“Hey! I didn’t say ‘Science Says’”

Helen Rittelmeyer is blogging and writing again.  She just contributed to the American Spectator’s Youth Symposium, claiming that relativism is no longer conservatism’s greatest enemy.  Let me grab a pull quote.

In the last culture war, relativism’s influence was evident in the stock arguments that kept appearing in magazines and op-ed pages: Breaking taboos is valuable for its own sake; people have a right to make their own choices and not be judged for it; what you call a social evil is really just a cultural difference; et cetera.But those articles are no longer seen so often. Now, the most annoyingly ubiquitous genre in journalism is the social-scientific analysis, as if a person can’t speak with authority without citing economics or sociology.This is bad enough in political conversation, but it has begun to affect people’s ethical thinking. Under the new cultural rules, moral condemnation is a legitimate thing to express, but only if you can demonstrate that the sin you want to condemn makes someone twice as likely to take antidepressants or 40 percent less likely to be promoted at work. Malcolm Gladwell and the Freakonomics guys have more moral authority than the archbishop of New York. Great artists are producing movies, TV shows, and songs about tough moral dilemmas, but although liberals buy the tickets and the albums, they don’t take the art they consume very seriously. When moral questions arise, they forget The Wire and The Hold Steady and ask what the studies show.

An excellently ludicrous example of this mindset was offered by an article on weight loss I read earlier this summer. It opened by citing a handful of studies showing obesity to be correlated not just with heart disease but also with slower career advancement and a greater likelihood of developing mental-health problems. Let’s leave aside the fact that the author didn’t feel he could take the undesirability of being fat as a given. The bigger problem is that this sort of argument tries to have it both ways—to have all the benefits of authority without the burden of being answerable to people who disagree. On one hand, the author isn’t saying obesity is bad, science is, which makes it a fact and not an opinion. Your personal experience or common sense might tell you that a few extra pounds aren’t always such a disaster; but that just means you’re in the statistical minority for whom these bad outcomes do not eventuate. In other words: My moral claim is objectively correct, but that doesn’t mean it has to be true in your case. The same evasive maneuver can be seen in the argument that there’s nothing wrong with pornography because its prevalence isn’t correlated with higher crime rates, or that there’s nothing wrong with gay marriage as long as children of same-sex couples aren’t more likely to receive reduced-price lunches at school. The idea that something might be spiritually harmful (or beneficial) in a way that can’t be demonstrated statistically has been written out of the conversation.

Helen brings up the true-in-aggregate characteristic of these studies as a barrier to challenges or questions.  I’ve used the line “The plural of anecdote is not data” often enough that I can’t help but feel like she’s talking about me.  A lot of the time, it’s a pretty good defense, especially in the public health debates where I tend to use it.  When it comes to herd immunity, taking your full course of antibiotic even though you already feel better, or anything else where your actions have a big aggregate impact – almost everyone who thinks they’re an exception to the rule is wrong.

But as long as people don’t understand why they’re being asked to do counter-intuitive things (or, more precisely, why their intuitions are wrong), epidemiologists are going to come off as techno-mystics.  When we intone “Lo it is written that the findings were significant at p=.05 in an SRS sample.  Let he who denies it be anathema!” it might as well be Latin.  (And poorly catechized scientists sometimes treat statistics like magic and introduce a host of errors, but that’s another rant).

For people who aren’t fluent in social science, the growing authority of the studies may not foster relativism, but it does promote an unhealthy agnosticism.  It’s natural and delightful to be fascinated by the way things work, and the more distant the data is from every day experience, the more frustrated or fearful you may become in your explorations.

I’m speculating.  As a data nerd, I obviously know the other side of the equation a lot better, so let me talk a little about the perils for the savvy.  I was a political science major, and when I didn’t quite have time to finish the reading, I knew the quickest way to prepare something to say for class was to just read the methodology of a paper intensively.  Spot a flaw or notice a way that the results are hard to generalize (besides the standard WEIRD reason) and you’ve got your comment.  This is a useful skill, but it’s a kind of strange habit to cultivate.

The kind of people who get the kind of stat education I have are usually pretty good at analyzing a system and figuring out a way to game it (or at least move through it efficiently).  So if I’m not figuring out a plausible reason why a study doesn’t apply to me, I might be figuring out a different way to buy the benefit described.  Maybe I can trade keeping a gratitude journal for getting a pet.  I still haven’t done the math on how much exercise I can skip in exchange for eating really dark chocolate.

But if I’m talking about virtue, I can’t really do offsets.  I can’t be a jerk to my brother and then balance the books by spending some time at a soup kitchen.  There’s no way to game goodness the way you can hack happiness.

About Leah Libresco

Leah Anthony Libresco graduated from Yale in 2011. She works as an Editorial Assistant at The American Conservative by day, and by night writes for Patheos about theology, philosophy, and math at www.patheos.com/blogs/unequallyyoked. She was received into the Catholic Church in November 2012."

  • deiseach

    I think the trouble is not so much “Science says” as “The media say that ‘Science says’ when they need a headline”.

    Journalists are not trained to be statisiticians, they’re trained (if they’re trained) to write a catchy story. So we get one week where “Science says broccoli will kill you!!!!” and the next we get “Science says eat nothing but broccoli!!!”, so the ordinary newspaper readers or viewers of tv news/what have you eventually tune out everything as being exaggerated and decide that common sense is all the guide you need, which is where the problem arises about, as you say, counter-intuitive behaviour.

    Re: the dark chocolate – when you go up a whole dress size through nomming the choccies, that’s when the exercise trade-off isn’t working :-)

    • leahlibresco

      Science journalism is totally a problem, but it’s not the problem I was trying to hit here. Whether or not the studies are being poorly described or overblown, using studies as the gold standard of knowing brackets off a lot of interesting questions and pushes people out of the conversation.

      • Steve

        OK, I’ll bite. Why shouldn’t studies (as in proper, unbiased thorough studies) be the ‘gold standard of knowing’ and say they are superior, what is stopping you from using other forms of knowing (mabe sitting in a dark room and thinking really hard). Do you feel that conversations about subjective things, like the best movie or best song would be lost or less valuable??

      • deiseach

        But isn’t that how the disciplines are being pushed? How many papers you have published means you’re an expert, and the more, the better, otherwise how are you producing a return on your grant monies?

        I have a suspicion, too, that some studies at least are constructed to prove what they are meant to be investigating, and it always seems that for every study by X which says “brocolli kills”, there is another study by Y which says “eat only brocolli”.

        I have no idea how the consensus on competing studies is reached: pile ‘em all up into ‘yes’ and ‘no’ and see which heap is higher? And as you say – is the maverick in the field a nutcase or the precursor of a breakthrough?

        • Niemand

          it always seems that for every study by X which says “brocolli kills”, there is another study by Y which says “eat only brocolli”.

          It may depend on the situation and specifics of the study. Eating broccoli from a field that was sprayed with a highly toxic pesticide? Taking a vitamin K inhibiting drug? Broccoli could kill you. Eating broccoli from a responsible farmer using insect specific pesticides and taking no meds? Broccoli is probably good for you. Unless, of course, you have an allergy or short bowel syndrome or…You see the problem, right? The media rarely reports the subtle details like which population the broccoli is killing/saving, but these details are important in interpreting the data.

          I have no idea how the consensus on competing studies is reached: pile ‘em all up into ‘yes’ and ‘no’ and see which heap is higher?

          At risk of scaring you, that’s not unlike what happens. The consensus is built after examining the available evidence, evaluating the quality of various studies, and deciding what the most plausible answer is. Sometimes it comes down to whether or not large, well powered randomized controlled trials support the findings of smaller or uncontrolled studies. For example, estrogen replacement, which looked good in small trials and uncontrolled population studies but didn’t hold up in larger studies that were controlled for other variables. Sometimes it can come down to very small differences indeed: A drug that improves health at one dose may kill at a slightly higher one. Sometimes it really does come down to what is most important to the individual: A drug that improves quality of life may worsen life expectancy or vice versa. One person may say the risk is worth it, the next not.

          And as you say – is the maverick in the field a nutcase or the precursor of a breakthrough?

          Maybe. There are more nutcase than geniuses out there, but there are brilliant mavericks with field changing ideas in the world. Sometimes they overlap: Einstein’s first paper was said to have looked like something a high school student would send it-but it was right and all the more conventional scientists were persuaded by his evidence, if not his style. In the end, if the maverick is right, s/he will become the convention.

          • deiseach

            I must not be eating enough broccoli, since I apparently cannot spell “brocolli” :-)

            I’m not scared, as such, since I had a suspicion that was what was going on: see which side of the scales the mass of studies come down on: yea or nay on the good/bad effects of eating dark chocolate versus toffee apples? That’s the point, though: it’s not until you have years of data over a very wide population that you can see the tiny risks that oops, never popped up when we did animal tests or initial clinical trials but when you’re talking about hundreds of thousands of women – yeah, that blip becomes significant.

      • Alex Godofsky

        using studies as the gold standard of knowing brackets off a lot of interesting questions and pushes people out of the conversation.

        If studies were performed competently, journals actually guarded against publication bias, and people stopped treating p-values of 0.05 as significant then this wouldn’t be a huge deal. The bigger issue (IMO) is that the actual standards for research in sociology, econometrics, medicine, etc. are just awful. Bad science journalism is in many ways just a reflection of bad science.

        • leahlibresco

          I’m totally in agreement, Alex, but I don’t think your comment is responsive to the line you quoted. The doing-statistics-well problem is different from the figuring-out-how-to-analyze-X problem. I was talking about the second issue when I talked about bracketing off interesting questions. For example, we still don’t have a good way to quantify whether any change to marriage laws is positive or negative. (The best I ever saw was a difference in difference finding that no-fault divorce lowered suicides among married women, but this is data about a small subset of married people).

          • Niemand

            For example, we still don’t have a good way to quantify whether any change to marriage laws is positive or negative.

            Step 1: Define what you mean by “positive” and “negative”. “Changes in marriage laws have made things worse” is not a testable hypothesis. “Change X in the marriage laws has led to a higher rate of divorce” or “Change X in the marriage laws has led to a lower rate of domestic violence” are testable hypotheses, but neither answers the question of whether the change is good or bad directly.

          • Niemand
          • deiseach

            What you say about studies in the ‘soft’ sciences is very relevant; we’re going to have a referendum here in November on the rights of the child and the various child protection and children’s rights groups are delighted. No-one can possibly object, can they?

            Well, I might. One of the provisions will give the State greater powers of intervention (for various reasons, in Irish law and our constitution, the right of the natural parents over any intervention by the state has been emphasised, protected and upheld; this has been associated with the power of the Catholic Church – see the Mother and Child Scheme for political fallout in previous attempts) in cases such as permitting children in foster care to be adopted against the wishes or without the consent of the natural parents, and to take children into care. The argument is being presented that “if the amendment was passed, it would not be the case that more children would come into the care system, but the right children would come into the care system.”

            My concerns about this power of increased intervention are not because I am a conservative Ultramontanist Irish pseudo-Jansenist Roman Catholic, but because the State is making a dog’s dinner of taking care of the children it already has in care. This summer we had the publication of a report into the deaths of children in care or known to the Health Service Executive. We’re not talking about the Bad Old Days of religious institutions; this was for the period 2000-2010 and in that time, 196 children in care died. Another example would be a report of a court case I saw in the paper today; a 17 year old girl in the care system was charged with headbutting a police officer so hard she broke his nose and her defence was that she was under the influence of alcohol and Valium. I don’t think that is a great recommendation for how improved her situation is when the State took over the role of caretaker from her parents.

            The system is under severe pressure, social workers are badly overloaded, and now we’re talking about letting the State have the power to take more kids into care when the resources are not there and, with our straitened financial circumstances (they’re trying to make €75 million of savings in time for the December budget in public service expenditure) they won’t be there. So I may not vote for this referendum to pass, not because I don’t think children have rights as citizens, but because I don’t think this referendum will serve their rights.

    • Doragoon

      Common complaint, but when you look into it more, you find that there are deeper problems. Ground breaking experiments have been failed to be reproduced. I once found a study on experiments that kinda implied that reality is changing to make experiments less true over time.

  • John

    Your last paragraph is not an argument against measuring the effects of your actions as a guide for morality; it is an argument against karma. The most moral action in your example would be to be good to your brother *and* go to the soup kitchen. The only reason to talk about them balancing out would be if you thought there was some cosmic moral account attached to you that needed to be balanced at >= 0.

    I agree that measuring morality (quantifying the effects of your actions) is *hard*, but ultimately it’s the only way to correctly figure out what is good and what is bad.

    • deiseach

      But people do – we do – try to balance out things like that: “I’m a good person! I volunteer at the soup kitchen/donate blood/give to this charity!” while we ignore the fact that, like Mrs. Jellaby and Africa, we are so busy being good to strangers we are making the lives of those nearest to us miserable.

      We excuse our bad temper and the arguments and quarrels and unhappiness we generate at home and work by “Look at the good things I do!” In Matthew’s Gospel, continuing on from the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus instructs the apostles and the crowd:

      “23 So if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, 24 leave your gift there before the altar and go. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift.”

      Or as it says in the first Epistle of John:

      “If anyone says, “I love God,” and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen.”

      You’re correct that it’s not about dodging karma, but too often we confuse ticking off the morality checkboxes with real morality (or love of God, for the religious amongst us).

      • John

        Agreed, this is bad, even from a consequentialist point of view. In the spirit of this blog, see Easy To Be Hard from Hair :)

        Some people do try to balance out a wrong by doing something good, and I think it’s a mistake. When you let yourself do that, it may in fact make you feel better (which is a small good) you might feel less bad about being a jerk to your brother in the future, so it could well compound the harm you do.

        I think the idea of Christ’s forgiveness is abused just as much, and is just as bad. A fascinating study indicated that people who focus on a loving, forgiving God cheated more than the average atheist on tests, while those who focused on a vengeful, wrathful God cheated less.

        I am aware of the irony of linking to a study showing the consequences of a belief, in this thread. :)

    • Ryan

      “Your last paragraph is not an argument against measuring the effects of your actions as a guide for morality; it is an argument against karma.”
      Perhaps the popular understanding of Karma in America, but what you discuss actually doesn’t resemble Karma-as in, the principle put forth by Hindu philosophers- in any appreciable way. Hindu philosophy doesn’t say that you can cancel out “bad Karma”(or even that there is such a thing as bas vs good Karma) anymore than Catholic teaching says that penance is what forgives you your sins.

      • http://creativefidelity.wordpress.com Dan F.

        nice analogy – now I want to got read some Hindu philosophers to better understand the concept.

      • John

        Thanks for the correction. I learned about the concept of karma from Christian books I read when I was a Christian, so it wasn’t the most unbiased of sources.

    • leahlibresco

      I agree we need to think about what’s good and bad (I disagree that the best way is through a utilitarian calculus). I don’t think magnitude matters very much or that it’s particularly helpful for me to keep a rank ordering in my head of the good things I’ve done over the course of a day. When I face each choice (including action/indifference ones) I want to be oriented toward the correct one. The magnitude matters more for the person affected by my actions than for me. An error is an error.

      • John

        Sure, magnitude doesn’t matter in SOME cases–if you have to choose between making an error or not making an error, you don’t have to measure quantity because you have an easy measure–positive is better than negative. You speak of the easy error/not-error choices like being a jerk/not being a jerk. But there are LOTS of actions you can take/not take throughout your life. If you want to be moral, you need data, you need evidence, to help guide you in figuring it out. How can you know whether it is moral to use anti-biotics to squash a bad cold, when you might in fact be reducing the effectiveness of anti-biotics for everybody? Whence vaccinations, risk v. reward? What will the actual effects of spanking your kid be, if any? Whether or not it’s a study, you need something more than just sticking your finger in the wind. And you can’t back it up to authority either–you need an epistemology that helps you choose which authority to listen to, and you’re back to the same problem: will HE just stick his finger in the wind?

        As to magnitude, of *course* magnitude matters, when you have to *choose* between actions (which your hypothetical did not do). If you HAVE to blow off your brother to work at the soup kitchen, how do you decide what to do? If you think both actions are errors and magnitude does not matter, do you just lock up? Do you stick your finger in the wind?

        • Kristen inDallas

          This is an interesting question… though sometimes I wonder how much we invent these false dichotomies in order to invoke the “morality-bank” calculator and fall back on studies that support this or that and make us feel better. But really how often is it that we can only do X good OR Y good, but not both? Or how much more often do we conviniently overlook the option of doing both because we want the excuse of doing Y to get out of having to do X. If I really don’t like hanging out with my brother, it’s easier to pretend that my day has to be “divided” between family time and soup kitchen time, but if I like my brother (or even if I don’t but I’m trying to) inviting him to come with me to the soup kitchen becomes the more logical solution.

          I’m not saying their are never tough questions that require data on what action is better, but I think that we do tend to overinflate these types of thought expiriments when everyday morality is often as easy as leah make’s it seem when we’re willing to look for 3rd options, make compromises, or just ask a friend if we’re totally missing the point.

          For example I may find data that tells me whether spanking my kid or giving him a time out is a more effective correction technique. But nine times out of ten, I really shouldn’t even use that data, because as much as spilled grape juice annoys the heck out of me, it’s not really a punishable offense. Over educating myself with parenting journal “data” makes me more likely to feel I’m “right” or justified in using either the spanking or the time-out. In reality, being clueless about punishments and turning to my less affected spouse/friend/grocery-store-compatron with my hands in the air “what do I DO with this one” will often give me advice along the lines of “oh honey, you just need to breathe” which is often the far better solution.

          • john

            How often is it that we can do X good OR Y good? I think it happens a lot more often than you think. We have limited time and can do a lot of things with that time, which makes most choices moral ones. We’re just not used to thinking about our little choices, the small moments, in that way. But I think that one must cultivate a moral attitude, evaluating one’s choices *all* the time as best as one can. I can either write this message, or I can go sleep–it seems like a personal decision, but will sleeping now affect my ability to give attention to my children tomorrow? Will a tired me be less able to make moral decisions tomorrow?

            I do agree that sometimes, the moral choice is to not spend time choosing. But the choice of whether to choose is still a moral choice. It would be immoral to spend 15 minutes at the store trying to figure out which brand of grape juice to buy, because it will make you anxious, it will steal time from other things, and the negative impact of that anxiety and loss of time may well outweigh most benefits you could have got agonizing over the cereal.

            But it doesn’t excuse your responsibility to try–it just means you have to find a more effective way to sift through the data and decide which choices to make. Buy the juice, but spend some time looking at the data later, when you’re not in the anxious moment. It’s unlikely that one gallon of grape juice will turn your kids into diabetics (data tells us they would be taken off the shelves quickly if that were the case). IAnd if the studies contradict? Do your diligence and quit worrying until you have more data. Again, it’s immoral to worry yourself all the time, because your kids will reflect your constant anxiety, and act out. Data tells us this, as well. :)

          • http://thinkinggrounds.blogspot.com Christian H

            To an extent I think both of you (Kristen, Jon) are right. Having to choose between two goods (or two ills) is likely very very common, but so is the false dichotomy situation. Likely most of our decisions are in one of these two categories. However, what I would like to point out is that the entire discussion about how to decide looks very much like the question of how to become a person who can make a good decision…for which magnitude doesn’t matter all that much. I do agree right off that magnitude matters a great deal in the end–I’m consequentialist enough to spend more time on issues that have greater repercussions, if the time is available–but I do mean that habit-forming is more important than individual moral choices and that the habit-forming is not especially dependent on magnitude. Though I suppose you could make a bad habit of basing on magnitude whether or not to do the right thing at all. After all, there are two stages to a moral choice: determining what the correct thing to do is, and then choosing to do the correct thing.

  • http://www.lesswrong.com/user/MBlume Mike

    I don’t feel like Helen’s primarily concerned about what kind of data we use, or even about epistemology at all. It sounds like her main concern is that treating “the studies” as a gold standard *smuggles in* an assumption that the only things worth caring about are consequences/harms — an assumption that I’m perfectly fine with, incidentally, but still one worth specifying.

    • leahlibresco

      That’s a fair characterization of her position, but I would add that, even if you’re consequentialist, studies don’t look at all consequences of interest. The research is skewed toward that which is easiest to quantify, which may not be the most salient consequences. Plus, of course, the data can’t tell you how to weight the consequences (cf the research saying parents are moment-to-moment unhappier/more stressed than people without children)

  • grok87

    well its not just (religious) conservatives who are resistant to new ideas/change. Science is often equally guilty of it. Ever hear the story of Alfred Wegener and his theory of continental drift? It took 40 years before people realized it was right
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alfred_Wegener

    the important thing is to follow Jesus and as Walt Disney says “keep moving forward”. But it’s not a linear process.
    cheers,

  • http://reluctantliberal.wordpress.com Reluctant Liberal

    I’m not familiar with Rittelmeyer enough to know if this criticism applies to her, but I feel like this could be a case of moving goal posts. A lot of claims made by social conservatives (about abortion, gay marriage, or drug use) are testable. And the tests frequently don’t come out their way. Certainly the bit at the end (starting with “The same evasive maneuver…”) seems to be saying, “No, these things don’t seem to cause harm in any measurable way, but they’re still immoral.” (Which, of course, one would not expect with at least Natural Law ideas of morality since causing harm [or preventing good outcomes] is a pretty good definition for damaging human nature)

    Or am I just being unfair to Rittelmeyer?

    • TerryC

      Except that the statement “A lot of claims made by social conservatives (about abortion, gay marriage, or drug use) are testable. And the tests frequently don’t come out their way.” is not factual. Unbiased testing does show that each of these groups of activities have significant downsides, both personally and societally.
      Abortion kills an innocent human being. Science has excepted that the unborn are human for well over a century. No one thinks an unborn dog is anything but a dog. Or an unborn cow anything but a cow. How could an unborn human being be anything but a human being. If you want to differentiate personhood now your into justifications for the holocaust and slavery. Abortion also has negative psychological and health effects on the aborting mother. Gay marriage, by its very nature, or lack of nature redefines marriage in a way that makes all prohibitions or limits on marital contracts arbitrary. Since marriage is the best protection for women and children (see causal effect of no-fault divorce and welfare program which penalizes marriage while rewarding single-motherhood) destruction of marriage as an institution devoted to the protection of children and woman can only be bad for women and children. Drug abuse has destroyed so many lives that the contention that drug use is not bad for you can’t be taken seriously by anyone familiar with the data.
      The problem is that people come at this backwards. Such activities are immoral because they are bad for you. Or more specifically in a Christian world view, God has revealed such activities are immoral because he loves you and wants the best for you. Immoral activities are bad for you, which is why they are immoral. They aren’t bad because they are immoral. They are immoral because they are bad. Unbiased studies will always support those conclusions. Trouble is in the real world unbiased studies are as rare as hens teeth.
      The real problem with “science says” is that “science” is not a monolithic authority. Ask a room full of physicists to explain something and while you’re likely to get the same explanation on a matter of scientific dogma from most of them you are just as likely to find one or two who will dispute the details of even that. Pick something that is not dogmatic and you are just as likely to get a room full of different explanations. Add politics, or more specifically political agendas to the mix and phrases like “most scientist agree” are completely meaningless. So what if a material scientist or an accelerator physicist thinks global warming is happening or doesn’t. Climate change is not their field and their opinion is only slightly better or no better than a mason or baker on the issue. Yet the phrase “most scientist agree” is bandied about as if science is determined by democratic process, rather than by research or observation.

      • Niemand

        Science has excepted that the unborn are human for well over a century.

        I think you mean “accepted” but the average scientist would take exception to the statement, so excepted is probably more accurate. (Sorry, couldn’t resist the pun.)

        Once again, “science” doesn’t say anything. Most scientists would find the statement that a one celled organism is a person to be problematic. Part of the problem is, again, carefully defining what you mean. What do you mean by “the unborn are human”? What is “human” and is it the important definer in terms of what is and is not to be protected?

        • http://creativefidelity.wordpress.com Dan F.

          Right, there are two (separate but related) questions. The first is what does it mean to call something human” and the second is “Should all things called human be protected to the same degree”?

          The only definition of what is human that is anything other than arbitrary is to say certain unique combinations of DNA are human and yes, starting with one cell. If that cell isn’t human, what is it (it’s not dog, fish, cat, etc.)? It’s a uniquely human cell with it’s own unique DNA and (if not interrupted) will develop into a full grown human being. Therefore, it’s human.

          Now, the question of whether or not that cell deserves protection is a different question. Some would argue that no, that cell doesn’t deserve protection if it is threatening the life, health, emotional well-being, convenience (etc.) of the mother (a fully developed human). Other’s would say that that cell deserves some protection but would make exceptions for various circumstances in the mother’s life. Other’s would say that that cell deserves protection from any deliberate action on the part of the mother or others to harm it (i.e. not protection from naturally occurring miscarriage but from any intended abortive acts).

          There in lies the political/moral debate. Catholic teaching obviously falls on one side of that debate, Planned Parenthood et al on the other with the majority of Americans seemingly somewhere in between.

          For myself, I have never been able to understand how the circumstances of a fetus’ conception could change the value of that fetus or how the right to liberty (or autonomy) was somehow a lexically higher right than the right to life (since without life you can’t have liberty, thus my right to live trumps your right to be free). Every argument or conversation I’ve had about the topic always seem to boil down to angry emotions, attempts to change the subject, arbitrary redefinition of terms or unsupported assertions that I hate women.

          • Niemand

            The only definition of what is human that is anything other than arbitrary is to say certain unique combinations of DNA are human and yes, starting with one cell.

            Congratulations. You just defined cancer as a human. It’s human DNA and definitely unique from the “parent”. Anyone want to start raiding labs to liberate HeLa cells? Additionally, you seem to be saying that identical twins (who share DNA) are not human. Or maybe only one of them is? What would you say about a clone (i.e. an artificial, time delayed identical twin): human or non-human? Then there are chimeras: people who are the result of two fertilized eggs or zygotes merging. Should anyone who can demonstrate chimerism be given two votes?

            It’s a uniquely human cell with it’s own unique DNA and (if not interrupted) will develop into a full grown human being.

            Well, not exactly. In fact, not at all. A majority of fertilized eggs will not develop into full grown human beings, but will fail before or shortly after implantation. Worse, any somatic (non-reproductive) cell can be induced to develop into a full grown mammal* under the right circumstances. Are you a murderer every time you digest shed intestinal lining (as we all do every day)? And you did WHAT with the bodies? Eww!

            *I can’t say “full grown human beings” because it’s never been tried on humans. As far as I know. But there’s no particular reason to believe that cloning wouldn’t work on humans as it does on cows, sheep, domestic animals, etc.

          • Andres Riofrio

            Niemand, those are some great points.

            However, in the case of cancer cells, it seems they are not chromatically compatible with humans: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Helacyton_gartleri

          • Niemand

            You’ve got a point with respect to HeLa cells. (Though if HeLa cells aren’t human then they are clearly a new species that has evolved from humanity, which would cause problems for Protestant fundamentalists, but perhaps not Catholics.) However, not every cancer is a HeLa cell. Some cancers have only minor mutations and some, such as teratomas, can definitely form complex tissues. I remember hearing a claim that teratoma DNA, if inserted into an enucleated egg, could form an apparently normal embryo. I can’t find any verification of this claim, though, and am a bit appalled at the idea of someone trying it, so let’s just hope I misremembered.

          • Kristen inDallas

            Neimands reply to Dan made me laugh coffee out my nose. Since Dan stated that CERTAIN (not all) unique combinations of DNA starting with single cells are human and then went on to clarify that the characteristic this “certain” type of cells share is that they will/can become adult human beings under natural processes, so yeah, I am pretty sure he did not, in fact, just make the case for cancer being a human being.

            And the argument that because not all of these cells go on to be born humans means that none of the cells should be refered to as human beings…. about as logical as saying that because not all humans reach the age of 80, that none of us deserve the right to be treated as potential future 80 year olds.

          • Niemand

            the characteristic this “certain” type of cells share is that they will/can become adult human beings under natural processes,

            Why “under natural processes”? Under natural processes, a person who has gone into v fib will die. Does that mean that everyone who has undergone defibrillation is a zombie? Are “test tube babies” not really people because something more than nature was required to get to their birth? If we started doing human cloning, would all cells then be considered people or would the people born from cloning not be considered people? Because they started out as a somatic cell, just like “natural” births start with a fertilized egg. And everyone appears to be completely unwilling to touch the question of chimeras: one person or two? In the end, why isn’t saying only “certain” cells are humans just another form of the restriction that you say you fear?

          • http://thinkinggrounds.blogspot.com Christian H

            “Additionally, you seem to be saying that identical twins (who share DNA) are not human. Or maybe only one of them is?”

            No, no, they are both human, but they are both the SAME human. Both of them need to consent to one another’s contracts (under which both are bound). And obviously people with chimerism should get two votes, but only if they use them to vote for different candidates.

            I think the problem is not (just) a confusion over the definition of “human” here. The problem is that, in different contexts, different definitions of “human” make sense. Some (albeit more sophisticated) definition based on genetic material is certainly useful in some places, but not in others. For instance, a severed limb is human but it is not a human. deiseach says, below, something about “person” and “human” as different concepts, and I think that’s a better way to go: the question is not whether a thing is human but whether it subjects us to its moral demands (to use Levinasian terms).

        • deiseach

          The danger is when we try to parse the meaning of “personhood” such that it is discrete and revocable from “human”; so that personhood depends upon reaching a certain developmental plateau and maintaining it.
          If you don’t become a person, with all the protections and status in law that carries, until you have a certain level of self-consciousness and intellectual ability (so that all those tests back in the 60s, as mentioned in a previous post, about when do babies realise that they can’t crawl out over a ledge will come to bear in discussions of when an infant achieves self-awareness and reasoning ability; a three month old may be a human but not a person, whereas a six month old is both a human and a person). But this also means that if you lose your facilities due to age, you lose your status as a person since you no longer meet the criteria for that legal protection.

          Never mind the historical realities of when certain groups of us decided certain other groups of us were not persons but chattel, regardless of whether or not those others were classed as humans.

          That’s why I think arguments about abortion are sawing off the branch the debater is sitting on; can’t you see that if you are successful in getting it accepted that one may be a human but not a person, that doesn’t stop when you come out of the womb? That one day, you may drop those few points on your I.Q. or equivalent test, and sorry, you’re not a person anymore so your family can take your stuff and aren’t legally obligated to look after you?

          • Ray

            If “personhood” is supposed to be the last bulwark standing between our society and one that denies civil rights to a hated minority race, it’s not a very good one. By all accounts, school age children are persons, and yet, we deny them the right to vote, to marry, to consent to sex, to choose whom to live with, and we force them to go to school (which is pretty close to slavery, albeit a fairly humane form of it.)

          • Niemand

            Hate to tell you this, but the dystopian scenario you’re postulating is more or less the current world. “Death” is currently defined not by a lack of heart beat (there are plenty of people alive who have not had a heartbeat at one point or another…ECMO, V fib resuscitation, cardiac transplant, etc), but rather lack of brain function. No brain function=death, even if the heart is still beating and the lungs still capable of oxygen exchange. What definition would you use for “death”?

            Furthermore, if a person has gone below a certain level of brain function, even if they are not quite brain dead, their relatives are allowed to and often asked to decide whether to withdraw care. Tom DeLay withdrew care from his still living but extremely brain damaged father, for example. The bar is set extremely high, but it is based on brain function, not any other organ failure. Did DeLay murder his father? The father was never going to be conscious again, most likely (but had a better chance than Teri Schiavo did, for example), but still had organ function, including the heartbeat that pro-lifers go on about.

            Part of the problem may be that, once again, the definitions are fuzzy. What do you mean by something being “human” even? Is a single isolated human cell a human? Is an immortalized cell culture, malignant or not? How do you deal with cloning, twins, chimeras, etc? In short, your definition of human needs clarification.

      • Niemand

        Since marriage is the best protection for women and children (see causal effect of no-fault divorce and welfare program which penalizes marriage while rewarding single-motherhood)

        Actually, the easier it is to divorce, the lower the domestic violence rates. Again, it depends on what you mean by “best protection”: If you mean “the best way of keeping women and children attached to a man and therefore having access to the higher pay a man gets for equivalent work” then yes, forcing women to stay married to abusers is the right move. If you want lower rates of abuse, domestic violence, and murder, easy access to divorce and better education for women is the way to go.

        • deiseach

          So every modern divorce is solely because the man is a brute beast who drinks the rent and beats his wife and children? And whether or not a divorce was easily come by, if the violent spouse is determined to wreak vengeance on the other, then unless there’s the money and opportunity to go half way across the country, the chance of the offender kicking in the door and assaulting and even attempting to/succeeding in killing their spouse is still there. Hell, the violent even do it if they weren’t married at all and so there wasn’t a divorce, but their partner left them: I know of one such case locally where the woman was killed by her ex-boyfriend in exactly those circumstances – kicking in the door and attacking her, despite the barring order she had obtained.

          How about the answer to domestic violence by both men and women being more effective protection in law, so that barring orders and restraining orders do get enforced, and maybe some day we can dream of teaching the rising generation that a fist to the face is not the solution to problems?

          • Niemand

            I doubt divorce helps with the brute who beats his/her partner and stalks him/her. What divorce helps with is not letting it get that far. Suppose two people find, after they are married, that they are simply not compatible as a long term couple: different values, different habits, etc. If divorce is available, they can just say, “Ok, we made a bad mistake. Let’s fix it as best we can and move on.” If divorce is impossible or only available if someone is to blame, then the despair associated with being bound to someone they don’t love or love but can’t live with, who will keep them from everything they want in life, may turn to violence.

            My personal theory is that the best way to decrease divorce would be to make marriage harder to obtain. No instant license in Las Vegas, no allowing minors to marry, no social pressure to marry because you’ve had sex. Mandatory counseling with specific emphasis on the negatives (sort of like what you get if you want to convert to Judaism) prior to marriage. I’m inclined to think that people should live together, at least as roommates, before marriage to see if they can stand each other’s habits with respect to tidiness, timeliness, snoring, and the million other little things that go into being compatible with one another. I don’t have evidence for that, though, just a platonic argument: Divorce is hard and no one wants to get divorced, not even in the most extreme situations like violence. Marriage is easy and fun and it’s all too possible to get into it without thinking through the consequences.

          • http://janalynmarie.blogspot.com Beadgirl

            “What divorce helps with is not letting it get that far. Suppose two people find, after they are married, that they are simply not compatible as a long term couple: different values, different habits, etc. If divorce is available, they can just say, “Ok, we made a bad mistake. Let’s fix it as best we can and move on.” If divorce is impossible or only available if someone is to blame, then the despair associated with being bound to someone they don’t love or love but can’t live with, who will keep them from everything they want in life, may turn to violence.”

            Years ago I spent a fair amount of time helping victims of domestic violence, and this scenario you describe did not exist. I suppose it is possible that a spouse turns to violence over despair at not being able to divorce, but never saw anything like it. Instead, the violence and abuse itself, or the red flags that indicated it was to come, were there from the very beginning of the relationship.

            I do agree that the problem isn’t just that people divorce too much or too easily, but that also people get married too soon or too easily, without understanding the true nature of the permanent, lifelong commitment it is, or get married for the wrong reasons. And I think part of the cause of that is that we no longer have a clear idea of what marriage is in the first place.

          • Niemand

            Instead, the violence and abuse itself, or the red flags that indicated it was to come, were there from the very beginning of the relationship.

            But not necessarily noticed at the beginning of the relationship. Or ignored because “s/he’ll change once we’re married”. If you can’t walk away from a relationship that’s going down hill and looks like it’s headed to abuse, what’s the good of knowing the red flags? Also, if people can walk away from a relationship before they get desperate enough to start abusing each other-or their kids-they won’t show up in a domestic violence program.

            In any case, available data does demonstrate a decrease in domestic violence, including women murdered by partners or relatives, in states with no fault divorce and that the decrease starts when the no fault divorce is introduced. This does not prove causation, but is suggestive. And apart from damage to people’s conception of what marriage is, it’s not clear to me that divorce does any harm. Why not allow people release from relationships that aren’t working? What harm occurs there?

          • http://janalynmarie.blogspot.com Beadgirl

            The point of the red flags (ideally) is to recognize them in time to not get married. That takes self-respect, common sense, etc., which all too often people don’t have, and it takes actually getting to know the person in various situations, rather than rushing into marriage. It is extremely rare for a man (for example, not trying to gender-stereotype), to be considerate and kind and mature up until the marriage, and then turn into an abuser. It would take an extraordinarily good actor, or some sort of major change in personality due to crisis/illness/etc.

            I am, of course, fully supportive of divorce if it is the only way to end the abuse. The statistic that abuse goes down with no-fault divorce could simply be correlation, if the states that have no-fault are generally more liberal and have better attitudes about domestic violence and more resources to help victims.

            As for the harm, I see harm to the children all the time. There are circumstances where the children are better off with a divorce, but they are not that common. Also, there could be a long term social effect, where the proliferation of no-fault divorce leads to people, over time, not seeing marriage as a permanent life-long commitment, which leads to more divorce, and so on.

            An article I read a few years ago, in Elle of all places, discussed so-called “hard” (abuse, untreated addiction, fraud, unrepentant adultery, etc.) and “soft” (chemistry has dimmed, fell out of love, grew apart, etc.) reasons to divorce. I’d love it if only divorces for “hard” reasons happened, but I haven’t figured out how to make that happen. The problem with no-fault is that it is intended mainly for “soft” reasons. But on the other hand, sometimes no-fault is needed because it becomes too expensive or difficult to get a divorce for cause despite “hard” reasons. I’m not sure how to address this conflict, which gets back to my main issue — the fact that people get married too early or for the wrong reasons in the first place. Treating marriage as a much bigger deal than we currently do would be a good place to start.

      • Ted Seeber

        I’m with you on most of this- except for one small point. No Fault Divorce eliminated the morality from marriage long before homosexuality became accepted by political interference in science. And long before divorce, ’twas the Protestant Reformation and England using Legal Marriage against Catholics.

      • http://reluctantliberal.wordpress.com Reluctant Liberal

        Wow. I was not trying to start a debate over abortion. And the equivalent of, “Yes, these things do cause problems and here are the problems I’m asserting they cause…” doesn’t constitute evidence in my book.

        And I don’t usually go with “Most scientists agree.” I do say that most climatologists agree, and that the majority of dissident voices (who usually aren’t climatologists) has financial ties to oil companies (which doesn’t necessarily invalidate their findings, but it’s not good). I also say that climatologists have been making predictions for a while, and the warming that has been taking place is worse than what they predicted. The fact that reality supported their conclusions after they made those conclusions is what I mean by verifiable evidence.

    • leahlibresco

      A lot of claims made by social conservatives (about abortion, gay marriage, or drug use) are testable. And the tests frequently don’t come out their way. Certainly the bit at the end (starting with “The same evasive maneuver…”) seems to be saying, “No, these things don’t seem to cause harm in any measurable way, but they’re still immoral.”

      This point has bothered me before, and I was annoyed when most people weren’t willing to make predictions about the impact of gay marriage. I don’t think all predictions need to be of the form “divorce rate up two points.” Some more aesthetic predictions are interesting and germane: “sharp decline in movies about same sex non-romantic friendship” “more discussion of marriage as right instead of duty” etc. You can quantify them with some effort.

      • http://www.ephesians4-15.blogspot.ca Randy

        This is a hard question to answer because gay marriage is just one more step in the general degrading of marriage in western society. We have contraception, premarital sex and divorce that already have redefine marriage in many people’s minds. Gay marriage takes us another step down that road. So the effects are going to be hard to test because I would have expected the degrading of marriage to continue without gay marriage being legal. It will just be more intense with it.

        So the question, “What will it hurt?” will never have an adequate answer. A single moral lapse typically does not hurt that much by itself. If I tell this specific lie what bad thing will happen? If you approach moral questions that way you will always get bad answer.

        In fact, science inherently wants to reduce an issue to one specific cause and effect so they can design an experiment. Morality is inherently irreducible. What is the value of being a truth-teller? Hard to measure. What is the value of a society that respects marriage? If you need to ask you won’t get it.

        • Niemand

          We have contraception, premarital sex and divorce that already have redefine marriage in many people’s minds.

          So why is this a bad thing?

          If you need to ask you won’t get it.

          Quite likely not. I don’t “get” how something that has no negative consequences-and a fair number of positive consequences – can be a bad thing.

          • http://www.ephesians4-15.blogspot.ca Randy

            But that is the point. Just like the lie that has no obvious negative consequences or the murder that seems perfect. If you ask the question you have already dismissed the moral good involved.

          • Alan

            And if you insist on the moral good without answering you are just begging the question.

            I can just as authoritatively assert that believing any physical being could be an incarnation of God is idolatrous blasphemy that leads to nothing but evil – and thus Christianity is simply evil. If you need to ask how this manifests you just won’t get it.

          • Niemand

            Just like the lie that has no obvious negative consequences or the murder that seems perfect.

            If you get away with the perfect murder, then you have to live the rest of your life with a murderer. I’d call that a negative consequence.

          • http://www.ephesians4-15.blogspot.ca Randy

            And if you insist on the moral good without answering you are just begging the question.

            The question is answered. It is just not answered with a specific measurable negative consequence. They exist but you can always find exceptions. They are not going to convince anyone on their own.

            The short answer to the question is there is a mystical truth about marriage. What man is meant to be for woman and woman is meant to be for man. When that is respected by society as sacred then more couples come closer to living that truth. That benefits us all. It would be nice for the scientists if when couples really got this then they would turn green. That would be measurable. But they don’t. They tend to have bigger families but not always. They tend to be generous in small ways. Their love for each other just overflows and blesses society.

            Now the response is always that gay marriage won’t make that impossible. It won’t. It will just hide the entrance to that paradise. Fewer people will find it.

          • http://www.ephesians4-15.blogspot.ca Randy

            If you get away with the perfect murder, then you have to live the rest of your life with a murderer. I’d call that a negative consequence.

            But that is just because you do grasp the moral principle of murder. If you really didn’t grasp it you would not get the remorse part either. That does not mean you would not experience remorse. Just that you would not expect it.

          • Alan

            Randy – and my response to you is that your mystical truth is a bunch of bs no more rooted in reality than the old notion that sacrificing virgins would keep the volcanoes at bay. That you use that mythical mystical truth as a justification to stand in the way of gay marriage is what truly blocks the entrance to paradise for real human beings – not made up gods.

            But since you assert that there is no measurable way to test your hypothesis of said mystical truth I guess we just have to fight it out through the political process we have agreed to – we are lucky enough to live at a pace and time where that fight doesn’t usually involve violence or even much instability in society as we overturn old myths in favor of broader liberty.

          • http://www.ephesians4-15.blogspot.ca Randy

            I told you that if I explained it to you you would dismiss it as bs. So now you have done that. Fine.

            But since you assert that there is no measurable way to test your hypothesis of said mystical truth I guess we just have to fight it out through the political process we have agreed to

            Measurability has no bearing here. The political process will play out. It is almost entirely a religious question. Do you think Christian revelation is really true? Not, do you go to church? Not, do you call yourself a Christian? Do you actually believe it is really true? That it makes sense for your country to structure its legal system around that truth?

            we are lucky enough to live at a pace and time where that fight doesn’t usually involve violence or even much instability in society as we overturn old myths in favor of broader liberty.

            I don’t think so. I think this will get ugly. I think anti-Christian bigotry is growing. Will it get to the point where Christianity is illegal? Where people are jailed and even killed for their faith? History is full of such examples. We think we are above that sort of thing. A century ago the Mexicans and Russians thought they were above it.

          • Alan

            Randy – You didn’t explain anything you asserted the existence of a mystical truth. I assert that your supposed truth is not just false but harmful to society. Great, we are on equally useless footing.

            And no, I don’t think christian revelation is really true and I thank God we live in a country that knows, and has known from its beginning, it makes no sense to structure our legal system around christian revelation. If you prefer a theocracy you can move to one.

            And no, anti-Christian bigotry is not growing, it is tiny in this country and those deluded enough to think they suffer from meaningful bigotry for their christianity here are simply insulting those who actually face real bigotry for their religious beliefs in other countries. We are no where near, nor will ever be near, a point where Christianity is illegal – it is a joke to think otherwise, requires complete denial of everyday reality in this country; comparing us to Czarist Russia or Porfiriato Mexico is absurd. It is ramblings like yours that marginalize christian conservatives in the actual political debate that does inflect outcomes.

  • http://reluctantliberal.wordpress.com Reluctant Liberal

    On an unrelated note, health outcomes are the result of genetics and behavior, not weight. Telling people to lose weight or expecting fat people to be unhappy with their weight does not promote good health outcomes. It promotes dieting, which studies show fail in the long run for 95% of the population, and which probably damages health outcomes.

    For more, see the blog of the fat person who’s won three national dance competitions:
    http://danceswithfat.wordpress.com

  • Niemand

    Science doesn’t say anything except “look at the data and draw the appropriate conclusions.” No opinion or position is the “scientific” one. However, some things are much better supported than others and harder to overthrow. If you want to claim, as in the xkcd, that relativity is wrong, then you have to have a theory that explains the observations equally well and explains something that relativity doesn’t currently. Relativity did just that for newtonian mechanics and therefore became accepted, even though it seemed kind of goofy in a lot of ways. Quantum mechanics even moreso. Currently, quantum mechanics and relativity can’t be completely reconciled*, so if your theory covers the observations that support QM and the observations that support relativity, you may be on to something.

    And statistics…don’t get me started on statistics. Too late! A p-value of 0.05 means that there is a 5% chance that the data would appear as they do if the results were completely due to chance. That is all. It does not mean that the finding is “true”, just that it is probable. Other factors should be considered: Are the groups compared really otherwise the same, are all appropriate confounders considered, is the sample size large enough to find a difference reliably, etc.

    Last semi-related statement: The “scientist” in supernatural horror movies who says, “But…this can’t be happening…it’s not scientific!” just before the monster eats him or her is being very unscientific: If vampires and zombies are attacking then there are vampires and zombies in the world and you just have to adapt your theories of how the world works to explain them. Usually that adaption involves theories about “makeup” and “special effects”, but if a real zombie invasion occurs, theories of how life work will just have to be changed. Also, “flame throwers” will be standard research equipment requests in grant applications.

    *Statement may be out of date. I am not a physicist.

    • TerryC

      Statement is still good.*

      * I’m not a physicist either, but I play one at a National Laboratory. B.S., M.A.T., M.S. in Applied Physics

  • http://www.ephesians4-15.blogspot.ca Randy

    It does assume a few things. One is that measurable results are all that matter. Could we prove scientifically that Ghandi’s India was better than Hitler’s Germany. When the choice was there to make I would dare say the data would have been on Hitler’s side.

    Another assumption is that we can do science in an unbiased way. When the politics or sex involved we become really bad scientists. The studies are often manufactured to support the conclusions. We are horrified when the other side of the argument does it but it happens all the time. Remember the golden rule. He who has the gold makes the rules. That is rarely the scientist.

    A third assumption is that of consequentialism. Adultery cannot be wrong because it is a breaking of the most solemn promise. It can only be wrong because it can be shown to produce some bad results. But why are those results considered bad? Are there more studies? Eventually you get to something that is just bad. Often that baddness is based on pain and pleasure. So consequentialism is not really the pursuit of any higher good but actually the process of logically extending the pain and pleasure principle. Not really a moral system at all.

  • Niemand

    Could we prove scientifically that Ghandi’s India was better than Hitler’s Germany.

    That depends on what you mean by “better”. If you use number of Autobahn built, inflation rate, or change in employment status of the average person from unemployed to employed, you’d conclude that Hitler’s Germany was better. If you used amount of autonomy and self-government available, number of people murdered by the government, and number of countries invaded by the government, then you’d conclude that Gandhi’s India was better. “Better” is a value judgement reflecting what it considered important in a society and not something easily measured in an “objective” manner.

    • Irenist

      “That depends on what you mean by ‘better.’”
      Sure does. And no amount of scientific investigation will define “the Good” for us.

      • Alan

        But you can define it and then science can test if it really did exist more in India than Germany. Simply asserting it is so does not make it so.

  • Ryan

    I must say, and I might be being a jerk here, I think that the quoted article used a poor example. The author conflates the supposed benefits of weight loss and/or the drawbacks of obesity with a moral descicion. They are not. These arguments are health and social issues, not moral ones. Nobody in any study she is referring to claims that one’s weight says anything about one’s character. I would be interested in an actual moral dillema where what she is saying applies.

    • Irenist

      Gluttony is a deadly sin. Congenital obesity is, I’d guess, of less concern to the quoted author than the sin of gluttony and its effects on the health of the soul, whether that gluttony leads to obesity or not.

    • http://thinkinggrounds.blogspot.com Christian H

      I noticed this, too. We know perfectly well (by which I mean, “the data is perfectly clear”) that lots of people who are overweight eat and exercise the same amount (roughly) as those who are not overweight, and that once a person is overweight it is incredibly difficult (to the point of practical impossibility sometimes) to become otherwise. And yet, as Alice Domurat Dreger writes, “fat is widely equated with weak will and ill health” (One of Us); that is, visible anatomy is taken to be a marker of internal moral and mental traits. Sound like anything we know? (Answer: racism, ageism, sexism, etc.)
      So, yes, to Irenist, congenital obesity should be of less concern (ie. no concern, morally) than gluttony. But when looking at a given overweight person, what ability do you have to tell whether that obesity is congenital or not? And even if a person did overeat and then became obese, they may no longer be committing gluttony (because it is almost impossible to stop being obese long-term). That person’s continued obesity is not an indication of their current sins. So this equation between weight and morality seems spurious to me.

  • HBanan

    The plural of anecdotes is not data.

    I’m kind of tired of that phrase, because of course you could collect data on or from anecdotes. Maybe I should start bringing a lab notebook to parties and in trains. I think my anecdote study would be on the kinds of stories that parents of so-called impertinent &/or cute 2 year-olds choose to share with near strangers. How many involve funny sayings? How many involve poo? Do women who are breastfeeding tell me way more about soreness than women who have no babies, but may have sore boobs from PMS? Does the frequency of in-person live anecdote correspond to facebook anecdotes?

    The singular of data is not anecdote. It is also not “truth,” nor can truth be equated as “my rightness:your wrongness = (the number of data points that have been collected on this matter up to now * my irritation quotient)/(number of peer-reviewed articles with the same conclusion as your anecdote * the p-value of a study I saw somewhere once but I can’t remember the details), the irritation quotient being defined as (1+ the anecdote word count, divided by 1+ the number of times I genuinely laugh at anecdotes, which is always 0; this can be simplified to the anecdote word count in all cases so far encountered).

  • jose

    The behavior is the same, isn’t it? You have a view of what you want things to be like, and you use arguments that hopefully will convince people to do things your way. Religion used to rule life so religious arguments were to be expected. Now everybody knows science sets up modern life, so the convincing arguments tend to be scientific.

    With the millenial “Nones” on the rise in the west, I doubt spiritual reasons for why gay marriage is wrong will regain some of their former vigor soon.

  • HBanan

    More support for anecdotal evidence that is used to inform, but not contradict, published studies.

    If the mother of a 2 year-old tells me her child is a biter, I am going to stand out of range, whether or not recent studies have shown that most 2 year-olds do not bite strangers. Her biting child doesn’t contradict the findings, but complements them, adding to the information that enough 2 year-olds bite people that studies are conducted on this action and that most of the 2 year-olds do not bite. Here, here is one who does. If the mother told me her 2 year-old does not bite, but the study said that 95% do, I think I would trust the mother, if she were generally trustworthy and displayed no bite marks. If I go into a classroom, and am told by the teacher that 2 of the 20 kids are biters, I am going to be wary of all the children, though statistics show that I am safe from the majority of the class. The teacher’s statistic is less useful to me than anecdotes that teach me which kids to avoid.

    Sometimes people’s anecdotes are used to contradict the erroneous conclusion that, because a study says so, life as they have encountered it does not exist. Most is all. A study shows that smoking increases risk of lung cancer. My grandad smoked til he was 90, your friend declares. His anecdote doesn’t negate the study — but his granddad could have been in the study as a cancer-free smoker. Neither does the study tell you what the fate of any individual’s lungs; but how many people will say “Well, you will get cancer if you smoke; I saw a scientist say so on the TV.” They are just as incorrect, even though they are using data rather than anecdotes. I hear statements like that WAY more often than I hear anecdotes as contradicting evidence. Anecdotes CAN be used as contradictions of “FOR ALL…THEN…” statements, because one single instance of contradiction negates the “FOR ALL…” statement. It will at least send people who have rudely overstepped back into the “Well, MOST of them…” territory. The problem I perceive is that enough people have finally learned that “anecdotes aren’t data” that they have wrongly concluded “data is good and anecdotes are worthless save as entertainment” and “all truth needs to have p-values attached,” neither of which is scientific or true.

    • Ted Seeber

      Hmm. I wonder if there’s something there for objective virtue ethics vs subjective moral relativism?

      Something like “Just because Dan Savage felt attracted to a boy when he was in the 7th Grade does not make gay marriage morally correct”?

      • Alan

        Funny use of the word objective. But we know how loose you are with the definition of words.

        You know what they say, one man’s virtue is another man’s vice.

        • Maiki

          I’m not sure what your criticism is in this particular instance — words are redundant bit not incorrect. Virtue Ethics is objective because it is defined independently from a specific mind or subject. Moral relativism is subjective because it is defined around a specific subject.

          I got that he was making a comparison between objective moral systems as being supported by some ideal outside themselves, analogous to data, while moral relativism by definition relies on the anecdotal experience of the one defining it.

          • Alan

            I suppose that would be a fair way to read it, allowing for the redundancy as to the nature of the two models. I took him to be attempting to contrast the subjectivity of relativism with an assertion that any particular set of virtues are objectively true as opposed to manifestation of the context of their definers.

          • keddaw

            Virtue Ethics is subjective unless you can prove an objective source for it.

          • leahlibresco

            Physical reality is subjective unless you can prove an objective source for it

          • keddaw

            Leah, I agree 100% However pragmatism about reality is not the same as making an ideological leap of faith for your version of morality.

      • Niemand

        Dan Savage’s attraction to another boy in 7th grade is not an argument for gay marriage. Dan Savage’s deep love and commitment to another man and their desire to give their child all possible legal protection is an argument for marriage equality.

        • Kristen inDallas

          well it’s certainly a good argument for more equitable legal protections…

    • Kristen inDallas

      @ HB — Awesomesauce! Of all things on the internet, none is better than this. And yes that statement is begging for a contradictory anecdote. :)

  • Alexander S. Anderson

    This is relevant– http://tofspot.blogspot.com/2012/05/masque-of-science.html Here’s a snippet: “But we can certainly imagine that we are moving into an age when science will be nudged by the goals of its practitioners and funding sources to supply the findings needed to support the goals. Publish or perish, after all.”

  • Carntyne

    I can see you’re addicted to using £10 words where a 50p word would do.

    Language is about clear communication.

    • Mitchell Porter

      Are you talking about Leah’s writing? Her vocabulary isn’t unusual (for a literate person). But she sometimes employs unusual *idioms*, and that’s a result of the idiosyncrasy of her thought processes. She’s an original thinker, she writes from a place located between established blocs of opinion and discourse, and her style bears the imprint of that. I would hate to see her falsify or dumb down her thoughts, just to make her prose look normal.

    • http://thinkinggrounds.blogspot.com Christian H

      Leah: If you wrote any differently, I wouldn’t be reading this. People can just go grab a dictionary/do a Google search. If you don’t use idiosyncratic language, who else are we supposed to know what you’ve been reading?

      • http://thinkinggrounds.blogspot.com Christian H

        *how* else. I wish I could edit these things.

  • Ted Seeber

    And the real problem is that sociology and economics aren’t science, they’re propaganda.

    There is a huge difference between the law of supply and demand and the law of gravity. And anybody who disputes that, needs to look at how supply and demand can be externally manipulated- but jumping off a cliff can’t.

    • Niemand

      And anybody who disputes that, needs to look at how supply and demand can be externally manipulated- but jumping off a cliff can’t.

      Just to be obnoxious, I’m going to point out the extreme sport of base-jumping is all about manipulating jumping off a cliff. (Also, it’s stupid, don’t do it.)

      • deiseach

        Yes, but if you jump off a cliff and your parachute is a crappy one that you were suckered into buying by the wiles of a persuasive vendor, you can’t fob off gravity by saying “I’m making a complaint under the Sale of Goods Act (1979)!”

        :-)

        • Niemand

          No one has yet successfully sued gravity. To my knowledge anyway. Given some of the lawsuits that have been successful I wouldn’t want to make the statement too dogmatically…

          The parachute manufacturer, on the other hand, you (or, more likely, your heirs) can certainly sue. Especially if they believed that science and engineering weren’t important when making their product and therefore didn’t bother testing whether it would produce sufficient lift to counter gravity and allow for a safe fall.

          • Irenist

            Indeed. If you sued the parachute manufacturer in American states like California, your tort suit would proceed under the strict liability doctrine for manufacturers called product liability, which would be pretty tough on the defendant. (Cough. Not an offer of legal advice. Cough.)

      • Kristen inDallas

        This whole thread was high-as-a-cliff-arious!

    • Steve

      Propaganda… created by whom?? aimed at whom?? for what purpose??

    • TerryC

      Your inability to understand the complexity of a causal relationship is not an indication that causality does not apply. The inability to measure the relevant variables in a process, such as supply and demand, does not invalidate causality. It simply means that you cannot predict the outcome. Complexity is not a barrier to causality.
      I manipulate gravity all the time. I do it by accelerating particles at relativistic speeds such that I can control their relative mass, so controlling the effect gravity has on them.

  • keddaw

    “I still haven’t done the math on how much exercise I can skip in exchange for eating really dark chocolate.”

    This reminds me of the time I calculated how many “ice-cold” beers I needed to heat up with my body before it cancelled out the calories in the beer. It turns out that the energy used in heating up 10 beers is the same as is contained in 1. It’s not the greatest diet in the world, but it’s more fun than most.

    Incidentally, this also means that drinking a pint of ice cold water burns the same number of calories as running for 1m40s (assuming the energy used to heat the water wasn’t being generated and lost to the environment anyway…)

    • http://last-conformer.net/ Gilbert

      That’s a popular gag, but unfortunately its based on near everyone saying calorie for kcal., when strictly speaking the unit they’re referring to is actually a kilocalorie. That throws the calculation of by a factor of 1000. Doing the math correctly, cold beer is not, alas, a viable path to weight loss.

      • keddaw

        Not true. 1 calorie heats 1 gram water by 1 kelvin. Pint is ~500 grams, body is 38 kelvin higher than beer, that is ~20,000 calories or 20kcal or 20 Calories. Pint is about 200-400 Calories. I chose the most advantageous numbers for a fat alcoholic. :p

        • Kristen inDallas

          yeah but beer isn’t water, it contains alcohol which has a specific heat of 0.6 cal/g/deg. 12% alcohol by volume isn’t a HUGE deal, but I think you’re going to need another beer or two (let’s just call it an even 12 pack) to fully burn off the first. :)

        • http://last-conformer.net/ Gilbert

          Yes, you’re right and I was wrong.

          I just pattern matched on the old “it doesn’t even have enough calories for its own heating” joke and parsed your “the energy used in heating up 10 beers is the same as is contained in 1″ as “the energy used in heating up 1 beer is the same as is contained in 10″. Then I just gave my normal cached response. What you actually said is totally true.

  • ReasJack

    First,
    Malcolm Gladwell and the Freakonomics guys have more moral authority than the archbishop of New York. This is a GOOD thing.

    Second,
    Moral Authority is a shitty construct anyway. Nikki Stern takes it down better than I could here.
    http://www.amazon.com/Because-Say-So-Dangerous-Authority/dp/1935456083

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