Wednesday, 15 February 2017

Existence, Extension and the Ontological Argument

Note: This is a paper I wrote as an undergraduate, which used to be on my old (pre Y2K) website. I thought I had transported it here, but apparently hadn't got to this one yet. The topic came up in another discussion online, so I here it is for reference.

     Nearly everyone is aware that pi, the ratio of a circle's circumference to its diameter, is an irrational number. That is, it cannot be expressed as the quotient of two whole numbers, no matter what those whole numbers are. In other words, although we've only actually calculated the value of pi to a few sextillion digits, we can categorically state that the string of digits will stretch out to infinity without ever settling into a permanent pattern of repetition. Indeed, we can even show that this is true despite the fact that no one has ever drawn, or will ever draw a perfect circle. It follows implicitly from the theoretical definition of a perfect circle; for pi to be rational, a circle would have to have a finite number of sides, which is incompatible with the meaning of the word circle.

     St. Anselm's ontological argument for the existence of God hinges upon the assumption that existence is a predicable quality in the same sense that perfectcircle, and irrational are. In order for the argument to hold water, we must accept that the quality of existence follows implicitly from the concept of That Than Which Nothing Greater Can Be Conceived, just as the irrationality of pi follows implicitly from the definition of a perfect circle.
     In order to answer the question of existence's predicability, we must first articulate what it is we mean by predicability, and then see whether or not it is something which may be said of existence, i.e. is predicability predicable of existence?
     At first glance, we might well be inclined to assert that it is. Grammatically, at least, it is incontrovertibly a predicate, since it is a verb, and an intransitive one at that. One may intelligibly say of something that it exists, and perhaps more importantly, one may intelligibly say that something does not exist.
     However, the objection has been raised by the likes of Parmenides that being is in fact not a deniable trait. That is to say, it is contradictory to define something as non-existent. Anything which can be described can be described as "something which..."; to include non-existence among its characteristics is equivalent to describing it as "nothing which...". We might invent a class of objects called "not-beings", which have all the characteristics of beings except existence, and have the explicit quality of not-existence. Such definitions are inherently paradoxical, since by definition they cannot exist (or they'll be just ordinary beings, not non-beings) and they cannot fail to exist (since by failing to exist, they satisfy their definitions and therefore exist). This paradox is, by the way, of the same sort that Bertrand Russell used to attack set theory, i.e. by introducing the set of all sets that are not members of themselves.
     Very well, then. We have shown that the denial of existence cannot intelligibly be predicated of a thing. From this, it would seem to follow that the assertion of existence is obligatory. Does this mean that everything that can be spoken of or referred to in any way must necessarily exist? That dragons and minotaurs and those ghastly creatures of chaos, the unicorns, exist? Even more bizarre, that round squares and honest politicians exist?
     The last two we can deal with easily enough by the self-denial paradox; round squares are by definition logical impossibilities, just as are non-beings. And, just as the logical impossibility of self-denial allowed us to dispose of the denial of existence, we may handily dispose of the notion that predicated existence necessitates actual existence, or indeed that it has any connection whatsoever to actuality.
     What do we mean, then, when we say that something does not exist? Surely it is not nonsensical to say, "Dragons do not exist." How can we reconcile the implicit being in the definition of everything with the denial of being in the statement "Dragons do not exist"?
     Bertrand Russell did it by arguing that what we call existence is not a quality of the things themselves, but of the ideas of those things. That is, when we say that dragons do not exist, what we really mean is that of all the things there are, none of them are referred to by the word dragon or its attendant definition. (That definition, of course, must implicitly include being, if the definition is to be intelligible or possible.) Likewise, when we say that dragons DO exist, we really mean that the word dragon extends to something it intends. In other words, "Dragons exist" is a convenient shorthand for "The term dragon has an extension."
     Of course, this just puts Anselm's argument into different terms. Rather than saying that the maximally perfect being must exist, now, he would say that the intension of a maximally perfect being implies an extension. This seems a preposterous claim; how can an intension necessitate extension? And yet, there are simple examples. The word word, by its intension, cannot possibly fail to have extension. How might That Than Which Nothing Greater Can Be Conceived necessarily imply its own extension?
     Let us assume the existence, i.e., the extension of something. What it is precisely is unimportant. In fact, we might just point to some lump of matter, and label it with the convenient word, This. (If we wish, we can take nothing for granted, and take This to mean ourselves, after Descartes.) Its intension is very simple; it means whatever we happen to be pointing at, and thus is identical with its extension. Now, conceiving such an entity is trivially easy, as is accepting its existence. Since any whole is at least as great as any of its parts, it should also be possible to conceive the whole formed by This and some other thing. As long as there exists something outside of This, it is possible to conceive of something greater, namely [This + something else].
Following this to its ultimate conclusion, we find that That Than Which Nothing Greater Can Be Conceived intends simply the totality of everything which can be conceived. (Given that being is implicitly predicated of anything intelligibly conceived, it is trivially true that being is predicable of TTWNGCBC.) Is it sensible to say that TTWNGCBC lacks extension?
     It is possible, of course, to conceive of things which lack extension. However, some things are their own extensions, like the word word. The intension of TTWNGCBC says nothing specifically about physical existence; it only refers to something conceived. Nor does it necessarily have to be conceived; it need only be conceivable. Therefore TTWNGCBC need only be a potential idea to have extension. It is impossible to conceive of anything greater that the totality of all things conceivable, so there is nothing implicitly paradoxical about the intension of TTWNGCBC. Ergo, it is a potential idea, and is its own extension.

     TTWNGCBC therefore unquestionably exists, inasmuch as any idea may be said to exist. Anselm has chosen to call TTWNGCBC by the name God. I think a more elegant name would be simply Being, or perhaps Existence. In this way, Existence is most certainly not a predicate, but a noun, and the extent to which we say things exist depends in fact upon the extent to which their various predicates partake in Existence. Thus, dragons partake in Being by being large, fire-breathing, carnivorous and imaginary, while toads partake in Being by being small, fly-eating, amphibious and real.

Friday, 13 January 2017

Objectives in Online Argument: Why We Fight

     Last post, I talked about how formulating your goals properly can help to improve your patience and endurance in rhetorical conflict. But improving your endurance only matters if you actually have some reason to engage in an argument in the first place, and I often hear it said that getting into arguments (especially on the internet) is a waste of time and effort. I'll admit, as someone who often does get into arguments on the internet, that it can become quite frustrating, and in those moments it's easy to succumb to the belief that it's all futile and you should just never bother messing with the idiots.
     In this post, I want to argue that it is important to engage in debate, even with idiots, and I want to share the five objectives (in rough order of importance) I have every time I respond to some inane Facebook meme or comment on a blog or news item somewhere.

1.  Show up.
     It's been said that success is often just a matter of showing up, and this is true in rhetoric as well. If there's a contest, and only one person shows up, that person wins, no matter how inept or terrible they might be at whatever skill the contest is nominally intended to test. So if someone posts some argument online before an audience, no matter how flimsy a house of cards it may be, it stands if no one knocks it down.
     This may not seem important, but it is. There's a subtle but powerful psychological phenomenon at play here. If you're at a meeting, and a particular claim is repeated three times, you're likely to come away from the meeting with the impression that it was the consensus view, even if only one person repeated it three times and no one else was convinced. Imagine that. 10 people attend a meeting, and nine of them come away thinking they were the only ones who disagreed with the consensus view. And later, chatting with someone else from the meeting, you're maybe just a bit deferential to what you believe is the consensus, qualifying your comments with "I know you'll probably disagree with me here, but..." or maybe you won't bring it up at all. (Note that even if your friend agrees with you, the fact that you expected her to disagree actually reinforces the presumption that you two are in the minority, and everyone else still agrees with the original speaker.)
     Pay attention to this. It's why demagogues so often try to portray their opponents as unpopular losers, and why they so often couch their claims with phrases like "Everyone knows" or "Everybody says so" or "A lot of people are saying..."
     So my first objective in responding to something online is simply this: to foil the attempt to establish something as the conventional wisdom by showing that there's at least one person who doesn't actually agree.
     And it's worth noting that this objective is really easy to achieve. It doesn't call for any special skill at rhetoric, no special background knowledge. Just the ability to say, "I disagree," or even "I'm not sure I agree..." That's all it takes to prevent a stupid idea from winning by default.

2. Normalize disagreement.
     There's a widespread belief in many cultures, including ours, that it's rude to contradict someone. And while there are certainly many situations in which it is better to politely nod and smile, that's simply not the case when someone is trying to propagate ideas to the public (or semi-public circle of acquaintances). As I've argued before, there's a big difference between respecting a person and respecting their beliefs, and in fact, I think they're actually incompatible; it's disrespectful to a person's intellect to treat their beliefs as exempt from critical scrutiny.
     So one of the things I am trying to do by refuting things people post or share online is to show that it's okay to disagree with ideas, and that you can do so in a respectful manner. In particular, I want to convey the message that it's okay to disagree with me; if you think I'm wrong, I really do want you to tell me so and why.
     This objective is a little harder to achieve than the first, but only a little. It requires a bit more tact, because simply hurling out "You're WRONG, you idiot!" doesn't help to create a culture of reasoned discourse. And, if you're going to do it right, you really do have to demonstrate a good faith willingness to be corrected yourself, to admit when you're wrong and acknowledge when someone else is right. But these are things we should all be striving towards anyway, and so I think we should strive to model the behaviour we want to see in others. That means making it okay to argue.

3.  Improve your own understanding.
     Nothing teaches you a subject so effectively as trying to teach it to others. The process of trying to explain your position, or your doubts about someone else's position, is extremely helpful in clarifying your own understanding. And engaging with ideas you disagree with is especially good for this.
     Rhetoric, understood here as the arts of reason debate, improves with practice. As with martial arts, there's much to be learned from facing new opponents, whose techniques may vary somewhat from the ones you've trained on. I learn something from every debate I have with anyone. Sometimes it's about the subject matter of the debate itself (and I end up having to revise, refine or even abandon my position on it entirely, which is "losing" the debate but winning in the bigger picture). Sometimes it's about rhetorical technique itself. But I always learn something.
     Note, by the way, that this applies not only to your own personal understanding but also to that of your allies on whatever issue you're debating. In martial arts, you can learn a lot also by watching others fight, and the same is true of rhetoric. Even if everyone in the audience is already on your side, they can benefit from watching your argument, learning perhaps new turns of phrase or analogies to support their position, or recognizing and learning from your missteps, so that when they find themselves in debates with other opponents elsewhere, they'll be better prepared.

4.  Win over the audience.
     Most people, when they get into any kind of argument, instinctively think that the objective should be to convince their opponent. This is quite natural, and indeed correct when you get into a face-to-face debate with your spouse about where you should go for dinner, or when you're trying to convince your boss to give you a raise. But in a typical internet debate over politics or vaccines or chemtrails, what's at stake is what beliefs prevail and become widely accepted, and your opponent is only one person out of potentially many in the audience. It's a numbers game, here: if there's just one undecided lurker and your opponent and no one else, and you manage to convince the lurker, you win 2-1. And usually there are more than just one lurker in the audience.
     Winning over the audience is not just more important because of the numbers; it's also much more realistically achievable. Both you and your opponent have invested quite a lot in publicly stating your positions, and however open minded and virtuous a rhetorician you might be, it always stings a bit to acknowledge a defeat (though it gets easier with practice). You cannot always rely on your opponent arguing in good faith and being a good sport. But the people in the audience, especially if they haven't spoken up, can change their minds more easily without losing face.
     The audience is always my priority in any online debate (outside of private email, of course) for these reasons, but also because it is another way to keep my cool. I keep reminding myself that however viciously ignorant my ass of an opponent is, there might be someone in the audience who innocently and sincerely thinks maybe he has a point. And so, rather than angrilly lashing out at my opponent for his stupidity, I have to address his arguments seriously enough to respect the intelligence of that undecided and presumptively reasonable lurker, to explain things clearly and persuasively enough to convince them, not my opponent.

5.  Win over your opponent.
     This objective is listed last, for reasons I've already mentioned in the previous entry: It's just not likely enough to be worth the effort. But it can happen, and when it does it's quite satisfying; there's a reason this is what we think of when we think of winning an argument.
     It's tempting to think that this is just icing, and it mostly is, but in the war of ideas, a decisive victory in one battle can be strategically important, because that's one fewer person who will be showing up for the other side, one person who won't be repeating that same lie three times at the meeting. It's one more demonstration for all to see that disagreement is okay. It's a sign you've improved your understanding as well as that of your (former) opponent, and perhaps a blueprint for your allies to follow to similar victories. And finally, it's a good indication that, if you've persuaded the person with the greatest motivation to oppose you, you've very probably won over most if not all of the audience, too.

     So, these are the objectives I have in mind in every online debate. I have found that it's extremely helpful to keep my mind focused on what I am trying to accomplish. It helps keep me from being distracted by irrelevant ad hominem attacks, to maintain my patience, and to better exploit weaknesses in my opponent's position. What's more, they're also useful in helping to decide when it's appropriate to just walk away from a potential argument.

Saturday, 7 January 2017

Improving Your Rhetorical Stamina

     I have a feeling I'm going to be writing quite a bit more about this whole conceit of rhetoric-as-martial-art. I'm actually thinking of opening a dojo to teach and practice rhetorical technique in the Socratic style.
     This post, I want to talk about endurance in argument. Like physical martial arts, rhetorical combat can be tiring in its own way; it takes a lot of mental and emotional effort to do well, and the longer an argument goes on, the more tiring (and tiresome) it gets. Again, as with the physical martial arts, proper technique can help a lot, because it helps you to apply your effort more efficiently. As well, knowing proper technique reduces stress, which is itself very tiring.
     But there is another trick to improving your staying power, and that is to frame your goal differently.

     Many people go into a debate with the objective of convincing their opponent, which makes a certain amount of sense. After all, that's what all of your arguments are (or should be) built for: to be as persuasive as possible in supporting your claim. So it's natural to say to yourself, "I'm going to keep arguing until I win! As soon as I convince my opponent, I'll be done!"
     This is a fine objective, but the problem is that however confident you may be that you're right, your opponent wouldn't be arguing if she didn't feel just as certain she's right. And she's probably made up her mind to keep on arguing until she convinces you. Neither one of you considers defeat an option; victory or nothing! And you can't both win on those terms.
     Now, while determination to succeed is certainly a good thing, it's a bit of a trap in this case. If you're determined to fight until you win, and your opponent is anywhere near as determined as you are, eventually one of you will become so exasperated at the other's unwillingness to see reason that they'll conclude victory is impossible, and give up. Not concede defeat, mind you; they'll just say something like "It's pointless arguing with you!" and storm off. 
     The person who gives up first is often perceive to have lost, at least in the contest of wills, which is why they so often try to frame their retreat in face-saving terms that blame the opponent for being so unreasonable. It may or may not be an actual victory for the person who stays, but it is at least an advantage in the eyes of most audiences.
     The point here is that if you set out planning to argue until you win, you've got maybe a 50/50 chance of being the one who gets frustrated and gives up first, regardless of how right you are. Indeed, the more certain you are of your position and the obvious wrongness of your opponent, the likelier you are to conclude that their refusal to see reason is due to wanton stubbornness, rather than genuine good-faith disagreement.
     So do not set out to argue until you win. Instead, set out to argue until you lose. That is, decide that you will continue to defend your position until you are persuaded that it is no longer defensible, and you are forced to change your mind.
     I have found this approach to be very helpful in allowing me to keep up my patience in an argument, because it is no longer my failure to persuade my opponent that is prolonging things, but my opponent's failure to persuade me. That alone significantly reduces the mental stress and emotional fatigue of debate, but there is another significant advantage to framing the goal this way: it is the proper stance to take to effectively apply the Socratic method. 
     If my goal is to be convinced, rather than to convince, I will take pains to help my opponent express her position as clearly as possible, so that I may better understand it. And to that end, I will try to make my objections as clear as possible, in order to help my opponent (who may have already faced and overcome these same objections) put them to rest.
     Some people will think there is a danger to this approach, in that you might actually end up losing the argument, and being convinced by your opponent. I don't actually consider this losing, because you end up with a better understanding than you had before, but even if it is a defeat, this is another respect in which rhetoric is a martial art: a win is empty without the real possibility of defeat, and there is much to be respected in the warrior who acknowledges having been honourably beaten.

Thursday, 15 December 2016

Guerrilla Wordfare and Asymmetrical Rhetoric

     There is a rhetorical strategy known as the "Gish Gallop", named for the creationist Duane Gish who uses it in his debates against evolutionists. In a typical public debate, each side is allotted some fixed amount of time for an opening presentation (say, 15 minutes) and then there's time for rebuttals and questions and perhaps some more informal back-and forth. The Gish Gallop is when you use your alloted time to give a very brief summary of a host of superficial plausible individual claims that each seem to support your position. The key is the sheer number of claims (not their actual validity), and the limited time available to the opponent to rebut them. While any one claim (for example, "Evolution violates the Second Law of Thermodynamics!") can be addressed and fully rebutted by anyone who actually understands these things, the trouble is that these are actually pretty complicated subjects (worthy of Nobel prizes), and the full explanation takes a fair bit of time. So even if your opponent does manage to decisively demolish any one claim (no small accomplishment in only 15 minutes), there's little time left to address any of the others, and so they are left standing by default.

     The parallel with asymmetrical warfare is clear. Asymmetrical warfare is so-called because the sides are vastly different in their conventional capabilities; one side is typically a nation-state with a properly trained and equipped military, while its opponent (usually a non-state actor) lacks these assets, and thus resorts to sabotage, assassination, guerrilla tactics, terrorism, and other low-budget approaches. Since they cannot field a proper army to take and hold territory, their objective is rather to make it costly and difficult for their opponent to control the territory it does hold. And instead of standing and fighting in a pitched battle, they launch a raid here, a raid there, and melt away into the hills/jungle/alleyways to go strike somewhere else. The conventional army is then forced to either chase them all over the place, spreading itself thin and never fully securing anywhere, or prioritize the objectives to secure and the objectives to leave undefended.
     Expert knowledge is like a conventional army in the sense that it's very expensive to acquire. It's overwhelmingly powerful at establishing claims in a straight up fight, but not particularly agile; it takes a lot of preparation to bring its arguments to bear in a convincing way. If the expert knowledge is given the time to develop its position, point by point, logical inference by logical inference, the only thing that can have a chance against it is another expert with better evidence and sounder reasoning. And in the end, in a proper battle of experts, the odds are usually pretty good that the Truth (or something closer to it than we started with) will prevail.
     But all of this takes time and effort. That's why the Gish Gallop works so well against it; it does not afford the audience the time to understand all the complexity and nuance in a difficult subject like evolutionary biology, and instead throws out loud and easy-to-digest slogans more aimed at raising doubt than positively convincing anyone.

     Professional obfuscators, like Gish, often rely on these sorts of tactics to prevent ideas they don't like from securing a hold on mental real estate. It is easier to destroy than to create, and it is easier to spread doubt than to explain. The tobacco industry invested heavily in generating a whole lot of noise intended to cast doubt on the idea that cigarettes are addictive and harmful, but they never had much hope of establishing the idea that cigarettes are good for you. It was a holding action, as are the current efforts to cast doubt on climate change or evolution.
     These are professional guerrilla rhetoricians, and they choose these tactics for a reason. But the other thing about asymmetrical rhetoric, just like asymmetrical warfare, is that since it is available to anyone, with or without professional training, you find a lot of ill-trained amateurs using it clumsily because they just don't know any better. Like the pathetic loser who poses for heavily-armed selfies before shooting up a restaurant, or the 2nd Amendment patriot who imagines himself effectively resisting government tyranny with scattered small arms fire, they are overly impressed by their own machismo and firepower and naively expect others to be simply overwhelmed by it. And so, when you argue with them, they will tend to madly fling out every argument they can think of without bothering to consider whether the arguments are consistent with one another, whether they're plausible or well-supported, or even whether they actually support the claim.
     The result is a debate that gets nowhere, especially if it's between two people who argue the same way. He says abortion is murder and causes cancer and encourages irresponsible promiscuity and she fires back with stop trying to control women and what about cases of rape or incest and some other arguments that completely fail to hit their targets because he's moved on to how many people want to adopt newborn babies. It's the equivalent of two rival gangs or religious sects or feuding clans just exchanging retaliatory blow after retaliatory blow; at best they may win by sheer attrition, but they can establish no positive claim to any other objective this way.

     I have been in countless arguments like this, and I've found that the best way to resolve the problem is to pick some point in contention, and focus only on that until it is either resolved or rendered irrelevant. Your opponent will probably keep bringing in other side issues, but you must not chase those yet. If the issue at hand is whether or not abortion is murder, then focus solely on why it is or why it isn't; this may require a discussion of whether or not the fetus should be considered a human being, but if you get distracted by arguments about respect for autonomy of the mother, you'll not be able to secure the question of whether it's murder. If you both end up chasing each other around, claiming temporarily undefended hills and then running to recapture the one your opponent has just left, you'll both be exhausted and frustrated and no closer to resolving the argument. So pick a hill, and either seize it and deny it to the enemy, or abandon it and adopt a strategy that doesn't depend on support from that hill anymore. Leaving it unoccupied just means he can run up it, fire a few harassing potshots at you from it, and run away again.

     Against unskilled amateurs, it's a good way to win arguments. It's a little tougher when you're facing a practiced Gish Gallop in a formal setting. There, what you need to do is make very clear to the audience what the tactic is, and expose its illusory power. Force a decisive pitched battle, instead of chasing guerrillas all over the place.
     "Ladies and Gentlemen, you've just heard a very impressive number of claims intended to make you think the theory of evolution is dangerously flawed. Each of those claims sounds pretty persuasive, if you don't look at it too closely, and that's the trick. All of them together seem overwhelming. But science is not simple. It took very smart people many years of hard work to figure these things out, and if my opponent can whip together 20 or so claims like this in 15 minutes, it's only fair to assume that someone who's been working on the problem for decades might have thought of it, too, and found an answer. And they have. Every single one of my opponent's examples is based on a simplistic misunderstanding of what scientists actually are talking about. I could use up my full 15 minutes here and maybe explain one or two of these points in sufficient detail to convince you. My opponent might even generously concede that, okay, that point was mistaken, but what about all the others? And I'd have no time left to address any of them.
     "I assure you, all of these arguments have been addressed, but I simply do not have time to answer them all here. And so I would like to challenge my opponent to pick the single most powerful, most persuasive one of the many points he's brought up, and I will refute it. If I can do so, I'd suggest to the audience that it is only our limited time here that prevents me from effectively refuting all of the others."

     Throughout history, guerrilla warfare has been good at one thing: making it hard for an invader or government to hold onto territory. By itself, it's pretty bad at seizing and holding territory of its own, because it's all about disrupting rather than establishing order. And in the same way, guerrilla wordfare is just peachy for preventing yourself from being convinced by your opponent. If all you want to do is hold onto the opinion you have unchanged, then that's a fine way to close your mind up to new insights. I can't imagine why anyone would want to do that, but you're welcome to try to convince me.

Friday, 2 December 2016

An Object Lesson in Critical Thinking

     We are awash in a sea of ignorant nonsense and insidious propaganda, thanks in no small part to social media and the ease with which we can share any attention-grabbing meme that crosses our path. Pedantic spoilsports like me can try patiently to debunk them, one by one, but in the long run the most important defence will always be the critical thinking capacity of the audience. We need to learn how to read intelligently, so we won't be as easily taken in by ridiculous claims. To that end, I'd like to walk you through a particularly silly chain letter that's come across my feed at least a dozen times over the last few years. I want to show one approach to recognizing its nonsense by drawing on really very basic background knowledge and applying it.

     Here's the specimen:

     I'll type in the text directly, so people googling for it can find it here.

GOOD LUCK EVERYONE !!! This year December has 5 Mondays, 5 Saturdays and 5 Sundays. This Happens once every 823 years. This is called money bags. So share it and money will arrive within 4 days. Based on Chinese Feng Shui. The one who does not share, will be without money. Share within 11 minutes of reading. Can't hurt so I did it. JUST FOR FUN.

(Not gonna type in the Facebook URL. If you really want to reward the purveyors of such nonsense, type it in yourself.)

     So, there are a few questions that are good to keep in mind while considering, well, anything anyone tries to tell you, ever.

(1) Who is telling me this and why?
(2) How do they know what they're telling me?
(3) Is it logically consistent with itself?
(4) Is it consistent with other things I know?

     These questions aren't the only or best ones to ask, but they are helpful. So let's try to apply them to the meme.

(1) Who is telling me this and why?
     This is actually a pretty difficult question with memes in general, because the person who shared it with you is rarely the original author, although by sharing it you can assume they're at least endorsing the contents to some extent. But this one in particular is especially tricky, because it is explicitly self-referential. It talks about what will happen if you share it and what will happen if you don't, and specifies how long it will take for the money to arrive and how quickly you must send it out. It even explicitly says "Can't hurt so I did it". Did what? Forwarded the meme you just received? But then the "I" here doesn't refer to the original author, but the most recent forwarder.
     So who is actually making these claims, that there this is based on Chinese Feng Shui or that it only happens every 823 years or that I'll receive money if I share it? Maybe the owner of the Facebook page referred to at the bottom, but probably not even them, given how many such pages repurpose and resend this kind of thing.
     There's no obvious way to track down the original author, but we can consider a couple of likely motives, based on the content.
     Maybe they believe it, and want to send good luck to everyone?
     Maybe they want to compile a list of suckers who respond to chain letters?
     Maybe, as they say, they really are doing it "JUST FOR FUN"? (Personally, I fail to see the fun in it, but I am, after all, a pedantic spoilsport.)

(2) How do they know what they're telling me?
     This is only an issue if you think they believe it and want to send good luck to everyone. As far as the your friend who shared it is concerned, they "know" it only because they received a chain letter telling them all this stuff; in other words, they are in exactly the same epistemic position you are, since you've received the same chain letter. So how do you know this letter is true? You don't, and neither did the person who forwarded it to you, so you cannot rely on your friend's testimony.
     But the problem gets worse as you look deeper. How did the original author know any of this stuff? They're claiming that you'll receive money within four days, if you send it out within 11 minutes. They couldn't know this by experimentation and observation of how long it takes people to reply and which ones ended up rich or penniless, because that data could only have been obtained after they sent out the chain letter, and that would make this a different letter from the first one they sent out. I suppose we could imagine some powerful wizard or psychohistorian, learned in the arcane rules that govern mystical runes of luck magic, might derive a text from some formula and confidently predict that this particular text will produce these effects. If you think that's plausible, then maybe you might want to forward that chain letter promptly, but I think it's reasonable to expect a little more evidence before just inventing such a bizarre claim and assuming it to be true.

(3) Is it logically consistent with itself?
     All by itself, it's not obviously self-contradictory, except for the bit where it says, "Can't hurt so I did it." But it also says "The one who does not share, will be without money." And it promises that if you do share, you'll receive money, so clearly it is claiming to have some kind of power to benefit or harm people, depending on whether or not they share it. So which is it? Can it hurt, or not?
     Alternatively, the "Can't hurt" may only refer to how it can't hurt if you comply within 11 minutes, but it can mess you up bad if you ignore it. So it's not necessarily self-contradictory. But it doesn't inspire a great deal of confidence.

(4) Is it consistent with other things I know?
     Here's where we'll differ; we know different things. But this chain letter is inconsistent with some things that pretty much everybody knows, although it takes a bit of analysis to see this.
     First, a quick look at the calendar will show that, in fact, December 2016 only has four Sundays and four Mondays. The chain letter is simply wrong about "this year", but perhaps it was written for a different year and is just still in circulation. (I googled for the phrase "Saturday, December 1" and quickly learned that there was such a Saturday in 2012.)
     Second, it stands to reason that for a 31 day month like December to have five Saturdays, Sundays and Mondays, December 1 must fall on a Saturday. There are only seven days of the week to choose from, so unless there's some complicated math involved, you'd expect a "money bags" December every seven years or so, not every 823 years. But maybe leap years mess it up somehow?
     So let's think about that a bit. There are 7 possible regular years, one starting on each day of the week. And then another 7 for leap years, for a total possible 14 unique calendars. Since a leap year comes every four years, it would take 28 years to cycle through all 7 available leap years, and then that same cycle would repeat exactly, during which time there would be several regular years that also had a "money bags" December.
     Yet the chain letter tells us it happens only once every 823 years? That's just not consistent with what every school kid knows about the Gregorian calendar. Unless I've done my math wrong, it just seems plain flat out wrong, and quite ridiculously so.

     There's more, of course. "Based on Chinese Feng Shui." Really? I am no expert on Feng Shui, but I've got some exposure to Chinese culture, and as I understand it, Feng Shui is a set of principles for arranging furniture and architecture and the like in harmonious ways. Some talk about it as channelling good luck energy, but others say it's just about aesthetics and ergonomics. In any event, I don't see how it relates to calendars, and what's more, the traditional Chinese calendar is lunar, and doesn't involve 31-day months called "December" at all. I suppose it's possible some Feng Shui specialist applied their theory to our western Gregorian calendar and came up with this "money bags stuff", but it seems more likely to me that some nitwit who knows even less about it than I do decided to lend false authority to their ridiculous chain letter by referencing Mysterious Secrets of the Inscrutable Orient.

     I know the chain letter says "JUST FOR FUN", and I hate to be a spoilsport, but this is getting to be pretty serious. There's a lot of really, really stupid and dangerous stuff circulating right now, and people are making dangerous decisions based on it. Good, independent critical thinking habits must be practiced and cultivated until they become natural and instinctive. Conversely, every time you uncritically click "Share" on something like this, you're actually practicing and reinforcing bad habits of gullibility, and you're encouraging other people to do the same.


Wednesday, 16 November 2016

More Anti-vax Illiteracy

Here's another piece of nonsense to take apart, a dire warning of the horrible contents of the flu vaccine.

     For the sake of the search engines, the image lists "Thimerosal (mercury), hydrocortisone, cetyltrimethylammonium bromide, polysorbate 20, polysorbate 80, baculovirus, and cellular DNA, beta propiolactone, gelatin, sodium deoxycholate, canine kidney cell proten and DNA, Triton C-100, egg protein, gentamicin sulfate, formaldehyde, neomycin, and more..."

     Before I get to that list of supposedly terrifying ingredients, I just want to address the last line: "If you wouldn't consume it, why inject it?" Because seriously, that's an incredibly stupid argument. There's a whole lot of medicines that are meant to be swallowed, and a whole lot of medicines that are meant to be injected, because they work in various different ways. Some things need to go directly into the blood stream, because your stomach acids and digestive enzymes will destroy them before they can get where they're supposed to go. (And some things, like flu vaccines, aren't even meant to be injected into the bloodstream directly; they're injected intramuscularly, because your immune system is well-adapted to responding to bad stuff that gets just under your skin through a splinter or other injury.)
     There are things you should eat that you shouldn't inject, and things you should inject that you shouldn't eat. This is just a ridiculous argument, and should make you question the wisdom of the author of the whole thing.

     The main argument isn't much better: it boils down to "You don't know what these chemicals are, so you'd better not consume them in anyway!" Which sounds sensible, except that unless you're a biochemist you probably don't know the names of more than two or three of the thousands of chemical compounds that make up even the healthiest food you eat.
     That's not to say that all of these chemicals are perfectly safe. They're not. But every chemical, even water, can be poisonous if the dosage is high enough. And if the dose is small enough, almost every chemical is harmless. (For a relatively few very very dangerous chemicals, a small enough dose means none at all, but that's not the case for the items on the list of ingredients above. They're included in the flu vaccine for very good reasons, and in tiny enough quantities that you're still probably better off getting the shot and being protected from the virus.)

     Anyway, the meme assumes you probably won't look up most of these chemicals, and will just assume they must be really bad. So let's look at each of them.

Thimerosal, also known as thiomersol and Merthiolate, is used to kill bacteria and fungus that might get into the vaccine. This is really important, because accidentally injecting live Staphylococcus bacteria into your arm can kill you. So a small amount of thimerosal used to be added to vaccines to prevent that. Yeah, there's mercury in it, but it's in a relatively inert form, and in any event is in such tiny quantities as not to pose a realistic danger. In any event, they've phased it out in favour of other equally scary disinfectants, because people were so scared of mercury.

Hydrocortisone is what they call cortisol when it's used as a medicine, and is on the WHO's list of the most important medicines needed in a basic health system. What's cortisol? It's a hormone which is naturally produced in the human body by the adrenal gland. So don't think that by avoiding the flu vaccine, you're able to avoid this chemical because there's already some in you right now!

Cetyl trymethylammonium bromide is a surfactant used in isolating nanoparticles, like for instance virus components. My guess is it's used in making the vaccine, and isn't actually an ingredient in the final product, but even if any remains, it's again in such a tiny quantity as to be essentially harmless.

Polysorbate 20 and Polysorbate 80 are also surfactants, widely used in many food and cosmetic products. So yeah, you would consume it, because you probably already do.

Baculoviruses do not infect mammals, which is why they're useful in research. I don't know what role they play in flu vaccines, but it seems to me likely whoever created this meme just included anything scary-sounding that might have been used at any point during the development of a vaccine. By the way, you are a mammal.

Cellular DNA? Like, how is this even scary? There are no foods we eat that don't contain DNA!

Beta-propiolactone has been used to sterilize vaccines, but appears to have been phased out for this use. It's mainly used now in the synthesis of other compounds.

Gelatin. Uh, yeah, that's something I'd consume, actually. Gelatin is the protein that makes Jell-o gel, and is used in lots of other delicious edibles. Didn't know it was in vaccines, but I am not in the least bit concerned to learn that it might be.

Sodium deoxycholate is a product of intestinal bacteria. I don't know exactly why it would be used in making vaccines (probably they have a reason, and don't just toss it in for fun), and I probably wouldn't go out of my way to deliberately consume it myself, but I figure if my body can't deal with it, I'm already dead.

Canine kidney cell protein and DNA. Oh. More DNA. Not sure how exactly this got into a vaccine, but okay. Possibly they use cultured dog kidney cells to grow the flu virus particles they use to make the vaccine. In any event, kidneys of various animals are commonly used in cooking various dishes which are cheerfully eaten by people who don't get sick as a result. Might sound gross, but so is anything biological if you look closely enough. Fear not.

Triton X-100: Another surfactant. My guess is that it helps the vaccine get through cell membranes to where it can trigger the immune response against the influenza virus.

Egg protein: Egg protein? Egg protein?! Look, I get that some people are allergic to eggs, and some people just don't like omelets, but seriously, you took the time to list "egg protein" as a scary ingredient that "you wouldn't consume" and a reason not to get vaccinated? This single item should be more than enough to convince any reader that the author of this meme is too breathtakingly ignorant of basic facts of human existence to be taken seriously.

Gentamicin sulfate: Gentamicin is an antibiotic, or if you don't know what that means, it's a chemical that is poisonous to some kinds of bacteria. As I mentioned with the first entry for thimerosal, it's pretty important to ensure that there aren't any infectious bacteria in your vaccines.

Formaldehyde: This is a pretty nasty chemical, I'll admit. You've probably heard of it in the context of dead animals or body parts being preserved in jars of it. But here's the thing: it's a really simple molecule, CH2O. It's what you get when an oxygen atom replaces two of the hydrogen atoms in a molecule of methane. And so, it's everywhere. Astronomers have detected it in clouds of interstellar gas. It's not good for you, but it's also a byproduct of some of your own bodily functions, and your body has ways to metabolize it in ordinary quantities. Obviously you wouldn't want to drink a glass of it, but the microscopically tiny amount in a flu vaccine is less than the amount you'd get eating an apple.

Neomycin: Another antibiotic. In researching this post, I read that it is used topically (rubbed onto the skin) rather than injected, because it's really bad for your kidneys. But it is still used as a preservative in vaccines, probably because the dose is so small. Also, because vaccines are injected intramuscularly instead of into a vein, they stay in the muscle tissue for a while and diffuse out slowly, so the neomycin may be largely broken down before it even gets to the kidneys.

     Look. Medicines aren't magic healing potions. They're complicated mixtures of different chemicals, carefully included to perform all the functions necessary to produce the desired therapeutic effect. They get into your system and press buttons and flip switches and adjust dials and tinker with various settings to try to fix whatever it is that's wrong with you. Most of the time, if you're healthy, you don't want to tinker with any of these settings, so as a general rule the stuff you'll find in any medicine is probably not very good for you. That's to be expected.
     But pharmacologists include these ingredients for a reason, and while they're not perfect, they know more about what they're doing than ignorant meme-makers who want you to be scared of eating eggs. Vaccines are one of the most successful healthcare innovations ever developed. They're why so few people die of infectious disease anymore.
     You may have legitimate doubts about how important it is to have this or that vaccination, based on the risks of actual infection and so on, and you might reasonably decide against the flu shot. (I think that's a mistake, because influenza has killed millions in the past and is not much less dangerous today, and also I think you have a moral responsibility to help with herd immunity so you don't infect more vulnerable people when you decide to brave your way through a minor inconvenience.)
     But do not let this kind of inane nonsense scare you out of taking good, safe medicine that does much more good than harm. Make an informed rational choice, and if you don't know what Cetyl trymethylammonium bromide is, admit that you are not informed about it instead of just blindly assuming your family doctor is trying to poison you with it.

Wednesday, 9 November 2016

On Speaking Up and Being a Jerk

     In my last year of high school, I was taking a social studies quiz when the teacher happened to leave the room. Across the classroom from me, a fellow got up and stole over to the teacher’s desk, and copied down the answers from the answer key left right there in the open. Disgusted, I rolled my eyes and kept working on the test, as several other students followed the first guy’s lead, and got up to copy the answers. Pathetic, I thought, because the questions were not actually very hard. In fact, I was pretty sure I knew all of them. But none of my business if those guys wanted to cheat, right?
     As it happened, the next time the class met, the teacher had got wind of what had happened, and angrily lectured the entire class, singling out each of us who had got 100%, which in fact I had, though I had done so honestly. (I do not remember for certain if the first guy was ever singled out, though I vaguely recall thinking he had not. I later heard a rumour that he himself had told the teacher on the other students, but I have no way of knowing if this is true.)
     I was young and naive and had not yet sorted out in my head the moral question of snitching, so I kept my mouth shut, as furious as I was about the insult to my integrity and my intelligence. It was bad enough to be accused of cheating, but if I had cheated, I would not have been so foolish as to copy all of the answers; I’d have deliberately missed one, just to allay suspicion. (Indeed, had I been craftier, even not cheating but knowing that others were, I should have deliberately missed one question anyway. And now, thinking back on it, it seems plausible to me that’s exactly what the first cheater did, deliberately missing a question and then turning in everyone else.)
     Of course, the teacher had no way to prove who had cheated and who hadn’t, and the ridiculous omertá of the student body ensured he’d get no help from us, so he just canceled the entire test. 

     I have thought back on this many times, rehearsing in my head what I should have said when the teacher levelled his accusatory gaze at me. I have imagined a dozen different ways I could have redeemed my honour with and without directly naming names. But I now realize that my real should-have-spoken-up moment was when that first cheater started. I should have called him out at that moment, and warned him that he should not rely on the rest of us keeping quiet to protect him from cheating us.
     But I didn’t. I didn’t want to look like the jerk. And so I let him, and the others, get away with it. Very much at my own expense. It still makes me angry when I think of that. 

     The lessons I learned, and have to keep learning, are that there's a big difference between looking like the jerk and being the jerk. And that it's very, very important to speak up earlier, rather than later, when someone else is being a jerk. Too often, we keep quiet just to keep the peace, to be "polite", or because we figure something is just not our problem. 

     I often feel like a mansplaining jerk, piping up with "Well, actually..." when some harmfully wrong post comes across my feed. But I feel obliged to do it, because when these things go unanswered, it's like a tacit endorsement that they're okay. And there's a lot of harmfully wrong nonsense circulating around now, becoming the common wisdom because gosh, everyone says so. 
    I don't pipe up because I want to be taken as an authority, correcting falsehoods and dispensing The Truth. I try to get the facts right as best I can, but I know I can be mistaken, and I try to accept it graciously when someone corrects me. No, the reason I try to speak up is much smaller than that. I don't care if people are convinced by what I say; I just want them to know it's okay to disagree. I know it's scary to be the first to speak up when no one else is. 

     But it's scarier when no one speaks up at all.