Friday, February 27, 2009

Reason is not enough

I just finished reading Chris Hedges' 2008 book, I Don't Believe in Atheists. The image on the left is from a YouTube video of an interview Hedges gave on CBC's The Hour with George Stroumboulopoulos, which gives a pretty good overview his argument. One side point: while the book is a great read, its title is oddly misleading, so pay that no heed.

Hedges argues that both poles of the debate about reason and religion are occupied by fundamentalists, but at one end they are religious while at the other they are atheist. He argues persuasively, but I have some doubts ...


Hedges, a distinguished foreign correspondent for various newspapers including the New York Times, wrote the book after debates he had in May 2007 with Sam Harris (author of The End of Faith) and Christopher Hitchens (author of God is Not Great). Hedges terms these two writers "New Atheists" along with Daniel Dennett and Richard Dawkins. But what particularly distinguishes Harris and Hitchens is that their political views with respect to the Islamic world are curiously compatible with those of the Christian right. Harris: "Islam, more than any other religion human beings have devised, has all the makings of a thoroughgoing cult of death." (The End of Faith). Hitchens: "But the plain fact is that the believable threat of violence undergirds the Muslim demand for 'respect.'" (Slate)

Hedges' thesis is that the new atheists and religious fundamentalists make the same mistake. They have a utopian belief in the perfectibility of humanity. The difference between them is that atheists hitch their wagons to reason and science while religious fundamentalists rely on faith. But Hedges argues the key point is that they both externalize evil:
Evil, for the Christian fundamentalists and the atheists, is not something within them but an external force to be vanquished. It must be conquered and defeated. This may take violence, even massive acts of violence, but if it leads to a better world, this violence is justified. They have been anointed by reason or God to do battle with this terrible evil. But once evil is seen as being only external, once some human beings are proclaimed more moral than others, repression and murder becomes a regrettable necessity to improve the world. Those infected with the "vice" of evil have to be controlled or exterminated.
On the contrary, asserts Hedges, inside each of us lies what Joseph Conrad called the "heart of darkness":
Human beings are frequently irrational. They are governed by unconscious forces, many of them self-destructive. ... We are bound by our animal natures.
Finally, Hedges argues that "We discard the wisdom of sin at our peril.":
This understanding of innate human corruptibility and human limitations, whether explained by the theologian Augustine or the psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud, has been humankind's most potent check on utopian visions. It has forced human beings to accept their own myopia and irrationality, to acknowledge that no act, even one defined as moral or virtuous, is free from the taint of self-interest and corruption.
Hence, "We have nothing to fear from those who do or do not believe in God; we have much to fear from those who do not believe in sin."

Now, I'm well disposed towards a lot of what Hedges says. I find the islamophobia of Hitchens and Harris to be repugnant. The same goes for Hitchens' promotion of the Iraq war and Harris' equivocation on the legitimacy of torture. They have both helped to prop up the Orwellian "war on terror". I dislike their combative, insulting, condescending styles of debate. And they both seem to lack insight into the meaning of religious belief.

Hedges' thesis has a lot going for it, and for the most part he presents his argument in a cogent way. Above all, I agree with him that absolute certainty is extremely dangerous. But some of his arguments don't sit right with me.


Hedges writes that many atheists believe that
... reason and science, rather than religion, will regulate human conflicts and bring about a paradise. This vision draws its inspiration from the Enlightenment, the European intellectual movement of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries that taught that reason and scientific method could be applied to all aspects of human life. This application would lead to progress, human enlightenment and a better world.
The human species, elevated above animals because it possessed the capacity to reason, could break free of its animal nature and, through reason, understand itself and the world. It could make wise and informed decisions for the betterment of humanity.
Hedges seems to agree with Enlightenment thinkers that our "animal nature" is a threat, but does not believe we can "break free" of it. We are "bound by our animal natures", "frequently irrational", and "governed by unconscious forces, many of them self-destructive". He sides with Freud who "warned that our instinctual lusts were stronger than our reasonable interests." Thus reason can be overwhelmed by our animal urges.

Is instinct really so unreasonable?

Like fear, for example? Is it unreasonable to flee from danger? Is it irrational to go out of your way to pursue a romantic possibility? Our basic needs, many of which we share with animals, are not irrational per se, but are instead the starting point of reasoning. Given that I'd like to go on a date with this man or woman, what's my best strategy? If I smell a gas leak, what should I do? Sometimes our instincts lead us to do things which might be labeled irrational, like running into a burning building to save a child. But that hardly seems contemptible.

Reason can lead to many different conclusions, depending on where you start. Deep-seated psychological factors can colour a person's reasoning. For example, strong biases can blind one to contradictory evidence. Perhaps more problematically, even when the evidence one uses has not been selected in a biased fashion, one's moral premises may be distorted. In particular, most of us are constrained (to put it mildly) by personal history and cultural assumptions.

What most worries Hedges, is our aggressive instinct and its connection with war and barbarism. We can understand aggression in the animal world. For example, when a mother Bear feels her cub is threatened, her aggressive response makes sense to us. Human aggression is another matter. Hedges, who has seen the brutality of war first hand—in Central America, Palestine, Bosnia, and elsewhere—is not optimistic. He is again swayed by Freud's argument that, as Hedges understands it,
The lusts for death and destruction are not external. They lurk in all human beings. They cannot be eradicated.
This dark view leads Hedges to some remarkable conclusions:
Pacifists, although they do not fuel the lust for violence, keep alive the myth that the human species can attain a state of moral perfection. This myth feeds the aggressiveness and cruelty of those who demand the use of violence to cleanse the world, to borrow a phrase from George W. Bush, of "the evildoers." The danger is not pacifism or militarism. It is the poisonous belief in human perfectibility, and the failure to accept our own sinfulness, our own limitations and moral corruption. This belief in our innate goodness becomes dangerous in a crisis, a moment when human beings feel threatened. It enlarges our capacity for aggression, violence and mass slaughter.
So pacifists do not "fuel the lust for violence", but they indirectly "feed the aggressiveness and cruelty" of others. Huh? And militarism isn't dangerous?

What I think this reveals is that Hedges is extremely pessimistic about attempts to address structural causes of the world's problems. I do not disagree with him that each of us is morally imperfect. And I share his distrust for utopian projects—though I would strongly argue that pacifism need not be construed as utopian. But I think he's been reading a bit too much Ecclesiastes.

Knowledge about wisdom / wisdom about knowledge

Hedges writes that "We drift toward disaster with the comforting thought that the god of science will intervene on our behalf." I agree that this naive faith in science is misplaced. Indeed I fully agree when Hedges writes:
Knowledge is not wisdom. Knowledge is the domain of scientific and intellectual inquiry. Wisdom goes beyond self-awareness. It permits us to interpret the rational and the nonrational. It is both intellectual and intuitive.
The equation of knowledge and virtue goes back at least to Socrates. And though I have long recognized it as an error, I have trouble shaking it—much to my chagrin. Perhaps it is because I think knowledge and virtue ought to be united. And perhaps it is just this sort of utopian thinking that Hedges is warning us about.

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Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Colour commentary

I've just reworked the design of this blog (well, it's really the culmination of lots of tinkering). While the form has changed, the content remains the same. Perhaps I should follow Ray Deonandan's suggestion and rename my blog Log base 2.0.

Colour me ignorant

In the redesign, I wanted more colour. But colour is trickier than I thought. There's the physics of light, the physiology of the eye, and the way the brain interprets colour information from the eye. On this last point, the Wikipedia page on colour says:
A dominant theory of color vision proposes that color information is transmitted out of the eye by three opponent processes, or opponent channels, each constructed from the raw output of the cones: a red-green channel, a blue-yellow channel and a black-white "luminance" channel. This theory has been supported by neurobiology, and accounts for the structure of our subjective color experience. Specifically, it explains why we cannot perceive a "reddish green" or "yellowish blue," and it predicts the color wheel ...
A guy I know purportedly (though my memory may have embellished a little) once argued that there are "really" only 7 colours. (Oops. It has been estimated that humans are capable of distinguishing several million colors.) I think he was engaged in some kind of battle of the sexes with his girlfriend, who was distinguishing between colours such as coral, salmon, and tomato. In our culture, women seem to be much more attuned to colour than men.

No doubt some would argue that this is due to underlying physiological differences between the sexes. I certainly wouldn't rule out biological factors, but I think culture is a more likely culprit.

Which brings me to another fascinating aspect of colour: its symbolism, associations, and preferences. For example in the west, blue often represents business (think of a dark blue suit), red means passion, purple is the colour of royalty. Green symbolizes environmentalism, but it also traditionally represented envy. But it's not that simple. In Canada blue is the colour of the Conservative party, whereas in the U.S., blue is the colour of the Democrats whereas red is the colour of the more conservative Republicans. Speaking of red, what about "red" China? Well in China, red is the colour brides wear, not the white that is conventional in the west. White, after all, is the colour of funerals in the east. Then there's the whole question of what colours are seen as masculine or feminine, and whether this varies between cultures, and over time.

Multivariate analyses: interactions galore

When more than one colour is involved, things get even more interesting. Consider two instantly recognizable colour pairs—at least in the West: (1) black and orange; (2) red and green. Colour schemes are a staple of graphic design. I think this is because the meanings conveyed by colours, individually and as part of multi-colour schemes, is very powerful and subtle. Visitors to a website often make snap judgments based in part on colour schemes. Gaudy clashing colours may be a clue that the website isn't worth spending time on. Or perhaps it's an avant-garde artsy site? And of course, the word "gaudy" is dripping with cultural assumptions.

Effective colour schemes aren't easy to conjure up. Instead we often rely on default choices, such as those provided by blog templates. In my exploration, I did find one fabulous colour-scheme tool: Adobe's free online site kuler. It lets you create colour schemes (automatically generating complementary colours, analogous colours, etc.) and explore other people's, with entertaining names like "Old Shell Station", "Ugly Accusations", and "Sushi Maki" (one of my favorites).

They certainly weren't going to pick blue!

And finally, in case you were wondering, the 2009 colour of the year, according to Pantone, is
Mimosa. "Mimosa embodies hopefulness and reassurance in a climate of change." Drat! Now I have to redesign my website again.

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Saturday, February 07, 2009

The Fort Chipewyan cancer cluster

Fort Chipewyan (often called Fort Chip) is a town of 1200 in northern Alberta. In 2006, a local physician reported 6 suspected cases of a rare form of cancer, cholangiocarcinoma, as well as elevated rates of other cancers. What made this particularly alarming is that Fort Chipewyan is located downstream from the huge Athabasca oil sands development and there is also uranium mining and pulp and paper industry in the area. Yesterday, Alberta Health Services released a report on Cancer Incidence in Fort Chipewyan, Alberta 1995-2006 [pdf].

It turns out that only two of the six suspected cases were in fact cholangiocarcinoma. However overall cancer rates do seem to be elevated. The report concludes that:
In particular, increases of observed over expected were found for biliary tract cancers as a group and cancers of the blood and lymphatic system. These increases were based on a small number of cases and could be due to chance or increased detection. The possibility that the increased rate is due to increased risk in the community, however, cannot be ruled out.
To be precise, during the period 1995-2006 there were 51 cases of cancer, where 38.9 were expected based on the population and age-distribution of the town. Thus the incidence is 31% higher than expected, which can be expressed as an "indirect standardized incidence ratio" (ISIR) of 1.31. A 95% confidence interval for the ISIR goes from 0.98 to 1.72. Because this confidence interval (barely) includes 1, we cannot reject the hypothesis that this is simply a chance finding. The report, however, notes that this:
... is a two-sided equal tail test that does not discriminate whether the aim was to examine an ISIR that is greater than 1 (Observed>Expected), or an ISIR that is less than 1 (Observed<Expected)
As an alternative, the report presents the results of simulations. The red bar below shows where the observed 51 cases lie relative to a Poisson distribution with mean 38.9. (The Poisson distribution is the simplest assumption for event counts. Note that its mean and variance are equal.)

The caption notes that the "percentage of the simulated counts greater or equal to the observed count is 3.5%". This is equivalent to a one-sided test, which rejects (at the 5% level) the hypothesis that this is a chance finding. (Generally speaking, two-sided tests are preferred because they are more conservative and do not presuppose a direction of deviation.)

As noted above, two specific types of cancer are of particular concern. Eight cases of cancer of the blood or lymphatic system were observed compared to the expected 3.4, an ISIR of 2.37 with a 95% confidence interval of 1.02 to 4.68. Three cases of cancer of the biliary tract (cholangiocarcinoma is part of this category) were observed compared to the expected 0.7, an ISIR of 4.48 with a 95% confidence interval of 0.92 to 13.08.

There are always limitations

The report notes that:
  • The small population size of Fort Chipewyan limits the ability to interpret results. In larger populations, one additional case does not have the same impact.
  • The increased rates observed were all based on a small number of cases.
  • The First Nations in Fort Chipewyan may have unique characteristics that are different from other First Nations communities in Alberta; this cannot be accounted for in the current analysis.
  • This study was not able to account for the effect of migration on the cancer rate calculation.
  • The study was not designed to determine whether living in Fort Chipewyan elevated cancer risk.
  • The study was not designed to determine the cause of any of the cancers experienced in Fort Chipewyan.
Cluster distruster?

In Cancer as an Environmental Disease, edited by Polyxeni Nicolopoulou-Stamati et al., A. Novogradec and S. Harris Ali note (p.25) that:
The value of studying cancer clusters has been questioned by those who contend that little has been gained in terms of acquiring etiological understanding ... Such critiques commonly cite the issue of 'pre-selection bias' or the 'bulls-eye problem'.
But they go on to say that:
... clusters at the very least should signal the possibility that there may be a common source or mechanism for carcinogenesis amongst members of the cluster.
There is a lot more that could be said about the particular situation at Fort Chipewyan (including evidence of environmental contamination and its sources), about the strengths and weaknesses [pdf] of the study, about epidemiological methodology for investigating cancer clusters, and about the history of other cancer clusters around the world. My sense is that the answers may not be straightforward.

Update 09Feb2009: Here are two interesting blog posts on the subject, one from Ken Chapman and the other from Metis Bare Facts. Also note that the U.S. National Cancer Institute and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention both have good pages on cancer clusters.

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Monday, February 02, 2009

And philosophy

I was at the bookstore the other night and wandered over to the philosophy section. Or should I say, the "and philosophy" section. You see, it was dominated by books with titles like The Simpsons and Philosophy, Metallica and Philosophy, Monty Python and Philosophy, The Legend of Zelda and Philosophy (subtitle: "I Link Therefore I Am")—the list goes on and on, as do the witty subtitles.

These are all part of the Popular Culture and Philosophy series. Editor George Reisch writes:
Since its inception in 2000, Open Court's Popular Culture and Philosophy® series has brought high-quality philosophy to general readers. The volumes present essays by academic philosophers exploring the meanings, concepts, and puzzles within television shows, movies, music and other icons of popular culture.
The first in the series was Seinfeld and Philosophy, edited by William Irwin:
How is Jerry like Socrates? Is it rational for George to "do the opposite?" Would Simone de Beauvoir say that Elaine is a feminist? Is Kramer stuck in Kierkegaard's aesthetic stage?
How about Battlestar Galactica and Philosophy?
Who counts as human? Is killing an intelligent non-human murder or garbage disposal? Can we really know who we are until we know what we are?
Or James Bond and Philosophy?
Is Bond a Nietzschean hero who graduates "beyond good and evil"? Does Bond paradoxically break the law in order, ultimately, to uphold it like any "stupid policeman"? What can Bond’s razor-sharp reasoning powers tell us about the scientific pursuit of truth? Does 007’s license to kill help us understand the ethics of counterterrorism? What motivates all those despicable Bond villains—could it be a Hegelian quest for recognition?
Maybe Star Wars and Philosophy?
If the Force must have a Dark Side, how can the Dark Side be evil? Why and how did the tyrannical Empire emerge from the free Republic? Are droids persons, entitled to civil rights? Is Yoda a Stoic or a Zen master?
And yet ...

My first reaction upon seeing this plethora of pop-culture on the philosophy shelves was disapproval. Try to find a book by C. S. Peirce and you're out of luck. But no problem if you're looking for The Undead and Philosophy: Chicken Soup for the Soulless!

But the truth is I haven't read any of these books, so I can't comment on their quality. Still the reader reviews on are generally quite positive. For example, here's some of what reader Angela Allen has to say about Harry Potter and Philosophy:
As one who reads the Potter books mostly for the escapism, it was interesting to have professional philosophers help me delve into the deeper meanings contained in the books. [...] My favorite essays were "Feminism and Equal Opportunity: Herminone and the Women of Hogwarts", "Heaven, Hell and Harry Potter" "Magic, Muggles and Moral Imagination" and "The Prophecy-Driven Life: Foreknowledge and Freedom at Hogwarts". [...] This book is probably not for the expert philosopher as these concepts will be basics but for someone of my experience (almost none) studying philosophy, it was a great read.
If anyone has read one of these books, I'd be interested in your evaluation. Are they well written? Do they trivialize philosophy or simply introduce it to ordinary people in terms they can relate to?

The truth is, I'm looking forward to reading one of these books! But which to choose? Perhaps Star Trek and Philosophy: The Wrath of Kant!

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