Poem: A Paradoxical Epiphany

A lakeside photo was intentionally
displayed upside down,
and it took forever for
me to come to terms
with my feeling of
unreality.

The muted reflection
established my Truth
of the world at that
moment, while I
struggled to accept
the clear and sharp
presentation of
existence upside down.

I thought of the paradox,
momentarily,
and suddenly realized
what Plato must have meant.

I Wish I Could Believe (#poem #NaPoWriMo)

man holding cross
Photo by rawpixel.com on Pexels.com

The prompt for day 15 is to write a dramatic dialogue. I think I failed, but here it is, anyway.

I wish I could believe in God.

It’s a free country. Believe what you want.

I can’t believe something just because I want it to be true.

I do it all the time. I believe my wife loves me.

You mean you pretend she loves you.

Fake it till you make it, baby.

But that isn’t belief.

Who are you to say what I believe?

But you implied you don’t believe it.

Yeah, well? It’s a free country.

What does that have to do with it? I can’t believe something unless I’m convinced it’s true.

Who’s stopping you?

Reality.

You know what reality is?

Not for certain, but I try to believe in it.

So you choose what you believe.

Based on evidence.

Choose different evidence.

Like when you ignore the affectionate texts your wife gets from Purchasing Control Centre?

Exactly.

I believe in God because I see good stuff?

That’s what real believers say.

And the bad stuff?

That’s the Devil in it.

And the Devil is more powerful than God.

Seems so today.

All Research Is Biased – Might As Well Get Paid For It

Capitalist Epistemology: Is Money Truth?

On November 28, 2014, the BMJ (formerly the British Medical Journal) posted an announcement that it would no longer publish papers from authors with financial ties to industry with the aim of eliminating harmful bias from published articles. I’ve since talked to some researchers who quickly pointed out that everyone has biases, so eliminating financial conflicts of interest will not result in objective research free from fraud or manipulation, and I agree with them on that point. [Note, a response from Fiona Godlee clarifies this policy: “The policy applies only to editorials and clinical education articles designed to guide patient care and does not extend to other types of article published in The BMJ.” updated 1/14/15.]

As far as I know, Gregor Mendel had no financial conflicts of interest, but his data proved Pharmaceutical-cartonhis theory of genetics perfectly—too perfectly, almost everyone agrees, to be true (see a brief discussion here). Paradoxically, Mendel seems to have cleaned up his data in order to help promote his theory, which happened to be true, so he used untruth to promulgate truth. Other researchers have let their biases affect them more nefariously, letting sexism and racism cloud their ability to form accurate or even coherent theories of health, intelligence, or moral agency.

But the goal of science has always been for an objective pursuit of truth free from emotional bias. Philosopher Alison M. Jaggar made a compelling argument that no scientific inquiry is value free or separate from emotion. She argues, on the contrary, that emotion is a necessary part of any pursuit of knowledge. “Disinterested inquiry,” she says, “Is an impossible dream.” (See “Love and Knowledge: Emotion in Feminist Epistemology.”) A scientific researcher with no bias and no values is both impossible and undesirable, I agree, but it is one thing to have a socially constructed bias and another to have a financially constructed bias. Being paid to have a bias raises a whole new set of problems.

I don’t mean to suggest that pharmaceutical or biotechnology companies should be prohibited from hiring scientific researchers or even that those researchers should be prohibited from publishing in scientific journals. They should, of course, have adequate oversight to detect and prevent fraud, but I’m sure many great products in medicine and elsewhere have resulted from an unbridled pursuit of profit.

The problem is that we don’t have enough independent researchers to ensure a robust search for solutions to human problems that may not lead to profit. Further, we don’t have enough independent researchers to prevent harm from flawed conclusions that may, in fact, generate a profit in spite of their flaws at great risk to public health.

We need publicly funded research centers or anonymously funded research centers where researchers can pursue knowledge that may or may not be convenient for corporations. These researchers would be freer to publish negative results of “promising” treatments. They would be freer to pursue treatments that may be effective but less profitable. As anyone familiar with this problem is aware, it is far more profitable to market maintenance treatments than treatments that will actually cure any given medical condition. Imagine if public funding were also used to manufacture inexpensive and effective cures rather than expensive and less effective treatments.

Of course, this is not the direction the United States (or the world, really) is heading. Rather, we have now entered the age of “venture philanthropy.” (Read Llewellyn Hinkes-Jones’ piece in the New York Times. ) Venture philanthropy enables foundations to use tax-exempt donations to invest in for-profit companies. Rather than using public funds to ensure research free from financial conflicts, venture philanthropy uses public funds to develop and market new products. As Hinkes-Jones puts it, “If the intent is to cure rare diseases, then we should be increasing the budget for the National Institutes of Health and other research initiatives. Instead of gala balls and donor drives, higher taxes on the same rich benefactors could be used to fund the research that isn’t already being supported.”

When the BMJ announced it would no longer publish pieces by authors with industry ties, one chilling line from the article leapt out at me: “In some fields—for example, obesity medicine, genetics, and rheumatology—we may find it difficult to recruit authors free of relevant financial links with industry. It might even prove impossible.” Somehow, we must find the will to make it possible for researchers to make a living and publish their findings without joining the payroll of for-profit corporations. I do not believe all researchers are motivated only by the opportunity to accumulate wealth. Jonas Salk passed the opportunity to amass great wealth with the polio vaccine. Others deserve the chance to do the same.

If correlation isn’t causation, what is?

If you get into any kind of discussion of a controversial topic these days, someone is likely to try to shut you down with a simple “correlation does not prove causation, stupid” kind of refrain. And they are correct that correlation cannot prove causation (a funny website named Spurious Correlations has gone viral). The rub, though, is that correlation cannot prove causation because causation is, shall we just say, difficult to prove. Further, if you want to find the cause of something (say X), you are really going to need to look for things that correlate with X.

For example, say a certain area of the world has begun to have earthquakes regularly when they were almost nonexistent before. If you find that a certain type of gas extraction had begun just before the increase in earthquakes, you might wonder whether this correlation might offer any hints into the cause of the earthquakes. If you could find no correlation between the earthquakes and anything else, you might begin to describe the earthquakes as mysterious and unexplained.

Why? Because correlation is the biggest hint of where causation might be found. The Hume and Ifamous Scottish philosopher, David Hume, laid out some rules for judging causes and their effects. The third rule says there must be constant union between the cause and effect (and it is this correlation that “chiefly” constitutes the causal relation). In fact, it is the constant conjunction between like causes and like effects that reinforces or justifies our belief in causation itself. In other words, without correlation, we would have no reason to believe in causation at all.

Hume also points out that we can observe correlations, but we cannot observe causation. If you ask someone to describe an observation of causation, you will hear a story about a correlation. Because causation cannot be directly observed, our belief in causation cannot be verified. Our belief in causation comes from an instinct to believe in causation and not from any rational argument or proof of causation. Hume points out that even animals are born with a belief in causation even without the benefit of the rational ability to study philosophical or scientific arguments.

To be sure, once you’ve identified a correlation, you can begin the work of determining whether the supposed causes are actually responsible for the effects you’ve observed. You may not get proof, but you can get more and more evidence so that your belief in the cause is more and more justified. No matter how much evidence you get, though, you will have started with a correlation.

So, it is true that correlation does not prove causation, but a statistically significant correlation is a good place to begin your search for a cause. If you know of a way to find causation without first observing a correlation or to prove causation, please leave it in the comments.

Some basic ideas regarding knowledge

This is information for students and may be less than entertaining, provocative or illuminating for others. The following are some ideas related to knowledge and how philosophers regard knowledge:

Realism–This is a belief that there is a “real world” outside of our minds that has features corresponding to certain facts that are not dependent on our language, thoughts, beliefs, perceptions, or prejudices.

Anti-Realism–While it may seem that this would claim there is no such world as described by the realist, the anti-realist claims that whatever world exists outside of our language, thoughts, beliefs, perceptions, or prejudices, whether it exists or not, cannot be known.

Verificationism–Some feel that we should attempt to improve our knowledge by verifying what is true and what is not true. Verificationism typically involves testing our knowledge against our experience through observation, mathematical analysis, or, in some cases, our emotional responses to things (this last one is quite controversial and will be discussed later if I get around to it). While the attempt to verify knowledge seems an attempt to discover the “real world,” one may claim that any form of verificationism is a form of anti-realism, given that verification relies on our perceptions, observations, language, and beliefs to be practiced.

Relativism–Relativists believe that our beliefs and knowledge claims are formed by our individual or cultural experiences and that there is no unifying conception of reality shared by all humans. In its crudest form, relativism claims that no claim to knowledge is superior to another. If someone from one culture believes that disease is caused by angry gods and someone from another culture claims disease is caused by viruses and bacteria, then it is a kind of arrogance, or worse, cultural imperialism to claim that one view is better than another. A more nuanced view would claim that cultural perceptions form our descriptions of things and those descriptions form our thoughts, given that thoughts are expressed through language.

Skepticism–Skepticism is a view that it is impossible to know what is real or not real outside of our own minds. Skepticism manifests itself in a variety of ways. The skeptic may approach life with a great deal of humility, recognizing that claims to truth are ephemeral and fleeting. The skeptic may be committed to verifying truth claims with the understanding that any truth claim may be modified. Or, the skeptic may decided to focus on the only thing any individual can truly claim to know, the contents of one’s own experience. This last approach leads directly to something called phenomenology, which is not the subject of this blog.

As for myself, I attempt to approach life from a standpoint of skeptical humility. I think that beliefs should be based on the best available evidence, but I also believe that modifications to such beliefs are always possible and, indeed, necessary. With hard work and attention, we can improve our lives by discovering beliefs that enhance our lived experience rather than impeding it.