Tuesday, 25 September 2007

Free will

I've never really 'got' free will - why it is so mystical and important and controversial. Maybe it is just that I don't see what the problems with determinism are supposed to be. As far as I can fathom free will is supposed to be the sense that we make our own decisions free of external causes, that we are the agents of our own actions. Sounds fair enough - but the problem is supposed to come when you add in determinism - apparently our thoughts and actions being causally determined by, e.g., our brains, is incompatible with our free will, with us being these free agents.

This leads some people to reject determinism in the favour of absolute randomness (something that is patently absurd), or statistical probability (e.g. quantum mechanics). Dan Dennett devotes a whole book (Freedom Evolves) to this question, I've only made it halfway through (busy man me), but I've heard him talk on the topic before. Dennett argues that in the random probability model the undetermined bits are precisely the types of freedom that are not worth having (Descartes has a similar point about the poverty of real freedom in choices made in the abscence of evidence or impulsion to one side or the other).

I have to agree - but I think that the impulse to embrace randomness to salvage free will from determinism highlights the fundamental misunderstanding that lies at the heart of the free will problem. Many of those that reject physical determinism - the idea that the brain gives rise to the mind - accept non-physicalism instead, they believe that the mind being something other than physical somehow frees them from the problem of determinism. But it is far from apparent that it does any such thing if there are causal factors operating in this mental world (and we have every reason to think that there are - from the physical input via the senses to the interaction of mental properties). It is hard to see how, if the mind is made of causal 'stuff' at all, how it can escape from determinism.

It reminds me of Nagel's famous question, "What is it like to be a bat?" - which assumes, for an answer, that it is even meaningful to ask how one mind-thing might gain access to being another, different mind-thing - the underlying assumption that you could somehow constitutively 'be' another thing, whilst retaining something of what you were before - the assumption, in other words, of a animating spirit or homunculus piloting the show (Nagel is actually using the argument to try and show that subjective experience cannot be reduced to a functionalist explanation).

At some point, one would think, there can be no more little men behind the scenes pulling the levers - something must be animating him - at some point the causal explanations must be grounded. Rejection of determinism just seems to be a refusal to begin this endeavour, a belief that if anything causal underlies the actions of a mind they somehow become unfree, because they are caused by something other than that mind. But, of course, they are not determined by something 'other' in a meaningful sense - the mistake is to confuse layers of explanation - when my arm lifts a glass - that the action is caused by the contraction of muscles, or, deeper still, by myosin sliding over actin, does not make it any less my arm that is doing the lifting.

Single jabs

These are images that we just can't see enough of in my opinion. They are from the Health Protection Agency's Centre for Infections, and show the uptake of measles and MMR vaccines against the incidence of measles infections and deaths.

Measles is a serious infection (mortality 1:5,000), is very contagious and it is unpleasant with fever, a rash, conjunctivitis, cough and cold symptoms, but there are a number of potential complications. Poor nutrition in the developing world, and immunocompromise in the West make these even more likely and thus infection more dangerous. Children in the UK with cancer who come into contact with measles are at a very high risk of complications.

Complications include ear infections (10%), pneumonia (5%), febrile convulsions (seizures which can be caused by any infection, and usually do not lead to epilepsy; 1:200) and myocarditis. About 1:1,000 of measles cases result in encephalitis with 15% mortality and serious long term complications in 40% of survivors such as seizures, deafness, paralysis, and learning disability

Subacute sclerosing panencephalitis is a rare illness that develops many years after infection by measles when very young (under 2yrs; 1:8,000) where persistent virus in the nervous tissue causes progressive brain damage, dementia, and death

Fortunately we can see that the rate of measles infection is now very low, and the number of deaths thus very small due to a concerted vaccination campaign using first single measles vaccine, and then MMR. Unfortunately it looks like people have forgotten how bad measles can be - the steadily climbing rate of vaccination has been compromised by the MMR-autism scare and measles is back.

This has lead some to argue that single vaccines should be provided. Leaving aside the obvious point that the MMR doesn't cause autism or gut problems, and that the vaccine was introduced to replace a single measles vaccine (Urabe) with undesirable side effects (meningitis), there are real problems with this idea. Separate vaccines must be administered many weeks apart (the minimum necessary period is unknown) to avoid interactions that might reduce the efficacy of the vaccines (the MMR components have been tested and shown not to have a problem if they are administered all at the same time), but they must also be given twice - to ensure coverage when very young (the first dose at 13 months), but also boosted to last for longer when older (the second dose before 5yrs of age). This gives 6 injections rather than two, and evidence suggests that parents are just much poorer at ensuring their children receive all the vaccinations. There is also a much longer period where children are not covered for those diseases they have not yet been vaccinated against. Note the increase in vaccine coverage following introduction of the MMR.

Side effects of the MMR are rare, and usually only after the first dose. These are milder versions of the results of infection, and thus much less common than with full infection, and due to the vaccine comprising attenuated viruses that replicate in the body. The most common side effect is a mild malaise, fever or rash after about a week, which resolves in a few days. Parotid swelling can occur in about 1% of children. Febrile convulsions can occur in 1:1,000 children (these do not lead to any long-term consequences such as epilepsy). Encephalitis is a theoretical risk but research suggests that MMR does not lead to any increased incidence. Very rarely clotting problems can occur in less than 1:20,000 children, and this resolves spontaneously.

Some people argue that only the measles vaccine should be given, but this underestimates the seriousness of mumps and rubella.

We can see from this graph that mumps is also massively on the rise, although this is presently in older children who have never been vaccinated. Mumps causes a fever and malaise with swelling of the parotid glands. Hearing loss is usually transient following infection, with deafness in only 1:20,000, but signs of meningitis are present in about 10% and encephalitis is found in 1:1,000. Pancreatitis is a potentially serious complication found in less than 10% of children. Orchitis (inflammation of the testicle) is very rare in children (but not adults), and almost never results in infertility because it is usually unilateral.

Rubella (german measles) is usually mild, with a low fever and rash for a few days. Complications such as arthritis, encephalitis or myocarditis are rare. However, maternal rubella infection can lead to severe damage to the foetus. Before 8wks gestation most children will be born with deafness, congenital heart disease, and cataracts. Infection at 13-16wks and infection will lead to impaired hearing in around a third of children (past 18wks damage is minimal).

Acupuncture for back pain

A new study into the efficacy of acupuncture versus 'conventional' therapy has received some coverage today.

The paper found that at 6 months the response rate (33% improvement or better on 3 pain-related items on the Von Korff Chronic Pain Grade Scale or 12% improvement or better on back-specific functional status measured by the Hanover Functional Ability Questionnaire) was 47.6% in the verum acupuncture group, 44.2% in the sham acupuncture group, and 27.4% in the conventional* therapy group. The acupuncture was better than the conventional group, but real Chinese acupuncture (verum) was no better than 'sham' needling (just sticking in needles superficially).

Now this obviously suggests that (a) acupuncture might work better than conventional treatments in chronic back pain, and (b) that this is a general effect of sticking in needles and not something magic to do with 'Qi' (cf. the gate control theory of pain).

However, there are some oddities about this study. Obviously there is a real problem with blinding patients, and they were all aware that the study was into acupuncture whatever group they were assigned to, plus the physicians conducting the study were unblinded when they provided the conventional therapy (perhaps explaining why there were such low treatment rates for physio or painkillers). But the study also had some interesting criteria for responders and non-responders.

I haven't been able to figure out just why the primary analysis was 33% improvement on 3 pain-related items on the Von Korff Chronic Pain Grade Scale or 12% improvement on Hanover Functional Ability Questionnaire measues of back-specific functional status, and why these were primary outcomes, while Short Form Health Survey, or Patient Global Assessment scores were secondary, and the supplied references didn't help. But more intriguing is the requirement that no proscribed therapy be used, or the patient is then assigned to the unresponsive category.

The initial figures are 58%, 68%, and 71% responders for conventional, sham, and verum acupuncture respectively. Yet, once those who took proscribed treatments (we are not told what these might be for conventional therapy, for acupuncture it is anything other than rescue treatment for acute episodes of pain with nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs to be taken on no more than 2 days per week up to the maximum daily dose during the therapy period and only 1 day per week during follow-up) are classed as non-responders, and those who missed the 6 month assessment, these figures were 27%, 44%, and 47%.

Since failure to attend follow-up was 6%, 3%, 3%, this suggests a whopping quarter of all patients were classified as non-responders for using proscribed therapies. Now given the generous allowance of painkillers allowed to the acupuncture groups we might think this is just fine since their acupuncture clearly wasn't working for them, but what were the conventional therapy subjects being excluded for? I can't read the German therapy guidelines, and the paper doesn't specify, so we can but speculate what terrible therapy was being used by these people, acupuncture perhaps? I hope not, the study does say that:

"Patients in all 3 groups were informed before randomization that
acupuncture would be offered after completion of the trial."
But I'm sure no scientist would be stupid enough to give treatment to participants within 6 months thus getting the patient classified as a non-responder (would they?) - but who knows how many patients, having got the idea of acupuncture into their heads, then went out and had some? This is especially worrying as these were chronic back pain patients who had presumably tried (and failed to respond to) conventional therapies, but were explicitly acupuncture naive, and who had signed up to a trial of acupuncture in chronic back pain.

So what we have here is a study comparing sticking needles into patients versus conventional therapy (presumably delivered by the same doctors) where only the interviewers (assessing outcome) were blinded, and where somehow, only half of patients were given analgesics in the conventional therapy group, where the acupuncture therapy group were allowed analgesics 2 days a week, and where half of conventional therapy responders were excluded for having 'proscribed' treatment that is never defined or quantified. I think I'll stick to the NSAIDs for now.

*According to German guidelines - out of 387 patients in this group: physiotherapy in 197; massage in 180, heat therapy in 157, ; electrotherapy in 65; 'back school' in 36; injections in 48; guidance in 56; infusions, yoga, hydrojet treatment, and swimming in a few, pharmacologic treatment (95% analgesia) in 183).

Having thought about this study for a bit - I can only assume that the study was excluding people for using additional therapy in the follow-up period. For acupuncture there were a set number of interventions (you could get more if you responded) - and for the conventional therapy this was also true:
"All interventions comprised ten 30-minute sessions, generally 2 sessions per week, and 5 additional sessions if, after the tenth session (Figure 2), patients experienced a 10% to 50% reduction in pain intensity (Von Korff Chronic Pain Grade Scale)."
But whilst things like physiotherapy interventions could be considered comparable, a consultation leading to a course of pain killers seems somewhat different since it is hard to know how long the drug therapy was allowed to continue in the conventional therapy group outside the month or so of treatment sessions. If the study is excluding people for having therapy after the study interventions (and it is not clear whether this is the case) that might explain why so many people got excluded as non-responders. The declared permitted medication for acupuncture patients was:
"For acute episodes of pain, only rescue medication was permitted in both acupuncture groups. This was strictly defined as nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs to be taken on no more than 2 days per week up to the maximum daily dose during the therapy period and only 1 day per week during follow-up. Use of any additional therapies for pain during the entire study period was prohibited"
And for conventional patients:

"Patients in the conventional therapy group received a multimodal treatment program according to German guidelines. The guidelines provide the treating physician with recommendations about the treatment algorithm and assess the various therapy forms according to the degree of evidence based on a literature search and recommendations of the specialist associations. Conventional therapy included 10 sessions with personal contact with a physician or physiotherapist who administered physiotherapy, exercise, and such.

Physiotherapies were supported by nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs or pain medication up to the maximum daily dose during the therapy period. Rescue medication was identical to that for the acupuncture groups."

What I worry about here is that the use of further NSAIDs after the initial treatment period but in the follow-up period of six months might have been classed as 'proscribed' in the conventional therapy group as well. In that case we are comparing an intensive acupuncture intervention with intensive physician/physiotherapy interventions, but where the available pain and anti-inflammatory medication for the conventional group is restricted to the short (1 month or so) intervention period (a period in which acupuncture patients are permitted 2/7 days per week of full NSAID therapy).

An interesting line from the study says:
"Patients in both acupuncture groups also had clinically meaningful better results for all secondary outcome measures, including medication use (Table 6)."
But Table 6 doesn't provide any figures about medication use unfortunately. You'd really hope that the acupuncture group was using less medication than the conventional therapy group though, wouldn't you?

Table 6 does, however, provide you with information on initial treatment response - that is response at 6-weeks - which, given the limitations of the unclear exclusion criteria for 'proscribed rescue medication', might provide us with the most reliable estimate of relative efficacy. They found treatment response of 56%, 59%, and 61% for conventional, sham, and verum acupuncture respectively. Given what we know about the poor efficacy of both NSAIDs and acupuncture against placebo (the Bandolier site is a good resource for information on therapy for chronic back pain) the most conservative conclusion would be that very little works for chronic back pain - probably due at least partly to its complex psychosocial nature as Ben Goldacre points out.

Wednesday, 12 September 2007

Misleading Headlines

Listening to Radio 4's Today programme this morning they announced that the oral contraceptive pill can lower the risk of cancer in the short term but over 8-years it increases the risk of "the disease". That's right, the unitary disease that is cancer.

It often seems to be the case that these little headline gobbets of news misrepresent the real story in significant ways, even in the supposedly intelligent Today programme. Apart from an interview with one of the researchers (who made the point himself) they never actually made clear that what we are looking at here is the differential risks of various cancers (large bowel, uterine, ovarian, breast, cervical etc) - even though the BBC News story online makes this abundantly clear.

Of course no one discussed the more interesting question of differential survival rates from different cancers - and thus whether the increased or decreased risk of "the disease" means anything in terms of mortality (the original study doesn't do this either). The study is in the BMJ and shows increased risks of invasive cervical (over 2.5x) and CNS or pituitary cancers (over 5x) in OCP users of more than 97 months duration, and decreased risk of ovarian cancer (<0.5x) - resulting in an overall increased relative risk of any cancer of 1.22 (95% CI 1.07-1.39). Significant trends were found for an association between length of OCP use and increasing rates of cervical and central nervous system or pituitary cancer, and decreasing risk of uterine body and ovarian cancer.

I don't think I'll try and figure out which cancers are 'worse' right now - that's a whole can of worms.

Tuesday, 11 September 2007

Decline in SIDS?

Initiatives such as the "Back to Sleep" campaign and emphasis on the risks of parental smoking, bed sharing, and intoxication are believed to have markedly reduce the incidence of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS; cot death) since the early 1990s. SIDS is one of the leading causes of death in infants, it is defined as:
"sudden unexpected death of an infant less than one year of age, with onset of the fatal episode apparently occurring during sleep, that remains unexplained after a thorough investigation, including performance of a complete autopsy and review of the circumstances of death and the clinical history."
The incidence of SIDS has continued to decline into the 21st century - and this should be a good thing. Unfortunately there is convincing evidence from studies in the US that the more recent decline in SIDS is due to changing patterns in the reporting of cause of death and thus does not reflect a real improvement in overall infant mortality rates.

If we look at the graph from Shapiro-Mendoza et al we can see that while rates of SIDS have decreased since the mid-nineties, there is a corresponding increase in the rate of other causes of sudden, unexpected infant death such as accidental suffocation and asphyxia, or simply 'cause unknown/unspecified'. (The fall in the early-nineties does not show this pattern and presumably represents a true decrease in cases of SIDS).

Sadly, our success in preventing SIDS since the mid-nineties looks as though it is actually the result of changing diagnostic practices, perhaps a decreased willingness to assign a diagnosis of SIDS to potential infanticide (hence 'cause unknown/unspecified'), or due to more thorough investigation of the cause of death (and thus accidental suffocation and asphyxia). But what it does highlight is the need for caution in interpreting incidence data over time (cf. autism).

Why do I hate theists so?

Reflecting on Cornwell's attack on Dawkins I am struck by something implicit in many of these attacks on 'militant' atheists. It is the suggestion that somehow the atheists are seeking to oppress the theists and even wipe them out. I think this is a fundamental misunderstanding of the atheists are trying to achieve.

As a conflict of ideas, clearly, at some level, I (and other atheists, including Dawkins) would like to persuade theists to be atheists. But this is very much in the same way that I would like people to agree with me on every other topic. But you don't see Tories, Evolutionary Psychologists, soap watchers, Hip Hop fans, or dualists protesting that I seek to wipe them out just because I disagree with them. If theists are arguing that just by disagreeing with them atheists are seeking to oppress them they are quite fundamentally, and comically, wrong. Even when leftists argue that George Bush and his neoconservative coterie have blood on their hands - this is not taken by right-wingers in general as the prelude to some latter day Holocaust. Indeed I happily tolerate the right of theists to have their own protected space in newspapers to attack us atheists, or for the Chief Rabbi (here, 38mins in), or Archbishop of Canterbury to try and convert me to their way of thinking.

But I don't think that is the sense in which most theists feel they are being oppressed. Atheists also make some political demands that some of the privileges religious groups receive be revoked. In particular, atheists are rather unhappy about state funded and delivered religious indoctrination (such as 'Faith Schools'). They are also quite unhappy about the second chamber of the legislature being populated by Anglican bishops. Looking at the National Secular Society or British Humanist Association you can see they have also campaigned on topics such as Catholic adoption agencies seeking to discriminate on sexual orientation while still receiving government funding, or legislation seeking to outlaw religious 'hatred'*. All these topics are challenges to religious believers - but they are challenges to the special status that they are granted in society, to particular exceptions to the normal way we go about doing things just for them. To characterise this as oppression shows just how religious believers have had things their own way for too long.

*Note that I object to this particular law and the way it was drafted, I'm broadly sympathetic to attempts to oppose religious hatred as an ethnic marker (i.e. the BNP and Muslims).

Declining Educational Standards

Absolutely brilliant comment from a listener on Radio 4's PM programme today:
"My son is 10 and has just started walking to school on his own. We had to show
him how to cross a road safely. He has had no teaching at school about road
safety and I just pray that he will be safe."
Jesus, I'm surprised the child is able to go to the toilet by itself with parents like that.

Monday, 10 September 2007

Alister McGrath II

There's an amusing interview with Alister McGrath in the National Catholic Register (via Merlijn de Smit and PZ Myers - entirely incidentally, there is a great advert for a college on the NCR webpage with the line "What are you seeking? got monks?", I mean wtf?).

I've made my views known on McGrath's 'devastating' critique of Dawkins, but I was interested to see how he talks when addressing a friendly audience ("How has that background helped you, in a practical sense, to refute Dawkins’ theories?" (my emphasis)).

McGrath's approach in this article is similar to before:
"I think Richard Dawkins approaches the question of whether God exists in much the same way as if he’d approach the question of whether there is water on Mars. In other words, it’s something that’s open to objective scientific experimentation. And of course there’s no way you can bring those criteria to bear on God. I think Dawkins seems reluctant to allow that God may not be in the same category as scientific objects...

A second point, which clearly follows on from this, is that Dawkins clearly believes that those who believe in God must prove their case and atheists have nothing to prove because that’s their default position. But I think that’s simply incorrect and it’s obviously incorrect.

Really, the only obvious position is to say: We don’t know, we need to be persuaded one way or the other. The default position in other words is: not being sure.

Therefore I think Dawkins must realize that he’s under as great an obligation to show that there is no God..."
Previously he argued that you can't disprove God as some kind of intellectual triumph, but interestingly this time he also argues for the existence of God:
"One of the most commonly encountered patterns in scientific development is seeing a pattern of observations and then saying, in order to explain these observations, we propose that there exists something that is as yet unobserved but we believe that one day will be observed because if it’s there, it can explain everything that can be observed.

Of course, if you’re a Christian you’ll see immediately that that same pattern is there in thinking about God. We can’t prove there’s a God but he makes an awful lot of sense of things and therefore there’s a very good reason to suppose that this may, in fact, be right."
Now I won't start on just how unconvincing the evidence is for the existence of God (which is rather the atheist position), but concentrate on something PZ Myers points out:
"Whoa. What happened to "of course there's no way you can bring those criteria to bear on God"? What about "God may not be in the same category as scientific objects"? One moment he's claiming you can't study god like you would the possibility of water on Mars, and next he's claiming the validity of using observation and theory to justify the existence of the remote and directly unseen. How … inconsistent."
How come McGrath gets to argue from experience to the existence of God when the atheist can't argue for His complete improbability because "there’s no way you can bring those criteria to bear on God"? Merlijn de Smit thinks that PZ Myers is wrong in this objection:
"Except that he's not. McGrath was talking here about an inference to the best explanation, or about what Peirce called an abductive inference - which by itself is only half the scientific method. The explanation would potentially fall within the domain of science if the explanandum could be observed and studied in an empirical fashion. But in the case of God, the kind of explanandum you'd be dealing with are not scientifically observable things but things which are the preconditions for us making any (scientific) observation at all - the existence of laws of nature (if indeed they are laws of nature - which in itself is not a scientific question); the problem of universals; the existence of mind, etc."
But I just don't buy it. McGrath is a Christian, an Anglican, he accepts the Nicene Creed, he believes that Jesus (the Son of God) was resurrected - I don't quite see how he's deriving this from the existence of minds Merlijn! - in fact all he has are a few oral traditions and some pieces of paper. As PZ says:
"McGrath was adamant in insisting that atheists need to prove the nonexistence of god, but what I'd like to see is one scrap of evidence for any piece of the exceptionally silly Nicene creed — not proof, but just some rational reason for me to believe one single line of this dogma that McGrath accepts."
Talk about complete asymmetry in standards of evidence. Fundamentally, like most or even all the anti-atheists attacking Dawkins (the atheist Pope, if you slay him all our power will be gone!!!) McGrath does not have a consistent position because he isn't trying to be intellectually and logically consistent - he simply wants an argument, any argument, that he can say proves Dawkins wrong. At base, McGrath wants to believe in God, in Christianity, in the Nicene Creed. Now that's fine, but to pretent that it is supported by reason and is intellectually coherent - that's just plain deluded.

I'll finish on this little gem:
"...as someone who has studied the history of science, I am very much aware that what scientists believe to be true in the past has been shown to be wrong or has been overtaken by subsequent theoretical developments.

One of my concerns is that Dawkins seems very, very reluctant to concede radical theory-change in science. In other words, this is what scientists believe today but we realize that tomorrow they might think something quite different...

So my question, therefore, is: How on earth can Dawkins base his atheism on science when science itself so to speak is in motion, in transit?”"
Uh huh. Because science could have certain things wrong we ought to believe in something that we have essentially no evidence for - and let us not for one minute think that in its history religion may have ever got anything wrong. As PZ says:
"Well, heck, how can anything be based on science, then? I'm listening to the stereo right now: if the physics and electronics and materials engineering behind that widget are scientific subjects in constant flux, how can it possibly be working?"
And I wonder how McGrath's new almost post-modern radical skepticism about science manages to avoid generalising to any other area - what is so unique about science that it needs to be doubted? Why does religion come through unscathed? Hell, is the Nicene Creed more indubitable than the laws of physics? Well I guess it isn't "in motion, in transit", it is quite nicely fixed in the 4th Century.
"I believe in the Nicene Creed...because I’ve looked at it very closely and I believe it to be right...I think one has to say that the process of questing for truth might actually arrive somewhere, and for me that’s a position where I’ve actually arrived. I hold it...with conviction...and I am very happy to defend it in public and would, of course, if shown to be wrong, to have to rethink everything."

Sunday, 9 September 2007

Mark Vernon

Want to read another smug anti-Dawkins essay? Thought so - I present Mark Vernon's oddly constructed article in Philosophy Now. Parts draw on Cornwell (see how quickly a book of this kind is elevated to the status of overwhelming riposte to believers). It is constructed around the conceit that Dawkins commits each of the seven deadly sins (lust, gluttony, etc) which makes for a rather awkward structure:

1. Lust
"Dawkins has an excessive love of polemic that swamps the more subtle affections required for a serious appreciation of the nuances of truth."
This section consists of a series of claims that Dawkins has misrepresented Darwin, Einstein and others to appropriate them to his cause. This is a pretty trivial accusation and anyone interested can refer to The God Delusion where there is some discussion of Einstein's rejection of a personal god, and a section on "The argument [for the existence of god] from admired religious scientists".

2. Gluttony
"Dawkins is guilty of an excessive consumption of Enlightenment rhetoric."
This section consists of arguments about atheism and its role in Stalin and Hilter's atrocities. Vernon repeats a line from Hitler’s Table Talk where he says "The dogma of Christianity gets worn away before the advances of science." The God Delusion has a rather more detailed discussion of whether Hitler was an atheist or not (likely not) in "What about Hitler and Stalin? Weren't they atheists?", but again, as Dawkins concludes, it doesn't really matter. But Vernon is simply wrong when he says:
"his defence of Stalin’s atheism against the extreme evil Stalin inflicted on his fellows...Similarly, Dawkins blames Nazi horrors on a supposed latent religiousness in Hitler rather than on any non-theistic ideological convictions."
Yet Dawkins ends the discussion with:
"Stalin was probably an atheist, and Hitler probably wasn't; but even if they were both atheists, the bottom line of the Stalin/Hitler debating point is very simple. Individual atheists may do evil things in the name of atheism. Stalin and Hitler did extremely evil things in the name of, respectively, dogmatic and doctrinaire Marxism, and an insane and unscientific eugenics theory tinged with sub-Wagnerian ravings."
3. Greed
"Dawkins’ sin here is to opt for a materialist understanding of the world to the exclusion of the metaphysical: in other words, he is thoroughly materialistic. This has two consequences. First, it reduces all intellectual enquiry to that which falls within the domain of natural science – effectively ejecting all non-scientific approaches in literature, history, philosophy and theology....He actually imports a neo-Darwinian metaphysic as the normative explanation of everything, from ethics to art."
Now I'm not sure Vernon knows what the words he is using mean. Certainly Dawkins suggests an evolutionary explanation for morality, for instance, but that isn't normative, as in saying how things ought to be, and it doesn't undermine other academic disciplines, to take a single example, after suggesting this Darwinian origin Dawkins then talks about why we ought to be (rather than why we are) moral, and defers to philosophy:
"Moral philosophers are the professionals when it comes to thinking about right and wrong...they agree that 'moral precepts, while not necessarily constructed by reason, should be defensible by reason'."
4. Sloth
"It appears that Dawkins simply cannot be bothered to tackle the best arguments of those he opposes."
Funnily enough I've had much travel tracking down these sophisticated arguments, and it doesn't seem like Vernon is going to share them with us. He can't mean the likes of Cornwell or McGrath surely? Note that Vernon doesn't engage with Dawkins's fundamental argument as to the non-existence of God - surely the central thesis of his book.

5. Wrath
"Intolerance drives him. He is entitled to his opinion, of course. But the book appears to be motivated not so much by truth as by wrath."
Apparently Dawkins's Foundation for Reason and Science is campaigning against labelling children, as, for example, a Catholic child, rather than a child of Catholic parents, since children are simply too young to make an informed decision to commit to the Catholic doctrines. But Vernon thinks
"this encourage the kind of social engineering which would force the clumsy hand of government between parents and their children? This alone says a lot about the illiberality behind Dawkin’s proselytising brand of atheism."
Actually there is very little available about what exactly the Richard Dawkins Foundation is camaigning for in this area since it is pretty new - the only thing available on the website on this topic is this letter:
"Providing millions of pounds to schools to teach creationism is dangerous, say atheist Richard Dawkins and Richard Harries, the Bishop of Oxford"
Dawkins has similarly argued against state funded indoctrination of children, arguing instead for comparative religion classes, the illiberal bastard.

6. Envy
"Dawkins has maths-envy...he engages in a series of attacks against attempts to prove God, and he launches a counterattack which aims to demonstrate the high improbability of ‘the God Hypothesis’"
It isn't exactly clear what Vernon's point is in this section, he downplays the influence and significance of Aquinas's 'proofs' ("God ain’t really the sort of thing that can be proved at all – for the very good reason that God ain’t a thing in the natural object sense") but finishes on:
"A better way of proceeding is in terms of the plausibility of God...Dawkins should have reread his Bertrand Russell before indulging his maths-envy....“One of the most painful circumstances of recent advances in science is that each one of them makes us know less than we thought we did.”"
Perhaps others are in a better position than I am to fathom the distinction between the probability and plausibility of God. As far as I can tell this is Vernon's attempt to avoid dealing with Dawkins central argument (there is no god) by saying, by his oblique reference to Russell, "aahh", no, not 'aah' Vernon - what are you trying to say? Looks like your argument here is simply 'well maybe God does exist despite your arguments to the contrary' well maybe 'he' does, but you haven't provided any reason to think so have you? I suppose I should be grateful he doesn't try and argue that actually it is all metaphorical so you can't disprove it anyway.

7. Pride
"...Huxley...wrote: “In matters of the intellect, do not pretend that conclusions are certain which are not demonstrated or demonstrable.” This is important because it expresses intellectual humility. With respect to science, this humility acknowledges that when it comes to the big questions in life, what science has established “amounts at present to very little” – Huxley’s words – compared to the wisdom of, say, history and literature. With respect to religion...
I think intellectual humility matters both to science and society at large. Science is reduced by a lust for empirical certainty which presents itself as the exclusive path of progress. The methods of science are astonishingly successful in certain parts of life but are of limited value in others"
I doubt I'm the only one to note that anti-atheists very often slip between reason and science depending on what they think will have better rhetorical force. Now Dawkins is hardly doing science when he argues against the existence of God, he may draw on science (such as evolution by natural selection) in his argument, but he is hardly operating on a plane seperate from that of philosophers, theologians, or historians. So I think I smell another bait and switch, science may well not have anything to tell us about a whole range of human endeavours - such as personal ethics as Dawkins alludes to above - but that does not mean that we have to abondon reason. Consider that quote with 'reason' replacing 'science', how sensible does Vernon sound now?
"I think intellectual humility matters both to reason and society
at large....The methods of reason are astonishingly successful in
certain parts of life but are of limited value in others"
So where is reason of limited value exactly? In love maybe, to some extent, but in philosophy, theology, and history? I think not Vernon.

Friday, 7 September 2007

Lie Detectors

Looks like government is getting into more business driven pseudoscience (cf. personality tests like the Myers-Briggs) by backing "Voice Risk Analysis" to detect benefit cheats.

So, are lie detectors, and particularly voice stress recognition systems any good? Standard polygraphs (as administered by trained and experienced personnel) detect physiological signs associated with lying, although these can be absent in the truly psychopathic, you can learn to fool them, and anxiety can also produce them. Most studies of standard polygraphs are carried out on offenders, and they tend to find fairly high detection rates. Reported figures are typically of the order of a sensitivity (proportion of liars detected) of 76% and specificity (number of confirmed truth-tellers) of 63% ('average' values), with 87% and 88% representing the upper range of estimates ('maximal' values), which doesn't sound too bad. But the utility of the polygraph (or any test in fact) very much depends on how likely it is that the suspect is guilty (the prevalence of true positives in the population) because if few people are guilty then even though only a small proportion of truth-tellers are falsely declared liars the large number of truth-tellers tested compared to the small number of liars means that most people reported as liars will actually be truth-tellers. Conversely, if most people you are testing are guilty (and thus liars) then even though a lot of guilty people will be detected, a lot of those declared innocent will actually be lying.

To make that rather convoluted explanation a bit more concrete, I refer you to a rather famous paper by Brett et al (1986, Lancet) which used the figures above (the 'average' and 'maximal' values). They showed that when the prevalence of offenders in the population is assumed to be 5% (i.e. not many, such as with benefit cheats) there was a 10% positive predictive value, that is only 1 in 10 positive tests are actually lying, with the rest falsely accused (that is with the 'average' values, using the 'maximal' values they find 25% true positives).

For a pre-test probability of 50% (e.g. criminal investigations, hopefully, maybe) the positive predictive value is 67% (88% with the 'maximal' values), a gain in certainty after the test of only 17%, with 33% of positive results still false positives. If most people are liars (90%) then the negative predictive value is only 23% with 77% of negative test results generated by lying subjects. It is often said that if you are innocent you probably don't want to take the risk of being falsely labelled a liar, and thus a suspect, while it may be worth taking the chance if you're guilty anyway, as it could throw them off the scent!

So we know that polygraphs aren't going to be that great at detecting liars in the population, even though they do work to some extent. There was a study done last year (Gamer et al 2006, Int J Psychophysiol) of polygraph measures (heart rate etc)* and voice stress recognition. It used the Guilty Knowledge Test (GKT):

"If, for example, a robbery of a fuel station is examined, a typical GKT-question could be: “Which car was used for the robbery of the fuel station last night?” If in fact a red BMW was used, proper items for this question could be “(a) a green Ford?”, “(b) a blue Mercedes?”, “(c) a red BMW?”, “(d) a yellow Chrysler?”, “(e) a black Pontiac?”. According to the assumptions of the GKT, only the culprit should be able to differentiate relevant and irrelevant items correctly and thus show more pronounced physiological responses to the relevant item."
They used the TrusterPro program (made by Israeli company Nemesysco, and I believe the core of the Capita program used in the UK) - and found a sensitivity of 30% and specificity of 83%, which was not significantly above chance. More detailed analysis of specific raw factors did not reveal any further discriminative ability. If you analyse the figures in the same way as Brett et al did with the polygraph you find similar results, with (assuming 5% prevalance of liars) only 8% positive predictive value - i.e you aren't doing much better by using this voice recognition system than just randomly selecting people and deciding they're benefit cheats, and over 90% of those you designate as liars aren't, while 70% of cheats will still get away with it - and this of course assumes optimal scientific study levels of operator training and question format (it is, I would imagine, unlikely that they will use the GKT structure).

The low sensitivity is a real problem because the DWP themselves say:
"If the pilot is successful we will consider the case for changes to verification procedures for cases adjudged to be low risk, potentially reducing the need to issue and process forms and undertake unnecessary and expensive visits."
If they are only using this software for people they already suspect are dodgy it is truly useless. Say we have a 50% chance this person is a benefit cheat (based on their funny looking application) checking them with this software gives a negative predictive value (number of true negatives) barely better than chance at 54%.

*this study used a logistic regression analysis to calculate what is essentially a theoretical upper bound on the information that can be provided by polygraph type measures in this study, and sensitivity was 93% and specificity 97%. It is an upper bound because it inevitably overfits the data from this study and we don't know whether it would generalise to another sample.

The Deception Blog has more on this sort of thing.

There is a discussion on this topic at the Badscience forums.

Darwin's Angel

Richard Dawkins briefly faces 'Catholic writer' John Cornwell, author of "Darwin's Angel: an angelic response to The God Delusion" (here, about 22mins in, it's after Nessun dorma).

Cornwell (the new Alister McGrath?) gets rather hungup on Dawkins's comparison between religion labelling and brainwashing children and child sexual abuse. Which is a valid point as I'm certainly not convinced by Dawkins's argument, or at least I'm not convinced that his comparison is enlightening or helpful (although he moderates it somewhat here).

But he gets onto pretty dodgy territory claiming that Dawkins is stirring up hatred against the religious in a manner akin to the Nazis. Dawkins tackles Cornwell's book here, but I wanted to have a look at Cornwell's arguments in a little more detail.

He wrote an article on Dawkins and the God Delusion in the Guardian a few days ago. He starts poorly with the obligatory reference to Stalin trying to wipe out 'religionists', and strangely Hitler - as he is presumably an intelligent man (director of the Science and Human Dimension Project at Jesus College, Cambridge) I can only assume he is referring to the Holocaust with Hitler because there is no evidence he had much of a problem with the idea of religion in general (he was also not a vegetarian while we're knocking myths on the head). It isn't clear what point he's trying to make, but it sets the scene nicely.

His argument then basically runs that Dawkins doesn't recognise that theists can exist in a secular pluralist society, then something about Graham Greene and "faith as "doubt of doubt" as opposed to faith as certitude". It is worth repeating the line about Greene:
"So which central doctrine, I asked Greene, enabled him to describe himself as a Christian?...he felt he had an intuition...to distinguish between fact and fiction. When he read the story in John's gospel of the two disciples racing each other to the empty tomb after Christ's body had disappeared, he felt that it was "authentic reportage". It was this, he went on, that "enabled me to doubt my doubt about the resurrection". Doubt my doubt! What is more, he saw the resurrection less as a literal historical fact and more as a powerful symbolic notion that could be reinterpreted from age to age."
Yep, you read that right, by believing in the resurrection he was being doubting in his faith (doubting his atheism I guess, nice piece of meaningless wordplay), but as well as believing in the resurrection it is also just symbolic and not 'literal' (nah, nah, your rational arguments and evidence can't touch me!) - can anyone say bait and switch?

Quoting Dawkins he then says:
"Then he asserts: "I do everything in my power to warn people against faith itself, not just against so-called 'extremist' faith. The teachings of 'moderate' religion, though not extremist in themselves, are an open invitation to extremism."

Through the excited syntax he is declaring that if you go to church, synagogue, mosque or temple only once a year, you are just as liable to perpetrate fanatical deeds on the basis of faith as an al-Qaida terrorist."
Which strikes me as a complete misreading of Dawkins, who is arguing against the way we are told to prize faith, that is belief in the absence or in the face of evidence, he is arguing that prizing evidence free beliefs we open the door to extremism by failing to ground people's beliefs in the real world.

After making the perfectly valid point that extremism doesn't require religion (I doubt I need to tell you which of our favourite dictators get mentioned) and mentioning two fairly mild commitments made by the Catholic church towards pluralism in the `1960s, Cornwell makes a quite extraordinary assertion that:
"Dawkins claims, however, that religious believers deserve neither respect nor rights in any circumstances."
and backs this up with:
"One of his constant explanations for the spread and lethal nature of religion is based on the idea of cultural traits transmitted by what he calls "memes", items of information that behave like viruses. He writes of those "afflicted with the mental virus of faith, and its accompanying gang of secondary infections". The idea of religious believers as disease carriers is not trivial, for it suggests a contrast between the disease and the theoretically healthy body of society, along with the necessity for antidotes."
"Nazi, Nazi!!!" I can hear him cry through the not so subtle subtext, and in fact, I need not search for he makes it explicit:
"Nazi ideology subscribed from the very outset to the idea of the German people as a type of anatomy subject to bacilli...The Nazi plenipotentiary Dr Gerhard Wagner wrote of the volkisch body being in need of "cleansing", while the language of "immunity" and "radical therapy" became routine."*
So it seems his argument boils down to the standard template of theistic responses to Dawkins: "there is too a God", "you can't argue against my God because actually he's a metaphor for the purposes of this debate", "I want my special treatment, stop oppressing me you Nazi!!!"

*I should probably point out the line "Dawkins' recourse to the analogies of disease and medicine is, of course, entirely well meant, and I know him to be a man of the most liberal sympathies..."

UPDATE: The ever irritating Madeleine Bunting shares her wortheless view on this topic at Comment is Free, note this comment:
"He has repeatedly refused a head-to-head with protagonists such as his Oxford colleague, Professor Alister McGrath"
Note that the McGrath-Dawkins interviews is now available here. Ah Madders, daft as a brush.

Wednesday, 5 September 2007

MMR Overdose!!!

If any more evidence was needed as to the complete scientific illiteracy of British media - the BBC reports that:
"Pupils at three Birmingham schools have been given an overdose of the MMR vaccine, health chiefs have confirmed."
Yes, that is right, an accidental repeated MMR booster for teenagers is clearly a massive risk, particularly to those presumably already now pretty much immune to full strength wildtype measles and mumps.

Monday, 3 September 2007


Talking about animal rights on Jean Kazez's blog, Gary Francione's blog was recommended. He takes the 'abolitionist' approach to animal rights, advocating complete veganism - which sounds fair enough, until you realise that he actually opposes 'welfarist' campaigns for incremental reforms (i.e. those that seek to reduce animal suffering without abolishing animal use). This seems to stem from his view that it is animal 'exploitation' per se that should be morally troubling us, contrasted explicitly with the utilitarianism of Singer, who is concerned about animal 'suffering'.

Plenty to argue about there, but something in particular caught my eye, it was this comment about a PETA activist:
"Mathews himself ate a product—the “veggie burger”—which not even McDonald’s claims is vegetarian given that it is cooked on the same grill with meat products and handled along with animal products."
Now I guess it stems from my 'welfarist' and 'utilitarian' perspective, but I've never understood the idea that it should particularly bother an ethical vegetarian whether meat or its derivatives may have come into contact with their food. After all, we're trying to avoid killing animals, or animal suffering (depending on your perspective), it seems quasi-religious to have these views of animal products somehow contaminating our food. I'm just not sure what the ethical basis of that fear is - I understand that vegetarians or vegans often don't like the taste of meat (stuff I happily ate before giving up meat now makes me gag), but that is not a moral issue to bash someone over the head with!.