Archive for the ‘skepticism’ Category

stumbling through the home birth debate, continued

In my previous post i set the stage, as i see it, for the contemporary home birth debate, which for all its bluster orbits around only a few key disagreements. These appear to be whether (1) planning for home versus hospital delivery and (2) certified nurse-midwifery versus certified professional midwifery matter to the safety of the birth process.

Disclaimer: If you’re looking for advice, go somewhere else.

perinatal and neonatal mortality

To give context to these contentions, and to get a feel for the kind of research they rely upon, let’s review some of the most widely-cited studies that deal with the question of fetus/infant mortality. (The following four studies are illustrative of the sources of disagreement between home and hospital birth advocates, but as a sample they should not be taken as representative of the broader literature.) Read more…

stumbling through the home birth debate

My sister asked me some unexpectedly provocative questions recently: When it comes to giving birth, what do i think about “natural” techniques like water birth and involving fewer interventions? or of home deliveries as an alternative to hospital deliveries? or of midwifery?

I’ve learned to be skeptical of any medical product or procedure that presents itself as “natural”, or as an alternative to an established convention. To the extent that we can use products produced in ways that are less destabilizing to ecosystems or more compatible with our bodily configurations and processes, “natural” medicine sounds great. Unfortunately, “natural” products and procedures are typically better described as “unsubstantiated” or “unregulated”. Meanwhile, the hype around alternative medicine seems to be premised more on disillusionment with establishment medicine than on any successes by its challengers.

On midwifery generally, i had only limited exposure, but enough to make me cautious.

So, my biases acknowledged, i dove into the literature…and some of the conclusions i came to surprised me. So, let’s get to it.*

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not just the Dunning–Kruger effect

Movement rationalism has lately been characterized by several archetypical and high-profile manifestations of the Dunning–Kruger effect*, as widely renowned scientists, skeptics, and atheists have slipped in succession into scientistic or proto-philosophical defenses of logically and empirically indefensible assertions or positions. Some notable examples:

  • When Jeffrey Epstein‘s plea deal over allegations of soliciting prostituting minors—itself a privilege of political connectedness—was challenged by his victims’ attorneys, Lawrence Krauss came to his defense with a fairly obvious abuse of scientific language. In short, Krauss professed to “always judge things on empirical evidence” immediately before confusing empirical evidence with personal experience, relationships, and trust (among the most widely-recognized sources of bias in movement skepticism).
  • When Rebecca Watson detailed her experience with (a specific example of) contemporary systemic sexism, Richard Dawkins chimed in to assert that this variety of sexism is unworthy of scrutiny and redress, despite having no relevant background in sociology or feminism. (See also: Michael Shermer.) In a follow-up comment he bemoaned the weak case and foul language of his objectors, though he seems never to have responded to the nine letters tailored specifically (and cordially) to him.
  • Sam Harris has developed something of a reputation for pseudophilosophy. This came to a head a little bit back as he shrugged off expert refutation of his defense of racial profiling by Bruce Schneier. Meanwhile, his defense of torture has gradually come to be seen as minimally-contemplative contrarianism, which he arguably maintains by conflating its philosophically literate criticisms with the mainstream progressive onslaught.
  • Michael Shermer continues to defend his libertarian political ideology and his broader (also libertarian) view of morality on scientific grounds, errors in judgment in disciplines outside his expertise on which he has been called out multiple times, most recently (and publicly) by Massimo Pigliucci.

Beyond (what may admittedly be a pop-science overgeneralization of) Dunning–Kruger—ignorance of the main topic coupled with proportionately undue self-assuredness—these incidents share context that strikes me as at least equally important for movement rationalism. I see three important aspects to this context Read more…

fluoride fallacies: dead-end consensus

April 22, 2013 Leave a comment

Before i delve further into the misconferral of authority by antifluoridationists, an i’d like to make point about scientific consensus that i neglected in my previous post. It is easy to think of scientific knowledge as essentially static, with the occasional fact or theory being overturned when new evidence surfaces. We imagine scientific knowledge as a sort of pyramid, with the most reliable knowledge composing the base and provisionality increasing as we move upward. While this model is useful for making the quintessentially (Humean–)Bayesian–Pricean point that stronger evidence should more strongly inform our beliefs, it falls apart as soon as we widen our scope from the single Providence province to which the pyramid aspires. The sciences are not independent avenues of discovery, as imagery of a field of pyramids might suggest, but highly interdependent configurations of highly intradependent evidences and interpretations.

To draw an analogy of my own: The highly symbolic and culturally entangled concept of gender is not reducible to the space determined by orthogonal (and necessarily binary) spectra of identity, expression, “biological” sex, and attraction; it involves the highly nontrivial and individualized interplay of these factors, each of which in turn arises from the interplay of several distinguishable (if not wholly distinct) factors. A perhaps preferable model of gender is the graph representation of these interrelations: a node for each factor and edges tying them together, with the understanding that any particular node (say, “attraction”) may dissolve into a subnetwork of factors (intimacy, arousal, sexuality, satisfaction, saturation, etc.) on closer scrutiny.

Similarly, out of the intricate network of implications, corroborations, constraints, and tensions that connect elements of our aggregate body of facts and interpretations arises a web of knowledge. Moreover, this web may be anywhere localized, as though sliding a magnifying lens over a paper map, so that all our knowledge may be interpreted in terms of its relevance, or “consequential proximity”, to one’s topic of choice. Ultimately no particular discipline or theory is more “central” than any other.

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unreasonable expectations

March 31, 2013 Leave a comment

While i’ve conceded good reasons not to identify as a feminist, i’ve taken the position that they don’t outweigh the many good reasons to so identify. The burden falls to me to provide a case in which such reasons do. While i don’t have one for feminism, it is easy to furnish one for another of my own affiliations, and the subtleties segue into a common logical fallacy i’ve been meaning to discuss.

When Occupy was first making a splash, it played directly into my activist sensibilities (i am a radical) and my socioeconomic politics (i am an interventionist), but i relied on several econobloggers to make (more) sense of the web of implications among issues and policies. Foremost among these, of course, was Paul Krugman an economist at Princeton and columnist for The New York Times who spent several of his columns around that time championing OWS and detailing the origins, mechanismspersistence, and precursors of our present grossly inequitable society and dysfunctional political arena, out of which it arose.


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fluoride fallacies: consensus

February 21, 2013 Leave a comment

Like all informal logical fallacies, the argument from authority is often less a cheap rhetorical tactic than a misemployed heuristic. Because (by definition) a significant burden of evidence or reasoning has been shifted to an authority, whatever scrutiny might have been aimed at that evidence or reasoning now bears upon the source of authority.

In fact, authority is, at least in today’s world, an indispensable source of belief. For instance, when getting dressed we implicitly rely on several authorities: To believe that our clothing is appropriate for the day’s weather, we rely on the authority of weather forecasters; that it is appropriate for our occupation, that of tradition or of seniority; that it is appropriate to our appearance, that of fashion; that it has not been negligently laced with toxins, those of moral standards and of government regulatory agencies; and so on.

Obviously there are authorities generally, or at least widely, thought to be reliable that nonetheless are not. We can know this not just because authorities disagree, but because we have more reliable sources of evidence regarding many things in life than authorities. For example, we don’t (or oughtn’t) rely on weather forecasters to know whether it is currently raining in our own neighborhood, or on political commentators to know whether wealth is fairly distributed, or (solely) on the generic advice of any of our confidants to know what course of action to take with respect to a thorny social situation.

An especially common authority cited with regard to an issue is the expert—someone trained, knowledgeable, and experienced in the issue itself or in some discipline(s) relevant thereto, who can convey and contextualize current best knowledge on the subject and its implications for people’s lives. We rely on the experts who prescribe our meds and tune up our bikes as much as we rely on those who inform our healthcare professionals and policymakers. When an expert speaks about their area of expertise, we tend to listen. (While it’s another story in itself, we even tend to listen carefully to experts when we’re predisposed to—even intent upon—doubting them. When we fall into denial, we crave their validation even as we reject their credibility.)

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commenting about

February 18, 2013 5 comments

I’m been having a bit of back-and-forth with commenter OaringAbout on skeptic extraordinaire Steven Novella’s Neurologicablog. They brought up the increasingly tangentially familiar (and very plausibly artificial) equity–gender divide among feminists, in response to which i asked for some examples within the so-called “community of reason”. They obliged, somewhat, and while checking their claims, citing sources, and formulating my response, i synthesized some ideas i’d not taken the time to before—though admittedly with limited confidence in some of it. So, it seems appropriate to put it here as a touchstone, even (especially) if i’m forced to recant some of it in light of new evidence. But do read the background of the conversation first (and apologies in retrospect for the opportunistic moralizing at the outset).

@OaringAbout, thanks for responding. I have a few problems with your setup, though i don’t think they need to tint the rest of this exchange. One is that, while you seem partial to literalism (judging from the links you provided), you are willing to conclude from circumstantial evidence that people believe things that they have not said. The other is that likening the drawing of provisional conclusions based on circumstantial interpersonal evidence, perhaps analogous to journalism, to a bona fide science strikes me as unnecessarily haughty and perhaps hazardously self-assuring. (If i understand the chronology, for instance, evolutionary theories existed before fossils were understood as such, and Darwin’s early work was not based on fossils at all.)

To put us more in alignment: I don’t doubt that several feminists are antagonistic toward and perhaps even in denial of the science of sex and gender differences. What i doubt is that any prominent feminists identified with atheism or skepticism as movements or communities are so antagonistic. There is, however, widespread criticism among these feminists of the tendency of other feminists or atheists or skeptics toward biological determinism, loosely speaking the opposite extreme from tabula rasa along the traditional nature/nurture axis (itself, i understand, outdated in the face of such interactions as gene-environment interactions).

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