Archive for the 'Logic/Philosophy' Category

Oct 09 2017

The Perfect is the Enemy of the Good

Published by under Logic/Philosophy

Voltaire-quoteThis aphorism has been around since about 1600, originating with Voltaire in French. I have found it to be a useful concept – not an iron-clad rule, but an excellent guiding principle. The perfect is the enemy of the good (sometimes “good enough”).

What this means is that we should not be paralyzed into inaction because we cannot achieve a perfect solution to a specific problem. The idealized perfect solution becomes an obstacle to solutions that are adequate, or at least an improvement on what we have now.

In reality this can be a tricky principle to apply, however. Like the informal logical fallacies, or any informal guideline for clear thinking, there are no rigid rules or definitions. Judgement is required, which means that subjectivity and bias are also involved.

There are two specific ways this principle is either applied to not applied that tends to come up with skeptical topics. The first deals with our own activism – when should we apply this principle?

For example, over the years I and some of my medical colleagues have had a disagreement about how best to approach topics like vaccine exemptions. We all agree that non-medical exemptions decrease vaccine compliance and are a threat to public health. We all agree that in a perfect world states would not allow non-medical exemptions (only exemptions for children who medically are unable to be vaccinated).

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34 responses so far

Oct 06 2017

Unnecessary Medical Interventions

clinical-decision-making-46-638A recent JAMA article is an update on a systematic review of overused interventions in medicine. They list the top ten overused tests and treatments, meant to highlight this problem in medicine. They conclude:

The body of empirical work continues to expand related to medical services that are provided for inappropriate or uncertain indications. Engaging patients in conversations aimed at shared decision making and giving practitioners feedback about their performance relative to peers appear to be useful in reducing overuse.

You can read a summary of the ten overused interventions here.  The one you are likely already familiar with is antibiotic overuse. The others are very specific tests or interventions in specific situations, like Computed Tomography Pulmonary Angiography to help diagnose acute pulmonary embolism.

Reviewing each of these interventions in the top ten list would require a deep dive into the literature and detailed discussion, which is not my intent here. If you want that level of detail, read the original article. What I want to discuss is, in general terms, why this is a problem in the first place.

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5 responses so far

Sep 11 2017

PETA’s Counterproductive Attack on Young Researcher

Published by under Logic/Philosophy

PETA_Protest_onlineIn North America house sparrows are a menace. They are an invasive species introduced in the 19th century, and have established themselves as a large population. Unfortunately they do so by displacing many local species, such as blue birds. They are cavity nesters and will use up many of the prime nesting spots before migratory native birds get a chance. Their presence reduces the population of many native species.

Birders have a special disdain for house sparrows and European starlings (another invasive species). They are both a threat to bird biodiversity. They are also not protected by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, which means it is legal to remove their nests and even to capture and euthanize them (you can then donate them to raptor refugees for food). Many birding enthusiasts recommend active measures to control house sparrows and minimize their impact on native species.

Partly for these reasons house sparrows are an ideal target for scientific research. They can be legally captured, and the research will then serve the extra added small benefit of removing house sparrows from the wild.

All of this makes it all the more ironic that PETA has chosen to target a young researcher (a post-doc) for harassment due to her research on house sparrows. Really, PETA, you have chosen the wrong subject to defend, the pests of the birding world.

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41 responses so far

Aug 21 2017

Solar Eclipse and Coincidence

solar-eclipse-2017Today there will be a total solar eclipse making its way all across the continental US, from Oregon to South Carolina. Unfortunately I could not logistically travel to see it first hand. I’ll have to wait for 2024, when another total solar eclipse will hit America, making a trail from Texas through upstate New York. Here in CT we will get 75% coverage, which will be cool but nothing (from what I hear) like seeing totality.

Eclipses are one of the testaments to the power of science. We can predict them with incredible accuracy, because we have worked out in tiny detail how planetary orbits work. We can make careful observation and combine that with accurate theories about how the universe works and mathematics to make calculations, and predict these celestial events far into the future.

Some people, however, choose to see the eclipse as a testament to the existence of God. I first heard this argument when I was in college – a friend of mine who was also a fundamentalist Christian essentially ridiculed me for thinking that eclipses were just coincidence. The hand of God was clearly at work.

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35 responses so far

Aug 10 2017

Are Logical Fallacies Useful?

Published by under Logic/Philosophy

logical-fallacies-everywhereUnderstanding the nature of argument and specific logical fallacies is a cornerstone of critical thinking. I was therefore surprised when I read an article by a philosopher, Maarten Boudry, titled: “The Fallacy Fork: Why It’s Time to Get Rid of Fallacy Theory.”

Boudry lays out what he feels is a critical weakness in using the notion of logical fallacies to police sloppy thinking and his solution is to abandon the notion of informal logical fallacies altogether. I strongly disagree, and ironically I think Boudry is committing a couple logical fallacies in his argument.

The Fallacy Fork

The basis of his position is the notion of what he and his coauthors on a 2015 paper call “The Fallacy Fork.” The basic idea is that informal logical fallacies are highly context dependent. Let’s take as an example the fallacy of confusing correlation with causation. Because this reasoning is context dependent there is a spectrum in terms of how absolutely one makes this argument.

So, someone might say that correlation is always due to direct causation, which is clearly not true. They might also take the position that one particular causation must be true because of a correlation, which again is demonstrably false. There is no legitimate “always” or “must” with such arguments.

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32 responses so far

Jun 23 2017

NASA Slams Goop

Body-Vibes_10-2Recently I have been vacillating between two different views of humanity. On the one hand, we all share a core neuropsychology. We are all struggling to get through life with our humble meat machines, complete with cognitive biases, flawed perception and memory, and irrational tendencies.

On the other hand, it often seems like there are fundamentally different kinds of people in the world. I guess it depends on whether you focus on what we have in common, or what separates us. Articles like this make it difficult not to focus on the latter.

This has been circulating recently so you probably have already seen it – Paltrow’s wretched hive of scum and quackery she calls Goop is promoting a product called Body Vibes. This is the bottom of the barrel of pure pseudoscientific nonsense wrapped in holistic bling. The claims are also nothing new – your body has an energy frequency, and our little sticker (or bracelet, amulet, fez, whatever) will balance your energy vibrations and cure what ails you.

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117 responses so far

May 04 2017

Free Speech Bias

Published by under Logic/Philosophy

Insubordinate man with zipped mouth

Free speech has been a hot issue recently, and probably always will be to some extent. This is likely because the stakes are high – free speech is a core liberty essential to any functional democracy. But in a society where you have to live with other people, liberty cannot be unlimited, because it will bump up against the liberty of others. So there needs to be some well-thought-out rules for how to resolve conflicts.

How a society balances the need for free speech with the need to protect people from defamation, fraud, oppression, and harassment says a lot about the character of that society. In the US we have constitutionally chosen to err on the side of free speech, and I think this is appropriate. The courts give people a wide berth to have freedom of expression, and understands that the very speech that needs defending is speech that someone finds offensive.

At the same time, freedom from having your public speech repressed does not translate into a right to access to any venue at any time. The New York Times is not obligated to publish your 10-page manifesto.

The real purpose of this post, however, is not to delve into the nuances of free speech but to discuss how individual people decide on those nuances. This was illuminated by a recent study, the results of which I find entirely unsurprising. This is in line with the general findings of psychological studies.

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919 responses so far

Feb 09 2017

The Super Bowl and Hindsight Bias

Published by under Logic/Philosophy

Brady SB51Full disclosure – I have been a Patriots fan since in the 1980s. I suffered through a couple long decades of rooting for a mediocre team, including the worst (at the time) Super Bowl defeat at the hands of the Bears. Then along came Belichick and Brady, and it has been a wild ride as a fan.

Super Bowl LI was perhaps the pinnacle – the Patriots came back from a 25 point deficit to tie the game and then win in sudden-death overtime. I feel genuinely bad for Falcons fans, but perhaps worse for those who stopped watching the game in the third quarter because they thought it was over. Those who stayed through to the end were rewarded with historically epic football.

(As an aside, I am a fan simply because it is fun to have a team to root for. Don’t read too much into it.)

What is interesting, from a critical thinking perspective, about the game is the way in which we construct narratives to explain random events, or at least events that have an element of randomness or “luck” involved. At half-time the Falcons were up 21-3 and the discussion among the commentators was all about how well the Falcons were playing and everything the Patriots were doing wrong. The Falcons had “momentum” and the Patriots had to figure out a way to steal this elusive “momentum” back.

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55 responses so far

Feb 02 2017

What Is Normal?

normal-spider-flyOne of the main themes of this blog is metacognition – thinking about thinking. This is a critically important topic because much of our thinking is subconscious, or it is not explicit. This means we are not aware of exactly how our brains process information and come to certain conclusions or decisions. In fact, we may have false beliefs about how we arrive at our decisions.

Cognitive psychologists study how people think, and knowledge of this field can help us become more aware of the otherwise unrecognized assumptions or processes in our decision-making.

Take an apparently simple concept such as “normal.” What does it actually mean and how do we use this concept to think about the world? (“Normal” has a specific mathematical definition, as in “normal distribution,” but I am not talking about that here.) A dictionary definition might be, “conforming to a standard; usual, typical, or expected.” This doesn’t quite tell us how we decide what is “normal.”

In medicine use of the term “normal” has fallen out of favor, because it is imprecise, and also because it may contain a moral judgment. We still use it when referring to numbers, such as normal blood pressure, but even then it is not conceptually precise. Normal may be different for different people in different situations. When we are making an effort to be clear in our language we will use terms such as “healthy” or “physiological” (which is distinguished from pathological).

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15 responses so far

Jan 13 2017

Cognitive Biases in Health Care Decision Making

Published by under Logic/Philosophy

decision-makingThis was an unexpected pleasant find in an unusual place. The Gerontological Society of America recently put out a free publication designed to educate patients about cognitive biases and heuristics and how they can adversely affect decision making about health care.

The publication is aimed at older health care consumers, but the information it contains is applicable to all people and situations. It is a well written excellent summary of common cognitive biases with a thorough list of references. There are plenty of other resources that also review this material, including my own Teaching Company course, but this is a good user-friendly reference.

What is most encouraging about this publication is the simple fact that it recognizes that this is an issue. It is taking knowledge of psychology and applying it to the real world, recognizing the specific need for critical thinking skills in the public. This could have easily been produced in many different contexts – not only any medical specialty, but investing your money, buying a home, choosing a college, or evaluating news reports.

The report is aimed simultaneously at health care providers and patients. It is primarily a guide for providers for communicating with older adults, accounting for cognitive biases in decision-making, but at the same time will help consumers communicate with their providers and make better decisions.

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209 responses so far

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