09/27/14

Reflexology: another daft New Age idea


BunkumAs medicine, reflexology is bunk. Just like iridology and phrenology. Of course, you knew that. But not everyone does.

Reflexology popped up recently in a shared post on Facebook (a popular venue for moving codswallop and cat photos from one user to another at the speed of light…). Coincidentally it appeared right after a post promoting a piece in the New York Review of Books called, The Age of Ignorance.

How apropos. (I’ll get to that NYRB piece in another post, along with some comments about Nicholas Carr’s book, The Shallows.)

As a massage, reflexology offers the same benefits for your feet as any other type of massage. It’s just not medicine.

The Skeptic’s Dictionary says:

Reflexology is based on the unsubstantiated belief that each part of each foot is a mirror site for a part of the body. The big toe, for example, is considered a reflex area for the head. As iridology maps the body with irises, reflexology maps the body with the feet, the right foot corresponding to the right side of the body and the left foot corresponding to the left side of the body. Because the whole body is represented in the feet, reflexologists consider themselves to be holistic health practitioners, not foot doctors.

They’re not doctors at all, but let’s not dwell on correspondence-course graduates handing out medical advice.

The National Council Against Health Fraud has an article on reflexology that warns,

Reflexology has almost no potential for direct harm, but its ability to mislead well-meaning people into believing that it can be used for screening for health problems, or that it has real therapeutic value could lead to serious problems…

Penn and Teller chime in on this and related quackery with their usual, acerbic wit:

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09/26/14

The Utility Animal


In the July/August edition of Pets Magazine (the Cat Care issue) there are two articles that caused me concern. One is “The Loyalty and Bravery of a Cat” (p.28), the other is “Quick-Thinking Cat Saves the Day.” (p.26). The latter is a pet profile from the Purina Hall of Fame that honours pets for “extraordinary actions.” The former is about a YouTube video showing a family cat attacking a dog that had itself attacked the family’s four-year-old son.

The acts themselves and the cats involved are extraordinary and deserving of praise as individual animals. But the idea that cats in general need to be propped up as utility animals, that in order to have intrinsic value they need to perform some service for humans, bothers me deeply.

It also annoys me that cat lovers feel the need to be defensive about cats and find ways to make them seem more like dogs. They are separate species with very different social (pack) cultures and cannot be expected to behave like one another.

All animals evolved to fulfill their own purpose. Some have become domesticated through their interactions with humans; a few are even companion animals we call pets. Dogs and cats top that small list. And a small percentage of those perform acts that are of use or beneficial to humans.

Valuing an animal on the basis of its utility is to devalue the life of that animal. Animals do not exist to serve human needs. Yes, they can be trained to perform tasks, but that isn’t their purpose.

Cats have value simply by being cats. All life has its own inherent value and we cannot measure that value against its usefulness to our lives. Not should not – cannot. There is no appropriate measuring stick.

Any attempt only promotes subjective value judgments over other species. It’s akin to measuring the distance to a neighbouring planet by the number of bicycle lengths between us. Irrelevant.

Value your pet, value all life, for what it is. Not what use, not what advantage and not what profit you can gain from it. And I am happy to share my home with my pets for the sake of their companionship alone.

09/23/14

The Trolley Problem


The Trolley ProblemI had read about the “trolley problem” in the past, but not given it much thought until recently when I saw Thomas Cathcart’s little book of that name in the philosophy section of an Indigo bookstore. It’s subtitled, “Would You Throw the Fat Guy Off the bridge? A Philosophical Conundrum.”

I, of course, was so intrigued I had to buy it. I have read others of Cathcart’s books and liked his work in introducing/popularizing philosophical concepts.

The original trolley problem is a thought experiment that goes like this, as Wikipedia puts it:

There is a runaway trolley barrelling down the railway tracks. Ahead, on the tracks, there are five people tied up and unable to move. The trolley is headed straight for them. You are standing some distance off in the train yard, next to a lever. If you pull this lever, the trolley will switch to a different set of tracks. However, you notice that there is one person on the side track. You do not have the ability to operate the lever in a way that would cause the trolley to derail without loss of life (for example, holding the lever in an intermediate position so that the trolley goes between the two sets of tracks, or pulling the lever after the front wheels pass the switch, but before the rear wheels do). You have two options: (1) Do nothing, and the trolley kills the five people on the main track. (2) Pull the lever, diverting the trolley onto the side track where it will kill one person. Which is the correct choice?

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09/21/14

No Data Are Better Than Bad Data


Avoid bias
The full name of an article I read today is, “The Fallacy of Online Surveys: No Data Are Better Than Bad Data.” It’s from 2010 and very good. You can find it on the Responsive Management website. It makes some key points about the invalidity of online surveys:

  • For a study to be unbiased, every member of the population under study must have an equal chance of participating.
  • When online surveys are accessible to anyone who visits a website, the researcher has no control over sample selection. These self-selected opinion polls result in a sample of people who decide to take the survey — not a sample of scientifically selected respondents who represent the larger population.
  • Non-response bias in online surveys is complicated by the most egregious form of self-selection. People who respond to a request to complete an online survey are likely to be more interested in or enthusiastic about the topic and therefore more willing to complete the survey, which biases the results.
  • Unless specific technical steps are taken with the survey to prevent it, people who have a vested interest in survey results can complete an online survey multiple times and urge others to complete the survey in order to influence the results.
  • Because of the inability to control who has access to online surveys, there is no way to verify who responds to them — who they are, their demographic background, their location, and so on.

I’ve said this all before. The article concludes:

As a result of these problems, obtaining representative, unbiased, scientifically valid results from online surveys is not possible at this time, except in the case of the closed population surveys, such as with employee surveys, described earlier. This is because, from the outset, there is no such thing as a complete and valid sample — some people are systematically excluded, which is the very definition of bias. In addition, there is no control over who completes the survey or how many times they complete the survey. These biases increase in a stepwise manner, starting out with the basic issue of excluding those without Internet access, then non-response bias, then stakeholder bias, then unverified respondents. As each of these becomes an issue, the data become farther and farther removed from being representative of the population as a whole.

There’s also a good slide show on internet surveys here that goes over the basics presented in the article above. A 2008 paper addressed just issue with online surveys: self-selection. The author, Jelke Bethlehem, wrote:

…web surveys are a fast, cheap and attractive means of collecting large amounts of data. Not surprisingly, many survey organisations have implemented such surveys. However, the question is whether a web survey is also attractive from a quality point of view, because there are methodological problems. These problems are caused by using the Internet as a selection instrument for respondents.
This paper shows that the quality of web surveys may be seriously affected by these problems, making it difficult, if not impossible to make proper inference with respect to the target population of the survey. The two main causes of problems are under-coverage and self-selection.

The author concludes:

It was shown that self-selection can cause estimates of population characteristics to be biased. This seems to be similar to the effect of nonresponse in traditional probability sampling based surveys. However, it was shown that the bias in selfselection surveys can be substantially larger. Depending on the response rate in a web survey, the bias can in a worst case situation even be more than 13 times as large.

In other words: most online surveys are bunk. You might also recall I wrote about online surveys in past posts. I won’t repeat what I said then, but here are the links to those posts:

09/20/14

The Unexamined Life


“The unexamined life,” Socrates declared in his trial, “is not worth living.” His student, Plato, wrote down those words in his account of Socrates’ trial and death, in the book, Apology.*

Socrates was speaking for himself and about the value of his life as a thinking person. He was on trial in 399 BCE for impiety – questioning the gods and introducing new gods – and corrupting youth. His real “crime” was his threat to established thought: he made his followers think, to question everything, to examine their beliefs and their knowledge and determine for themselves its validity. He taught them critical thinking and analysis – a dangerous new way to look at things. It shook the foundations of his society.**

And, of course, here is where Socrates’ approach conflicts with faith. Faith requires us to stop questioning and believe. Socrates exhorted his followers to question. His detractors stood on the firmament of faith. There was bound to be a clash.

The jury found him guilty and sentenced Socrates to death. But more than two thousand years later, Socrates words remain with us, are still repeated and debated today, while the members of the jury and their arguments are long forgotten.

As Stanford University’s Encyclopedia of Philosophy notes about Socrates, of course there were political undercurrents to his trial:

Socrates pursued this task single-mindedly, questioning people about what matters most, e.g., courage, love, reverence, moderation, and the state of their souls generally. He did this regardless of whether his respondents wanted to be questioned or resisted him; and Athenian youths imitated Socrates’s questioning style, much to the annoyance of some of their elders. He had a reputation for irony, though what that means exactly is controversial; at a minimum, Socrates’s irony consisted in his saying that he knew nothing of importance and wanted to listen to others, yet keeping the upper hand in every discussion. One further aspect of Socrates’s much-touted strangeness should be mentioned: his dogged failure to align himself politically with oligarchs or democrats; rather, he had friends and enemies among both, and he supported and opposed actions of both.

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09/18/14

Is the Internet making us stupid? Or just shallow?


Click the first
In my never-ending search for some bit of knowledge one day, during a mix-and-match of search engine terms while looking for classical writers’ views on death and dying, I stumbled onto what might have been an off-kilter New Age site, OM Times, or more likely, a parody of the genre. On the page titled “8 Things You Didn’t Know About Death,” I read,

“… light rays have qualities like wisdom, kindness, compassion and intelligence. This light makes visible what is invisible on earth, the Divine nature of all things….”

Loud guffaws broke the cool silence of the house and startled the cats sleeping on the dining room table nearby. Light rays have wisdom? Intelligence? I almost snorted tea through my nose I laughed so hard. It had to be a parody.

Codswallop almost always makes me laugh. At first. Then, as I perused the site more, I got worried at how much of it there was. A lot of effort put into a parody, it seemed. Do people actually believe this stuff? Or are all the New Age websites really satirical, like the Onion, making fun of popular beliefs, superstitions and fears?

Surely some of them must be poking us in the metaphorical ribs with a wink and a nudge. It’s hard to believe they’re serious when you check the other stories on this site. With articles headlined by lines like:

  • Are Your Loved Ones Sending You A Message From Beyond?
  • 10 Signs That You Were Born a Mystic
  • Top 10 Traits to Identify an Indigo
  • Numerology: September Forecast
  • The Science of Miracles
  • The 7 Most Common Messages from Spirits
  • My Life As an Earth Angel
  • Crystals For Reiki

You have to think they’re pulling your leg. And pulling it hard. None of this stuff is real; it’s all piffle; no one can take this malarkey seriously. Miracles? Numerology? Crystals? Just look at the opening of the story titled, “Travelling to the New Earth:”

There is a place beyond the Fifth Dimension where a new vision is taking shape, where mankind is getting a proverbial ‘do-over.’ This place is called ‘the New Earth.’ It exists in a dimensional space above the fifth dimension somewhere in the sixth and seventh dimensional areas accessible by meditation and through ‘stargates’ some of which are physical and some of which are energetic. Thus, many are able to visit the New Earth in meditation.
The New Earth is a high vibrational area where we all hope to live one day. It is free of fear and conflict. I am told it is the highest expression of Heaven on Earth or Shamballa.

I know, I know. I nearly laughed myself into a fit when I read that. There must be an app for creating winky New Age stories out there that lets you mix all the buzz words and goofy ideas together and come out with something that can be published here. This stuff makes Harry Potter read like a documentary.

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