at least as stated by most bodies).

As atheists often say about Hitchens, I say about Lipp: I’m glad he’s on our side.

3.

The great Steven Novella provides a brilliant summary concerning the ongoing battle between reality and Power Balance™. The company is (in)famous for producing wrist-bands which supposedly enhance active performance. It is endorsed by top sportsmen and, therefore, it must work. Because, you know, sportspeople can’t be wrong! They’ve been backpedalling and retracting, like a bear with a broken arm circling a recently killed prey. Here in South Africa, the FSI has drawn up its own offensive against the company, spurred on by the victory in Australia.

4.

Christian Munthe is a philosopher who represents everything I want to study (and do and teach), working as: “Professor of Practical Philosophy at the University of Gothenburg, Sweden.” His “[c]hief interests are ethics/moral philosophy, political philosophy and their applications to practical issues.” He thankfully maintains a blog which keeps us all on top of his areas of focus and interest. Not satisfied with being a top-class academic, Prof. Munthe decided to steal more from the talent barrel and become an excellent musician.

I want to recommend his analysis of a recent farce, in a journal concerning bioethics. Drawing from an important friend of mine, Udo Schuklenk, Munthe describes “a threat against the integrity of bioethics research … exemplified in the form of a multi-layer scandal in relation to a paper published in the ‘open access’ journal”. What everyone else is calling plagiarism, the authors and editor of the journal calls unintentional mistake. Read on to find out more about this silly but highly unethical  conduct,

Munthe, as here and elsewhere, provides a helpful insight into what happened, why, and further insight into the workings of an rapidly expanding field. Also, read his follow-up article concerning Udo’s excellent journal, Bioethics.

5.

I must, must recommend my favourite Ben Goldacre blogpost from last year. Yes, it’s late but this is such an important part of what will inform my thesis, that I can’t leave it out. Goldacre’s article talks about excellent research that went into studying people’s responses to empathy.

“60 students were given a vignette to read about a case of fraud, where either 3 people or 30 people were defrauded by a financial advisor, but all the other information in the story was kept the same.”

Which group do you think conveyed the most empathy: that is, wanted the harsher punishment, conveyed a harsher sentence for the perpetrators? It is not what most would expect: “participants who read the story with only 3 victims rated the crime as more serious than those who read the exact same story, but with 30 victims.” That is, the fewer people affected by the same crime, the more empathy is conveyed. Goldacre refers to another study that found similar results.

This tells us what only science can tell us: reality and the world, and even our fellow human, do not operate as we want or expect. In an ideal world, Goldacre says, it would not be this way. Goldacre ends this post powerfully to illustrate the moral lesson behind this, also implying why the fight against AIDS and poverty in general never receives the emotional impact as a crime against fewer people. There of course many other factors to consider, such as the spatial and personal relation of the affected, one’s own abilities, etc. But it is one of the best posts, if not the best post, I’ve read for some time.

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That’s it for this week. Please leave other interesting links in the comments.