On a sad note, Jason makes his announcement that he is leaving the Prism. The new permanent co-host will be announced on our next podcast (you probably won’t be surprised). Jason will be sorely missed, but has agreed to return as a guest host from time to time.
Direct mp3 download: http://traffic.libsyn.com/prismpodcast/Jason_Grant_Al_Final.mp3
Clay Jones steps in for Jason as we interview Alan Levinovitz. Alan Levinovitz is an assistant professor of Chinese philosophy and religion at James Madison University and author of The Gluten Lie: And Other Myths About What You Eat.
Also, the winner of the Prism Podcast – Carbon Dating caption contest is announced!
Believe it or not, there are podcasts out there that are even better than the one Jason and I did a couple of weeks ago (#sarcasm). Among the many fine choices out there, RadioLab is consistently excellent and intriguing; it is invariably at the top of my listening queue. Recently, RadioLab did a show on a patient who survived rabies, which until recently was 100% fatal- a death sentence with no chance of commutation or reprieve from the Governor. The story itself is amazing, and you should stop reading here, take a brief intermission and go listen to it. I’ll be here when you get back.
OK, back? Pretty good, huh? Though I was transfixed during the entire episode, do you know what little tidbit of information stuck with me more than anything else? The off the cuff factoid that back in medieval times, one of the treatments for rabies was to pluck the feathers from around a rooster’s anus, then apply said anus to the animal bite, ostensibly to “suck out” the infection. Makes sense, eh? I mean, I’m no rooster anus aficionado, but I can imagine that it might resemble a suction cup sort of thing. These are some pretty weird dots to connect to be sure, but I guess that when faced with a potentially fatal disease, physicians back then tried anything and everything hoping to find that magical cure, even if by luck or trial and error. Without the scientific method, that’s pretty much all they had.
Why, I can hear you ask, whywould tincture of tush even continue as a recommended treatment after the first attempt or two? OK, I’ll give the doctor/barber/blacksmith the benefit of the doubt when thinking of it for the first time and giving it a go, but then after that? How could the doctor of yesteryear think this was a good idea? Did his success rate in treatment skyrocket after sphinctotherapy? How does one rationalize this?
Well, here’s how it went down, and the reason I’m bringing this up isn’t just because it’s a fun, quirky subject or that I have a thing about poultry and/or anuses. There are modern day applications of this same dysfunctional thought process, and the public must be made aware of these modern day purveyors of rooster anus therapies and their likes.
Suppose you’re this guy, the village doctor:
A frantic mother comes running into your office/stables with her 12 year old daughter in tow. The young girl has just been bitten by a mad dog and everyone knows what that means. Thinking quickly, you grab a rooster, pluck the feathers from around its anus (I’m sure there’s an insurance code for that), and apply buttsuction pressure to the wound stat. You then write a prescription to the mother like so:
After a week, you go and check up on the family; lo and behold! the girl is fine. No signs of rabies and the wound is healing well. When you get back to your office/stables, you look back over your notes and determine that your avian treatment protocol has roughly a 25% success rate. “That’s pretty good” you say. “If it weren’t for my quick thinking and medical acumen, they all would have died. This modern treatment of rabies is proof that we have truly made great advances in medical science. In my experience, rooster anus is the treatment of choice for rabies.”
So what is the reality here? Do sphincters possess medicative qualities? Was Yorick the doctor/barber/blacksmith on the right track?
No and no.
The reality is that while rabies is a horrible disease, it is only 100% (well, until recently at least) fatal once it has established a foothold in the host. Often, a person who is bitten by a wild animal doesn’t contract rabies at all. There are several possible explanations for this: 1. the animal didn’t have rabies to start with, 2. the bite didn’t break the skin, 3. the virus didn’t enter the bloodstream or other area where it could take up residence in the nerve tissue, or 4. the victim’s antibodies dispatched the viruses before they could cause harm.
There could be other explanations and scenarios, but you get the picture. While all rabies infections were 100% fatal, not all animal bites were. Dr. Yorick, of course, wasn’t aware of all the times a person was bit who subsequently remained healthy. His experimental group, as it were, consisted only of those who either had been bitten but not yet showed the signs of rabies or people with full-fledged rabies. The former group would naturally respond reasonably well to Rooster Anus Therapy®, not because of the rooster, but because that person stood a decent chance of remaining healthy anyway. Yorick naturally would take credit for the health of this subgroup. This fallacy in reasoning is called Post Hoc, Ergo Propter Hoc, which is similar to Affirming the Consequent. The logical structure goes something like this: P occured before Q. Q resulted, therefore P caused Q. Translated, this reads “If I put a rooster’s anus onto an animal bite, the patient will not contract rabies. The patient did not contract rabies. Therefore, rooster anus is effective and prevented the rabies.” This is where Yorick went wrong and relied only upon his experience, but you can’t blame the chap.
You can, however, blame the frauds, quacks, and ignorant practitioners of woo out there who peddle their own version of rooster anuses to a gullible and unsuspecting public. From homeopathy to acupuncture, to just about every kind of “complementary” or “integrative” therapies, they all work on the same Affirming the Consequent principle. You pressed, poked, stabbed, or shocked some alleged point on your body and your knee pain felt better? You swallowed a supplement and you slept better last night? You pressed a rooster anus to your squirrel bite and you didn’t get rabies? The delusional practitioner will think “In my experience, ________ has worked well.” This is very dangerous thinking.
Modern day alt-med thinking and medieval rooster thinking is pretty much the same thing.
Most health care practitioners worth their salt know this; however, a vast number of lay people, as well as many other health care providers either don’t know it or choose to ignore it because of some bias or agenda. Or perhaps they are outright charletans. However, it is the responsibility of every science minded individual to fight this type of thinking and challenge these dysfunctional practices wherever they occur.
I have a very good friend whom I’ll call Bob. Bob is a wonderful fellow: we share a warped sense of humor, we get into stimulating, deep conversations even when we haven’t been together in a while, and we both profess to be rational, evidence based individuals. We also like the same kind of rock music with a few minor differences; he leans more toward the Little River Band, England Dan and John Ford Coley, Firefall (i.e. crappy) end of the spectrum, while I prefer to melt my face with Zeppelin, The Who, and Alice Cooper (i.e. awesome). Rock climbing is a shared passion of ours, and we’ve had some amazing climbs together in Yosemite, Joshua Tree, and Malibu. He’s just a peach of a guy.
As most of us skeptical types already know, one of the hallmarks of being a good critical thinker and skeptic is the triad of attributes that lead to genuine inquiry, no matter what the subject. This triad consists of natural curiosity, questioning everything, and knowing how to ask the right questions. This is arguably the starting gate for Skepticism; the anti-thesis of these traits is existing as uninquisitive sheep. In this genesis of skeptical thinking, Bob excels. He is always thinking “what if?” and “why is it…?” and “how do you…?”, and I admire him very much for that. He stimulates my own thinking, and I’m the better for it.
But here’s where Bob gets derailed. Bob is magnificent when it comes to thinking outside the box, asking penetrating, thoughtful questions, seeing the world in novel and creative ways, and being very open-minded to hearing differing opinions and viewpoints. However, Bob never seeks answers to the questions he poses. Or at least he shows no real motivation to gain closure on his uncertainty. Like a three year old asking “Why is the sky blue?”, Bob thrives on the asking but gives not a whit about the response. He embraces the mystery of the unknowing, and in a way doesn’t really care if he is pointed toward a resolution to his query or not. He also doesn’t want to actually burn the calories to go through the trouble of looking something up or research his own uncertainties. Attempting to do the legwork required to solve one’s own intellectual conundrum, I believe, is another hallmark of being a good critical thinker and skeptic. Once the questions have been asked, now it’s the role and responsibility of the thinker to do a little heavy lifting and delve into the research. Evaluating evidence, sniffing out biases, fallacies, and other cognitive errors, and discerning fact from fiction allows the critical thinker to hone in on reality to the extent it can be known, and the process of doing one’s own detective work sharpens the skills necessary to become more astute and makes one less likely to be cast adrift in woo soup. Of course, we all start off as newcomers, and often we aren’t qualified to (or capable of) teasing back the layers of skeptical thinking to get an accurate picture of the answers we’re looking for. But just like the meatheads at the gym, we build our skeptical muscles by exercising them; we sharpen our skills by repeated use. And when we hit a roadblock or find ourselves out of our element, we turn to others for guidance. That’s how we learn, and perhaps in time we can mentor others.
Bob throws out his question (which is usually an excellent and provocative one), counts one Mississippi, two Mississippi, three Mississippi- then it’s on to the next one. His rapid fire delivery is similar to the Gish Gallop, but unlike the Gallopers, he isn’t using his method to evade, confuse, and avoid; he sees something shiny and moves on to another topic. He means well, it’s just that his brain is like a trillion Pop Rocks vibrating in a skullbowl of caffeine jelly.
So what’s the harm?, one might ask. Let Bob be Bob; quit bashing him and allow him his right to let his hummingbird curiosity run amok. To that, I say you’re right. Bob can do whatever Bob wants; he’s a grown taxpayer and it’s a free country. That all said, the harm is that despite his inquisitiveness and his intelligence, since Bob doesn’t anchor his thoughts on a solid foundation of evidence based data, he tends to veer off course and get lured into some harebrained territories- from 9/11 Truthers, to alternative medicine ideas, as well as fringe political and philosophical areas. He isn’t grounded in the known, the proven; he’s all over the map and cognitively inconsistent. A veritable roulette wheel is spinning in his head constantly, and where she stops, nobody knows.
I call Bob a “Half a Skeptic,” a person who has the makings of a critical thinker, who initiates the launch sequence of critical thinking, but lacks the follow-through and the closure. Also known as a Stunted Skeptic, a Pseudo-Skeptic, or an Embryonic Skeptic, such a person might have the potential to evolve into a full-fledged, bona fide Skeptic, or they may languish, as does Bob, in a cerebral limbo where questions are asked but not answered. Although this post is one big lament of this condition, I actually wish there were more Half Skeptics. Why? Because half a skeptic is better than no skeptic at all, and it’s the “no skeptic” demographic that not only is in the majority in the U.S. and worldwide, but is the most pernicious and dangerous to open discourse and rational inquiry.
Here at the Prism, it is our thesis that one of the major issues with alternative medicine is their over-reliance on anecdotes (n = 1) as solid evidence for whatever treatment regimen or therapy they are promoting. To be sure, an anecdote in and of itself is not de facto invalid; for example, when a proven therapy works, we have a positive anecdote to attest to it. However, any self-respecting science based individual would not place any significant weight on a single anecdote, or even a small cluster of consistent anecdotes, without evaluating the context in which is it offered.
The philosophic heart of the anecdote-as-evidence issue is “The Problem of Induction,” elucidated most famously by David Hume in the 1700s. Called “the glory of science and the scandal of philosophy” by philosopher C.D. Broad, inductive reasoning is a useful method of acquiring knowledge; however, it is not without its issues.
(I’ll try to figure out how to embed one of these days…)
So you see that while it is useful (and often necessary) to apply to the general what is observed from the specific, the logic is not airtight. The premise “the future will resemble the past” is the cornerstone of the argument, and it can never be shown to be true (at least not without a time machine!).