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All articles in Rationality

The just world fallacy and why we should always examine out own minds
First of all welcome back regular readers, it's been a while since my last post but I haven't been inspired to write much recently. I know some of you still keep up with the RSS feed hoping I'll eventually come out of hibernation, and while I can't promise to update the site regularly again, rest assured I'm not done with life and ranting about life so who knows what will happen in the future?

Recently a few items have been in the (inter-)national news that have really set me thinking. They all have something to do with what's called the Just-World Fallacy. In this thought provoking post (I hope) I'll be tying together rape, a dutch kick-boxer (I think) who can't seem to stop hitting people, even when he's on a night out and the Greeks' supposed responsibility for the Euro crisis.
An eclectic mix, to be sure and you may wonder where it's all going and so do I as I'm writing this off the cuff so to speak, rest assured I do have a point to make and I'm sure I'll get there, eventually.

First of all anyone who's followed the news over the last few days will have noticed that Republican politician Todd Akin got in deep trouble for stating "If it's a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down" when defending his anti-abortian stand, even for victims of rape. A remarkably stupid thing to say and counter to basic biology. The media would have you think statements like this are controversial, I would like to posit statements such as this are counter to Reality. A subtle distinction maybe, but I feel compelled to make it. There are hundreds (if not thousands) of news articles right now discussing the issue and the statement has been widely decried even by Republicans, though I'd like to point to the following opinion blog from CNN which states that this is might not be a simple foot-in-mouth problem, but representative of a deeper underlying issue that Republicans have with the issue of abortion and rape and which they just don't like to have pointed out in public (especially just before a presidential election): GOP policy is the scandal, not just Akin's comments.

Clearly victims of rape have only themselves to blame. The fact they got pregnant proves that.

Then we have a Dutch professional kick-boxer who's been in the national news lately because he's accused of assaulting people in nightclubs and in VIP lounges. He's also sleeping with the ex-wife of national football icon Ruud Gullit (he of the dreadlocks), she is also a daughter of famous football legend Johan Cruijff which adds some spice. I generally don't follow the rich and famous but a recent article I saw on Google news in right wing opinion magazine Elsevier defended the kick-boxer Charmante Badr Hari verdient dit niet (links to Dutch language article, no English version available, use Google translate or just take it as read, title translates to 'Charming Badr Hari doesn't deserve this'. 'This' being the accusations and subsequent criminal investigation). In this blogpost right wing commentator Leon de Winter defends Badr Hari because he's met him once and apparently felt him to be a nice bloke. De Winter blames the victims of the attacks because (roughly translated and only slightly paraphrased) 'his [Badr's] appearance unsettles alpha males', and that means 'they confront him especially if they have been drinking and snorting (what was victim Koen, a married man, doing at 4 o'clock in a club, and what the heck was in his blood?').

Clearly the victim had himself to blame. A respectable married man has no reason for being in that place at that time, apparently. And the victim(s) were probably high on drugs anyway.

The third case I'd like to point out has to do with the Euro crisis and the role of the Greeks in this. The crisis has been going on for 2 years now so I'm not going to link to any news articles (my guess is we'll be seeing them for another year at least) but a common theme in them is that the Greeks have only themselves to blame for their woes and enforced austerity regime because they all refuse to pay taxes. Greek society has been struggling to raise taxes, reduce government spending and reduce debt by writing off unsustainable debt. While it is a matter of fact that many Greeks hardly paid any taxes and the country should probably never have been admitted to the Eurozone, pointing this out constantly does nothing to help them out at this point in time. Nevertheless the narrative in The Netherlands (one of the bigger net-payers of these loans) is such that every time Greek austerity and the possibility of further loans get mentioned people instinctively react with the thought 'why throw good money after bad, have them pay taxes for once, what do they think pays their new loans for fuck's sake?'.

Clearly the Greeks have themselves to blame for their woes and we're forgiven for not caring about people begging in the street and not being able to get medicines even when desperately ill and in hospital.

All of these sentiments can be understood if we understand what's called the just-world fallacy, an excellent article on the blog Psysociety called Sure, women cannot get pregnant from rape. Also, all mean people are ugly and puppies are immortal. explains this fallacy in detail and should set all of us thinking.

You see, while I would never espouse sentiments such as those by Leon de Winter or Todd Akin I must admit that I have fallen into the trap of blaming the Greeks for their woes and by extension our own national economic problems stemming from the euro crisis. I also blame spineless politicians for speaking with two tongues and not having the guts to present real solutions, but that's beside the point here.

The just-world fallacy is a powerful method human beings employ to make sense of the world and our place in it. It's a natural method to make sense of the world we live in where horrible things happen and we are not always in control or able to change things. Therefore putting a portion of blame on the victim makes us feel more in control than we really are and therefore makes life easier. You can understand this is a powerful evolutionary advantage. Crazy people standing around drooling in the rain suffering from the weltschmerz don't reproduce as much. (Oooh, a crappy evolutionary socio-biological statement with zero evidence, I hate myself so much right now, you have no idea.)

But that doesn't make these thoughts right. After all, that's why it's called a fallacy!
Understanding that our minds are imperfect vehicles with which we somehow have to live makes us understand that we should regularly check our internal moral compass, to see whether what we think is really so or if maybe we're representing the external world in overly simplistic terms.

Please read the Psysociety blogpost as this should change the way you view the world and your own place in it. I know it affected me profoundly and I've been thinking about it all day.


Ooh, one final thought. Many commenters on the Akin 'controversy' ask themselves why any woman would ever vote for such a misogynistic ass. I would go further and ask "why would any human being vote for such a dickhead?" Are only women allowed to be incensed by rape?


Darwin, Humanism and Science
I went to church today for a service for the death of a co-worker's mother. It was a catholic service with the usual amount of fluff, so I felt I could use some reason and intelligence. I also realised I hadn't linked to the following video yet, which I highly recommend you take the time to watch if you have a 36 minutes. Make the time!



A.C. Grayling is amazingly eloquent.


I Aten't Dead
There once was a time when all food was organic and no pesticides were used. Health problems were treated with folk wisdom and natural remedies. There was no obesity, and people got lots of exercise. And in that time gone by, the average lifespan was … 35!
Longing for a past that never existed

I was talking with some friends only a few days ago about this and other aspects of science. It was a most stimulating conversation.
I am slightly more than a week away from 40 as I write this, there is no doubt in my mind that without modern medicine I would have been dead by the time I reached 16 as that is when I had acute appendicitis. I remember it well as I had to take some exams a few weeks later and used my time in hospital to study. Of course 50.000 years ago I wouldn't have gone to school either and would probably have believed the sun was pushed through the sky by a dung beetle or something.
I do like beetles though...

Laughing all the way to the bank
Jees, as if the cold I'm coming down with isn't enough to clot my brains, the brits have to come up with this crazy job-creation scheme:
Psychics given £4,500 government funding to teach people to communicate with the dead.

See the funny crazy people laugh! I'd laugh too if I was scamming people and got rewarded like this.

Astro tv
Haha, a quicky before work. Just on the news is the fact that some commercial tv broadcasters have got egg on their face. A Dutch consumer program from one of the public broadcasters found out that to work for astrological call centres you don't need to be qualified as a "real spiritualist". You can just lie your way in and if you don't get a "reading" for someone who calls you're encouraged to keep them on the line for up to 20 minutes as big money is made at up to 80 cents a minute. Some commercial broadcasters have contracts with the astrological call centres where revenue is split. You can call in to the studio and after being on hold for ages you get a chance to ask your question live in the broadcast. Maybe. Possibly. If you're lucky. If you've waited long enough.

The consumer program was kinda shocked that to work for a spiritual call center you don't really need to be qualified and can just make stuff up. This is kinda amusing. Time and again it's been proven that astrology, tarot reading and the like are ineffective scams. It's called a cold reading people, look it up on the intertubes! With a little practice anyone can do it, a sceptic or a conman/-woman.

Commercial broadcaster RTL was so shocked (shocked! I tells ya) that they pulled their astrological call program from the schedule. Which is dishonest and hypocritical to say the least. But at best some poor people who do not know any better may be in a slightly better financial position next month when they get their telephone bills.
Read more (in Dutch): http://www.trosradar.nl/index.php?id=uitzending&itemUid=1255.

Zat which does not kill us makes us stronk
Please note: the opinions expressed in this article only count as medical advice if you're extremely gullible and have a simple mind that is easily swayed by anecdotal evidence and a lack of scientific basis. A belief in magic pink unicorns probably helps.

Ah, the miracle cures of homeopaths and what's nowadays called "complementary and alternative medicine". For the last few months I've been taking vitamin pills in an effort to reduce my regular as clockwork winter ailments. Every single year I suffer from regular colds and flue. I seem to be particularly prone to these and in fact I know no one in my circle of close friends or colleagues who are ill as often as I am. (If this sounds like some sick kind of pride maybe it is.) While I do know that anecdotal evidence is worth shit (danger! highly detailed linkage, stuff with long words, but somehow worth it) I will hereby recount my experiences.

First of all let me tell you why I did decide to take supplements: a year or 4 ago I spoke to my doctor and he told me that while I did appear to eat fairly healthy I might want to take vitamin supplements, on an it certainly wouldn't hurt you basis, as I dislike fruit with a passion (HA, there's a joke in there, somewhere).
This year I decided to bite the bullet in the interests of science and got myself a bottle of a well-known brand (I have one of these 100000 bottles), I was ill a lot last winter and wanted to see if taking supplements would help me this year. With the winter almost gone it seems time to recount my experiences.

These pills are absolutely fricking HUGE and contain about 400 times the recommeded dose of vitamins B, C and whatnot. (Despite my drinking a lot of beer so I really don't need all those Bs but it's either that or nothing at all it seems.)

I've never had a winter in which I've been ill more. I've had to stay home from work 4 times due to severe cold, flue and sinusitis. The Miracle Pills™ also failed miserably to prevent a recent horrible and very painful nerve infection in a molar. I had to have a root canal treatment for that which hurt almost as much as the real thing as it cost me 291 euro 70 as I have no dental insurance (hooray for the new universal medicare in Holland, soon we'll be like America!!!).

As horrible as this winter has been for me I cannot really fault the vitamins pills, I knew full-well going in that by eating regular good meals made from fresh vegetables almost every single day of the week the likelihood of my actually having vitamin deficiencies is small. But "zat which does not kill us makes us stronk" as Otto von Chriek says in The Truth. Well it didn't kill me and it didn't make me stronk so I guess mr. Pratchett has to turn in his medical license if he's got one, which I'm beginning to doubt.
What the pills did do is make my urine a really vivid orange/yellow which is fun in it's own right but I'm not sure that's worth .25 euro a day. Really, I cannot describe how yellow it is, it's a sight to see. To be fair, the salesman at the apothecary did warn me about this so I wasn't scared shitless when it happened the first day after.

Today I ran across Crap Based Medicine (funny stuff in the comments here, read it!) which asks people to participate in a homeopathic remedy finder and I entered my extremely yellow urine in the symptoms field. It suggests I might benefit from Kali Carbonicum (sounds like simple KHCO3, a common ingredient in chemical reactions of highschool level chemistry) which appears to be a cure for potassium shortage, which is odd as probably the only fruit I do like is bananas which have an abundance of potassium, in fact they contain so much it's almost a crime. I don't eat bananas much of course, as I dislike fruit, but that's beside the point, merely liking them should be enough.

So, anecdotal evidence of a completely non-scientific sample of one suggests: do not take supplements, as they're all crap and will not help you in any way whatsoever. In semi-related news I also bought a packet of condoms from the same apothecary and I have yet to get laid this winter so maybe there's something wrong with my particular vendor?

100C
A while ago I posted something in retrospect I wasn't very happy with. I do this sometimes and generally let it slide but this time there was an easy fix.

The problem was in my piece about Homeopathy's claims of being able to create 100C dilutions which are claimed to be quite potent.

As detailed in the article I linked to creating 100C dilutions is a physical impossibility as this would require more molecules of water than there are actual atoms in the universe. Since water is composed of 3 atoms (to refresh your memory: water is H2O) this presents a bit of a problem.

My problem, in retrospect, with this piece was that I was a bit lazy and didn't bother to check up on the estimates for the amount of atoms in the universe. This bugged me once in a while and yesterday I finally did something about it and looked it up. There are various estimates around but most seem to converge around 1080 atoms in the wild. So I updated my article with a link to Wikipedia, but there are other sources around if you search for a few moments in case you don't like to rely on Wikipedia for accurate information.

Here's another link with some more numbers that might be of interest by the way: http://bopl.samharris.us/2007/11/homeopathy/.

Alternative Aviation
On Alternative Flight.

Some choice quotes:
The airlines are monolithic industries that often treat their passengers like cattle, all of a kind, rather than unique individuals with unique travel needs.
[...]
The underlying philosophy of AA [Alternative Aviation] is simple. People need to be free to choose their mode of flight based on alternative concepts of gravity and alternative airplane design.
Current Western reductionist concepts of gravity revolve around European white men and their understanding of the universe through the scientific 'method' of experimentation.
[...]
Alternative aviation operates using holistic, environmentally friendly, passenger centric methodologies the allow the passenger to be involved with all aspects of their airline flight.
[...]
There are alternative concepts for countering gravity and flight. A google search will yield many sites describing both modern and ancient concepts of gravity and methods to interact organically and harmoniously with gravity, rather than trying to defeat or overcome it.
[...]
Why has the FAA prohibited testing? Partly due to the power of the big airline manufacturers such as Boeing and Airbus. Their profits are at risk by alternative aviation.


Sounds fun! Or are you confused?
The solution lies in the success that [h]as occurred in health care. The revolution in health care improvement due to embracing complementary and alternative medicine needs to be applied to aviation.


Yes, this is really about alternative medicine and the crazy people that endorse it. Doesn't make it less funny though.

External Delivery
Huzzah! A new website has launched explaining External Delivery (ED).
External delivery refers to a scientific research program as well as a community of older kids, teachers, and other adults who seek evidence of external sources of Christmas presents. The theory of external delivery holds that certain features of how Christmas presents are delivered each year are best explained by an external source, not an internal source such as your parents.
http://www.edthefuture.com/

Further irrational thoughts
The end of homeopathy? contains some nicely worded arguments against homeopathy. It addresses such things as the placebo effect, double-blind trials, publishing negative results (or not) and insanely diluted solutions.

It's a good read, although to be honest I don't exactly subscribe to the following:
[..]there are often situations where people want treatment, but where medicine has little to offer - lots of back pain, stress at work, medically unexplained fatigue, and most common colds, to give just a few examples. Going through a theatre of medical treatment, and trying every medication in the book, will give you only side-effects. A sugar pill in these circumstances seems a very sensible option.

When I’m feeling generous, I think: homeopathy could have value as placebo, on the NHS even, although there are ethical considerations, and these serious cultural side-effects to be addressed.

In my mind we would do good to eradicate fuzzy thinking from the human species. We would do well to educate people, especially children, the benefits of the scientific method. Question your beliefs, question current scientific thought, by all means, but do not fall into the traps of quackery, lies and outright stupidity*:
At a homeopathic dilution of 100C, which they sell routinely, and which homeopaths claim is even more powerful than 30C, the treating substance is diluted by more than the total number of atoms in the universe.

You do not have to know the exact number of the atoms in the universe to realize that such a solution is worth no more than the water it's made of. Yes, generally speaking whenever (human) work is put into a system we accept that value is added, however if you're violating the laws of nature by somehow temporarily utilising more atoms than actually exist in the universe I don't think material reward is what you should be looking for.


*) What's interesting is that the same stuff could be said about religion. This is not a coincidence, of course.

Update: Wikipedia estimates there are about 1080 atoms in the universe.

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