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Au Contraire October 27, 2009

Posted by Dwight Furrow in Current Events, Dwight Furrow's Posts, Philosophy.
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Last week I posted twice (here and here) about the limits of contrarians who seek publicity by going against the conventional wisdom. Both Bill Maher in his diatribes against the flu vaccine in particular and Western medicine in general, and Brownless and Lenzer, the authors of a poorly researched article in Atlantic Monthly on the effectiveness of flu vaccine, are guilty of a kind of knee jerk response to conventional wisdom on an issue that is important to people and may cause harm if not properly understood.

But the conventional wisdom is sometimes wrong, so it is worth thinking about when being a contrarian is justified.

My short answer to this question is that “hit jobs” that cast doubt on the conventional wisdom  by oversimplifying the issue are never worth our attention. The point to remember is that if a contrarian is right about some issue, it typically makes the world more complicated, not less. The conventional wisdom is sometimes wrong but it is seldom without any reason or evidence behind it. Usually, people who hold conventional beliefs, especially in the sciences and social sciences that are evidence-based, have good reasons for holding the conventional belief.

When doubt is cast on those “good reasons” we are faced with attempting to confirm the new data, weighing the actual import of the new variables, assessing whether the new variables will produce multiple effects, and separating what was right about the old view from what was wrong about it and trying to accommodate the new information with what is worth saving of the old.

This process produces reactions, counter-reactions, and uncertainty among interest groups, and in the end the radical “new” insight is seldom as revolutionary as it appeared.

What matters then is that contrarians, or people who write about them, need to stay focused on the difficult search for truth and the need for nuance rather than bold statements that succumb to the temptation to be cute, hip, and cynical. Unfortunately, they are usually looking for entertainment value or promoting an ideology. Thus, contrarians are usually misleading.

This article at The Economist.com provides lots of examples of contrarianism run amok. (The new book by the authors of Freakonomics, called Superfreakonomics, is the latest example.) But there are others:

The first time I ever encountered an argument that I would now clearly recognise as “contrarian” was in elementary school, during Ronald Reagan’s presidential campaign, when I first heard someone argue the supply-side case that lowering taxes would raise government revenues. Another early encounter I recall was my father describing a social scientist interviewed on NPR who’d argued that the main effect of minimum-wage laws was to raise the unemployment level for poor urban youth. And it’s been my experience ever since that contrarian arguments tend to skew rightwards.

I doubt that the right has a monopoly on contrarians.

At any rate, it would be good if contrarians were devoted to encouraging people to think more. Unfortunately it is quite the opposite. To the extent they encourage us to oversimplify matters they encourage us to think less.


book-section-book-cover2 Dwight Furrow is author of

Reviving the Left: The Need to Restore Liberal Values in America

For political commentary by Dwight Furrow visit: www.revivingliberalism.com



Bill Maher Falls Off the Wagon October 19, 2009

Posted by Dwight Furrow in Dwight Furrow's Posts, Science.
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Bill Maher is usually smart and funny but last week on on his HBO show “Real Time With Bill Maher,” he was neither when he advised people not to get their H1N1 flu vaccine.

In an interview with heart surgeon and former Republican Senator Bill Frist, Maher claimed that no one should let someone stick “a disease into your arm”, denied that healthy people could die from this virus, and continued to express skepticism about Western medicine and the health industry.

Aside from the factual errors—the vaccine is not a live virus and many otherwise healthy people, especially young people have died from H1N1—Maher’s skepticism about modern medicine is just bizarre.

Michael Shermer, editor of Skeptic Magazine has the best take-down of Maher’s nonsense:

However, I believe that when it comes to alternative medicine in general and vaccinations in particular you have fallen prey to the same cognitive biases and conspiratorial thinking that you have so astutely identified in others. In fact, the very principle of how vaccinations work is additional proof (as if we needed more) against the creationists that evolution happened and that natural selection is real: vaccinations work by tricking the body’s immune system into thinking that it has already had the disease for which the vaccination was given. […]

Vaccinations are not 100% effective, nor are they risk free. But the benefits far outweigh the risks, and when communities in the U.S. and the U.K. in recent years have foregone vaccinations in large numbers, herd immunity is lost and communicable diseases have come roaring back. This is yet another example of evolution at work, but in this case it is working against us. […]

Vaccination is one of science’s greatest discoveries. It is with considerable irony, then, that as a full-throated opponent of the nonsense that calls itself Intelligent Design, your anti-vaccination stance makes you something of an anti-evolutionist. Since you have been so vocal in your defense of the theory of evolution, I implore you to be consistent in your support of the theory across all domains and to please reconsider your position on vaccinations. […]

As well, Bill, your comments about not wanting to “trust the government” to inject us with a potentially deadly virus, along with many comments you have made about “big pharma” being in cahoots with the AMA and the CDC to keep us sick in the name of corporate profits is, in every way that matters, indistinguishable from 9/11 conspiracy mongering. Your brilliant line about how we know that the Bush administration did not orchestrate 9/11 (“because it worked”), applies here: the idea that dozens or hundreds pharmaceutical executives, AMA directors, CDC doctors, and corporate CEOs could pull off a conspiracy to keep us all sick in the name of money and power makes about as much sense as believing that Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, and their bureaucratic apparatchiks planted explosive devices in the World Trade Center and flew remote controlled planes into the buildings.

Finally, Bill, please consider the odd juxtaposition of your enthusiastic support for health care reform and government intervention into this aspect of our medical lives, with your skepticism that these same people—when it comes to vaccinations and disease prevention—suddenly lose their sense of morality along with their medical training.

Come on Bill. It’s time to join the Reality Based Community. Liberalism is not advanced by lunatic theories and nitwit contrarian stances especially when your advice can really harm people.

book-section-book-cover2 Dwight Furrow is author of

Reviving the Left: The Need to Restore Liberal Values in America

For political commentary by Dwight Furrow visit: www.revivingliberalism.com