Practice with scientists

While I was away the Washington Post finally got around to posting responses to the two factually and logically challenged George Will pieces on global climate warming change (discussed by us here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here).  One of these, a letter from the World Meteorological Organization, patiently points out that Will has no business interpreting scientific data.  They write:

It is a misinterpretation of the data and of scientific knowledge to point to one year as the warmest on record — as was done in a recent Post column ["Dark Green Doomsayers," George F. Will, op-ed, Feb. 15] — and then to extrapolate that cooler subsequent years invalidate the reality of global warming and its effects.

The second of these, an op-ed by science writer Chris Mooney, while detailing the specific factual failings (legion they were) of Will's two recent columns, made a more general point about the Post's attitude toward facts.  He writes:

Readers and commentators must learn to share some practices with scientists — following up on sources, taking scientific knowledge seriously rather than cherry-picking misleading bits of information, and applying critical thinking to the weighing of evidence. That, in the end, is all that good science really is. It's also what good journalism and commentary alike must strive to be — now more than ever.

We would suggest (for the nth time) that enforcing this recommendation ought to be the job of some kind of grown up, like say an editor.

Shill the messenger

Last week, Jon Stewart, television comedian somehow in charge of all responsible TV media criticism, interviewed a TV financial journalist, Jim Cramer, who defended his well documented wrongness by claiming merely to be an entertainer who was "lied to" (rather than a trusted financial guru and television journalist).  It was an embarrassing performance for Cramer, who only made himself looking even worse when he spoke up in his own defense–calling Stewart a comedian, and claiming to have been taken out of context.  That only invited more context.  Leave it to Richard Cohen, Washington Post liberal columnist, to misunderstand the whole proceeding.

He writes,    

The acclaim visited on Stewart for spanking Cramer tells you something. In the first place — and by way of a minor concession — he's got a small point. CNBC has often been a cheerleader for the zeitgeist — up when the market's up, down when it's down. This is true of the business media in general.

But the role that Cramer and other financial journalists played was incidental. There was not much they could do, anyway. They do not have subpoena power. They cannot barge into AIG and demand to see the books, and even if they could, they would not have known what they were looking at. The financial instruments that Wall Street firms were both peddling and buying are the functional equivalent of particle physics. To this day, no one knows their true worth.

It does not take cable TV to make a bubble. CNBC played no role in the Tulip Bubble that peaked, as I recall, in 1637, or in the Great Depression of 1929-41. It is the zeitgeist that does this — the psychological version of inertia: the belief that what's happening will continue to happen.

My informal sense of Stewart's position is that Cramer has represented himself and has been represented as some kind of god-like financial guru (cf. "In Cramer We Trust").  Yet, as Cohen concedes, Cramer didn't know what he was talking about.  That's Stewart's point.  You can see the video here.

I think it's obvious that Stewart is not guilty of the very strong claim Cohen seems to be attributing to him.  So this seems to be a fairly straightforward straw man.

Complex question triple play

Many are familiar with the fallacy of the complex question, perhaps in the form of its most well known example:

when did you stop beating your wife? 

The trick consists in cramming two questions into one such that a response to one of them (you can after all only answer one question at a time) looks like a response to the other. So if you answer "I haven't" to the above question then you admit to beating your wife, but  you thought you were denying beating your wife.  Chris Wallace of Fox News tried this out on Bill Clinton a few years back.  He asked: why didn't  you do more to stop al Qaeda?  Clinton, smart guy that he is (whatever else you may want to say about him) attacked the question.  Why this is called a "fallacy," by the way, is really beyond me, since no inference is really drawn.  Perhaps there's an inference drawn at the end when the person responds to the trap.  It seems to me to be more of a trick than a fallacy. 

In any case, most examples of it that I have seen involve two questions.  My informal sense is that the structure forces a negative answer to the trick part of the question which looks like an affirmative answer to the assumption.  But I'll have to think about that a little more. 

But it doesn't seem to me by the way that one needs to be restricted to two questions.  Why not three?  I can only get as far as three in a complex question.  But I fear I may have not thought hard enough about it.  Here's my example:

Why must you persist in doing that?  

That's three questions: (1) why do you do that? (2) must you do that? (3) why do you persist in doing that?

Why can't anyone come up with more?

This was an episode of the Simpsons

No seriously, this happened (via Steve Benen):

Every winter, David DeWitt takes his biology class to the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History, but for a purpose far different from that of other professors.

DeWitt brings his Advanced Creation Studies class (CRST 390, Origins) up from Liberty University in Lynchburg, Va., hoping to strengthen his students' belief in a biblical view of natural history, even in the lion's den of evolution.

His yearly visit to the Smithsonian is part of a wider movement by creationists to confront Darwinism in some of its most redoubtable secular strongholds. As scientists celebrate the 200th anniversary of Charles Darwin's birth, his doubters are taking themselves on Genesis-based tours of natural history museums, aquariums, geologic sites and even dinosaur parks.

"There's nothing balanced here. It's completely, 100 percent evolution-based," said DeWitt, a professor of biology. "We come every year, because I don't hold anything back from the students."

In the Simpsons episode, when the religious types demanded alternatives to Darwinian evolution be taught in school, Principal Skinner proposed Lamarkian evolution.

In other matters, the Post has published an op-ed by an former Harvard endocrinologist on the virtue of science.  He says it's wrong.  The only serious examples he gives are examples of irresponsible science reporting–that's different.  Here's a piece:

When a group of British academic researchers reported last spring that women fond of eating breakfast cereal were more likely to give birth to boys, the story was lapped up by journalists the world over. "Skip breakfast for a daughter, eat up your cereals for a son," advised the Economist, just one of many publications to seize on the report.

The problem with this fascinating study? It appears to be wrong. An analysis led by Stan Young of the National Institute for Statistical Sciences found that the original conclusion was based on poor statistics and is probably the result of chance.

So far, Young's rebuttal, published in January, has received little notice. That it is ignored by many of the media outlets that lavished attention on the original report isn't surprising; in fact, the most remarkable thing is how ordinary that lack of attention may be. A lot of science, it turns out, can't withstand serious scrutiny. Thoughtful analysis by John Ioannidis suggests that more than half of published scientific research findings can't be replicated by other researchers.

Can the results of that one study about the falsity of scientific research be replicated?  The author doesn't bother to find out.  In any case, that is seriously the only evidence for this startling claim offered in the entire piece.  The rest is anecdotal school sucks kind of stuff.  It does, of course, suck.  And science is mostly wrong, that's the point.  I thought.  Or so I learned in school.  But maybe they were wrong about that.

Dueling Logical Critiques of Krauthammer

Both John and I simultaneously wrote posts on Krauthammer's column this morning. You'll find mine below this note, and his immediately following this one.

The contrast might be interesting: while recognizing similar points of concern with Krauthammer's column, we describe them in very different ways.

Amoral Scientists and Ethically Serious Presidents

She Blinded Me With Ethics

Amoral Scientists or Ethically Serious Presidents

Krauthammer enters into this week's stem cell fooferaw  today. Krauthammer has consistently generated more serious commentary on embryonic stem cell research than his fellow wapo-cons, Will and Gerson. His view on the issue is measured and reasoned–he engages the moral, scientific, and political questions on this issue with a seriousness so often lacking on op-ed pages. He reproduces his position here:

I am not religious. I do not believe that personhood is conferred upon conception. But I also do not believe that a human embryo is the moral equivalent of a hangnail and deserves no more respect than an appendix. Moreover, given the protean power of embryonic manipulation, the temptation it presents to science and the well-recorded human propensity for evil even in the pursuit of good, lines must be drawn. I suggested the bright line prohibiting the deliberate creation of human embryos solely for the instrumental purpose of research — a clear violation of the categorical imperative not to make a human life (even if only a potential human life) a means rather than an end.

This led him to argue that Bush was right to draw a moral line, permitting the 20 or so (Bush claimed 60) existing stem cell lines derived from destroyed embyros to be used in federally funded research, while denying the use of funds for the creation of new lines (either from discarded embryos or research cloning). Krauthammer, however, disagreed with where the line was drawn, holding that research involving new lines from discarded embryos should be able to be federally funded. (Though the Dickey-Wicker amendment is the real force behind this "ban" and neither Bush nor Obama have the authority to revoke the ban against federal funds for the research involving the destruction of embryos–for Bush to suggest that he was the real authority on this question was false).

Obama however is "morally unserious" in his executive order when he turns the decision over to the scientists.

On this, Obama has nothing to say. He leaves it entirely to the scientists. This is more than moral abdication. It is acquiescence to the mystique of "science" and its inherent moral benevolence. How anyone as sophisticated as Obama can believe this within living memory of Mengele and Tuskegee and the fake (and coercive) South Korean stem cell research is hard to fathom.

He repeats the argument that we've examined this week that scientists are a-moral and so can't be trusted to devise reasonable and responsible policies. Once again I'll note my hesitation in regards to this inference. Unless the President is the only person who can make ethical judgments on this matter, or scientists (Sec of H&HS and Director of NIH) are incapable of ethical consideration in their judgments it wouldn't seem to me to follow from this:

Sec. 2.  Research.  The Secretary of Health and Human Services (Secretary), through the Director of NIH, may support and conduct responsible, scientifically worthy human stem cell research, including human embryonic stem cell research, to the extent permitted by law.

 But, setting that aside for the time being, Krauthammer takes offense at the less reported memorandum signed at the same ceremony.

That part of the ceremony, watched from the safe distance of my office, made me uneasy. The other part — the ostentatious issuance of a memorandum on "restoring scientific integrity to government decision-making" — would have made me walk out.

Restoring? The implication, of course, is that while Obama is guided solely by science, Bush was driven by dogma, ideology and politics.

What an outrage. Bush's nationally televised stem cell speech was the most morally serious address on medical ethics ever given by an American president. It was so scrupulous in presenting the best case for both his view and the contrary view that until the last few minutes, the listener had no idea where Bush would come out. 

Obama's address was morally unserious in the extreme. It was populated, as his didactic discourses always are, with a forest of straw men. Such as his admonition that we must resist the "false choice between sound science and moral values."

The contrast between Bush's televised speech and Obama's address is striking. Of course, we might remember that Bush was presenting the results of the policy process, and Obama is initiating a process. The real disagreement, however, seems to be on the question whether the President should decide this issue himself (on the basis of his moral beliefs) or delegate the formulation of policy to others (with presumably the authority to intervene or reject their policies).

I'll leave the question of whether Krauthammer has correctly identifed a straw man aside here. But Krauthammer smells a contradiction between resisting the "false choice between sound science and moral values" and Obama's view on cloning for human reproduction.

Yet, exactly 2 minutes and 12 seconds later he went on to declare that he would never open the door to the "use of cloning for human reproduction."

Does he not think that a cloned human would be of extraordinary scientific interest? And yet he banned it.

Is he so obtuse as not to see that he had just made a choice of ethics over science? Yet, unlike Bush, who painstakingly explained the balance of ethical and scientific goods he was trying to achieve, Obama did not even pretend to make the case why some practices are morally permissible and others not.

This is not just intellectual laziness. It is the moral arrogance of a man who continuously dismisses his critics as ideological while he is guided exclusively by pragmatism (in economics, social policy, foreign policy) and science in medical ethics.

Science has everything to say about what is possible. Science has nothing to say about what is permissible. Obama's pretense that he will "restore science to its rightful place" and make science, not ideology, dispositive in moral debates is yet more rhetorical sleight of hand — this time to abdicate decision-making and color his own ideological preferences as authentically "scientific."

This seems a bit forced. To claim that there is a "false choice between sound science and moral values" may be an unfair characterization of Bush's embryonic stem cell policy, but it would seem to claim that sound science and moral values can be made consistent with one another, not that moral values should never limit science. Obama's orders and address argue that the balance between scientific aims and moral values should be differently drawn, not erased entirely. Thus, there is no contradiction as far as I can see here:

I can also promise that we will never undertake this research lightly. We will support it only when it is both scientifically worthy and responsibly conducted. We will develop strict guidelines, which we will rigorously enforce, because we cannot ever tolerate misuse or abuse. And we will ensure that our government never opens the door to the use of cloning for human reproduction. It is dangerous, profoundly wrong, and has no place in our society, or any society.

The last two sentences are troublingly open: Obama opens to the door to a policy that allows the cloning of embryos and their destruction for research and therapeutic purposes. What is meant by "cloning for human reproduction" is not entirely clear, but it seems to only rule out making new human beings (i.e., new "people"?). There are moral arguments that can justify these conclusions. Krauthammer seems to think that there are not and so describes them as the result of a sort of amoral pragmatism devoid of ethical considerations. I'm not sure I've gotten to the hearts of the matter here, but it seems as though we are circling around a dichotomy that depending upon how it is formulated and used may either be a false one, or may be an important piece of an argument about the dangers of allowing ethical decisions to be made by beauraucrats and scientists, and therefore a possible criticism of Obama's open-ended delegation of ethical policy.

But, even if it is the latter it needs to be more rigorously formulated than it is here. Krauthammer has argued the slippery slope before–if we allow scientists to decide to what uses embyros should be put, it is likely that we will end up with policies that are significantly beyond most of our moral intuitions and considered beliefs about the use of human life. As I've said  before, I think this argument can be reasonably made.  For the conclusion to be follow,  does not, however, require the premise that scientists are amoral pragmatists and must be restrained by ethically minded Presidents. The weaker premise that enthusiasm for scientific goals might lead scientists to ignore moral considerations is adequate for the inductive conclusion the argument advances and is plausibly true.Krauthammer's hyperbolic and false dichotomy between science and ethics goes much further than that. The weaker premise something that Obama is advocating be done by the relevant branches and offices of our government, and which on the issue of stem cells at least, Bush decided to do himself. 

 

 

She blinded me with ethics

There's a certain laughable cluelessness about George Will.  One can seriously wonder whether he really knows that most of his columns advance the shakiest and silliest of arguments.  The same is not true of Charles Krauthammer, his arguments advance a fairly malicious brand of sophistry–in particular, the sophistry of wrongly or dishonestly (i.e., by distortion) claiming others guilty of sophistry.  See for instance his column on Friday (cf., the greatest non sequitur ever foisted)

Today the topic is stem cells.  Two things.  Krauthammer is not incapable of making a reasonable argument, and the stem cell issue deserves to be approached with some amount of seriousness.  Having said that, it seems that Krauthammer in his most recent column does not approach the issue very seriously.  Here's the first bit of unseriousness:

I am not religious. I do not believe that personhood is conferred upon conception. But I also do not believe that a human embryo is the moral equivalent of a hangnail and deserves no more respect than an appendix. Moreover, given the protean power of embryonic manipulation, the temptation it presents to science and the well-recorded human propensity for evil even in the pursuit of good, lines must be drawn. I suggested the bright line prohibiting the deliberate creation of human embryos solely for the instrumental purpose of research — a clear violation of the categorical imperative not to make a human life (even if only a potential human life) a means rather than an end.

On this, Obama has nothing to say. He leaves it entirely to the scientists. This is more than moral abdication. It is acquiescence to the mystique of "science" and its inherent moral benevolence. How anyone as sophisticated as Obama can believe this within living memory of Mengele and Tuskegee and the fake (and coercive) South Korean stem cell research is hard to fathom.

The first part of the second paragraph is false in the sense that Obama does not leave the matter entirely to scientists.  But the second part is a bit of ridiculous hyberbole of the slippery slope variety: if we leave the matter entirely to scientits (who are amoral!), we will get Joseph Mengele (that's a very swift violation of Godwin's law by the way).  Here, for reference, is the relevant section of Obama's speech:

I can also promise that we will never undertake this research lightly. We will support it only when it is both scientifically worthy and responsibly conducted. We will develop strict guidelines, which we will rigorously enforce, because we cannot ever tolerate misuse or abuse. And we will ensure that our government never opens the door to the use of cloning for human reproduction. It is dangerous, profoundly wrong, and has no place in our society, or any society. 

Moving on to the more malicious bits.  Here's Krauthammer again:

That part of the ceremony, watched from the safe distance of my office, made me uneasy. The other part — the ostentatious issuance of a memorandum on "restoring scientific integrity to government decision-making" — would have made me walk out.

Restoring? The implication, of course, is that while Obama is guided solely by science, Bush was driven by dogma, ideology and politics.

It's not a stretch to suggest that the Bush administration had a particular disdain for science and scientists who disagreed with their policy agenda.  See The Republican War on Science, 238ff, for why someone might plausibly assert such a thing about the Bush administration (so spare us the feigned shock please).  But more specifically, the "implication" (that's a logic term) is not that Obama is guided soley (you'll see what he does with this in a moment) by science.  That is an overly strong and decidedly uncharitable version of the claim Obama is making.  Continuing:  

What an outrage. Bush's nationally televised stem cell speech was the most morally serious address on medical ethics ever given by an American president. It was so scrupulous in presenting the best case for both his view and the contrary view that until the last few minutes, the listener had no idea where Bush would come out.

Obama's address was morally unserious in the extreme. It was populated, as his didactic discourses always are, with a forest of straw men. Such as his admonition that we must resist the "false choice between sound science and moral values." Yet, exactly 2 minutes and 12 seconds later he went on to declare that he would never open the door to the "use of cloning for human reproduction."

Does he not think that a cloned human would be of extraordinary scientific interest? And yet he banned it.

Is he so obtuse as not to see that he had just made a choice of ethics over science? Yet, unlike Bush, who painstakingly explained the balance of ethical and scientific goods he was trying to achieve, Obama did not even pretend to make the case why some practices are morally permissible and others not.

This is not just intellectual laziness. It is the moral arrogance of a man who continuously dismisses his critics as ideological while he is guided exclusively by pragmatism (in economics, social policy, foreign policy) and science in medical ethics.

Science has everything to say about what is possible. Science has nothing to say about what is permissible. Obama's pretense that he will "restore science to its rightful place" and make science, not ideology, dispositive in moral debates is yet more rhetorical sleight of hand — this time to abdicate decision-making and color his own ideological preferences as authentically "scientific."

No straw man has been identified, however: Obama has argued that the choice between the two is false, so naturally he does not choose between the two! (See the quote above).  Besides, Obama obviously does not share (see quote above) Krauthammer's nihilistic conception of science, nor does he intend to allow such a science to exist or flourish on the federal dime.  Obama has made it pretty clear that he thinks Bush's restrictions, however surprisingly or drammatically delivered, to be out of sync with where we are scientifically and ethically.  Such an argument, outlined earlier in the speech, does not entail now that anything goes or that there is no moral basis for his view–that would be a falsely dichotomous understanding of ethics and a complete distortion of what Obama said.  The weirdest thing about all of this is that Krauthammer seems to agree with Obama's position.

In any case, it is obvious that the issue of stem cell research is a morally intricate one–one that deserves more serious discussion than Krauthammer would allow.

He Almost Made It

George Will wouldn't let us down and make it through a column without an awful argument. Last three sentences in a column, that on a cursory reading at least was not that unreasonable. Throughout most of the column, he lambasts Obama for liberal opportunism, cynical budget manipulation, and his lack of qualifications for his job, all of which seems mildly cheap. But then he comes through for us:

One afternoon last week, cable news viewers saw, at the top of their screens, the president launching yet another magnificent intention — the disassembly and rearrangement of the 17 percent of the economy that is health care. The bottom of their screens showed the Dow plunging 281 points. Surely the top of the screen partially explained the bottom. 

I can't say whether there is such a causal relationship between Obama's speech and the Dow Industrial drop, but I worry a bit that Will is confusing MSNBC's immediate feedback stuff with the Dow Industrial Averages.

Coercion and Complicity

I'm not quite sure that I understand the complicity argument that has sprung up among some of those who lost the election and who are upset at Obama's policies. Gerson gave a particularly virulent formulation of it today:

There is a common thread running through President Obama's pro-choice agenda: the coercion of those who disagree with it.

. . . .

Now, taxpayers are likely to fund not only research on the "spare" embryos from in vitro fertilization but also on human lives produced and ended for the sole purpose of scientific exploitation. Biotechnicians have been freed from the vulgar moralism of the masses, so they can operate according to the vulgar utilitarianism of their own social clique — the belief that some human lives can be planted, plucked and processed for the benefit of others. It is the incurable itch of pro-choice activists to compel everyone's complicity in their agenda. Somehow, getting "politics out of science" translates into taxpayer funding for embryo experimentation. "Choice" becomes a demand on doctors and nurses to violate their deepest beliefs or face discrimination.

The argument seems to be that the fact that some people of conscience disagree with a certain policy on moral grounds presumptively legitimates the conclusion that the policy should not be enacted. The argument seems to be

1. People of conscience are free to have their own moral beliefs.

2. Freedom of moral belief entails (requires) that one is not "forced" to act counter to one's moral belief.

3. Therefore a policy that "forces" you to act indirectly against your moral belief is wrong.

4. Paying taxes to support an activity that runs counter to your moral beliefs is being "forced" to act counter to your moral beliefs.

5. [Therefore the government is wrong to spend money on activities that run counter to some people's moral belief.]

Gerson, being the moral relativist that he is, relativizes the difference in moral views to "social cliques" and then suggests that the government has no business intervening in this matter of taste–non disputandum gustibus I guess. Gerson makes that Nietzschean mistake of confusing sneering at those who disagree with you with argument against their position.Gerson and others can, of course, take the route many others of serious moral conscience have gone before. But, I can't see how it follows that a government cannot make any law legitimately that would be conscientiously objected to by a "social clique" even if we drink the radical relativist kool-aid with Gerson.

But, it seems to me that there is ultimatley something worrisome about Gerson's notions of "coercion" and "complicity" here. This argument may not seem fallacious as such. He is, of cousre, entitled to define coercion this broadly. But it overloads his premises, and, because he does not make explicit the real claim that he is making here, it seems to come close to begging the question. He is at least using emotionally loaded terms in order to persuade the reader without adequate justification of the wrongness of Obama's order. (Begging the question seems too strong here, better would be a fallacy of loading the key term of the argument.)

I'm really fascinated by the concept of complicity, though I can't say that I understand what the conditions for complicity would be. At the same time I don't think we can do without a fairly robust notion, at least, in our moral thinking. But, the sort of argument that Gerson is trotting out here, seems to be the argument of the defeated: No longer able to argue against fairly overwhelming democratic and popular support for the policy, no longer able to enforce their view by fiat, they claim that any policy is the result of an "incurable itch of [pro-choice] activists to compel everyone's complicity in their agenda."