June 30, 2010

Mixed Martial Arts: The Staph Infection Conspiracy Theory

My article on pets and inheritance wasn't as well received as I'd hoped, but I with this post I'll get back to my bread and butter, skepticism. I'm going to have to bring in a topic that I haven't talked about much, but does take up quite a few nights of my life. I'm Steve and I'm an MMA junkie. The bustling blog audience, 'Hi Steve'. I haven't missed watching a UFC or Strikeforce event in quite a while and try to watch the big fights from both Dream and Bellator. So when I learned about the Matt Hamill vs Keith Jardine conspiracy I knew that it would be something I would blog about.

Now for those of you unlucky enough to have missed the fight it can be viewed from this link. It's pretty long, 23 minutes, so if your of a more genteel nature you can just look at the picture at the top. I am the first to admit that I am not a medical doctor, and spent most of the fight wondering what the heck that red spot Matt Hamill's back was. After reading the reports and listening to the post fight conference, I learned that it was a hardened red boil that resulted from having a staph infection. This is what Medicine.net had to say about staph infections, staph infection is a potentially very bad, but it can also be mild and require no treatment. It goes on to say that there are,

"Over 30 different types of Staphylococci can infect humans, but most infections are caused by Staphylococcus aureus. Staphylococci can be found normally in the nose and on the skin (and less commonly in other locations) of 25%-30% of healthy adults. In the majority of cases, the bacteria do not cause disease. However, damage to the skin or other injury may allow the bacteria to overcome the natural protective mechanisms of the body, leading to infection."

So that's a brief general overview of what staph infection is, and that boil was looked at by 3 doctors. Kevin Iole noted in his mailbag that those three doctors were, "Matt Hamill's personal doctor, Dr. Vicki Mazzorana of the NSAC and Dr. Jeff Davidson, who works for the UFC. All three cleared him to fight and said he posed no risk. The scab was hard and the doctors said that even if it had come off during the fight, there was no chance of it affecting Jardine."

Which is fairly consistent with Medicine.net saying that, "In cases of minor skin infections, Staphylococcal infections are commonly diagnosed by their appearance without the need for laboratory testing." So I don't get the impression that staph is terribly hard to diagnose, and three doctors confirmed that Matt had a non-infectious staff infection that posed no threat to anyone.

Yet there is a growing opinion on the internet from MMA Junkie, MMA Convert, and Fight Opinion that allowing Matt Hamil to fight was a poor Medical decision. Fight opinion starts right off by noting that after the fight Matt Hamil was going to start taking antibiotics for treatment of the staph and asking why does Matt need antibiotics if the staff is healed. Well the implication may not be as bad as it seems. Medicine.net says that, "Minor skin infections are usually treated with an antibiotic ointment such as a nonprescription triple-antibiotic mixture. In some cases, oral antibiotics may be given for skin infections. Additionally, if abscesses are present, they are surgically drained." So it could be just a minor infection that was going to get some nonprescription cream on it.

Then Fight Opinion spends a long time talking about Vicki Mazzorana, and how she had a clinic temporary closed for violations, a violation of no sterilizing a machine in particular. From this the Zack Arnold of fight opinion seems to imply that because she once was guilty of providing a realm for infection, that she would do so again. Although he could just be saying that she has been guilty of poor decisions and practice in the past, if so then fine, but Matt Hamil was also looked at by two other doctors that confirmed her opinion.

To argue that letting Matt Hamil fight was a poor medical decision is an understandable position, understandable, but I think wrong. It is hard to diagnose people from afar, and three doctors that were able to form a real diagnoses all agreed that the staph infection posed no threat to anyone. To say that Matt should have been sent to a dermatologist is reasonable, and it would have added some comfort to the decision, but it wasn't deemed necessary by everyone who had the most information about what was going on.

I'll take those 3 confirmed opinions over the speculation of people Dr. Johnny 'The Fight Doc' Benjamin.  Yet, the semi-reasonable opinions of questioning the medical decision has lead to some people like Eddie Goldman on his radio show saying that, "Fighter safety is being thrown out the window by these crazy commissions who are working to please the promoters rather than protect the fighters." and people asking questions like this to Kevin Iole, "It was obvious that Matt “The Hammer” Hamill had a staph infection on Saturday when he fought Keith Jardine on 'The Ultimate Fighter Finale' in Las Vegas, yet he was still allowed to fight. Why did the Nevada Athletic Commission allow Matt to fight? Do you think the UFC had anything to do with it? Having Matt pull out of the fight would’ve been a huge blow. I really think this is unprofessional and dangerous to everyone who was in the cage or around it. This staph infection is really contagious. I don’t see why this issue isn’t getting a lot more attention. Everyone should be tested after the finale because of this screw-up."

Now these are the more untenable positions. That not only was there a poor medical decision being made, the poor medical decision was being made because the UFC wanted the co-main event of The Ultimate Fighter Final to go on. There is no evidence of this at all.

Not only is there no evidence, and it doesn't even make sense. If the staph was infectious the UFC would have came out looking horrible, because a UFC doctor also cleared Hamill. The UFC might have gotten 3 of its fighter infected with staph (2 now that Jardine has been cut), and one of those would have been The Ultimate Fighter Court Maggee, which is a pretty big loss. Also with the way blood was flying around in that fight, someone ringside could have been infected and that could have turned out to be a minor PR nightmare.On top of that all three doctors would be in risk of losing their medical licenses.

Also the UFC would have to count on no one it paid off coming out agianst them and stating what had happened. It just all adds up to having no value to anyone involved, the doctors or the UFC and there is no evidence for it. This conspiracy just lacks any plausibility.

Thanks for reading,
the moral skeptic

June 24, 2010

A Glimpse at Pet Inheritance

Well for my last posting I had to read a fair bit about pet inheritance and I didn't manage to cover all the subject matter I wanted to cover. This post will complete my thoughts about pet inheritance and I'll have some new subject matter to post about in the near future. I'm going to talk about two subjects in this post, the options for pet inheritance and my gut reaction to people leaving vast amounts of money to pets while leaving little to anyone else.

There is some pretty interesting and astounding information to be found when you scratch the surface of pet inheritance. The first interesting fact is how wide-pet inheritance actually is. It is not just the ultra rich making trusts for their pets. One article from yahoo states that, "Approximately 25 per cent of American pet owners have provided for their pets in either a will or trust, according to the American Bar Association estimate." Another interesting blog post talks about 7 dogs and cats that are 'Actually Richer than You.' due to the inheritance set up to provide for them. So there are both many rich and not to rich pets out there.

Which brings up the question, how does it work that an animal gets all that money? As I'm sure your aware that gluing a few 1000 bills to your dog/cat will not ensure that it is well taken care of after your passing, also the giving of money to an animal could be void depending on where you live.

John C. Martin comes up with three solutions. 1. Give your pet to a friend/relative. 2. Give your pet to an animal protection agency. 3. Make a Pet trust.

John comes up with some pretty good cons with number 1. stating that, "First, the friend or relative may not want to take care of your pet. Even if they express a desire today, your friend or relative may move away or face new life circumstances, making them unable or unwilling to provide proper care and support for your pet. Second, once your friend takes legal ownership of your pet, there is no guarantee that they will fulfill your desires, whether expressed orally or in a will. A worst-case scenario is an immediate euthanization of the pet upon a change of ownership, regardless of your best intentions."

He also has good cons agianst number 2,  "A gift to an organization like the SPCA is an excellent solution for many pet owners. Yet, for many, such a gift may not be sufficiently personal. Moreover, it cannot be guaranteed exactly how money for long term financial support will be provided and whether proper placement of the pet can be achieved." So if you really believe in the organization and what it stands for this is a good option, but if you want your pet to live in luxury then it probably won't work for you.

3. is where it really gets interesting. It is where you set up an account with an amount of money for the pet and can nominate both a caretaker and a trustee. With this option you can budget out how the money is to be spent and the caretaker is to follow that budget. The trustee is then responsible for checking up and make sure the money is spent in the proper way. Yet, John finds problems with this too, "The expenses associated with administering a pet trust may rule out their use unless they are funded with a relatively large amount of money. Finally, while enforcement mechanisms under a pet trust are better than the alternatives, there is still no guarantee that the trustee will act completely in the pet’s interest."

It is also interesting to note the difference it makes on the event of the pets death. When the pet with the trust dies there is a 'remainder beneficiary' which gets the remaining amount of money. Naming either the caretaker or trustee as the beneficiary gives them an incentive to kill the pet, especially if the pets budget and overall value are high. So a person should name a third party or a charity, in which case the 3rd party or charity has an interest in the death of the pet. Not only that the caretaker and trustee might feel slighted that they are being entrusted with the dogs care, but none of the money, so you might have to put them in your will in other ways.

All this boils down to a pet owner having to trust someone upon their death. In the trust set up they have to believe that two or possibly more people will fulfill their wishes. In 2. they have to trust a company and the pet might not live in great surroundings for a while. In 1. you just have to trust one person, but their is no recourse if this person was to change their mind about your agreement.

Now that's the basics of pet inheritance, yet one issue still bothers me a little. This issue would be if the ladies in my last post didn't leave any money to charity and instead left everything to their dogs, which is how the media largely protrayed it. I read some forums and a lot of people responded like I did before I did any research. They said that this lady was out of touch and horrible; it was a slap in societies face. The money could have done so much to numerous causes, yet ended up being used in almost the most selfish way imaginable.

This reaction was then responded to by a minority in a libertarian way saying something like 'She earned the money so she can leave it or spend it in any way she wants.' I have no problem with this and it is a valid rebuttal, but just as someone who would burn their money could be criticized, so can someone who gives it frivolously to individual animals. Everyone has the free speech to say that, the money was utterly wasted and could have been spent on much better things, and it erroneous that it was her money. It is obvious she could spend the money however she chooses, but that doesn't mean that choice is devoid of criticism.

I think a quote can be changed to fit that sort of spending. The original being Jean Rostand's quote, "Kill a man, and you are a murderer. Kill millions of men, and you are a conqueror. Kill everyone, and you are a god." Leave billions to one dog and you are deplorable. Leave billions to millions of animals and you are beneficent. Tell everyone to read my blog and you are God.

thanks for reading
-the moral skeptic

June 22, 2010

Dogs Inherits 12 million - A Look at Reporting and the Media

Well I've noticed that my postings on naturalism are among my least popular for some reason. I'm not sure what that reason is, but it's interesting anyway. I think they are of the quality I try to maintain, but with this post I'll go in a very different direction. This post was inspired by a news story of Gail Posner leaving 3 million dollars and her 8.3 million dollar mansion to here 'three beloved dogs'. That story inspired a strong gut reaction, as well as an interest to look into the subject further. First I will do my best to summarize the Gail Posner story, along with the story of Leona Helmsley and compare the two together. I will then assess the different online media stories I read and talk about them.

The Gail Posner and Leona Helmsley storys are interesting and short. Each were older women with a lot of money and treated their dogs exceptionally. Gail Posner "Always showered riches on her dogs. It was said that at one occasion she went ahead to purchase a $15,000 Cartier necklace for her favorite dog “Conchita”. When asked about it she told the media that “Conchita” is the only girl in the world who doesn’t consider diamonds to be a girl’s best friend. As a matter of fact, all Gail Posner dogs took regular spa treatments, had their own wardrobes and a full-time staff at their service." She left her dogs a, "$3 million trust fund...along with her mansion in Miami which is worth $8.3 million." While leaving her one son Brett Carr 650 000 or a million according to other sources. 

As for Leona Helmsely I couldn't find out much about how well she treated the dogs before her death but after it they did have a heck of a budget according to Wikipedia, which includes an, "annual $100,000 for full-time security, $8,000 for grooming and $1,200 for food. Lekic is paid a $60,000 annual guardian fee." That annual fee of course comes not only from the 2 million dollars left to the dogs (Down from the original 12) but also from a trust, "Valued at $5 billion to $8 billion and amounting to virtually all her estate, be used for the care and welfare of dogs, according to two people who have seen the document and who described it on condition of anonymity." Now that is one rich dog. Leona also cut 2 of her 4 grandchildren out of the will entirely (which a judge later changed).

Yet there is not much that separates these two women. Leona's much vaster fortune went to a charitable trust which among other things has been, "A primary pillar of their giving was the New York-Presbyterian Hospital/Weill Cornell Medical Center. Mr. and Mrs. Helmsley’s gifts there totaled over $71 million, enabling its medical and research teams to substantially augment activities in several areas of medicine, including cardiovascular disease, rehabilitation medicine, and digestive diseases. The last grant from the Trust before Mrs. Helmsley’s death, made in the summer of 2006, was a gift of $25 million to establish a comprehensive center for digestive diseases at New York-Presbyterian Hospital/Weill Cornell Medical Center." Yet this is only a start to the vast contribution to worthy causes that will take place.

Gail Posner, after taking care of a few people, ordered that the mansion be sold after the dogs died and the proceeds given to charity. Also the remainder of her assets and estates were left to charity as well.

These two ladies are much in the spirit of what Bill Gates and Warren Buffet have been trying to encourage other people to do. These are the richest people in the world giving away at least 50% of their wealth upon their death and their contributions are noble, unexpected and greatly needed. This money will ensure a lot of good causes will be able to continue.  Yet what is reported for the most part is only the large sums of money left to the dogs, as you can notice by reading the articles I have cited, but you don't have to do that. I'm going to talk about each one now, in no specific order, and give a brief account of how they covered the story.

1.Gail Posner's Dogs Inherit $3 Million Dollars and Miami Mansion (From the Thaindian News) - Starts off with the Dogs inheritance, Talks about her Sons compliant that she was brainwashed, and has no mention of any money given to charity and just compares Posner to Helmsley, and leaves the impression that these two ladies only cared about their dogs. This is total fluff.

2. Leona Left Dogs Billions in Her Will (New York Times) - Starts out by pointing out the 12 million left to the dog, and then points out two anonymous people who have seen a mission statement made by Leona  stating that the entire trust should go to the dog. Yet it is unclear if her declaration would be legally binding, and even if it is the money will be distributed to 'dogs' and 'dog causes' not just her dog trouble. (If this is true and she wanted to give her dog 5 Billion dollars I have a response for that will be my next post). This is a well written and thought out article with real implications.

3. What Ever Happened to Leona Helmsley's Dog? (The Wall Street Journal Blogs) - Starts off by talking about the sale of one of the properties of the trust and then gets to the dog and points out that it is still alive and thriving. (Total Fluff)

4.Little Dog, Large Estate (The Wall Street Journal) - Talks about the dog and the money/estate it inherited. Then goes on to talk about Brett Carr's lawsuit he is filing after being left 1 million dollars, and actually mentions that the estate left to the dogs will go to charity after the dogs die. There is then a long discussion dedicated to the people in question and it concludes that the remainder of her assets were donated to charity. This article was pretty informative, but did tend to overplay the sensational aspects of the story.

5. NY Judge trims dog's $12 million inheritance (Reuters) - Starts off much like the others noting that the inheritance of the dog, but this time notes that it has been cut by 10 million dollars. Then talks about how the two grandchildren that were cut out of the will, will now be given 6 million dollars. It then points out the budget of the dog, with no explanation of why it needs the 100 000 security detail (it has received numerous death threats) and plays off Helmsley as 'the queen of mean' who said that 'only the little people pay taxes. (This one has good information, but has an obvious and horrible spin, that is negative towards Helmsley).

6. Lucky dog inherits $12m fortune (BBC News) - Leads with the amount of money the dog was given, and then talks about how some family members 'fared less well' and two grandchildren were cut out entirely. It then calls her the Queen of Mean and talks more about the family. It ends by noting that Helmsley's possessions and residences will be given to charity, with no mention of the amount of money that was actually given to charity. This is much like #5, and while it has most of the relevant information it spins Leona as a person who left 12 million to a dog, and cut out her grandchildren. It also downplays the vast amount that her trust will give to charity and notes it at the end without even commenting on it.

Those are just the articles I looked at and by no means is a consensus on the totality of the coverage, but a lot can be learned about the media in how the story was covered. Everyone lead with the shock factor, and noted that a dog was left a large sum of money. Then four of six mention how the dogs were given more then some family members as the next main point. Only two of the six articles note that anything was given to charity and it is mentioned as an aside near the end, if not the end of the article.

The story is obviously spun to show that Hemlsley and Posner were lunatics who left more money to their dogs then they did to some family members. This angle shows two heartless ladies and gets a gut reaction that I too got from reading the first story. Yet, these aren't two heartless ladies, these are two ladies who are as commendable as Bill Gates and Warren Buffet. I can't find out how much Posner actually donated to charity, but Helmsely left Billions, exponentially more then she left anyone else. The story of rich people not being selfish and crazy wasn't what the media wanted to show though and it is unfortunate. I think there is a better story, of how the ultra-rich aren't always out of touch, and are sometimes giving back. That story didn't get any play.

The media likes to roll with the sensational, as it did with this story. The media failed to really talk about anything good these two ladies did, and didn't balance out the dogs inheritance with how much was given to charity, but instead balanced it agianst how much other family members were given making the two look like lamentable loons, which isn't the case. Fair and balanced? Not in these two cases. These were two girls who cared deeply about their dogs and wanted them well looked after, and while the case could be made that more was left to them then they needed, it should also be noted how much more then the dogs received that was given to good causes and also that the residences will be given to charity after the dogs deaths.

Thanks for reading,
-the moral skeptic

June 18, 2010

Menopause a Natural Processes: A Different Appeal to Naturalism

This post is kind of an extension of a post I did a while back entitled, "A Natural Arrogance" which was about the appeal to naturalism as a way of implying safety. That kind of appeal obviously isn't true and there is no direct correlation between somethings naturalness and its safety or in turn somethings artificiality with its lack of safety. Each thing has to be evaluated on an individual basis to establish what its affects will be. 

So this brings me to a book I am reading, Selling Sickness. In the book I ran into sort of the same flawed naturism argument used in a way that I hadn't noticed before. It was an argument, while not expressed directly by the authors, that was included without counter. The argument in question comes from the third chapter and is in relation to menopause. That chapter attempts to show how a natural process, menopause, is being turning into a 'disease' through slick marketing, celebrities, and outright deceit and does a good job showing those three things. The problem I have comes with an underlying problem cited in the chapter: menopause is a natural process and as such it doesn't automatically need treatment.

Menopause is a natural process that can be avoided if a women takes one of a variety of hormones, and in the past there was a great belief that the avoidance of menopause would cause a variety of health boons. Since that original belief there has been enough testing to show that isn't the case. So there is no reason to skip menopause, not because it is a natural process, because it causes people to be worse off then they were before. Yet, this isn't the only point the book drives home, from pages 46-50 a voice of reason is presented agianst all the people who would want to cause the medicalization of menopause.

Harvard graduate Amy Allina of the National Women's Health Network is quoted as saying, "They all promote the idea that there is something wrong with women's bodies, there's  something wrong with  getting older, and these drugs are going to fix you." and her organization is quoted as saying, "Menopause is a natural bodily function, not a disease, and does not automatically require treatment."

The problem with that voice of reason is that it is undeniably false. While menopause is a natural process, and has been found to not require hormone treatment, it is false to appeal to the naturalness of the process to say it doesn't require treatment. In the 1960's, before the treatment had been tested, it was completely reasonable to attempt to subvert menopause to relieve hot flashes and to postulate that it may have further health benefits. Just because it is natural process doesn't mean it cannot be improved upon, or shouldn't be changed at all. Menopause isn't a disease, but it would have been reasonable to advise people treatment for it, if all the alleged health benefits had shown to be there. Allina's and the NWHN statements should lose the appeal to naturalism and instead point out the science of why it shouldn't be used.

Hormone replacement therapy shouldn't be used because it increases the risks of heart attack, stroke, blood clots, and breast cancer, not because it is subverting a natural process. That appeal is just made by the NWHN and Allina because of its popularity, a type of marketing Selling Sickness expressively deplores and it only hypocritically included. Overall I like the book so far, but I also found that there are numerous small problems like the one I dealt with here.

I like the quote by Bart Kosko, and engineer of some note, who said, "Death is an engineering problem."

There is something wrong with my body, I am getting older, my memory is fading, and eventually I'll die and if I can take a drug to fix that I'd be alright with that.

Thanks for reading,
- the moral skeptic

June 14, 2010

B. Alan Wallace and His Criticism of Materialists

Well, I'm glad to see that my first post about B. Alan Wallace was pretty well received as far as I tell. I wasn't sure how interesting it would be, but I was sure that something had to be said about his criticisms and it also responds to the argument that skeptics aren't being skeptical. That last post was really just covered a defense of how I perceive skepticism at the current time, but B. Alan Wallace also attacks a view I hold with a charge that it is 'eurocenteric'. That view being materialism, or that all phenomena can be broken down and shown to have material causes. 

While the claim that materialism is 'eurocenteric' does nothing to combat the truth of the idea, nor does his appeal to the popularity of the existence of the non-physical, Wallace does make some real arguments. To support his contention he goes on to attack materialism through some pretty interesting facets. These arguments were taken, once again, from his appearances on both Skeptiko and The Skeptics Guide to the Universe and I will summarize and break them up here.

1.Materialists are making a leap of faith that everything must be physical. 

This is a major contention Wallace makes and I think this is more of an "Oh yeah!" argument that really is as shallow as a kiddie pool. It probably stems from non-materialists being accused of making a leap of faith, and he wants to be able to make the same accusation. The only problem with that assertion is that anyone who looks at the evidence finds only materialist explanations and really no overwhelming evidence for anything else. To say that materialists are making a leap of faith is to miss-characterize what is going on, they are not assuming that everything is physical, but rather inferring from everything we've found out so far. It may turn out that there is a non-physical realm, and materialists will have to adjust for that, but there is no unreasonable 'faith' behind materialism.Wallace's first point is more a contention in place of evidence and does nothing to further his cause. Which brings up an argument that actually has some meat to it.

2. The definition of what is 'material' has changed greatly over time, and the description really doesn't encompass what is known anymore.  (Dark Energy, Dark Matter, Electrons)

In this argument, Wallace talks about how what we know about what constitutes the physical has changed so much in the last hundred years that the term material doesn't really apply anymore. He goes further to say the materialist are constantly shifting the goal posts with any new information that is found out, the electron is discovered and it's a material, light is discovered to be a wave and a particle and it's still a material, dark energy is theorized about and it too seems to be a material.

There is a grain of truth to what Wallace is describing in his argument, the conception of the physical has undergone a lot of change in the recent past. Quantum Mechanics has some really weird and counter-intuitive findings, that have been incorporated into the description of the world. The description of the physical cannot stay constant, because people keep finding out more about it than was known before, the description must adapt or be useless. This is fine along as long as what is described as material and physical still accurately describes what is going on. For this to really be shifting the goal posts it would have to be shown that the definition of the physical is not just expanding, but fundamentally changing and I don't think that's the case. Wallace himself even goes as far to say that he wouldn't deny an electron a physical existence. I also don't think he would argue that light has a non-material existence and because he doesn't he keeps his scientific dignity, but fails to make his true point.

The point he tries to make through one last ditch effort. Wallace points out that nothing is known about dark matter, except that something like it must exist. It must exist because the weights of galaxies need it to hold them together as Zwicky discovered. Yet, other than their necessary existence, not a whole lot else is known about it. Wallace argues that even though nothing is really known about it, it is still described as matter and that is an assumption that is wrong to make. I would argue that it would be wrong if there were some non-physical explanation for other things. If prayer or meditation was proven to affect machines, if the mind could be proven to be able to float outside the body, if ghosts were shown to be real and still act as they reportedly do, there would be a reason to doubt that dark matter is in fact matter. Until then it is a safe assumption to make and there is still no reason to not be a materialist.

Thanks for reading,
-the moral skeptic

June 8, 2010

B. Alan Wallace and his Criticism of Skeptics

Hi, I hope you've all had a good weekend. It was my birthday over the weekend and I had a pretty good time, but at the same time found something I had to post about. Criticism of skeptics always interests me, whether it is someone saying that they aren't open minded or that they are really denialists, but B. Alan Wallace takes aim at skeptics 'faith' in what science has already proven. A quote from him that he used on Skeptico episode 23, is that, " They [skeptics] are skeptical of other things but not of their own beliefs, scientific materialists are as skeptical as religious fundamentalists."

Well I'm really not afraid to characterize myself as both a skeptic and a scientific materialist, given what the evidence has shown so far and as soon as some evidence, that meets the burden of proof, comes along to show that there is more than materialism to the universe than I will consider it and possibility change my opinion on the matter. Now that that is out of the way, I'll just summarize Wallace's opinion that he presents on Skeptico episode 23, and on The Skeptics Guide to the Universe Episode 73.

Wallace's main point can be summed up by the quote on the Skeptico episode 23 page where he is noted as saying, " This is what bothers me about many of the so called skeptics, they are defending the status quo, which doesn’t take a whole lot of guts frankly. They are about as skeptical as Billy Gramm.” He goes on to further say that, " The greatest impediment to scientific progress is not ignorance, but the illusion of knowledge, the belief that something is known."  

Before I talk about those quotes I'll just reference part of the conversation Steve Novella had with Wallace on the Skeptics Guide to the Universe, that really goes along the same lines as what has already been stated. Some parts of the conversation have been skipped and some ideas have been slimmed down, but I haven't changed the meanings of anything either person said.

Novella – No one has demonstrated the quantum effects are meaningful at the level of the brain.
Wallace – I thought you folks were skeptics and you should be skeptical of that point.
Wallace – You demonstrated a complete lack of skepticism when you said that we know that quantum mechanics doesn’t play a part in brain function.
Novella – I did not say that. I said so far no one has demonstrated that quantum mechanics have any effect on brain function. There are no mysteries that we need to go beyond the brain model to solve.
Wallace – I find that profoundly unskeptical.
Novella – It’s not unskeptical. What’s the mystery?
Wallace – I’ll go back a bit and you call tell me what demonstrates an equivalent rather than a causal relationship between brain function and subjective experience.  
Novella – That is inappropriately shifting the burden. Can you show me an example where consciousness can exist outside of brain function?
The topic then is shifted, and gets more in depth about brain function and I encourage it to be listened to but those are the points I really want to talk about. 
What is really telling from the summation of what Wallace has said is that he has either taken the view that 1. That the past evidence doesn't mean anything or 2. That people should surround themselves in hyperbolic doubt rather than a reasonable level of doubt. 
I say this because with 1. he can write off the fact that Steve Novella asks him constantly about evidence and he either changes the subject or fails to provide that evidence, but still holds his view. This first position would also allow him to say you aren't being skeptical, not questioning that idea, because the evidence for that idea is besides the point for Wallace. No amount of evidence would convince Wallace of anything.
Which really leads into the second point that Wallace may live in a world of the hyperbolic doubt described by Descartes. This means that it is possible that everything we know is wrong and you really can't trust anything, so any beliefs you come to are just as likely to be true. 
The problem with either Wallace view is that science has been able to make predictions about the future, and has proven to be reliable enough to put trust into. Evidence does matter and hyperbolic doubt isn't necessary. This is not trust in any individual scientist, but trust in scientific consensus and the methods of science.  
That leaves Wallace's criticism that skeptics aren't being skeptical of scientific evidence, really without warrant. Skeptics have found the most reliable knowledge and method and have taken that as a starting point. They can still doubt science, especially where there is some controversy between the results/interpretation of results, but they don't have to have hyperbolic doubt about every fact just like people trust gravity by not leaving their homes via the window.

This is where I'd just like to make one point through an example with the use of evolution. A person can look at the topic of evolution and either believe that all the evidence is wrong for or has been misinterpreted by many different fields for evolution; They are in the midst of a conspiracy of gigantic proportions to convince people of evolution, or they can hold the view that what all the evidence points to seems to be consistent and able to make sense of all the given information. One view just seems more reasonable to me than the other. There is no reason to seriously doubt evolution given what is known today and to suggest that people aren't being skeptical if they don't doubt evolution doesn't follow. They have already taken a look into the issue and made a decision based on evidence, as any good skeptic should.

Thanks for reading
-The moral skeptic 

June 5, 2010

The Burden of Proof: And how it Applies to Near Death Experiences

Hi, I apologize for the delay in making a new post, but I want to keep the quality as high as possible. That is to say I need both to have well thought out ideas, and to have the motivation/time to write something intelligible and hopefully thought provoking. I will be able to do that on the subject of the burden of proof. I'll start by explaining the burden of proof, and demonstrating its importance then I'll give an example of its misuse through an article on near death experiences.

The burden of proof is an idea that has a great importance in argumentation, but is rarely mentioned. This is unusually because either both participants understand the concept, or don't understand it at all, which, in either case, causes it not to be brought up.

The burden of proof is simply the understanding that if you are going to make a statement about something that you can support that statement and it goes a little further to say that if you are going to say something that isn't a well established fact or interpretation then your going to have to provide evidence that what you are saying can be established by something. It's like citing a study in an essay, which isn't just done to give credit where credit is due, but to also lend credence to the interpretation being brought up.

The importance of the burden of proof means that argumentation is inherently biased agianst new ideas/interpretations, but that is a good thing. There are a few reasons why this bias is good and I will point out a couple of those reasons.

1. The Coherence Factor: This is idea that the knowledge base that is made up of a majority of data that is coherent with each other, biology works with chemistry and chemistry works with physics which is consistent with cosmology.... so when a new idea is brought up it, it has a higher standard to meet. This doesn't mean that the information has to fit with what we already know, but that the burden of proof for things is on a sliding scale, with a minimum point of proof. The minimum is that the test has to be falsifiable and repeatable (This can simply mean that anyone can look up the quote you were talking about or that someone can do the test that is being referenced). Tests that find something coherent with all the other information just have to meet the minimum standard for the most part, while something outlandish has to meet a higher standard due to its incoherence.

This idea can be shown by someone referencing different quotes. Take for instance someone trying to make the argument that Einstein believed in a Christian God, and references the quote that "God doesn't play dice." That quote meets the minimum standard, it can be looked up and attributed to Einstein, but because it is inconstant with other Einstein quotes and known beliefs it requires more to back it up and to show that the quote can be used to mean that he believes in a Christian God. Counter that with someone saying that Oral Roberts said he, "Saw a 900 foot Jesus." Given the constancy with his beliefs that quote doesn't need nearly the same support. It can just be accepted by the minimum standard.

2. The Inability to Disprove a Negative: This problem can be easily demonstrated. If I was to argue, a la Bertrand Russel, that there was a tea cup in space between Earth and Mars, but it couldn't be seen because it was too small, it would be an unfalsifiable argument. There is no way to prove that there isn't a teacup between the Earth and Mars, but that doesn't make it true nor does it count as evidence for it. Someone once argued with me that a group of people in the past had a technology (I forget what it was), that couldn't be archeologically verified. Well that's good, but through that line of thinking I could say the same thing about the Dinosaurs. The point is that because you can't show that something that has no evidence to be false, the burden is on you to provide evidence for what you are trying to say.

When those two rules are understood it really creates a bias against new ideas, but it is a fair bias. This can be shown with how people use the evidence to support the notion that Near Death Experiences point to a dualist brain/person distinction. I'll talk about The Living Dead article from the Times Online which can be found here, but as always I'll summarize their best points.   

The article starts out with a common setting of a NDE, someone is dieing, and they are described as clinically dead, but there brain still 'working' on some level. Then there is the white light, and you are seeing Jesus or whoever your god is and "Death, you now know with absolutely certainty, is an illusion."

The article then references the two best cases for NDE's as representing a mind body dualism,

"The two most famous cases are Pam Reynolds and Maria’s Tennis Shoe. Reynolds, an American singer, watched and later reported on with remarkable accuracy the top of her own skull being removed by surgeons before she moved into a bright glowing realm. But it was Reynolds’s account of the surgical implements used and the words spoken in the theatre that make the case so intriguing. Maria, meanwhile, underwent cardiac arrest in 1977. She floated out of her body, drifted round the hospital and noticed a tennis shoe on a window sill. It was later found to be exactly where she said it was. The shoe was said to be invisible from the ground and not in any location where Maria could have seen it."

It goes on to talk about Dr. Parnia who has attempted to prove that people are really floating above their body's through testing. Putting an image on a high place that could only be seen by someone really floating above their body. The results of these studies in the past is that not a single person has been able to identify the image that has been hidden but downplays that evidence by saying that, "In fairness, this may be because the last thing that a floating dying person, with Jesus behind him and his body being pounded in front of him, will notice is some odd picture left on a shelf."

The article then goes on to point out how universal the experience is now and has been in the past. It evokes quantum mechanics to explain why...I think quantum mechanics is the 'universal acid' of pseudoscience more then Evolution is the 'universal acid' of evolution, because it seems every pseudoscience can be supported by it. 

Getting back to the article it then says that the world is made up of two different things, thoughts and things. In comes a laughable quote that has to be included saying, "Dualism is the default human conviction, embraced by religions, philosophies and, in fact, by everybody in their lives — if we didn’t embrace some degree of it, we’d be constantly worried about crashing our cars into other people’s thoughts." Wow..... I'll have faith that I really don't have to explain why that is crazy to anyone reading this.

Anyway it goes to to define dualism by the mind body distinction. The article implicates science as being in a plot agianst dualism, where science is actively and purposefully disproving dualism. The belief that consciousness is a product of brain function is described as, "A product of faith." It supports that statement by saying that, "Neuroscientists may be able to show what happens in the brain when we think or when we exercise “free will”, but this cannot be shown to be proof that dualism is wrong." and "For all our technology, nobody has yet seen a thought, nobody has shown how matter becomes mind."

Then Henry Stapp is brought in as someone saying that quantum mechanics works just as well at the level of the large as it does at the small and the mind could be 'non local' to the brain. (I guess we don't need to find a unified theory of physics anymore!)

The article then finally mentions some skeptics and what they have to say, but concludes that, "The hard sceptics will say that this is all nonsense, that whatever happens in your head when Clooney shouts “Clear!” is just another delusion generated by the material workings of that 1.3kg bag. However, in the present state of our knowledge, this is crude and premature. We should not only wait for the results of Parnia’s experiment, we should also consider the deep weirdness of the world revealed by Stapp and quantum theory. Hard materialism is just one more philosophical position, and the authentic sceptical reaction is not a derisive snort but a humble acceptance that there are more things in heaven and Earth than are dreamt of in any of our philosophies."

This is clearly someone who fails to understand the burden of proof. Science doesn't have a plot agianst dualism. No one is actively working to show that materialism is the only way to look at the world while hiding dualistic evidence, nor is it premature to say that brain function creates a person. This isn't an assumption based on premature thinking, all the evidence from drugs effecting a person's thoughts and personality to how people change when the brain is inhibited points to the brain being the area that controls consciousness. This isn't to say that dualism can be ruled out, just that it has to meet the burden of proof, the burden that is fairly biased agianst it.

Dualism, if found to be true, would shatter the common picture of the world. It would be the first instance of the non-physical working on the physical and would cause profound changes in many areas. For that reason it would have to meet the heavier burden described in 1. It also has no real evidence for it, so it is like the tea cup in 2. As soon as it begins to meet the burden of proof, then it can be talked about seriously, until then we can be crude, but not premature in saying materialism is all there is evidence for and best accounts for what we know. Materialism is rightfully the standard.

Thanks for reading,
- the moral skeptic

June 2, 2010

The Psychic Mafia by Lamar Keene: An examination of the book and the Man

Hi and welcome to the true midweek. Normally I have a topic worthy of discussion, and I was going to talk about how the someone's experience of pain could be 'wrong', but instead I just finished reading the Psychic Mafia which recounts the life of Lamar "Prince of the Spiritualists" Keene and I feel more impassioned to write about that, especially given the subject matter of my last blog. He is pictured above in his trademark white suit. I will link this video as a preview of the book and if your interested the book can be found here, it is a very quick and interesting read, but as always I will do my best to summarize the information and then describe what I think the implications of that information is.

Lamar is important because he really shows the idea of what a true believer is in many instances within his brief book and is responsible for coining that term, which Kierkegaard really described in great detail. That is the greatest strength of this book. The stories of the faithful, the sex and extravagance are interesting, and so is the ending, but the heart of the book is really the belief people have; the belief that exists even when the medium messes up.

I'll start by just giving a brief outline of his life, and then talk about true belief applying the idea to Lamar Keene himself, who I think is as guilty as any in his book of true belief. Lamar grew up with no paranormal influences in his life or spirits to guide him. It was in his late teenage years that he attended a few spiritual church services done by Mildred and Martin Baxter that really introduced him to his future calling. He and a friend were interested enough to take some classes offered by Mildred to teach them how to be spiritualists. They took these classes, but didn't learn spiritualism and Mildred actually suggested boning up on medicine, law, nutrition, and comparative religion. These subjects had nothing to do with spiritualism, but it would help the both of them learn how to answer the questions that people would ask them as spiritualists.

He and his friend felt that learned enough and decided it was time to go out on their own. They started as open-minded and semi-honest mediums, but they soon became complete frauds. This part of the book is an interesting tale of the life of a medium, and an explanation of how deceits were performed, but it isn't relevant to where I want to go with the story. I want to get to the description of true belief, and in a deconstructionist sort of way apply it to Lamar Keene himself.

True belief comes up in many areas of the book, often providing humor to the vast areas of sadness. Various times the mediums experienced an error and because of that, they were caught in a situation where they should have obviously been caught as frauds. The most interesting of which is when Lamar and his partner in crime referred to as 'Raoul' were performing a seance in a person's house. In this performance, they had a room in complete darkness and they would make it seem like a 'floating' trumpet would be the origin point for various spirits to talk through. They accomplished this by having a second hidden trumpet, painted completely black, which the mediums would talk into.

Anyway, during this process, both of Lamar and 'Raoul' would get up and pretend to be spirits, while talking into the trumpet to be the spirit's voice. At one point in the performance a woman got up because she had to go to the washroom, only it was so dark that neither Raoul or Lamar noticed. When she got to the wall she turned on the lights to see where she was going. Lamar was able to sit down before anyone noticed him, but Raoul was standing beside him holding the black trumpet in his hands. Immediately Lamar pulled Raoul down, and the trumpet is dropped. The woman that turned on the light turned back and saw the scene of Lamar and Raoul and said: "It was the strangest thing, I thought I just saw a trumpet in the air." That was the end of the speculation and the seance continued afterward without a hitch.

Throughout the book, there are other instances of mistakes like that happening to different mediums, but they are usually explained away by the medium and the true believer goes on with the same beliefs as before. The cataclysmic event for this book is when Lamar can no longer live as a fraud and wants out. The problem is that he owns a new age church with Raoul. Lamar and Raoul end up having an argument and admit in front of the members of the church council that they have been defrauding them of money for years, and the affect this has on the members astounds Lamar.

In Lamar's words, "I was crushed. I knew how easy it was to make people believe a lie, but I didn't expect the same people, confronted with the lie, would choose it over the truth." This is what happened and the specific case of George Mathern is mentioned. George who moved to join the church, and had given generously in cash and property asked Raoul, "Do you mean to say that you duped me?" and the reply was "That's right George." and even after all he experienced he stayed in this seat beside Raoul and remains active in spiritualism today.

Yet I posit that true belief still applies as much to George Mathern as it does to Lamar Keen because of how the book ends. The book ends with three questions.  (I will ignore the first question pertaining to God's existence)

Question 1: Life After Death?
Lamar believes in it. Even though he had to fraudulently create spirits and knows that all the mediums he knew had to do that same thing, he can still believe in the spirit. My response to this is 'fine', just as long as he accepts that there is no evidence that spirits are real or have any effect on people.

Question 2: Extrasensory Perception and Psychic Phenomena?
"I believe that the individual can have his or her own private psychic experiences--that there is such a thing as ESP. But when it comes to paying a medium to do it for you--beware!" - Lamar Keene

This answer, after everything he has been through and all the frauds he has seen, is unbelievably unsatisfactory. Beware?!?!? What the hell was the point of coming out and saying the entire profession are fakers, thieves, and people with no moral conscious, and then saying if you want to talk to spirits it's possible, but beware of paying someone. This book was like eating a meal. You eat your Caesar salad and it wets your appetite for more, so you get a big main course. They bring out the prime rib and mashed potatoes and it is delicious, it leaves you satisfied, but there is still dessert to come. You wait for the waiter to return and, when you ask about dessert the waiter turns to you and spits in your face. That's what the ending of this book did. Lamar proves that he has learned nothing, despite preaching for two chapters the opposite. Lamar is still the true believer, and can't even progress to being doubtful of the existence of Esp. Lamar lacks the ability to see what his book has shown. Lamar is the waiter that spits in your face.

Thanks for reading,
-the moral skeptic

June 1, 2010

Thinking About True Belief and How We Are All True Believers

Hi, welcome to the midweek, thanks for the comments and feel free to send links of any further information if there is something I am missing. This blog will  be about true belief, the nature what defines true belief and trying to put that nature in a comparable light.

For myself to accomplish those three things it is of paramount important to define what I mean by  the concept of true belief. True belief would have to be simply the act of putting a belief beyond doubt. No matter what the evidence, popularity, or contradictions, the belief is held unquestioned as capital 'T' truth. This is a sort of Kierkegaardian ideal for knowing something is true. Soren Kierkegaard has an interesting take on belief and the understanding of truth and really defines what the essence of true belief is. His idea is that if you can take a belief and believe in it so much that the belief becomes true to you.  I got a description of this type of reasoning from the Stanford Philosophic Encyclopedia where Kierkegaard explains that concept of true belief that goes beyond reason.

"There are two possible attitudes we can adopt to this assertion, viz. we can have faith, or we can take offense. What we cannot do, according to Kierkegaard, is believe by virtue of reason. If we choose faith we must suspend our reason in order to believe in something higher than reason. In fact we must believe by virtue of the absurd."

This is an elegant and fair description what  true belief is and Kierkegaard understood and expressed that idea as well as anyone, although what he did with that understanding is very peculiar.

So with that I'll mention that James Randi on many occasions made statements showing he understands true belief. In one instance, I think the second time he was on the skeptics guide to the Universe, he brought up the issue of true belief. He talked about how a man was having trouble with his wife. His wife was sick, and beyond help, but she didn't take that as the end of the matter. She, like many people in such a sorry state, kept spending money on different frivolous shame therapies and hoping for a cure. Her husband had, had enough and was tired of the monetary losses and asked James Randi what he could do, and Randi, being honest, said that there was probably nothing. Once someone has become a true believer in the Kierkegaardian and Lamar Keene  sense they are beyond being reached.

I think for the most part I agree with Randi, and to show the example of this type of idea I wanted to talk about the success rates of door to door religion peddlers, but alas I could find no statistics on their success rates. What I did find was a New York Times article taking about Mormon's who had become door to door salesmen. Mormons make good door to door salesmen because they are used to being rejected and have some strategies for dealing with the rejection inherent in that line of work. The article mentions that it takes 50-100 doors to create one or two sales of products, which is pretty low considering they have a useful product to share. The article then ends on a sad note, of an act performed by upon Pinnacle door to door salesmen,

"Newbies, for fear they may retreat to their cars, are dropped off and left on foot without shelter or access to a bathroom unless they can gain admittance into a house to make their sales pitch. Mr. Rogers, who is 21, had three energy bars and no umbrella to last him through a long, wet day.
He had made one sale by dark, when they picked him up."
That one sale is selling a product that has a function and that people may need, I'd imagine the rates for selling a religion door to door is an order of magnitude lower than that, but I'm sure there are occasionally successes.
What door to door people who talk about religion are doing is trying to change someones true belief , which can be done if the people are vulnerable. This is like the deathbed conversions that sometimes happen, but I don't how it work work with beliefs and anyone who is able to weight evidence well.

This is by definition true because true believers go beyond evidence and rest their mind on pure unquestioned faith. Once this is happened, all that evidence can do is plant the seeds of doubt that so often go without sowing. It is a sad story, with no happy ending or cure.

I think in a way though everyone is a true believer in matters of taste. No amount of evidence will tell me that I don't like the taste of cheesecake, like the color green, or thought that Hegel was a bastard to read. These are matters where evidence is almost irrelevant, and why I say almost will be the subject of my next post. Taste is a subjective understanding that, while not needing to be illogical and require faith, is made with anecdotal evidence and biased evidence.

Trying to change the mind of the true believer is like trying to tell someone their favorite movie wasn't any good, it just is, unfortunately, a waist of breath. This is not to say that it isn't worth doing, just like the few people that the door to door religion peddlers are able to get to, there is a small minority that might change over time, but it's not worth being hostile or overly hopeful for it to happen.

Thanks for reading.
-the moral skeptic.