Category Archives: Science

A brief case for evidence-based medicine

Few people would openly admit that they prefer irrational treatments and doctors.  But most people do in fact advocate irrational health practices – using pseudonyms for “irrational” as “holistic,” “alternative,” “homeopathic” and the deadly “natural.”

Medicine requires reason

The human body operates according to certain causal principles. If we wish to make a change in our health, we must understand some of those causal principles and act according to our understanding. To act without a rational basis is to disconnect our goals from their achievement. Irrationality does not guarantee failure — it just means that success, to the extent that it happens, will be due to other factors that our goals.

The study of human health is especially difficult

In the field of health, especially rigorous rationality is necessary for at least five reasons:

  1. The human body will solve, or at least try to solve most problems on its own. This makes establishing causality due external factors quite difficult and introduces biases such as the placebo effect and the regression fallacy.
  2. The body is very complex! Because it evolved over billions of years, the causal relationships in the body are extremely complex and interdependent.
  3. For example, even if we know that the body has too little of a certain substance, taking that substance may: a: not do anything b: cause the body to produce even less of the substance or c: cause an unpredictable side effect. On the other hand, if the body has too much of something, then the solution may be to a: consume less of that substance b: consume more of that substance or c: the consumption has no relationship at all to the level of that substance.
  4. It can be difficult to measure the extent to which medical problems are solved. While some things can be measured, many things, such as pain levels are very difficult to quantify.
  5. It is difficult to isolate causal factors in human beings since changes in health take time to develop and we can’t control every factor during an experiment or dissect human subjects when it is over.
  6. Humans tend to be irrational when it comes to their own mortality! We fear death, leading us to irrational over or under spending on health as well as being especially vulnerable to all the logical fallacies.

In medicine, rationality requires quality science research

There is a name for the field that applies rigor to the discovery of facts about nature: science. Science has been so successful in improving the state of human knowledge that many irrational, anti-scientific quacks have begun to use the term “scientific” to describe anti-scientific practices and ideas. In response to this, the medical community has come up with a term which identifiers the distinguishing aspect of rationality: “evidence based medicine.” This phrase is a necessary redundancy that identifies the essential characteristic of science: that it is based on sensory evidence. The alternative to non-evidence based science is not science at all, but emotionalism – “I feel it is true, so it must be.”

In the last hundred years, we have discovered certain practices for ensuring the conclusions of our medical experiments are valid. We know experimentally that observing these practices leads to more accurate conclusions. Let me emphasize that: the truth of medical claims is strongly correlated with the degree to which experiments follow accepted scientific standards. There are a number of objective scales for measuring the quality of an experiment.

Five characteristics of quality medical studies

  1. The experiment and its results are fully described in enough detail to reproduce and compare the results
  2. There is a randomized control group
  3. The selection of control subjects is double blind
  4. The methods of randomization and blinding are accurately described and appropriate
  5. There is a description of withdrawals and dropouts.

Further reading:


Addendum: How to judge health claims

Continue reading “A brief case for evidence-based medicine” »

Leave a Comment

Filed under Science

The One Minute Case for Designer Babies

The term “designer baby” is a derogative term for the use of reproductive and genetic technologies to accomplish an optimal recombination of the parents’ genes. This case argues that the voluntary use of genetic technologies, as well as prenatal screening and abortion is both moral and desirable. It does not address the morality of abortion (defended in this case) or the safety of particular technologies – an important consideration, but not a fundamental issue.

Parents ought to want healthy children

While there are many valid motivations to become a parent, in choosing to create a human being, parents assume a moral obligation to provide for and educate their children to become independent, mature adults. Beyond the legal obligation of providing minimum care, to the extent that parents love and value their children (and there is no reason to have children otherwise), parents ought to strive to maximize their child’s ability to become fully functional adult human beings – physically, spiritually, socially, romantically, etc. This means providing both appropriate education, and taking care of their physical needs.

Health can be objectively defined in relation to the requirements of human life

It is possible to make judgments about which mental and physical states are objectively superior in relation to other states. For example, a broken leg, a bout of flu, or a headache are undesirable because they prevent one from accomplishing a whole range of actions which are required for human life. We recognize this when we use technology (medicine) to help people overcome and heal from their injuries and illnesses. The same applies to genetic physical and mental deformities, which adversely impact one’s ability to accomplish his values. If someone suffers from clinical depression or schizophrenia, we offer them drugs that improve their ability to use reason to deal with reality and achieve the values they desire. If healthy, successful, productive human life is a value, then it is moral to use all available technology to maximize human potential to achieve the values they desire.

Biotechnology adds new tools to an ancient arsenal of genetic techniques for better offspring

If health is desirable and can be objectively defined, then parents ought to choose to have healthy children. They do this in a variety of means: Genetically, humans instinctively seek mates likely to produce healthy offspring – this is the basis of selective sexual attraction based on physical traits. Consciously, parents choose partners who share their child-rearing values. They also take measures to prevent child defects, such as abstaining from drugs during pregnancy and choosing to have children earlier in their life. Genetic counseling and prenatal screening are just two new tools for enhancing an ancient process.

The Gattaca objection confuses the potential for the actual

The Gattaca objection to screening undesirable traits is that people with undesirable traits have made many valuable contributions, and are capable of living fully productive lives. Supporters often give examples of great scientists like Albert Einstein or Stephen Hawkins with genetic or developmental abnormalities, or of people with serious impairments such as Down Syndrome who nevertheless hold jobs and assume most of the functions of normal adults.

This objection confuses between the seen and the unseen. What we see is that many people with undesirable traits are unusually successful, either in relation the average person, or to people with their symptoms. What we don’t see are all the people who failed to achieve their values because of their symptoms. If their genotype or embryo had been eliminated before birth, the unhealthy people would not exist, but an equal number of healthy people would. Unless the undesirable symptom itself contributed to their success, the percentage of unusually successful healthy people would be far higher than the number of extraordinarily successful unhealthy people. Certainly, healthy people would have a better chance at a normal life than someone with a chronic syndrome such as Down Syndrome, Tay-Sachs, or Spina bifida.

Genetic diversity is valuable – but only if it is used to enhance human life, not impair it

The “neurodiversity” movement opposes genetic screening on the grounds that atypical neurological development should be recognized and respected. The movement has a valid point insofar as neurodiversity has played a critical part in the development of human civilization. If every human being had exactly the same intelligence and developed in the same way, we would have no great scientists, artists, intellectuals, or entrepreneurs.

Unfortunately, the neurodiversity advocates only support “diversity” when it is due to ignorance, not conscious choice. They support a baby being born with Autism, Parkinson’s disease, dyslexia, or other disorders because the parents had no choice in the matter, but they oppose giving the parents the power to choose to have a child which is healthier than he would “naturally” be. If most parents could consciously choose what traits to give their children, they might prefer more intelligence, curiosity, a longer life, or stronger muscles. These are also varieties of genetic diversity.

Objections to genetic counseling and gene engineering are ultimately objections to technology

Few parents would choose to have their children be born blind, deaf, retarded, or crippled. Yet this is precisely what the “diversity” advocates want: to prevent parents from being able to improve on the “natural” forms of biodiversity.  Traits due to  sexual selection, random genetic mutation, and embryonic variation are acceptable to them, but traits due to conscious human choice are not.

Genetic screening via sexual selection has been practiced since the dawn of life itself.  No one suggests that we should pick a mate entirely at random, so the objection to genetic screening and engineering is due to the element of technology. Their objections are not to “designer babies” as such, but to the use of technology to improve the lives of human beings. They apply equally to a child whose genes are altered after birth, or to an adult. The logical conclusion of this neo-luddism is the opposition of all man-made improvements to human life as “unnatural.”


Filed under Politics, Science

The One Minute Case For Technology

What is technology?

Technology is the sum of material entities created by the application of mental and physical effort to nature in order to achieve some value. Technological progress is made possible by engineering, the field which applies scientific knowledge to solve practical problems by developing and applying new tools, machines, materials and processes.

The history of technology.

The evolution of technology has been a progression from reliance on physical effort to a growing role for the mind. The first tools, such as chisels and hammers, augmented raw muscle power. The creation of powered machines eliminated the reliance on muscle and allowed much more powerful mechanisms to be built than with human or animal power alone. The introduction of the automaton in the twentieth century embedded human knowledge in machinery. The trend continues as human beings improve their ability to exploit nature to meet their values through the use of automation and achieve more and more material values by mental effort.

Does technological progress cause unemployment?

In 1811, the Luddites became alarmed that technological innovations introduced by the Industrial Revolution threatened their livelihood. In a sense, they were right – most jobs that existed in 1811 have made superfluous by technology, and this process continues today. Yet outside of wage and price controls and other forms of interventionism, large-scale unemployment has never been a threat. Technology has not made most people permanently idle because it not only eliminates dreary, labor-intensive jobs, but also frees us to pursue more activities. The tremendous improvements in productivity that came with the Industrial and Information Revolutions gave us more free time and created opportunities to allow us to discover and pursue new passions. Highly repetitive agricultural and manufacturing jobs have been replaced by service industry and technical jobs. Entirely new institutions, such as professional and amateur sport leagues, museums, and online multiplayer clans have evolved as the public’s free time has grown.

Is technology good?

While the industrial revolution greatly improved the quality and longevity of human life, war and threat of nuclear annihilation have demonstrated the destructive power of technology. Rapid technological progress makes it likely that future inventions will increase both its creative and destructive potential. Yet there is reason to be optimistic that technology will be used for good.

While technology can be subverted and copied to serve evil, societies which enslave the human mind cannot sustain the capital stock or the intellectual base necessary for progress. Technological progress requires a society which values rationality, initiative, and voluntary cooperation. Most important is the need for freedom: inventors must be free to propose new ideas, and entrepreneurs must be free to turn them into reality. The failure of Fascism and Communism, and the success of the United States in the 20th century is a powerful testament to the power of a free society.

What is the future of technology?

Technological evolution follows two trends: the replacement of physical labor with more efficient mental labor, and the resulting greater degree of control over our natural environment, including our ability to transform raw materials into ever more complex and pliable products. This process culminates with man’s ability to achieve all of the material values technologically possible to him by mental effort. The growing importance of intellectual activity implies that intellectual property will become increasingly more important relative to material labor and physical goods. The current system of patent laws and copyrights will evolve dramatically as intellectual transactions evolve to meet the requirements of a civilization with rapid innovation on a global scale.

Further reading:


Filed under Economics, Science

The One Minute Case For Science

Science is an epistemological method

Science is the field which applies reason to the study of nature. Science is necessary because knowledge of how nature works is not self-evident, but requires a systematic method to collect evidence and correctly interpret it. Science is different in degree from informal empirical methods such as “trial and error” and in kind from non-empirical methods such as revelation, astrology, or emotionalism.

Science is the application of philosophy to specialized fields

Science is made possible by the acceptance of certain philosophical axioms in metaphysics and epistemology. In metaphysics, science requires recognizing that all entities behave in a causal manner according to their nature. In epistemology, it recognizes that man is capable of perceiving and understanding reality by the use of his senses, and because his consciousness is fallible and not automatic, he needs to actively adhere to reason and logic to reach the right conclusions.

Science is empirical

The scientific method is a formal methodology for using reason to study nature. Proper application of the scientific method can produce a scientific theory — a unifying and self-consistent explanation of fundamental natural phenomena derived from the evidence. Some essential principles of science are:

  • Observation: scientists attempt to sample and describe the full range of observed phenomena, ideally including the use of controls which counterbalance the risk of empirical bias.
  • Causal explanation: a scientific theory must provide a causal identification of the underlying processes of particular phenomena.
  • Prediction: scientific theories must explain nature in a replicable way, so that hypothesized causes correlate with observed events.
  • Falsifiability: the ability to eliminate plausible alternatives by repeated experimentation of observation. This requires scientific theories to be formulated in a way which can be independently tested and corroborated by others.
  • Integration: new theories must integrate with the existing body of scientific knowledge. When a contraction is found, the theory must be amended or discarded if not compatible with the evidence.

Science is hierarchical

Scientists build on existing work to form a hierarchical body of knowledge. Sometimes new evidence disproves existing theories. In other cases, new evidence may show that an existing theory is not a complete explanation in all contexts. For example, Einstein’s relativity theory did not prove Isaac’s Newton classical mechanism wrong. Classical mechanics is valid in the context of non-relativistic speeds, whereas general relativity theory explains for a wider range of behavior. Quantum mechanics provides evidence that a new theory is necessary on the sub-atomic scale. As scientific knowledge delves ever deeper into the fabric of the universe, new theories build on existing knowledge.

Pseudoscience versus science

The tremendous success of science in learning about the material world and applying that knowledge to benefit mankind has encouraged some anti-scientific movements to adopt a façade of scientific verbiage to mask an anti-scientific, anti-reason ideology. Some indicators of non-scientific reasoning are:

  • Use of vague and untestable claims which cannot be independently corroborated.
  • Reliance on testimonials and anecdotes rather than carefully structured, large-scale studies.
  • Argument of ignorance: placing the burden of proof on skeptics.
  • Evasion of peer review combined with claims of institutional conspiracies to suppress results.
  • Lack of progress beyond the initial theory. For example, in the case of astrology and religion, claims can remain unproven for thousands of years.

Further reading:


Filed under Science

The One Minute Case Against Global Warming Alarmism

The scientific theory of anthropogenic climate change should not be confused with global warming alarmism — the advocacy of drastic political action as a response.

A consideration of both the costs and benefits a warmer world as well as the costs of vast controls on industrial civilization, in addition to the uncertainty of climate and economic predictions suggest that humanity should adapt to a changing climate instead.

Earth’s climate is complex and constantly changing

Earth’s climate is an enormously complex system with thousands of variables in constant flux. Natural cycles of warming and cooling have existed as long as earth has had a climate. We only began to make large-scale measurements in the last 100 years, so this system is poorly understood.

Attempts to manipulate climate are limited by the complexity and inertia of the system. Dr. James Hansen of NASA, the father of the global warming theory, estimates the Kyoto protocol would only affect temperatures by .13°C by 2100, and it would take 30 Kyotos to have an “acceptable” impact on climate change. “Should a catastrophic scenario prove correct”, states Dr. Richard Lindzen, an MIT climate expert, “Kyoto will not prevent it.”

No single indicator can provide proof of a global change. The thinning of the Greenland ice sheet may be due to human causes, natural variations in snowfall, changes in ocean currents, a long-term warming of the planet since the transition from the last glacial period, continued warming since the end of the Little Ice Age following the Medieval Warm Period, or all of the above.

Politicians and the media are eager to embrace the latest crisis

Climate changes during the twentieth century were often accompanied by widespread panic, only to be quickly forgotten when dire predictions failed to materialize. Intellectuals, the media, and political institutions find it profitable to capitalize on emergencies which focus public attention on the issues they champion. Often their predictions go far beyond the most alarmist of scientific bodies. Science writer David Appell, who has written for such publications as the New Scientist and Scientific American believes that global warming will “threaten fundamental food and water sources. It would lead to displacement of billions of people and huge waves of refugees, spawn terrorism and topple governments, spread disease across the globe.” It would be “would be chaos by any measure, far greater even than the sum total of chaos of the global wars of the 20th century.” This doomsday scenario hardly follows from the hesitant estimates of a 1.1 to 6.4°C temperature rise and 18 to 59 cm sea level rise by 2100 predicted in 2007 by the IPCC.

Attempts to halt climate change are not only costly and futile, but ignore the benefits of a warmer climate

Adapting to a warmer climate has many costs, but many benefits as well. According to NASA satellite data, higher levels of CO2 have dramatically increased biomass production and biodiversity worldwide. Global warming may cause Africa to become more arid, but enormous territories in Siberia and Canada might finally be open to settlement, and new resources and shipping routes will become available.

The focus of environmental movements is usually on reversing anthropogenic causes of ecological change. Such attempts are not only futile, but ignore the large scale economic destruction caused by environmental restrictions on human productivity. Free societies and technological innovation have allowed human ingenuity bring about vast improvements in human life. This change has almost doubled the life expectancy and quadrupled the standard of living in the developed world – and is now transforming the developing world. Disrupting the global economy would have a snowball effect on future living standards, as well as retard future technologies will help us adapt to a constantly changing world.

A genuine cost-benefit analysis should weight the costs of wealth destruction and long term inhibition of technological progress against the highly uncertain costs of adjusting to environmental changes. Human beings have never passively resigned themselves to environmental changes, but adapted their society to make optimal use of their environment.

Wealth, technology, and human ingenuity are our most powerful tools for dealing with change

Even the most alarmist of scientists generally agree that there is little humanity can do to influence the global climate for many decades, even if we wrecked an industrial civilization that has allowed billions of people to leave immeasurably longer and better lives. Our resources would be far better spent creating innovative technology that allows us to make the best of a constantly changing climate than crippling industrial civilization (our best tool for dealing with a constantly changing world) in a futile attempt to stop climate change.

Further reading:


Filed under Environment, Politics, Science