Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Facts, Desperate People, and "Skeptical Believers"

What are the facts? This is a very interesting question, as it assumes that facts settle an issue. Just what do we mean by the word "fact"? A fact is a piece of true information about circumstances that exist or events that have occurred.

People often don't want to believe in facts. Desperate people are especially prone to ignoring facts. If one is desperate, then one will latch onto all sorts of unsubstantiated claims that give one's life meaning. Religious commitments are often a type of desperation; likewise; certain political commitments (especially among those locked in poverty) are another type of desperation. Accordingly, many religious and political commitments give meaning, yet are unsubstantiated. (Not surprisingly, this can have harmful societal effects [1]. )

But when one investigates the facts, and the relationship between facts -- that is, when one seeks to carefully investigate unsubstantiated commitments, one's too-easily acquired meaning readily begins to dissipate. I have observed that people have a dim awareness of this, and thus enter into a kind of anti-intellectualism in order to defend irrational beliefs.

For example, if a carefully constructed and executed scientific study on the effect of prayer for cardiac patients is put in place, and the results come up negative (i.e. prayer for cardiac patients has no effect on the patients' rate of healing healing [2] [3] ), then all sorts of excuses get offered.

I had a theologian tell me, for instance, that such a study only applies to cardiac patients, and not to the medical effects of prayer generally. There are some major problems with this kind of response.

First, the theologian makes an odd religious claim. How strange to say that God doesn't honor prayers for some diseases, say heart troubles; but, God nevertheless does honor prayers for other diseases (say, cancer). Suppose the exact same study (and subsequent results) were run for prostate cancer. Would the next complaint be that one can't rule out the effect of prayer for face cancer, or for kidney stones, etc.? This whole line of thinking is a medical version of the God of the Gaps fallacy [4].

Second, the theologian makes an odd data gathering claim, as it seems to say that one cannot generalize scientific claims. For example, all the planets and asteroids observed in our solar system are entities with gravitational forces that affect one another. But "theologian science" allows that there might be planets and asteroids along with their gravitational forces in other solar systems that don't affect one another. We just can't be sure until we test every single planet, asteroid, and rock, for there could always be an exception! Sadly for the theologian, the manner in which medical science explains and predicts the natural occurrences of diseases is sufficiently understood to generalize from a study of one type to another type. (That's why Epidemiology works.)

Ironically, both the first and second problems above are a kind of skepticism that sets the standards for convincing evidence so high as to be either unreasonable or outright unfalsifiable. That's how it is with the justification schemes of "skeptical believers."

Well, believe this: there is nothing so useful for avoiding the facts of some matter as setting up an unfalsifiable standard.


[1] "Societies worse off 'when they have God on their side'" The Times (Accessed June 27, 2006) http://www.timesonline.co.uk/article/0,,2-1798944,00.html

[2] "Study of the Therapeutic Effects of Intercessory Prayer (STEP) in Cardiac Bypass Patients: A Multicenter Randomized Trial of Uncertainty and Certainty of Receiving Intercessory Prayer" Medscape Today from WebMD (Accessed June 27, 2006) http://www.medscape.com/viewarticle/529308

[3] Summary of above: "Largest Study of Third-Party Prayer Suggests Such Prayer Not Effective In Reducing Complications Following Heart Surgery" Harvard Medical School Office of Public Affairs (Accessed June 27, 2006) http://web.med.harvard.edu/sites/RELEASES/html/3_31STEP.html

[4] "God of the Gaps " Evolution Education Wiki (Access June 27, 2006) http://wiki.cotch.net/index.php/God_of_the_Gaps

Thursday, June 15, 2006

Science looks at Gossip

There is a new study out that shows mildly negative gossip can cement new friendships. This is probably the reason why "64 percent of people say they gossip at work 'sometimes' while more than one in five admits to being a 'frequent participant' in workplace gossip" (Zigarelli, Business Review). This is not surprising, since people often find their friends at work, and the natural way to form such friendships is gossiping about common acquaintances.

Gossip is often maligned by the pious, which is somewhat ironic, since "The idea of gossip originated with the Old English word godsibb, meaning 'a person related to one in God,' or a godparent. (Westen, PsychologyToday). Westen goes on to note that among other social and psychological functions, it serves as a unifying force for communicating a group's moral codes. An excellent example of this is a quote from the New York Times (Carey, Aug. 16, 2005) given by a teacher:
  • "To be honest, it made me feel better as a teacher to hear others being put down," she said. "I was out there on my own, I had no sense of how I was doing in class, and the gossip gave me some connection. And I felt like it gave me status, knowing information, being on the inside."

The article goes on to note that gossip is culturally pervasive:

  • Long-term studies of Pacific Islanders, American middle-school children and residents of rural Newfoundland and Mexico, among others, have confirmed that the content and frequency of gossip are universal: people devote anywhere from a fifth to two-thirds or more of their daily conversation to gossip, and men appear to be just as eager for the skinny as women.

Apparently, then, gossip is not a heinious and sinful moral failure, but a universal human activity, one which enhances freedom of movement in the community, and which lets one review just what the standards and expectations are among my peers. Well, that's what I heard, anyway....

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Beerbottle Littering

Where I live, in Oklahoma, there are additional good reasons to not throw beer bottles out of cars (besides the $pendy fine.) All must respect our animal friends. Even Dasypus novemcinctus. I think Armadillos are doofy looking.

Thursday, June 08, 2006

Article: "In God's hands: On Mental Illness and the Soul"

At the request of a collegue, I recently read an article titled, "In God's hands: On Mental Illness and the Soul" by Kathryn Greene-McCreight in (Christian Century 5/2/06). I assure you, I would have stopped reading after the first page, probably even after the third paragraph, had it simply been an article I'd run across on my own. Yet since he requested it, I finished it.

It is a fine study in bad argumentation. It uses metaphors as premisses, draws logically unfounded conclusions, and often conflates, equivocates, and outright confuses different terms for mental states. It also appears to me that its biblical exegesis on the soul is highly suspect, but I'm not going to take the time to show this, since the biblical writers, living as they do in a pre-scientific culture, have little to nothing to offer us about the operations of the brain and/or/as a function of/not=/etc. the mind.

About the only statement in the article I agreed with is where the author notes that a human "does not have a soul; he is soul, an ensouled body and an embodied soul." (And this is not original to Greene-McCreight. Lots of people rightly quote this mantra, including me.)

Theologians often like to take subjects we know least about (in this contemporary case, mind-brain issues) and say lots and lots about them. This makes theologians appear deep and wise to otherwise ignorant laypeople. They did this about the heavens in Plato's time; they stopped after the rise of astronomy. They did this about medicine and alchemy in medieval times; they stopped after the appearance chemistry. Same for creation, but not after biology. (only creationist fundies continue to do so.) And now they do it with cosmology and cognitive science. It's no surprise. Other theologians simply bail on science, and thus game play the continental philosophy version of post-modernism.

In sum, and for this particular case, what I see here is very typical of what happens when professional feminist theologians try to think about scientific matters. Also, though the article claims she is "a professor at Albertus Magnus College," she is not on faculty there. Probably at best an occasional adjunct.

Monday, June 05, 2006

CD Review: Scarlatti-Concerti Grossi

A Crisp and clear recording, and the best of the orderly, structured music of The Enlightenment in my opinion. One can hear the optimism and confidence of the time ringing thru the music of The Scarlattis. Around 1701, Domenico (b.1685 - d.1757) was named organist and composer of the vice-regal court at Naples, where his father was a respected maestro. About a year later he took a leave of absence and travelled with his family to Florence where his father, Alessandro (b. 1660 - d. 1725), hoped for employment from Pnnce Ferdinando de' Medici. Sadly, Alessandro didn't get the job, so his father canned Domenico in 1705 and sent him off to Venice to find employment. Some think that Domenico first met Handel in Venice. (The two eventually formed a strong friendship.) Domenico also spent time in Rome (where he wrote seven operas for Queen Maria Casimira) and in Portugal.

By the invention of the machine gun (esp. the Gatlin gun in 1861), things have changed in classical music, and one does not hear such calm, rational, even mathematical structures appearing as the main motiffs from composers of the day.

Even earlier, however, the committment to reason was fading fast. First, in 1853, Richard Wagner publishes the librettos to Der Ring des Nibelungen (The Ring Cycle): Das Rheingold, Die Walküre, Seigfried and Die Götterdämerung. The Ring Cycle is considered one of the most ambitious musical projects ever undertaken by a single person, and everything is now "over the top", poetic and romantic. Second, in 1860 the slave trade introduces West African rhythms, work songs, chants and spirituals to America, which strongly influence blues and jazz, and which attracts many of the best musical minds of the era.

For some time now, there has been no room for any philosopher kings in contemporary (i.e post-enlightenment) society. Given the continuing craziness of the early 21st century, don't look for any to soon arise.

Saturday, June 03, 2006

Neurologically Freaky Dollie

I saw this picture during an image search, and for some reason found it striking. The issue might be partially neurological, since there is evidence that specific brain areas track different body features, especially faces.
(There is a good historical summary of this in PDF: Charles G. Gross. Processing the Facial Image: A Brief History. American Psychologist, Nov. 2005, p. 755ff).

This might also explain why some people freak out when they see clown faces. Perhaps the facial recognition module is overly active or just plain more sensitive in these people than in otherwise normal humans. I don't have Coulrophobia, so that stuff doesn't scare me, but me dollie here is freaky nonetheless. There has also been some discussion recently on why people often find robots creepy. Perhaps it's a hybrid problem that shares neurocognitive features of both dollie weirdness and clown weirdness.