Sunday, 28 March 2010

Where's My Big Pharma Money?

Alternative medicine like any other concept has proponents who are seeking its validation. They truly believe it works, and I have no doubt that its proponents are for the most part genuine. This is an industry that has built up mostly around word of mouth, sincerity of those propagating it is vital. Even many who peddle many of these therapies seem to believe they work - even if there's no way it possibly could. And the movement itself for the most part contains intelligent and fairly-well educated people.

So smart, well-meaning people who genuinely believe in the product's efficacy, and do all this without an industry behind them are promoting what could be best for one's health. Why am I not convinced?

Every time I've had a discussion in recent years on the matter, I've had some indicators as to why other people think I reject "alternative medicine". That I'm a shill for Big Pharma is a popular one I've heard especially on the internet. Along those same lines but less extreme is that I trust Big Pharma because I haven't thought through their business model, how can I trust my health to companies that want to keep me buying their product? Then there's the close-minded accusation, that I'm not willing to accept the premise. And that goes hand in hand with my blind devotion to science. One I see coming on more recently, it's not my devotion to science, but scientists like Richard Dawkins who speak ill of "alternative medicine". They say its nonsense, so I blindingly follow them.

It may be that those criticisms are valid, I could be deluding myself into thinking otherwise. I don't think those criticisms are reflective of my position. Furthermore I feel that by putting out those criticisms it demonstrates the underlying motivations I think are behind a lot of the movement. So I want to take each criticism in point and expand to what I think it demonstrates.

Big Pharma
Corporations exist to make money, it cannot be denied. And it's no surprise that much of the alt-med crowd exists on the left side of politics, that there's a genuine distrust of large corporations is no surprise. Politically I'm very left wing too, I'm all for being sceptical of pharmaceutical companies.

Where the denialism exists comes from a very simple argument: pharmaceutical companies want to make as much money from you as possible. So it's in their interests for you not to get better, they want to keep you buying their product. And superficially that argument seems quite valid. But even without looking at many restrictive practices, consider what happens in the case of two corporations competing in the same product.

Company A and Company B have a product that works for a remedy to eczema. Company A's medication only manages the eczema, it keeps the consumer buying and buying. Meanwhile Company B want to sell to that same consumer. If Company B's product is more effective than Company A, then this should lead to people abandoning Company A's product for Company B's. Even though both companies want to get as much profit as possible, that one has a more effective product even though it sells less. Company A would lose business because their strategy relies on them being the only one in the market, while there is competition any product that can best sell to the consumer will create a metaphorical arms race where better products will emerge.

This is the general idea of why competition in the marketplace is good for the consumer. Now there are many ways to cheat the system, such as monopolies and collusion, and perhaps in some small scale these can and do occur. But the general principle from the argument so often presented doesn't hold. They make money by selling products that aid in people's health, thus any treatment that can be put on the market that is more effective breaks the equilibrium of treatment.

There are plenty of reasons to distrust Big Pharma, there are plenty of reasons to distrust large corporations - but to take that distrust and turn it into denialism about the possibility of it working is being absurd. Which leads to exploration of the other side of this argument: Big Alt-Med.

Big Alt-Med
Magicians are professional liars, but there is honesty in their lies. People come to a show expecting a magician to fool them. Meanwhile there are magicians who use the same tricks yet claim to have magic powers. These are dishonest liars, lying about their lies.

The reason I bring this up is because so much of the argument against Big Pharma has the implication that alt-med doesn't have these same problems. We live in a capitalist society, and where there's a market there is money to be made. And in alt-med, despite the numerous claims involving Big Pharma seeing no money in these apparently effective treatments, there is a multi-billion dollar industry. Ben Goldacre in Bad Science does well exposing the hypocrisy of those who ride the Big Pharma hysteria yet have their own business which happens to sell the products they endorse. It's the society we live in, if one is going to be dismissive of Big Pharma then at the same time they need to be dismissive of any treatment involving money.

Being closed minded
Next comes the accusation of being close minded, I'm apparently not open to the possibility of such proposed treatments working. This is a great throwaway statement, one anyone can throw out when someone else disagrees with you. Scepticism at times does seem indistinguishable from dismissive so I think it's no wonder I've had that accusation levelled against me. But is it a valid accusation?

To be dismissive, I think one needs to reject the possibility when there's evidence supporting it. It's not dismissive to ask for evidence, or even ask for metaphysical coherence. Any supposed treatment that relies on vitalist notions should be scrutinised on that alone. It doesn't mean the treatment is not effective, but it does mean that it cannot perform as it is advertised and that is something to be wary of. And treatments that have a physiology that is alien to our own again should be treated with extreme caution. And treatments that don't have any possible mechanisms can very easily be dismissed.

Having said all that it's also important to point out that I don't just sit on the sidelines. I've been administered homoeopathic remedies, had various herbal treatments and even bought herbal remedies of my own free will. I've had acupuncture performed on me, used detox pads on my feet, had massage performed on me, performed (admittedly guided) reflexology, practised yoga, had reiki done on me, etc.

If the evidence is there, I am more than happy to use it. In general, a word of mouth story I regard similar to tales of the miraculous where God has come down and healed someone. That's what they believe happened, but the mind is always capable of self-deception. Which is why I find it important that there's beyond the anecdotal for the efficacy of any given treatment. Which brings me to the final contention: science.

A faith in science
Science works, it's a simple statement of truth that is validated by the fact that you are reading this now. In general we love science, except the parts that we disagree with. And those are when the dismissals of the scientific method are at their loudest. If science as a method fails to validate a cherished belief, then it is the science that is wrong.

Some would like to frame science in terms of methodological naturalism, thus giving an out to any time science fails to demonstrate the validity of a particular treatment. So instead of the obvious conclusion that the idea wasn't efficacious to begin with, it must be that science can't detect what is there because of its metaphysical presuppositions.

Yet the key point there is that nothing significant can be objectively observed. In other words there's nothing to explain away. If homoeopathy works as a treatment, then it shouldn't matter if the mechanism is material or immaterial. The efficacy of the treatment is often what is being measured, and if there's no positive results then there's nothing to explain.

Science in its broadest application means following the evidence, wherever that may lead. If scientific inquiry was to validate a particular treatment such as a herbal remedy, then I see no reason to reject it as a valid means of treatment. The contrast to this are those who will readily use the findings of the scientific method when it backs their view, but will dismiss it when the evidence is against them. To follow the evidence where it leads is the antithesis of faith, to hold it as true despite the evidence against is what distinguishes faith from fact.

A growing frustration
The reason I started writing this entry was to rant about my frustration in dealing with alt-med advocates. Those complaints listed above don't come because I mock and belittle them, but simply because I argue against it. If I argue against what they know to be true, then it must be me who is motivated by some external factor.

The frustration is several fold. Firstly it's that those who advocate alt-med often do so for ideological reasons. Whether it be a distrust of large corporations or a belief in the healing powers of nature, the ideology is there. Secondly it's frustrating because it's making an ad hominem attack in place of an argument. Thirdly it's misrepresenting often how the scientific process works.

But perhaps the greatest source of frustration is that it highlights the nature of information in this modern society. While good health information is not readily available, a lot of pseudoscience is. Information is virtually free these days, so if there aren't good sources of health about then it's easy to fall into bad sources. And who do you trust more than the people who are part of your lives? It doesn't seem rational to accept the advice of a celebrity or even a friend on matters of health, but surely the emotional connection we have allows for trust where there really shouldn't be.

As a society where information is cheap, junk food is even cheaper, and there's a looming health crisis from ageing and obesity - surely this is the point of call for governments and health organisations to start working towards putting good information in the market. As a public service if nothing else, because how it is currently now is clearly undesirable. We are in a society of self-professed experts, and when it comes to matters as important as health it shouldn't be left to those who clearly don't understand to fill the information highway with garbage dressed as the miraculous.

Friday, 26 March 2010

Do You Have Magic Without A Magician?

Is it any wonder that many seem to resort to ridicule when such a ridiculous straw man is posited? Arguments like that don't even need to be reduced to the absurd, they've brought the absurd with them.

But in that mess of an mental enema there is underlying a very important point into the creationist mindset. It's no good explaining to them that their fundamental idea on the origin of life is not going to come from spontaneous generation out of decaying plant matter exposed to light, much less macroscopic life-forms. There's so much wrong that it could only be considered fractally wrong.

Consider the simple creationist argument for design: have you ever heard of a watch without a watchmaker? The idea being that agency begets structure. Take away the agency and there's a void. How can the structure cause itself? Even if there's an external cause for the structure it is still so complex that it can only lead us to the conclusion that it was a product of agency.

In other words, how do you have magic without a magician?

Yet this is the kind of rhetoric I've heard numerous times from various creationists. "Evolution is a fairy tale", "evolution works by magic", etc. The irony being that what they are positing is in-fact magic. The magic by the work of a magician of course, they just prefer the term miracle.

This to my mind shows insight into creationist thinking. Instead of working to see how the scientific explanation works, they've in effect removed God from their own thinking and are expecting science to come up with an explanation that looks and acts exactly like God. The failure of a scientific explanation to fit into those stringent mental parameters leaves them with nothing but incredulity at what's on offer.

This might seem like a trivial thing to say, but it's an incredibly important point to fully comprehend. I've been through such an argument before, the expression of evolution by magic when explaining it meticulously using only natural processes and known causation. The explanation just won't gel because they are looking for an explanation to fill a God-shaped hole.

In the above case, it's life coming from non-life but the principle is the same. Scientists working on the problem are looking to how life can arise biochemically and how digital replication can begin. Explanations aren't there yet, but the principles that scientists are working on rest fully within the laws of physics. Yet the creationist straw man is positing exactly what they believe actually happened, only without a divine being in there. It's not the biochemists who are appealing to magic, it's the creationists who claim they are.

Magic without a magician? How absurd. We all know that only magicians can make magic, and that magician is God.

If only we could live in a world where such ignorance was mocked mercilessly instead of being passed off as an irrefutable proof of God. Quite an odd proof too:
  1. If evolution was true, then life should spontaneously form when taking the lids off peanut butter jars
  2. Life has never been observed spontaneously forming through this procedure
  3. Only God can create life
  4. Life exists
  5. Therefore God exists

Saturday, 13 March 2010

A Good Person? Part 2

Just days after making a post on this very topic, a creationist actually hands me a pamphlet. Now I'm in a different state so scanning this badly drawn, terribly reasoned excuse for apologetics won't be able to happen until I get home. So for now, I'll just express my incredulity and take the pamphlet at my first from the Global Atheist Convention.

Hilarious stuff, it really needs to be seen to be believed. I only wish I could repay the guy handing out the Ray Comfort screed by giving him a banana...

Monday, 8 March 2010

Are You A Good Person?

Do you think you're a good person? Well, maybe you are, maybe you aren't. If you sinned 3 times a day, that's not significant, right? Well 3 sins sounds like nothing, but it sure does add up. So if you sin only a couple of times a day, that over 1000 sins a year! That means on average, even someone who sins as little as 3 times a day will sin 80,000 times in their life! So how can you think you're a good person?

But there is a solution to all this. God gave us redemption by sacrificing his son who lived a sin-free life. If you believe in Jesus, all your sins will be forgiven and God will spare you. Praise the Lord!

Salvation through faith
Hopefully someone will come and slap me and assure me that this isn't the message of Christianity, because so much of the apologetic centred around Christian morality merely reminded me of this apologetic nonsense I was told as a child. Back then I wondered which 3 ten commandments I broke every day and wrote it off as extravagant, these days it is a reminder of the depravity that is Christian morality.

Not throwing out the baby with the bathwater here, this isn't to call to depravity the Sermon on the mount or similar such teachings that form part of the ethical doctrine that we collectively refer to as Christianity. At the same time it really should be recognised that there are Christians who can and do take such extremes as an extension of the dogma present, and why wouldn't they?

This problem of salvation through faith, it's preaching the worst possible picture of humanity and pretty much writing us as a species off - we are beyond help. And suddenly the redemption through the Christ seems a supreme gesture of good will on account of God. Such twisted and depraved creatures despite rejecting the paradise are being given the ultimate gift. What a truly loving God He is...

I am a good person!
It's arguing from failing to achieve perfection, this √úbermensch held up as the ideal form we must be like. Any failure to achieve perfection and you're put in the same category as a baby-raping mass-murderer. Not being able to distinguish between the two is a dangerous quality in an ideology.

And in some apologetics it doesn't stop at deeds. Thought-crime is a crime for some. Can't get someone on being a murderer? Well they've surely had an angry thought so that counts. Didn't cheat on their spouse? Yet they had a sexual thought about another person and that's just as bad. So much as even feel slightly jealous that someone has a better car? That's coveting and you deserve to burn for all eternity you wicked sinner!

Have you ever told a lie? That makes you a liar. That's it, one white lie and you're as bad as a pathological liar who can't be trusted. Whether you've tried to save face in social situation or lied with malicious intent that either directly or indirectly led to others being harmed, it doesn't matter. A nod's as good as a wink to a blind bat, and a face saving transgression is just as bad as lying to justify the invasion of another country to a malevolent deity.

I get the impression that many of those who preach such nonsense actually believe it. It's a depressing view of humanity, and one that's far beyond the realistic. Someone who helps out others is still a horrible contemptuous person who deserves an eternity of torture - they need Jesus to have died for their sins and will be redeemed through faith. Actually helping out others and giving to charity? Despicable! Salvation through faith, not through works. A good person by definition is one who believes in Christ, there can be no virtuous non-believer because it is a contradiction.

Can the idea of religion and morality being tightly-coupled die please?
It's apologetics like that explored above that highlight the absurdity of religious morality. Pointing out the Euthyphro dilemma or the problem of evil do little, taking the ideas and applying them to who we think about others highlights the absurdity and the danger of such ideas. It isn't morality in any sense that we as a society understand it, yet the idea that morality and religion are tightly-coupled still persists.

The danger word is relativism, take away a transcendent morality and there's nothing left to hang the absolute on. So despite the utter lack of tight coupling of morality and religion, it is desirable to keep pressing the link lest we fall into moral subjectivism. (It seems that the arguments against moral relativity are arguments against moral subjectivism)

There is also the IS-OUGHT problem, that an IS doesn't imply an OUGHT. If someone is a violent person, it doesn't mean they OUGHT to be violent towards others. At the same time, just because someone IS quite altruistic, it doesn't mean they OUGHT to be altruistic. If xenophobia and sharing are both evolved trait, why should sharing be moral and xenophobia immoral?

In the face of trying to define a coherent secular ethic, it's understandable that many will just point to religious instruction as at least some way to justify an absolute by which people can receive instruction. There need not be a transcendent morality, just the idea of one. Regardless of how contradictory it is, the alternatives have not yet been suitably defined.

Yet there's an evidential indicator that there can be morality without absolute moral doctrine, the last few hundred years can be testament to this. To think of the US bill of rights, it is a social construct with no divine authority backing the principles therein. Free speech is seen as a fundamental inalienable right, yet is not even pretended that it only exists as a divine command. It's an idea born of humanity, yet one that resonates with us so much that it is taken as a must in any modern society.

Part of it I feel is knowledge of consequences for particular actions. Passive smoking is a good example of a radically changing moral standard in the last few decades where the passive harm to others has made such a behaviour morally unacceptable. Of course this isn't the whole story as consequences can't justify themselves.

While there's the appeal to a transcendent being to justify moral change, the reality of the situation is that the moral landscape has changed greatly in the last few hundred years on humanity's own accord. Principles don't have to be absolute to be transcendent. To illustrate this, think of language. Language cannot be subjective by definition, it's a transmission of meaning between individuals. Yet language changes over time, and it will be lost if those who speak it perish. It transcends the individual, yet is not absolute nor fixed. The fear of subjectivism is quite simply unfounded.

The Gap When Discussing God

Since it's been a number of years now since I became involved in discussion of the God question, it's finally dawned on me that there's going to be an irreconcilable difference between many believers and non-believers. The difference being that believers see a priori justifications for what non-believers would assert need a posteriori justifications.

Agency begets structure
Probably the easiest illustration of this difference is with teleological arguments. Take the design argument, the familiar argument being with finding a pocket-watch and realising there's a watchmaker. Now for non-believers his argument doesn't hold because watchmakers don't exist ex nihilo, the abilities to make watches has come from thousands of years of R&D resulting in an accumulation of knowledge allowing for the making of such watches.

But to a believer, God just is by very definition. He's all-powerful so he has the ability to make stars and starfish, he's all-knowing so he has the knowledge to do such things. So while the modest pocket-watch for humans may have required millions of hours of R&D before it could be made, the very definition of God entails the ability to craft such elaborate structures.

But, as a non-believer would counter, knowledge again doesn't exist ex nihilo but is housed in the elaborately ordered and complex brains of humans. Anything that is capable of having knowledge to create structure must itself have been created. Positing an agent of sufficient ability to be one that begets structure must itself have been created.

God is the uncaused cause, a believer would counter, and not something built of material components. God just is by pure definition, if God needed a cause or was physical then it wouldn't be God. Thus the critiques levelled at God miss the mark because they fail to grasp the nature of the concept of God.

How do you know?
The above mock exchange is to highlight the difference between the argument. I don't see that anything attributed to God in any meaningful sense can be a priori, especially if as they say God is supernatural. it puts any attribution of anything down to pure speculation, unverifiable and almost certainly anthropomorphic.

While some might use a priori proofs to reason about the nature of God, all it could ever possibly do is show that the concept is ontologically valid. To think about this another way, consider the possibility of unicorns. Now if we can conceive of unicorns as being logically valid entities, does it follow that great leaders rode unicorns into battle? Or even that unicorns even exist as anything more than a mental construct?

Any qualities attributed to any a priori concept can only be a posteriori. What does it mean to say that God is omniscient? How can we judge the quality of having knowledge, let alone all knowledge, without putting it in reference of terms we understand from our personal experience?

There's just no justification for any a priori arguments, any potential logical axiom is underpinned by induction. That one can follow a premise through to a conclusion doesn't suddenly validate the premise, the knee-jerk dismissal of philosophical arguments that some atheists do is unfounded.

A prime mover
A prime example of this is the first cause argument, which can be framed as follows:
  1. Every finite and contingent being has a cause.
  2. Nothing finite and contingent can cause itself.
  3. A causal chain cannot be of infinite length.
  4. Therefore, a First Cause (or something that is not an effect) must exist.

The first premise is simply unfounded, it's an a posteriori argument. How do we know that every finite and contingent being has a cause? All one would have to do is say that the first premise fails and the whole cosmological argument falls apart. There's no need to even follow it to the completely unjustified position that it was the God of the Bible and thus Jesus died for your sins.

There's really not much more that needs to be said. Such arguments that can best be described as pseudo-intellectual mental masturbation, meanwhile physicists are creating and testing theoretical frameworks in order to understand the universe we reside in. What of ideas such as a multiverse or quantum foam? What of that particles can come into and then go back out of existence? What about the big bang being the creation of time and thus the question of a prime mover becomes incoherent?

This is not to dismiss arguments made a posteriori, rather to show that the arguments made for God's existence are a posteriori arguments. This really shouldn't pose a problem for believers, after all they are talking about an interventionist deity who is meant to be active in our world. This post was meant to illustrate the gap I find when trying to have an argument with those who are looking for an a priori argument to ignore or invalidate any argument based on evidence / experience.
[T]here is an evident absurdity in pretending to demonstrate a matter of fact, or to prove it by any arguments a priori. Nothing is demonstrable, unless the contrary implies a contradiction. Nothing, that is distinctly conceivable, implies a contradiction. Whatever we conceive as existent, we can also conceive as non-existent. There is no being, therefore, whose non-existence implies a contradiction. Consequently there is no being, whose existence is demonstrable. - David Hume (Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion)