Michael Eriksson's Blog

A Swede in Germany

Posts Tagged ‘science

Brief thoughts on the decline of Latin and Greek as a scientific languages

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When I first, as a child, learned of the use Latin and Greek names for various plants, animals, and whatnot, it was explained to me that this was done to (a) ensure that there was a name that scientists speaking different languages could use and still be understood by each other, (b) still keep the names in a single language.

I am far from certain that this explanation is correct: More likely, the likes of Linnaeus simply started a tradition based on Latin as the then “science language” for his extensive classifications,* which was kept long after Latin lost ground to modern languages.

*Just like I prefer to write in English over Swedish—why not use the language more likely to be understood?

Still, the purported idea is quite sound: Using a single language allows for greater consistency and enables those so interested to actually learn that single language in order to make identification of the item behind the name that much easier;* and Latin has the advantage of lacking** potential for conflict (as might have been the case if English and French or Mandarin and Japanese were pitted against each other).

*Indeed, even a limited knowledge can be a great help, e.g. by knowing a few commonly occurring suffixes and prefixes.

**Or should do so in any sane era: Some politically correct fanatics apparently consider anything relating to “Western Culture” something to be condemned in a blanket manner. Nothing is certain, except for death, taxes, and human stupidity.

Unfortunately, the scientists of old did not stick to Latin, often turning to Greek. (This includes the names of many (most?) dinosaurs.) However this situation was still reasonably tolerable.

Then things started to get out of hand: Over the last few decades names have increasingly been coined in any locale language. For instance, this text was prompted by the recent discovery of the dinosaur genus Ledumahadi—apparently named “a giant thunderclap at dawn”* in Sesotho

*The silliness and apparent lack of “scientificity” of the meaning, however, has little to do with the language. Dinosaurs have been given similarly silly names from the early days of scientific attention (and many less silly names for extinct animals are obscure through e.g. referring to the shape of a tooth). In contrast, many of Linnaeus names could draw directly on existing Latin names for at least the genus (as e.g. with “homo sapiens”—“homo” being the Latin word for human).

Going by Wikipedia, Sesotho has some five or six million native speakers—considerably less than Swedish today and an even smaller proportion of the world population than Sweden in the days of (my fellow Swede) Linnaeus*. If Linnaeus picked Latin over Swedish back then, how can we justify picking Sesotho over both Latin and English today? The idea is contrary to reason.

If someone were to argue that Latin and Greek, specifically, had grown impractical due to the reduced knowledge among today’s scientists, I might have some sympathies. However, if we concluded that they should go, the reasonable thing to do would be to opt for English as the sole language, thereby ensuring the largest global understandibility. If not English, then some other, truly major language, e.g. Mandarin*, Hindi*, or Spanish should have been considered. Sesotho is useless as single language, and not using a single language will end with names that appear entirely random. It will usually even be impossible to know what language a name is in, without additional research, making it that much harder to find out the meaning.

*Here additional thought might be needed on how the names should be written. (Original writing system? Transliterated to the Latin alphabet? Otherwise?)

For those interested in “local” names, there is always the possibility of introducing an everyday name for the local language: Dinosaurs have normally been known by their scientific names even in the general population, but there is no actual law that this must be the case. Call the Ledumahadi “Ledumahadi” in Sesotho and use a Latin or Greek translation* as the scientific name and the default in other languages.

*My limited knowledge does not allow me to make a suggestion.


Written by michaeleriksson

September 29, 2018 at 5:46 pm

Follow-up: A few thoughts on what constitutes science

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As a follow-up to a previous text on science (and falsification):

Reading a discussion on due-process problems at Brown University, I see at least one special case where falsifiability can be a very good way of identifying non-science: When the system is rigged so that what a reasonable observer would see as falsification is turned into non-falsification—or even confirmation.

In this specific case, a college-internal sexual-assault proceeding was perverted by “training” given to the panelists, effecting exactly that:*

*Quoted from the linked-to page with changes only to formatting. Bracketed text is by the original author. Smith is a real judge presiding over a subsequent real trial.

After the incident, the accuser told a roommate what a great time she had with the student she’d eventually accuse; post-incident text messages sent by the accuser likewise indicated her having consented to sex. But one of the panelists, Besenia Rodriguez, said she didn’t consider the post-incident texts or conversations because her interpretation of Brown’s “training” suggested that sexual assault survivors behave in “counter-intuitive” ways. Therefore, she reasoned, “it was beyond my degree of expertise to assess [the accuser]’s post-encounter conduct . . . because of a possibility that it was a response to trauma.”

Rodriguez’s contention that her university-provided training shows that essentially any behavior—intuitive or counter-intuitive—proves sexual assault “clearly comes close to the line” of arbitrary and capricious conduct, Smith noted. Yet the training Rodriguez received, and the mindset she reflects appears to be commonplace in campus sexual assault matters.

In effect: How the alleged victim behaves after the alleged assault can incriminate the alleged perpetrator—but can never acquit.

This is the more problematic, because many of the accounts I have read over the years follow a pattern of: Boy and girl have a sexual, romantic, and/or flirting relationship of some duration. An event* takes places. Boy and girl continue their sexual, romantic, and/or flirting relationship. At a later time, sometimes months after the event, boy leaves girl, is caught with another girl, or shows interest in others. Girl immediately goes to college officials and declares the event to have been a rape or a sexual assault…

*I am deliberately vague, because (a) these are typically word-against-word situations, which make it hard to “find the facts”, (b) “finding the (college) law” is often done in a matter that goes well beyond what the regular law, established norms, common sense, whatnot would consider reasonable, e.g. in that even sex with mutual consent is considered a crime when the consent was not explicitly spoken or that of two equally drunk consenting partners, one was considered capable of consent and the other not. Worse examples exists—including here, claims the discussion, “[…]Brown’s current policy, which defines sexual assault as including such behavior as a male student giving a female student flowers, or flattering her, in hopes of getting her to agree to sex.”, which would make any type of courtship a potential sexual assault…

Similar cases (regarding falsification) include claims by self-proclaimed psychics that the presence of skeptics blocks their powers (i.e. “that I failed is not proof that I am wrong—it is proof that there is a skeptic present”); and feminists interpreting evidence in counter-intuitive or implausible ways to fit their preconceived ideas, notably in that signs of sex differences in behavior even in very young children are not seen as a falsification of their “tabula rasa” ideas, instead being proof that the “Patriarchy”, “gender stereotyping”, “structures”, whatnot are even stronger and earlier in their effects.

However, this does not alter the conclusions of my earlier text: The above is normally* not a matter of whether a certain claim/theory/model/whatnot is falsifiable (by a reasonable standard). The problem lies in one party (deliberately/dishonestly or through lack of reason) finding excuses to deny the falsification (by applying an unreasonable standard).

*In theory, it would likely be possible to construct, in advance, a more complex system that would be unfalsifiable for similar reasons—and, if so, the lack of falsifiability could be a strong argument against the status as science. However, even then, I strongly suspect that there would be other avenues to discredit the system, e.g. by pointing to tautologies or to insist upon an investigation of individual claims using system-external methods. (It could even be argued that no system, short of an “explanation of everything”, that alleges complete self-sufficiency could ever be trusted as a model of the real world.) To boot, the instances that I have seen to date have always struck me as fairly obvious “excuse making”, likely also having arisen after a first encounter with a falsification. (This includes all three examples mentioned above.)

Excursion on colleges and quasi-judicial proceedings:
Considering both the extreme problems with due process (and competence, and consistency, and fairness, …) that exist today and the lack of obvious justification for this type of parallel justice system, I strongly recommend that colleges be prevented, if need be by real laws, to hold such quasi-judicial proceedings. Either a crime is alleged (and then the real police/DA/courts/… should handle the issue) or it is not (and then the college has no legitimate reason to call for punishment).* If and when a real conviction follows, the college might** be entitled to apply additional consequences; if it does not follow, the college should let things be. Even when a real conviction does follow, the college must respect the presumption of innocence in the time leading up to said conviction.

*With reservations for matters relating directly to the academic aspects (e.g. cheating on tests), where any other organization would be expected to act (e.g. gross disturbance of the peace), and when an any organization might legitimately suggest a mutual solution without law involvement. However, even here the student (like with conflicts with other organizations) should always have the choice to clarify the issue by criminal or civil law. College-dictated constraints on how students should interact sexually or romantically with each other are certainly not covered by these exceptions—and should not be allowed in the first place.

**Depending on the severity of the crime, potentially negative effects of the punishment or lack there of on the involved parties, etc. I note, however, that e.g. suspending or expelling someone for a parking ticket would be over-kill, while doing the same to someone who is about to go to jail for ten years will usually be redundant. Obviously, a college should not be allowed to e.g. expel someone and keep the full semester fees…

Written by michaeleriksson

August 10, 2018 at 5:31 pm

A few thoughts on what constitutes science

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I have long been annoyed by some general takes on science, especially with too great a focus on e.g. falsifiability, specific methods, and even, to some part, stringency.

To avoid misunderstandings, I consider these to all be important for science as a whole; however, they are not necessarily that important when we look at whether any given individual theory, hypothesis, experiment, model …, should be considered “scientific” at any given time. Ditto when it comes to the person behind them.

I tend to view science (in very abstract terms) as a combination of two antagonistic/interacting/complementary/whatnot aspects*: The addition of suggested knowledge, e.g. through observation, experimentation, induction, mathematical analysis, and even sheer speculation; and the removal of such suggested knowledge, e.g. through observation, experimentation, induction, mathematical analysis, and even sheer speculation**. In this manner, we have a gradually changing set of suggested knowledge, where the certainty*** ranges from next to nothing to very high, depending on factors like how long a certain item has remained unremoved, how much additional**** evidence has turned up, whether it is compatible with other suggested items, …

*Quite similar to how Evolution can, with some oversimplification, be viewed as the result of the combination of natural variation and natural selection. (I almost wrote “mutation”, but this would have been misleading, seeing that variation also occurs e.g. through genetic mixture in offspring, and at least some degree of Evolution would take place even absent mutation, or possibly further mutation. Instead, I opted for an ad hoc “natural variation”,)

**I am not entirely convinced that the inclusion of “speculation” is warranted in the second list. This could depend on perspective, the details of the matter, and how legitimate the filtering is. I choose to include it for reasons of symmetry, and lacking the reverse conviction that it must be excluded.

***This word should be taken with a grain of salt, as even long accepted “knowledge” can be modified or, rarely, rejected outright. If nothing else, it often turns out that e.g. a certain theory or model only is valid within certain contexts, e.g. sufficiently weak gravitational fields. The above process will (with some reservations for mathematics, formal logic, and similar) never create something true beyond the possibility of change—there is no certainty: What we have is more like a series of (ideally: improving) approximations of the true this-and-that.

****Which I have so far informally considered a part of the “addition” aspect; however, which might be better off in an aspect of its own. (As occurs to me during writing. Note that I am not trying to describe a formal and detailed philosophy of science, but merely my own intuitive and previously unwritten take.)

Consider e.g. the observation that the single apple hanging from a specific tree fell to the ground at sun-rise. We can now make, for instance, the two suggestions that if an apple falls, it will fall towards the ground; and that any apple will always fall at or around sun-rise. This is the addition aspect. To apply the removal aspect, we find another apple tree and watch it for some time. We might now find that no apple fell at or around sun-rise, and we can remove the second suggestion. At the same time, we might have observed that four apples fell at other times, and that these apples did fall towards the ground, thereby strengthening that suggestion. This remains the state of knowledge, well-supported by great amounts of additional observation, for quite some time—then someone brings an apple to a space-station… Observations on the space-station could then invalidate the “apples fall to the ground” hypothesis, but also add sufficient information to suggest a new and better hypothesis. (As can be seen, these two aspects are not necessarily separate phases or otherwise separate—quite often, they go hand in hand. However, the time between them can be long for any given suggestion.)

If we now consider the specific topic of falsification and science, the above did contain falsification—and, indeed, the removal aspect could to some degree be approximated by a pure falsification aspect. However, falsification is, then, at most half of science. Should someone who made the first observation and speculation be considered a non-scientist merely for not having himself performed further observation and experimentation, e.g. leaving it to someone who had a greater interest in the matter? No!* Should a hypothesis that is not falsifiable be considered “unscientific”, solely on the immediate** grounds of not being falsifiable? No—being or not being falsifiable does not alter the potential truth of a claim. We should, obviously, be aware and signal that what we see at an early stage might yet be highly speculative, lacking in independent verification, be poorly tested, …—but that does not automatically make it unscientific.***

*However, if he failed to appreciate the possibility that he was wrong, cf. below, the situation could be very different.

**But see below for why falsifiability is a hard-to-avoid criterion, even when its absence is allowed.

***In contrast, a refusal to consider evidence to the contrary, experimentation that is obviously flawed, conclusions that manifestly do not follow from the given set of observations, an overstatement of certainty, and outright cheating are all examples of things that can earn the label “unscientific” (or e.g. “pseudo-scientific”).

Indeed, to me, the core of being a scientist is simply this: Having a great wish to find out the truth—even should that truth be contrary to one’s own current beliefs, the scientific consensus, the public opinion, the claims of a powerful religion or the government, whatnot. This not necessarily to say that everyone having that core is automatically a scientist*; however, anyone who lacks it does not deserve the title. (In other words, the claim of being a scientist has been falsified for those who demonstrate the absence…) Similarly, the application of that attitude is the sine qua non for calling an activity “science” or “scientific”.

*Defining what makes a scientist, apart from the core, goes well beyond the area where I have a fix opinion. However, I do reject the notions that anyone with a Ph.D., or other specific degree, automatically is a scientist and that anyone without one automatically is not. (I also note that the word “scientist” could, depending on context, be used in a wider or narrower meaning, e.g. in that retirees or non-natural scientists are in- or excluded, or that someone with a certain qualification containing “scientist” or “science” is sloppily included in a blanket manner. These uses do not affect the more abstract concept discussed by me, however.)

Looking at falsification more in detail, there are (at least) two arguments for resp. against it. For it: Firstly, that anything really worth* knowing will have effects and that these effects can be tested against reality**, which opens a door for falsification. Secondly, that many hypotheses can by their nature not be positively proved (even should they be true!), while having a “co-hypothesis” that can be*** (which amounts to falsification of the hypothesis). Against it: Firstly, that falsifiability can usually (cf. the footnote***) only be used in one direction, making it a weak tool that needs other tools to help it. (Or, from another perspective: It only covers one of the two main aspects, cf. above). Secondly, that it often lacks the ability to consider anything but absolute existence/non-existence or another absolute.****

*Whether e.g. the Earth is orbited by a tea-pot is only interesting, beyond sheer curiosity, if its presence or absence has effects. Would it, e.g., double the tidal waves in size? If so, we can use mathematical modeling to to predict what the tidal waves should be with and without its presence. If the waves are not of the height predicted by the model, we can tentatively consider its existence falsified. (This cannot be done with certainty, e.g. because there might be other unknown influences or a modeling error.) On the other hand, if there are no suggested effects, be they tidal or other, it really does not matter whether the tea-pot exists. (As an aside, a reason why non-falsifiable hypotheses have a bad reputation is that exactly the absence of testable effects are used by charlatans to ensure that their claims cannot be repudiated. However, abusus non tollit usum.)

**In principle: It can well be that a practical test is only possible at some future time, e.g. due to restrictions in current technology. (Say, that current telescopes are not strong enough to spot a tea-pot in space.) Another reason could be that the effects that could be tested would only manifest at some point in the future, say that the tea-pot will only turn on its tidal magic ten years into the future (such complications are comparatively rare in e.g. physics, but could be of great interest if we look at e.g. economics).

***Consider again the tea-pot in space (with no “special powers”): In due time, its existence could be proved e.g. by observation from a space-ship, but its non-existence could never be, because we might simply have missed the right part of (enormously large) space: If we see it, we know that its there; if we do not see it, we do not know that it is not there. (This is, obviously, the traditional “black swan” example in a different guise.) In the same way, very many hypotheses are only open to one of proof and disproof—and those open to proof are often so only through the disproof of the co-hypothesis that the original hypothesis is false. Correspondingly, either we try to falsify the hypothesis it self (for a disproof), or we turn the hypothesis around and try to falsify the co-hypothesis (for a proof). (Fellow computer scientists should recognize the same principle in concepts like recursive and co-recursive enumerability; and see the similarity to the logical rules that A -> B and not-B implies not-A, while A -> B and B does not imply A.)

****In the original tea-pot example we have such an absolute—but what if the hypothesis was that tea-pots in space (not just Earth-orbit) are rare? Suddenly, finding that one tea-pot does not falsify the hypothesis. Even finding many millions of tea-pots would not necessarily help, unless they were distributed so that we could speculate (without a “true” falsification) that the density of of tea-pots in space is above some threshold. However, seeing that tea-pots have a connection to Earth, their presence near-by would not necessarily be even a rough indication when we move away from Earth. In contrast, (still non-falsifyingly), we could find that there are no or only very few (relative volume of space) tea-pots close to Earth, then that there are no or only very few tea-pots in increasingly greater and greater areas of space, after which the inductive claim could be made that tea-pots in space are in all likelihood rare, giving support to the hypothesis. If we had insisted on falsification, we could make no claim, not even of likelihood, in either direction; dropping falsification, we at least have something.

Excursion on myself:
Do I consider myself a scientist? Mostly, “no”; for the simple reason that my active* pursuit of truth and knowledge is usually related to areas outside of science. I do pride myself on having the above core, however; and I do have reasonable formal qualifications in form of two master degrees, should someone still use degrees as the main criterion. (I have a semi-finished text on “labels” where I will explore such topics a little further.)

*As in e.g. trying to come up with something on my own, and as opposed to e.g. reading and contemplating someone elses ideas. Cf. the difference between the first two items of an older list/discussion.

Excursion on pseudo-science:
A related problem is the application of “pseudo-science” based on e.g. the contents of what is researched. For instance, if a crypto-zoologist searches in good faith* for a rumored animal for which there are no strong scientific contraindications and whose existence is not obviously unlikely, it is wrong to automatically consider him (or his field) pseudo-science. Indeed, the undue tendency to do so has given crypto-zoologists a good excuse towards much of the (even rightfully) levied criticism of their work—on rare occasions, something new and spectacular has shown up (e.g. the mountain gorilla).** Instead, we should look at how scientific or unscientific his attitude and his methods are.

*As opposed e.g. a search for a hypothesized animal that not even he believes in, with the intent to give him publicity and to increase his book sales.

**And less spectacular new species are discovered quite often.

Similarly, older and now debunked theories, e.g. concerning the aether, phlogiston, or even phrenology, should not be condemned as pseudo-science after the fact. If someone today supports phrenology, that is quite likely to be pseudo-science, because the support will almost certainly require ignoring scientific developments that had not taken place when phrenology thrived. On the other hand, whether phrenology was a pseudo-science should be judged by the attitude and methods of the original proponents.* An area of science does not magically turn into pseudo-science when its ideas turn out to be wrong—it turns into outdated science. A good contrast is homeopathy: Today’s homeopathy is pseudo-science and/or quackery, because it has been continued against all reason; however, the original incarnation need not have been.

*Whether phrenologists (or the earliest homeopaths) would have passed the test, I honestly do not know. However, e.g. aether theories were a part of main-stream science for at least several decades, possibly considerably longer.

Of course, under no circumstances is it allowed to use “pseudo-science” based merely on disagreement with the conclusions or e.g. concerns of political correctness. Consider the common, usually grossly unfair, accusations raised by political activists against e.g. intelligence research as a racist or sexist pseudo-science—which is it self a thoroughly unscientific stance. (The reader might have seen me referring to e.g. gender studies as a pseudo-science. Based on what I have seen so far of attitude and methods, I stand by that assessment.)

Written by michaeleriksson

August 1, 2018 at 12:22 am

Publishing of a censored comment II

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In the Swedish blogosphere, I have repeatedly stumbled across comments by one “Nymnchen”. She almost invariably goes on my nerves, because she has the very unfortunate tendency to try to lecture others from a position of deep ignorance and repeatedly proved weakness when it comes to reasoning and critical thinking. (One of the most extreme examples of the Dunning–Kruger effectw that I have ever encountered. Note that I actually enjoy and feel that I profit from discussing issues with intelligent, informed, and well-reasoned disagreers—Nymnchen is none of the three.) So in her latest comments on an old Swedish bloge: Here a new debater asks for clarification concerning some claims about the contents and conclusions of a few academic papers that she cites in favour of her position. None of the questions were in anyway inappropriate. Furthermore, with Nymnchen, there is more than a fair chance than the research she cites does not actually back her position.

Her responses contained very little of constructive character, but did contain a long rant about how presumptuous it is for a layman to question a published paper… (A rant, through which she, unsurprisingly, proved herself to be ignorant about science.) I posted the following (regrettably, censored) reply:


Oavsett ditt sista inlägg ser jag mig tvungen till följande svar, framförallt då jag från tidigare debatter har intrycket att din egen förståelse av god forskning och kritiskt tänkande inte ger dig rätt att kritisera andra:

Din argumentation när det gäller forskning är i sig på gränsen till oseriös. Helt säkert finns det ingenting att invända mot att en lekman framför synpunkter och ställer frågor. Skulle dessa vara naiva, då räcker det ju med att förklara varför.

Hur det förhåller sig med kvaliteten i just det här fallet kan jag inte säga. Generellt sett är dina utsagor dock av begränsad giltighet (och med tanke på vad Johan frågade verkar de orättvisa). Betänk tex att:

o Det finns inkompetenta i alla branscher, inklusive forskning.

o Även goda forskare kan falla offer för önsketänkande, ”confirmation bias”, och liknande.

o Områden som tex socialvetenskap och nationalekonomi har ofta problem med en ideologisk komponent som inte alltid undantrycks tillräckligt.

o Det finns många papers som har gått igenom peer-review och likväl senare visat sig vara felaktiga eller, i vissa fall, innehållande direkta klumpigheter. En rätt vanlig attityd är att den verkliga peer-review följer efter publicering, när inte bara en eller två, utan hundratals ”peers”, kan ge sina synpunkter.

o Det är inte ovanligt att det finns flera papers, alla antagna för publicering, som har olika uppfattningar. Det förekommer tom att resultat publiceras som är i stark kontrast mot ”scientific consensus”, tex undersökningar som visar på positiva resultat för homeopati.

o Även när forskningen är korrekt är det mycket, mycket vanligt att bloggare, journalister, politiker, ody., tyder forskningen på ett sätt som inte forskarna själva skulle stödja. Likaså att de rapporterar forskningsresultat utan att ange betingelser och antagande som forskarna skulle se som kritiska.

(In short: Nymnchen should be very careful about criticizing others. Publication does not make a paper the absolute truth [and here is why]. Even when the research is correct, there is no guarantee that the interpretations made by a blogger/journalist/whatnot are supported.)

Written by michaeleriksson

February 21, 2011 at 1:16 am

No—Homeopathy does not work

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For the future, I plan to not be drawn into discussions of whether homeopathy works or various aspects of the argumentation and evidence in the issue—be it with Robert Hahn or someone else. (Separate posts on specific sub-issues may still occur, however.) Instead, I will simply link here—with the request that the supporter of homeopathy read the below links and refute the discussions present there first. In the exceedingly unlikely event that he manages to do so, I will be willing to reopen the issue.

The following lines of counter-arguments are faulty and/or dishonest and will not be accepted:

  1. The claim that experimental evidence shows that homeopathy works; in particular, in combination with the claim that attempts to e.g. point to a lack of a known mechanism are merely a cover-up intended to discredit this “fact”.

    As pointed out repeatedly in the links, experimental evidence speaks against homeopathy. The accepted (weak) effects are all explained by non-medicinal factors. (Cf. the item on anekdotal evidence.)

    Exception: If, theoretically, the supporter can show a subsequent change in scientific consensus on experimental evidence, this is obviously allowed. I stress that merely pointing to the existence of a few hundred published-in-CAM-journals papers are not enough—consider the number of studies showing the opposite, the significantly lower credibility of these journals compared to the leading mainstream journals, the often lower scientific value (worse methodology, smaller samples), and publication bias. Also note the discussions of meta-studies, including Linde’s, in the linked-to articles.

  2. Ad hominem towards the authors or their sources (including accusations of self-interest or being bought by the pharma industry): If their ideas, reasoning, or facts are faulty—attack these instead. If not, well, then there is no justification whatsoever in attacking the man. Also bear in mind that it is the homeopaths who have the greater self-interest in the issue (i.e. any attack based on self-interest will strike even harder in the other direction) and that it is exceedingly unlikely that the totality of the opposition would be faulty in this regard.

    Exception: If a convincing case can be made against an individual debater, study, whatnot, with regard to e.g. methodology (not merely an alleged motive) then this may obviously legitimately be used to question an individual statement or result.

  3. As a special case: Denying non-homeopaths the right to speak on the issue. These may be less knowledgeable in the subject field, but may also bring superior knowledge or ability in other areas, including scientific methods or critical thinking. The denial is particularly weak when the outsiders are medical researchers from other areas. Further, good and correct science can be explained to outsiders in a way that is convincing—if some field as-good-as-consistently fails to do so, then this speaks strongly against it. Science bears up to scientific scrutiny and critical investigation by outsiders—quackery does not. Indeed, unwillingness to allow outsiders the opportunity to poke holes and unwillingness to constructively engage critics are themselves strong (but not conclusive) indications of quackery.

    Further note that the critics are not limited to outsiders. The possibly most notable examples are Edzard Ernstw and Willem Betz, who were both once homeopaths and now are vocal critics.

  4. Anekdotal evidence: “I know that homeopathy works! I have tried it succesfully myself.”

    There are a number of reasons why individual experiences can seem to indicate that something works when it, in fact, does not. Cf. some of the below links.

    Among explanations we have e.g. the placebo effect, coincidence and natural healing (if a thousand sick people take a particular preparation, at least some of them are likely to, by themselves, become healthy at the “right” time by sheer coincidence), an increased tendency to take medicine when a problem is at its peak, confirmation bias, and “extra-medicinal” factors like a better patient–physician relation. Further note that it is not inconceivable that some less-than-religious homeopaths would prescribe conventional medicine every now and then…

Primary sources should be used with caution in any attempt at refutation (but are certainly allowed): There is much value in primary sources, but they are also dangerous and, if possible, secondary and (to a lesser degree) tertiary sources are to be preferred (just as with e.g. Wikipedia’s take on sources). Note e.g. the greater risks of partiallity, statistical noise, methodological errors, and mis- or over-interpretation when using primary sources. This is particularly important for laymen, who often draw too fargoing conclusions from research (as proved by any number of journalists over the years). Note also that if a primary source claims X, then there may be two others that claim non-X.

A common counter-argument against clinical studies, that homeopathy would demand an individual treatment and that merely giving every patient the same cure is misleading, does have some merit. However, I am well aware of it, it is not (taken by itself) enough to convince, and there is no need to repeat it. Consider that better results in individual treatment are also what a non-medicinal explanation predicts (in particular, when several remedies are tried until something “works”), that clinical trials are still valid investigative tools (if a particular remedy is good for only one in ten, then this should still make a noticeable difference in a large enough sample or a meta-analysis), and that the alleged extreme inconsistency in results is contrary to what would be expected a priori if a medicinal effect was present (the mechanims in the human body are very similar from person to person and so complete deviations in result are very rare, allergies and over-sensitivities excepted). Further, the obvious main line of homeopathic research would then be to find better classifications and groupings to systematically pin-point the right remedies, with uses including better treatment, integration of similar methods into school medicine, and … building better samples for clinical trials. Such attempts have not been successful, which speaks strongly for a non-medicinal explanation of any success stories. Indeed, by Occam’s Razor, it is more likely that the different effects on individuals are either just an excuse or a misinterpretation of events—not an actual difference.

On with the links:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Homeopathye Note the extensive discussions pro and contra on the talk pages.

http://www.homeowatch.org/e Many further links, including an own research over-viewe.

http://www.sciencebasedmedicine.org/?p=11e Note: First of five parts. The other parts are linked from there.

http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm200910/cmselect/cmsctech/45/45.pdfe A thorough parliamentary report (UK) which includes both a high level conclusion and (in the appendix) more detailed statements and research overviews. A brief non-PDF summary from a different sourcee.

http://apgaylard.wordpress.com/2009/09/06/a-homeopathic-refutation-part-one/e (The second part deals with the dangers of homeopathy and is of little relevance to this particular discussion.)






http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1874503/table/tbl1/e Overview of meta-analyses and re-analyses based on a much-touted-by-homeopaths work by Linde. (Similar, more extensive tables are present in the PDF report above.)

Also of interest:

http://www.quackwatch.com/01QuackeryRelatedTopics/holmes.htmle A long, very well-argued, and well-known refutation of homeopathy by Oliver Wendell Holmes; however, also a very old text, which could be unfair to the homeopathy of today in at least some regards. On the plus-side, it shines some light on why there really was no reason to expect homeopathy to work in the first place.

http://www.ukskeptics.com/article.php?dir=articles&article=it_works_in_animals.phpe A brief view on homeopathy and animals—a topic otherwise given little space in the linked-to articles.

http://www.sciencebasedmedicine.org/?p=4e A broader discussion of alternative medicines and pitfalls. Generally, this site (also present with an article series above) appears to have a large number of articles of direct or indirect relevance.

Written by michaeleriksson

January 26, 2011 at 5:57 am

Science and reason

with 12 comments

As mentioned earlier, I had a piece in planning about about a few posts by a controversial Swedish professor, published Spiritist, and believer in Homeopathy—Robert Hahn. As it turns out, a reasonably full treatment would require dozens of pages, which forces me to re-think that idea. My current plan is to write a limited number of posts on various topics relating to some selected ideas and arguments of his. The number and the time frame are currently unclear (do not hold your breath), but the below is the first:

One of Hahn’s main claims appear to be that reason is bad for science—specifically, that reason leads scientists away from observable facts, allows them to explain away observations they do not like, cements their pre-existing opinions, whatnot. (See e.g. [1]e).

This claim is it self based on faulty reasoning: Science needs more reason, not less. Above all, those who correctly use reason are less likely to be caught up in excuses, more likely to interpret observations in line with reality (not with their own pre-conception of reality) respectively be more open to alternate explanations, more likely to critically examine and re-examine their opinions, and so on. Importantly, they are far more likely to apply Occam’s Razor on excessively complicated explanations, to avoid begging the question, to not confuse correlation and causation, etc.

He has a particular beef with the application of reason by outsiders, having the correct insight that outsiders can lack critical pieces of understanding and information, which can lead them astray; but failing to consider that those cases are easily resolved by the insider explaining, using reason or clearly established empirical facts, why the outsider is wrong. Should the insider not be able to do this, well, then it is time to ring the alarm bells. Ask a physicist to defend the counter-intuitive claim that a light object falls as fast as a heavy object (when the effect of air resistance is sufficiently small) and he can explain about energy conservation, potential and kinetic energy, and the connection between both types of energy and mass (all extremely well-supported by observation). Alternatively, he could explain about gravitational force, inertia, and the connection between acceleration and force (again, extremely well-supported by observation). Ask an astrologer to defend the counter-intuitive claim that a human’s life and personality are strongly determined by the configuration of the night sky at the time of his birth and no good answer will be forth-coming.

Looking specifically at observations (e.g. in a medical study) there are at least two important issues where reason is an absolute must: Firstly, interpretation of the observation and its implications. Secondly, critical examination of the correctness/representativeness of the observation and what lead to the observation. An only slightly caricatured example (I deliberately avoid the, in context, more natural area of Homeopathy, to avoid a new debate on that topic):

A gender-scientist visits a pre-school, observes that the boys and girls are treated differently (e.g. wrt attention given) and concludes that this prejudiced different treatment teaches the children to assume certain unnatural “gender-roles” and that this must be counter-acted. This line of thought has a number of problems in terms of lack of reasoning, including (but likely not limited to):

  1. The difference in treatment can arise because of individual variations in the children, non-representative behaviour in the adults, or previous mutual experiences between the involved children and adults. (A much larger study would be needed.)

  2. There is more than a fair chance that the observations were at least partially flawed due to a too casual form of observation or a pre-existing bias.

  3. The presence of an observer could have affected the behaviour of the observed, e.g. in that some boys wanted to play tough in front of the visitors or some teachers wanted to be more exemplary “motherly”.

  4. A specific causality (children of different sex are treated differently as a consequence of “gender stereotypes”) is assumed, when there are other options available—including that boys and girls behave differently to begin with, causing the adults to merely react to this behaviour.

  5. Even if different treatment occurs, it does not necessarily follow that it will have a major impact or the kind of impact that gender-scientists often propose (e.g. that women are excluded from technical professions because they are “forced” to play with dolls as children). Above all, it does not in any way, shape, or form follow that different treatment would be the only explanation for differences in later behaviour.

(Note that the point of the above is not to deny that the way children are treated can affect their development or their behaviour in adulthood, but to illustrate where “science” without reason can lead—a theory that need not reflect reality and which can do more harm than good.)

One of Hahn’s arguments against the use of reason is a list of statements that he claims as proof of how reason has lead people astray. (Rather than digging for the English originals of the statements that he presents in Swedish, I point to an article of my own which discusses a similar set of silly (?) statements). This argument contains several weaknesses, including that many of these statements are incorrectly attributed, misquoted, or made-up (not, I stress, by Hahn), being urban legends of sorts. Other problems are discussed on the linked-to page, including that they need not be silly when read in their original context. The biggest obstacle, however, is that these statements, when actually faulty, are not based in reason—on the contrary, reason would have prevented them! Indeed, these statements could be much better used as proof of something completely different, namely that people who should be experts are not always right, be it absolutely or when compared to outsiders with a better head—the opposite of what Hahn himself feels where e.g. Homeopathy is concerned.

For instance, one of Hahn’s quotes (attributed to Lord Kelvin) states that flying machines heavier than air are impossible. Application of reason shows this to be a preposterous claim (when taken as a general statement, with no unstated constraints wrt to e.g. the minimum size of the machine or the time frame involved—and assuming that the statement was at all made): Birds can fly despite being heavier than air; ergo, heavier than air flight is possible. Now, there might be some hitch which would make it impossible for machines to fly when heavier than air; however, this is extremely unlikely by Occam’s Razor, considering the possibilities of making machines with a better lift-to-weight ratio by e.g. miniaturization, considering the existence of various kites and gliders, and considering the, even then, on-going advances in motors and materials. True, reason has not showed us that e.g. manned flight would be possible in a heavier-than-air machine and this question (and a number of others) must still be left to the engineers and scientists; however, the literal statement could with near certainty be ruled as incorrect already in Kelvin’s days—and it could be so by many an intelligent and educated layman using reason. Further, if Kelvin did make this statement (subject to the above reservations), he either did not use reason or he was not displaying an intelligent and sound mind at the time.

It is true that some who try to use reason fail miserably (and that no-one can claim perfection). This is not an argument against reason, however—just as little as a medical study with poor methodology would be an argument against medical studies. The very core of science lies in the interaction between observation and reason—without reason we have no science. (Outside of highly theoretical areas, the same applies to “without observation”.)

Written by michaeleriksson

January 16, 2011 at 6:21 pm

Wrong-headed belief in claimed expertise

with 9 comments

During my journeys in the blogosphere, I am often confronted with a wrong-headed belief in alleged experts on this and that. Gender-studies (and other variations of PC studies) is a particularly strong source of examples; others include homeopathy, parapsychology, and various charlatans. Typical examples include e.g. “X has spent 20 years doing Y and must know what he is talking about—who cares that scientists claim that he is wrong!”, “It is presumptuous of people from without the field to make judgments about the field or its practitioners.” (see an excellent Swedish examplee; I have a longer piece on this in mind, but never seem to get around to writing it), “Those who have not studied gender-science lack the tools to think about issues around gender/sex [men and women, the male role, whatnot].”.

There are at least three major issues involved:

  1. The claimed knowledge is often not what it should be: Too many “experts” do not actually know much about the field. Too many others draw their knowledge from faulty sources, e.g. by learning about the stars from books on astrology rather than astronomy.

  2. Raw knowledge is rarely enough for true expertise: Understanding is also needed—and all too many ostensible experts lack the intelligence too develop a true understanding. Indeed, it is not uncommon that a new-comer with a better mind can spot errors, misunderstandings, whatnot, after having been exposed to the matter for a small fraction of the time. (Also note that an outsider’s perspective can often be valuable even to true experts.)

  3. Similarly, even understanding is not always enough, but can have its value severely limited if the expert lacks the intelligence to actually apply the expertise in a correct manner, draw correct conclusions when confronted with new situations, understand basic reasoning about various results, and so on.

With some over-simplification, it could be said that expertise consists of two components—intelligence and knowledge. The problem then is that the naive correctly conclude that intelligence alone is not enough, but fail to realize that neither is knowledge alone. Further, as said above, the intelligent new-comer can often outdo the unintelligent veteran in at least some areas. This, obviously, is a reason for why those lacking in intelligence tend to go with arguments by authority, while those with more intelligence tend to wish for actual proofs, explanations, and (ad rem) arguments—a true expert would not need to refer to his expertise, but would actually be willing and able to explain why he thinks he is right.

To take two specific example:

  1. The claim that women earn 77 cents on the dollar when compared to men:

    The point is not whether this claim is true or not—but whether it gives the right picture. (As discussed in the linked-to page, it does not.) It does not matter whether there are even one hundred scientific (let alone ideologically motivated “scientific”) investigations showing the uninterpreted numbers to be correct. It does not matter how many people with a degree in gender-studies who claim that this claim gives the right picture. What matters is that simple thinking, combined with some additional facts, shows the claim to be misleading. If the “true believers” fail to do this simple thinking, or reject the result for ideological reasons, then they only discredit themselves—not the thinking.

  2. The claim that homeopathy works:

    Even a layman can soon gather enough knowledge to make some basic observations that are highly troublesome for homeopaths—including that there is no known mechanism by which homeopathy could have a medical effect; that the higher the quality of the study, the lower the measured value of homeopathy; and that there are a number of mechanisms (placebo effect, better “human” treatment of patients, co-incidence, …) by which homeopathy can seem to work, while having no medical value, which make anecdotal evidence and trials with weak methodology near useless.

    The above is not enough to rule out that homeopathy works, but it is enough even for a layman to reject at least some pro-homeopathy arguments, to remain highly skeptical, and to lay the burden of proof solidly on the homeopaths.

    (Of course, those who dig even deeper see even more reason to remain skeptical—to the point that homeopathy almost certainly can be considered nonsense.)

Finally, it pays to bear in mind that even the true experts, the best of the best, with the knowledge, the understanding, and the intelligence, are still only human. They are not infallible gods, they are often wrong when it comes to details or new areas of investigation, and they are, themselves, well aware of this.

Written by michaeleriksson

December 19, 2010 at 2:23 pm