Friday, January 22, 2010

Things on my mind

This is going to be a sort of very haphazard post. I haven't had any single, well defined thing on my mind right now, nothing I'm really worked up about or anything. I just really feel like writing stuff.


The Skeptic movement.

I consider myself a small 's' skeptic. That is, I am a skeptic, but not a member of the Skeptic community. I care passionately about science literacy, rationality, and evidence-based decision making. The work being done by Skeptics is no doubt invaluable - combating anti-science/anti-rationality rhetoric, antivaxxers, dangerous altmed practitioners, etc. - but the constituents cannot be trusted to uphold the critical thinking goals of the movement (recent examples of that further on).

But, especially, bigotry has not been rooted out of the community. Misogyny is being combated, at least (skepchick, for example is a site I would consider a mainstream Skeptic hub, now). The ableism, however, is so widespread I have no idea where one would start.

Take, for example, the labeling of every example of irrationality a result of the "mentally ill"; not merely ableist but completely disingenuous. Irrationality is not a product of mental illness. Primarily, it is a product of social institutions which have evolved in the absence of and/or in opposition to rational thought. When you state that irrationality and mental illness are one in the same, you demonize mental disability and you paint a distorted picture of irrationality which diminishes its true scope and effect. Truth factors nowhere into this characterization.

Or, one of the most fucking groanworthy practices in existence - conflating IQ and rationality (/religiousity/value to the movement/gullibility/state of one's vocabulary, etc.) For example, I recently watched an (otherwise pretty good) interview with Richard Dawkins where he mused on whether increasing the worlds' IQ 5 points would eliminate religiousity.

This is completely fucking ridiculous. Forget, for a second, the failings of the century old concept of quantifying general intellect on a one dimensional scale. Forget even that a steady rise of IQ has been observed in most of the world. The very core of the argument is rotten. IQ is designed (not with utter success, but that isn't the point now) to be agnostic to the information the test taker has available - rationality has nothing to do with this, it is completely dependent on available information.

Very "smart", high IQ people believe demonstrably incorrect things. Many have no alternative, rational view of the world available to them. Many do, but are rather more preoccupied defending poor standpoints with leaps of faith and tangled rationalizations. People with low IQ's are perfectly capable of understanding rational concepts like basing belief in evidence. "Raising their IQ" will do jack shit - the notion is based in snobbery, elitism and ableism.

Skepchick recently had an article on this subject, it so happens. I particularly love this graph, linked in the comments, followed by another commenter contending that IQ is "quite good" as a "predictor of success" based on anecdote... Yeah, okay - see what I mean about not living up to the critical thinking goals of the movement?

The reason for this preface is not that I intend to address ableism in Skepticism in this post (sounds like a reasonable topic for another post, though), but because most of the following is a random critique of recent topics from the Skeptic community,


Circumcision and HIV/AIDS

So why is this relevant to Skepticism? Well, note the site: Science-Based Medicine.

I suppose I should make it clear that I am not necessarily on either extreme of the "pro/anti-circ" debate, since it seems like the existence of a supposedly clear binary has led people to polarize with extreme prejudice. This isn't necessarily about that - rather, it's about the apparent efficacy of circumcision in the prevention of HIV/AIDS, the oversimplification thereof, and extremely sloppy reasoning.

I'm going to focus on Africa, which is the focus of this research, despite the fact that the article itself seems to be focused on America.

Does circumcision result in HIV/AIDS prevention in the real world?

"Conclusions: We find a protective effect of circumcision in only one of the eight countries for which there are nationally-representative HIV seroprevalence data.".

"Data from Demographic and Health Survey show that circumcised men in six of 10 African countries (Ghana, Cameroon, Tanzania, Lesotho, Malawi, Rwanda) have higher HIV prevalence than uncircumcised men." (Quote: HIV/AIDS online article, "Male circumcision: a cut above?")

So... no, apparently not.

So why the discrepancy between the real world and trials?

One possibility is that, for some reason, all those African populations which practice circumcision are at higher risk for HIV for unrelated reasons. Correlation is not (un)causation, after all.

Another possibility is that the trials are flawed. One thought: as far as I can tell, in these trials (for example), rather than using already circumcised individuals, men are selected to be circumcised for the purpose of the trial. All three trials were stopped early on an "ethical basis". Perhaps the fact that intercourse is discouraged/less likely for some duration after circumcision (due to the risk of infection and the fact that it fucking hurts) has something to do with it - i.e., the results could be skewed because the circumcised group is simply fucking less over the (shortened) trial period.

I'm sure there are any number of angles I am not considering.

What about the womens?

No convincing evidence exists that male circumcision reduces HIV transfer rate to women. In one study, "17 (18%) women in the intervention group and eight (12%) women in the control group acquired HIV during follow-up." It was stopped early based upon "futility".

It has been suggested that the apparent prevention of HIV in men will essentially "trickle down" to women and result in net benefits for all. I don't know if this is true, but I know it hinges on the observed effects being real in the first place, which I think is on shaky ground, and even then it isn't clear to me how this is supposed to happen (I'm sure an epidemiologist could explain).

I've encountered arguments that any resistance to circumcision as a mitigating tactic against HIV is putting the mens above the womens. The results so far lead me to believe that this is erroneous.

Does this encourage healthy sexual practice?

That I have seen, this is a particularly major worry. Apparently circumcision is being touted in some countries as an alternative to condom usage, with lines like "invisible condom", "you won't need to use a condom", etc. This is extremely dangerous. If this attitude is left uncorrected, we will see a rise in HIV rates for everyone involved, especially the women. It is completely disingenuous to even discuss the subject without acknowledging this.

So, is neonatal circumcision ethical (in Africa)?

That really depends. If the figures really do hold up in the real world (and we should know before long, since circumcision is the next big thing in many African countries), I would contend that yes, it is. Adult circumcisions are much more expensive and complicated than neonatal ones - in Africa, this definitely matters. In the context of the HIV/AIDS crisis in Africa, I think this could be considered an acceptable breach of ethics. That's if the real world really supports the trials.

The same is not true of America. This is a much richer country with a much lower HIV rate and much higher circumcision rate. All of these negate the whole premise. We can handle waiting until adulthood in order to honor informed consent. The veracity with which we jump into forcing this on children has nothing to do with its effect on HIV - the reasoning is completely transparent. (BTW: The effect on men who have sex with men - the highest risk group in America - is demonstrably insignificant. Why is it different? I have no idea.)

We don't mandate condom use for babies because they aren't fucking. Where possible, we should also not mandate (or practice) circumcision on babies for the same reason.

Besides female genital mutilation also reduces HIV and [things], but we don't endorse that. Same thing, right?

I disagree. Female genital mutilation is in a whole 'nother league from male circumcision (seriously, anyone taking this stance is probably unfamiliar with just what FGM is). Similar ethical boundaries exist (of permanently modifying childrens' bodies without or against their consent), but the two should not be conflated offhand anymore than male circumcision should be conflated offhand with...

Piercing babies' ears. ("By your definition, that’s mutilation, too?")

(Quote: SBM poster)

An (American normative) ear piercing is a tiny fistula in the ear lobe, the width of a pin. Circumcision is the skinning of the head of the penis. They are inequivalent in practically the same magnitude as the last issue.

At the same time, the reasoning behind this makes no sense. So you think the situation is equivalent. So what? Is piercing babies' ears self evidently ethical? No, it isn't. A commenter points out that the practice is illegal in many countries, although I believe this is tangential to its ethics. You would not condone the tattooing, branding, or [non-normative piercing] of children, I imagine. Why is this practice, specifically, left alone?

"Why do people attempt to derail the discussion by using inflammatory language like 'mutilation'?"

(Quote: SBM poster)

(Oh, this is familiar. Wahhh! That word is so divisive!)

While I don't personally use the word "mutilation" for male circumcision, the use of the word to refer to body modification done without consent for no medical purpose does indeed fit the bill. Resorting to tone argument on it is the real derail.

"...wouldn’t [reduced sensitivity] be an argument FOR circumcision since prolonging intercourse seems to be an accepted goal for many men?"

(Quote: SBM poster)

This is the most crass and absurd argument for male circumcision in children. Permanently modifying childrens' bodies with no ability for them to consent and making the post-hoc rationalization that "well, it's better for them anyway" has no defensibility to it whatsoever.

In any case, no statistically significant difference exists between the ejaculation period of circumcised and uncircumcised males - the same cannot necessarily be said of sensitivity, depending on whether the foreskin is a sensitive instrument (me? I got no clue).

"A visitor from outer space might be forgiven for concluding that the most important part of the human body is the foreskin. It is, after all, the only part of the body that has multiple organizations devoted to its preservation in the natural state."

(Quote: SBM poster)

First, I love the alien anthropologist method of isolating human weirdness. Fuck you for fucking it up.

Fuck you some more for erasing the work being done by groups who (also) oppose female genital mutilation, the modification of intersex childrens' genitalia without consent, and other nonconsensual mutilation.

Fuck you even more for making a joke out of the fact that we need those organizations because people keep cutting their childrens' bodies up.


e-cigarette safety

This post consists basically of a few points:

[examples] have been done to lower the risk factor of smoking. They didn't work.

The examples also consist of smoke inhalation which is, you know, the most harmful part. The e-cigarette method, consisting of vapor inhalation, is an erroneous conflation with this group.

If people think it's safer, they'll stay hooked on nicotine.

If it is safer, that seems well worth the risk.

Not enough research.

Here are some links.


And a newscientist article, just for fun.

It's understandable to say that there isn't enough research available, but when you ignore the research that has been done, you're being disingenuous (to be charitable).

And the pearl clutching about e-cigs is bullshit, people. Stop.


On Dark Matters

This is a random post, and I've been wanting to talk about the universe, but really... it's been done better than I possibly could. So, random linkdump.

(Dark matter exists, y'all. It's not even controversial, really. What's controversial is what particle it's made of. We also don't know what particle gives things mass [we're just betting really hard on the Higgs Boson], but we're pretty sure the whole having mass thing is real. Just putting that out there.)

What is Dark Matter?
Dark Matter Part I
Dark Matter Part II
Dark Matter Part III
Dark Matter Part 3.5
Dark Matter Part IV

Dark Matter and Large Scale Structure
Dark Matter Smoke Ring

Possible detections:
Fermi May Have Spotted Dark Matter
Dark Matter Detected?

Dark energy exists, too. We just don't know why.

"Dark Energy: What it took to get me to believe"
Dark Energy Part 1
Dark Energy Part 2
Dark Energy Part 3
Dark Energy Part 4

The Cosmological Not-So-Constant


  1. Wow very thought provoking and interesting post.

    On infant circumcision my take is always that the child has the right to the choice, especiallyas a grown aduult may regret that this choice was made for them, and the parent has the responsibility to maximising the childs choice once the child is capable of making the choice.

    So that would make the choice by an adult of the circumcision of their children Unethical but an adults choosing for themselves to be circumcised or any other body modification Ethical.

    You raise some good points about irrationality and mental illness. I may need to reevaluate my opinion on the Cognitive Behaviour Therapy model that (some) mental illness stems from holding irrational beliefs, though it's apparently high rate of success may then need some alternate explanation than the accuracy of it's assumptions.

  2. I'm not sure what I even personally consider to be "mental illness" - I suppose I would term it to be primarily that which the person suffering it finds to be maladaptive, I guess. I don't really come at the issue from the standpoint of what mental illness is, though, but what irrationality is.

    Even if mental illness were necessarily irrational (which I do disagree with), it would only be a special case, a single facet of a much greater whole of irrationality. People are innately predisposed to fear snakes and spiders and things - this is irrational (speaking as someone who loves snakes and spiders!), but it has nothing to do with any reasonable definition of mental illness. Churches have evolved around foundations of irrationality, spurned in large part by a historic need to understand but a lack of capacity to do so - this has nothing to do with mental illness, but rather the behavior of humans of all mentalities acting in the absence of the ready availability of demonstrably true explanations for their deep questions about their own existence. People tend to assume intentionality in unfairness and unite their beliefs into overarching theories - a major theme in altmed, where Big Pharma is the intentional force behind all physical ills and the solution is a single remedy which taps into some nebulous force of reality to cure all disease. These are not the result of mental illnesses. They are the result of people being people. It isn't just damaging to people with mental illness to throw one's hands up and attribute all this to "crazies" and such, it is also damaging to one's own argument. If we don't know try to understand why people believe what they believe - and, indeed, a major theme in Skepticism is to openly gloat about the inability to fathom why people believe as they do - we close ourselves to better ways of addressing irrationality.

  3. Oh, and I just recalled one particularly egregious example of "mental illness" having no demomstrably irrational component: depressive realism.

  4. Hmm regarding snakes and spiders isn't that a learned fear? I had read the only instinctive fear we start with is of falling and even that is with exceptions. But your point about religion is a good one.

    Clearly not all irrationality is mental illness. Generalising and projecting from small amounts of data are poor ways of getting at understanding and prone to mistakes but may have had substantial enough survival benefits to have become a major part of our cognition, just one we all must watch out for.

    As for all mental illness being irrational or not my knowledge and experience is limited, but the criticism raised of depressive realism in that link by Dykman et al seems a potentially important one. An Ex of mine certainly claimed she was the one without irrational illussions, which is why when her suicide plans were foiled she tried to convince the police that happiness was illusuary and impossible for them as well and they too should stop lying about their being any happiness in life and kill themselves. But perhaps she was not an actual example of this depressive realism you mention.

    Regarding self-definition of mental ilness, this is interesting but i see two possible troubles with it. The first is that some may see themslves as having a maladaptation that is seem by them to be so only because of societal prejudice that they have internalised.

    The second is that someone may not consider they have any maladaptive problem and yet they may still be trampling over the basic human rights of others either oblivious to this or perceiving themselves to be justified. Someone who is violent in response to subjectively perceiving themselves as protecting others under attack when those others are not objectively or in their own perception under any danger or discomfort.

    Still much to ponder.

  5. If trampling on the human rights of others is mental illness by definition, then every legal defence is "insanity defence" by definition. My own concept of what mental illness is is completely arbitrary and unfounded at this point and I'm not in any position to make claims about it/defence of it, but at the same time I can make some logical conjectures about what mental illness ought not be considered (in the same way that I don't have enough knowledge of biology to tell you exactly what a turtle is with anatomical detail, but I have a decent understanding of what a turtle isn't). Any definition of mental illness which simply offers negative behavior as a justification for the use of the term is unworkable. It is well understood that mentality "normative" people are capable of irrationality, cruel behavior, cult worship,
    violence - pick a card, any card, you can pretend that they're all results of the "mentally ill" by definition because they're bad things, but in reality it's all normative human behavior explicable by generalized understanding of human cognition, not merely bad apples. Such conjecture is disingenuous, intellectually lazy, and damaging not only to those considered mentally ill but to our understanding of the human condition and the best way to understand and improve upon it.

    Regarding spiders and snakes, I say "predisposed" as, I imagine, it is probably impossible to fear snakes until one is aware of the existence of snakes, but it certainly seems that fear develops for snakes and spiders more readily and reflexively than it does for stimuli which should rationally associated with fears (guns, cars, other dangerous modern stimuli). Here's a couple of article on the subject that showed up under a google search.

    Also, the depressive realism example is just that, an example. It isn't important to the crux of the argument - mental illness and rational beliefs do not necessarily have anything to do with one another. Here's another example - the person concerned describes irrational delusions, but a.) those are not the only component of the experience of being mentally ill and b.) she also has the rational capacity to ignore these delusions, which puts the phenomena in a completely different category than someone who simply "believes crazy things".

    Regarding depression, everyone experiences it differently. I would point out that a.) as terrible as it sounds, suicidal thoughts and tendencies are not, by necessity, irrational by any workable definition, b.) not everyone who is depressed believes that happiness is "an illusion" or that others could not be happy (speaking as someone who has experienced deep depression for most of my life, I have never experienced this), and c.) one common attribute of depression is expression/belief of apathy (e.g. "whatever", "I don't care", "it doesn't matter anyway", etc.) which, while being negative is also not necessarily irrational by any workable definition (being a finite organism, you don't care about most things - is this irrational?). So even while depressive realism is controversial, depression is not necessarily irrational.

  6. With the human rights mention, it was part of a problem i saw in self definition rather than a neccessary criteria for being mentally ill or itself only done by those mentally ill.

    For example someone delusional and accepting the delusions as reality such as one individual i spoke to years ago told me about their experiences where they came to perceive the health workers as Nazi doctors experimenting on the innocent and so tried to attack their doctor. At the time they did not see themselves as maladaptive or delusional and so would not have self defined as mentally ill.

    Mind you it does also suggest that your argument about rationality has grounding, as if one perceives that the doctors are Nazi doctors experimenting on people against their will and is unaware that they are delusioned then violence would be a rational response to that situation.

    On the snakes and spiders subject I wonder how, if at all, culture and media is removed from the equation? Certainly tv and film I saw in my childhood showed plenty of snakes as dangerous and spiders as dangerous. And while Australia has some of the worlds most deadly snakes they were a human food source for Aboriginal Australians, something found in other countries too. I wonder if the same studies were done with peoples from a variety of cultures the same result would be found? The ability to identify snakes more easilly than frogs may have more to do with the ease of identifying the shape or even an evolutionary development to detect something that might be possible food to be hunted as much as a potential threat.

    Considering the threat that felines have had to humans and pre-humans why would we find housecats cute and admire tigers and lions? They suggest everyday exposure but through human evolution plenty of large cats were top of the line predators and therfore a tremendous threat to humans. I recall especially a museum exhibit of a hominid skull perforated by the teeth of a sabre-toothed cat. These were creatures that would have presented a serious threat to early hunter-gatherers as well as competition for food resources. Why also have serpents been images of positive religious force and reverement in many cultures (The Naga of southeast Asia, the Rainbow Serpent of Aboriginal Australia, Kukulkan/Quetzalcoatl of Central and Southern America etc)?

    I find myself very very sceptical of the studies conclusions.

    On depression, good points!

  7. On snakes and cats and things, I would make the point that reverence, awe, and fear are quite congruent emotions. All of these emotions are pretty common alongside fears that could be considered predisposed in humans - like heights and large predators (cats, wolves, bears etc.) - and are also pretty much par for the course as far as gods go. In fact, I wonder that the exceptions (gods historically unassociated with fear, fears historically unassociated with gods and reverence), might not be the odd ones out.

    At the same time, there are, of course, many ways of interpreting the data from those studies. What gets me is not these studies but that these fears are so common, whereas fears of things that are also associated with the same scary imagery on television and the same safety warnings but are more modern are so rare. At the same time, this is complete conjecture, so I probably should have thrown in a "possibly" before.

    Also, you're right, the tentative definition of mental illness I put forward breaks down for something like the situation you mentioned. I think the definition should really be something consistent with physiological illness, but I can't think of any way to frame it in this way without potentially making erroneous associations.

  8. There is indeed big philosophical troubles with any definition of mental illness and psychology as a field is rife with problems in finding good explanatory scientific models for what it interacts with. I suspect in time neurology will totally replace psychology.

    You have a great point about awe/fear/reverement. While cereal crop gods existed in sufficient numbers there have been plenty of fearsome gods. Still i don't see why there would be such a serpents-bad cats-good divide.

    Fear of flying i've heard is pretty common.. an extention of fear of falling or something more? Whereas guns can't easilly be put in the scary catagory because they are so idolised in culture at the same time. Car accidents would be scary.. but they are also portrayed as amusing or entertaining in film and tv. These sorts of modern dangers have a double-sided representation. Cats have had bad press at times connected with the devil and witches but these days get mostly good press, lions and tigers too, even the sabretooth cats in Ice Age are shown fairly positively considering. Snakes and spiders on the other hand in modern western culture get little positive press that i've seen and usually quite negative.

  9. I'm stretching my argument thin on the fear thing, but I do find it interesting so...
    The cats/snakes good/bad dichotomy might simply be an artifact, an association made for cultural reasons but in both cases forming around the same core: fear. The revered/reviled dichotomy also shows up in religions around gods/devils, but both of these concepts are (often) supported an underpinning of fear. So that's one explanation: fear is the reason that we form such strong judgments about these creatures and whether that fear fosters negative or positive associations is secondary.

    Also, I agree with you that neurology will probably replace psychology eventually. The dichotomy existing right now is a matter of convenience. The current situation is basically a "symptom-ology" and a "functional-ology" dichotomy - i.e., one branch of science to determine that something is "going wrong" and another branch of science to determine what is "going wrong".


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