Saturday, September 08, 2007

Support for ...

... but not proof of something I have increasingly come to suspect, namely, that a lot of highly trained scientific specialists do not know how to think clearly: Junk Science Is Contagious.

I think this is Richard Dawkins's problem. Dawkins can explain science well enough, but when he start extrapolating into other areas, his incompetence is soon manifest.


  1. Hi Frank,

    A couple findings of the study seem to be summarized in the following excerpt of a Washington Post article by Rob Stein:

    The researchers found that when one spouse became obese, the other was 37 percent more likely to do so in the next two to four years, compared with other couples. If a man became obese, his brother's risk rose by 40 percent.

    The risk climbed even more sharply among friends--between 57 and 171 percent, depending on whether they considered each other mutual friends. Moreover, friends affected friends' risk even when they lived far apart, and the influence cascaded through three degrees of separation before petering out, the researchers found.

    We see that they did their statistical analysis, most likely properly, when we read "compared with other couples". In other words, there were baseline groups. Additionally, we know that it is a "study, involving more than 12,000 people tracked over 32 years." I don't assume perfection, but I do assume rigor. Thus, I assume, then, that if two people were not friends, there was a significantly less likelihood that one's weight gain would follow the other's.

    This finding reminds me of similar studies showing that women tend to follow other women in their monthly cycles. Specific "onset" times, then are psychosocially driven, even when we know there is physical basis. And this is what the researchers are looking at in this obesity study. The study may be significant, just as the news of it indicates. It could save lives.

    That distant friends have their weight gains in correlation, is an indication that there isn't some undiscovered or unidentified virus or infection at cause. This supports that there is most likely a big social factor at work. Here comes more support for social "cause":

    Sophisticated statistical analyses revealed distinct groupings of thin and heavy individuals, and found that siblings and spouses had less influence than friends, supporting the idea that the study's findings were not the result of people eating the same food, engaging in the same activities or sharing genes.

    Important also, is that the researchers went the step further, and look for solution: "The researchers said their study also showed that people who were close to someone who lost weight were more likely to get thinner."

    I am unsure why they then take a group approach to weight reduction, though. Here again, I must assume there is something in their findings that suggest for them to do this. Alternatively, my tendency would be to find "alpha" friends, and have these obesity "leaders" become slendering leaders. We in the regular worlds of our lives, would then "naturally" follow their leads and thin out.

    I do not see a lot of substance in the article "Junk Science Is Contagious" by Jonathan Robison, PhD, MS, that is not contained in Rob Stein's Washington Post article. Robison seems to have looked at the news reports, but not through the findings. By looking at Stein's article, I'd say the researchers may be onto something.

    Bravo! I'd re-up the funding if they asked.


  2. Anonymous6:32 AM

    Frank, that is certainly part of the problem (scientism and the boundaries of science) and it is one non-scientists coming at things from a philosophical/theological bent are understandably hestitant about pronouncing on too authoritatively because of the embarassing scientific "know-nothingism" of religious fundamentalism, particulary among the more strident versions of American Protestantism. Nonetheless, most decent folks from both sides will accept there are different "spheres" of knowledge and authority and restrict their disputes to exactly where they meet. But there is another far more touchy issue at play here, one I can assure you from my many bruises is hard to argue without awakening very strong reactions and angry dismissals from amongst most of the scientific community and especially the modern secular clerisy. It is simply this: however useful Darwinisn (both original and neo) is at describing animals and icky little creatures, it is woefully inadequate to the point of error in explaining humans, and the evidence for that is all around us. Nevertheless, adherents of Darwinism will doggedly insist every one of the myriad examples of error is a "quirk" or "problem" and never a challenge to the theory itself.

    I don't know whether you have ever reviewed this by a very clear-headed and trenchant philosopher and atheist, but it's worth a look. Rather than go on, I will just give you a quote I think sums everything up pretty nicely. Dealing with the "problem" of altruism, Stove concluded:

    There is no reason whatever, apart from the Darwinian theory of evolution, to believe that there ever was an "evolution of altruism" out of a selfish "state of nature". People believe there was only because they accept Darwin's theory, which says that there was always a struggle for life among conspecifics, whereas there is no such struggle observable us now, but a great deal of observable altruism instead. The right conclusion to draw, of course, is that Darwin’s theory is false. But the conclusion usually drawn is the Cave Man one: that there must have been an evolution–admittedly difficult to explain–from an originally selfish human nature into our present altruistic and tax-paying state. This, however (as a great philosopher said in another connection), is first raising a dust, and then complaining that one cannot see it.

    There is extremely little observable struggle for life, and much observable altruism, among present-day kookaburras, too. They are loyal spouses, and devoted parents to their slow-maturing young; and if you expect to see kookaburras squabbling over food like gulls, you should come prepared for a very long wait. Are we therefore to infer, because Darwin’s theory of evolution is such a wonderful idea, that there must long ago have been a Hobbesian war of all kookaburras against all kookaburras? Are we obliged to generate a vast game-theoretical literature to explain the mystery–-a mystery indeed--of how originally selfish kookaburras could have evolved into the petit bourgeois kookaburras we see now? Presumably not. And yet if not, then why expend time and thought on similar stories, which are absurd as well as unnecessary, about the evolution of our own species?

    But if, on the other hand, your faith in Darwinism is so profound that you simply must have human beings, not only in the remote past but now too, always engaged in a struggle for life so severe that it leaves no room for altruism and exacts a child mortality of 80 percent or more: well. if you have made that uncomfortable bed, you will just have to lie in it. And one of its minor discomforts is this: that you will have to reconcile yourself to performing, all your life, that evasive trick of which Hume rightly complained. That is, of calling certain facts–-namely the facts of human altruism–-a “problem” or a “difficulty” for your theory, when anyone not utterly blinded by Darwinism can see that these facts are actually a demonstration of the falsity of your theory.

    The selfish theory of human nature was always explicitly intended by its adherents to explode the belief, assiduously cultivated by priests and other obscurantists, that a vast gulf separates our species from all other animals. It was intended, as Darwinism was always intended, to bridge the gap between man and the animals, to mortify human self-importance, and to “cut us down to size”. Now, isn’t that just too bad? Because a vast gulf does separate us from all other animals, in point of altruism, as in point of intelligence. That is simply a fact, and a very obvious one, even if it has been stated by a billion obscurantists.

    Welcome to the dark side. Cheers.

  3. Yes, Peter, I am familiar with Stove. One of these days I hope to write about book Darwinian Fairy Tales.