Thursday, June 16, 2005

President Bush and Heritage Foundation Say Religion is Not Necessary

How the Abstinence-Only Controversy Shows that Scientists are Morally Proper:

I am aware of the fact that this is the kind of reasoning that got Socrates killed.  I'll probably get a UPS delivery of hemlock tomorrow morning.

First, a trip to the confessional: it was not Bush who said this, it was his press secretary, Ari Fleisher:
 Q Ari, the Associated Press reports that in reaction to what they termed your stern rebuke of Jerry Thacker, a group called Human Rights Campaign said that while this was a positive development, the Bush administration's "obsessive focus on abstinence as the solitary mechanism to prevent the transmission of HIV is not based on sound science."

And my question is, what is the Bush administration's response to this charge that you are obsessive and unscientific?

MR. FLEISCHER: I think from the President's point of view he has long made the case that abstinence is more than sound science, it's a sound practice, that abstinence has a proven track record of working. Now, this is part of an approach that includes, under the budget the President has submitted, other approaches as well, not just one approach or another approach.

But the President has indicated that he thinks that we need to have more of a focus in our school system on abstinence as an option for young people.
The Heritage Foundation backs this up.  In a long essay, they claim to have documented solid scientific evidence that abstinence-only sex education programs work.  They go on to discuss Virginity Pledge Programs; Not Me, Not Now; Operation Keepsake; Abstinence by Choice; Virginity Pledge Movement; Teen Aid and Teen Respect; Family Accountability Communicating Teen Sexuality (FACTS); Postponing Sexual Involvement (PSI); Project Taking Charge; and the Teen Aid Family Life Education Project.  

I am especially fond of the Virginity Pledge Movement.  It brings to mind an image of a prim young lady in an apron, polishing furniture with a certain household chemical, applying it adroitly with just the right movement, smiling at the camera.

The Heritage Foundation put an awful lot of work into this argument.  They even cite a particular study that supports their claims, proudly mentioning that it was published in JAMA*.  All of this hardly seems worth the effort.  There is a long history of government funding for abstinence-only education.  

It is not my intention here to refute this nonsense; the Union of Concerned Scientists has done that already:  
During President Bush’s tenure as governor of Texas from 1995 to 2000, for instance, with abstinence-only programs in place, the state ranked last in the nation in the decline of teen birth rates among 15- to 17-year-old females.
Incidentally, the UCS has a donation matching program running until July 15.  An anonymous donor will double any donation until then (up to a total of $300,000).  But I am not really trying to solicit donations for them; that is just an aside.  The fact that I gave them another $50 is not meant to imply endorsement.**

The point is this: although it mostly is irritating to hear this tripe from a President who -- with a straight face -- often promotes the virtues of Sound Science, it also is comforting in a way.  Every one of these proclamations contains the implicit message that scientific findings lead to morally proper conclusions.  

After another trip to the confessional, I admit that the title of this post is misleading:  Bush and the Heritage Foundation did not really say that religion is unnecessary.  But, they may as well have:  If it makes sense to promote science as the foundation of a morally proper course of action, then it would follow that all of those atheist scientists are not really amoral heathens.  So long as they do their science right, they may still be heathens, but at least they are morally proper heathens.  

If science leads one to Do The Right Thing, do we really need religion?

UPDATE:  You will be happy to know that, as of 6/19/05, no hemlock has arrived.  Also, I would like to point out that the line of reasoning presented here already has been established by others.  Pharyngula has an amusing version presented as fictional allegory.  The author, Dr. Myers, links to a post on Majikthise, in which Ms. Beyerstein discusses a professor who was denied a chairmanship because of allegations that he was the author of an essay promoting atheism.  Ms. Beyerstein, in turn, links to a formal philosophical explication of The Euthyphro Dilemma, which refutes the validity of divine command as a source of moral goodness.

* The American Medical Association later issued a policy statement indicating that abstinence-only programs don't work, as did The Infectious Diseases Society of America (IDSA), the HIV Medicine Association (HIVMA), and the American Psychological Association.  There are many others, but if I listed them all, this would no longer be a footnote.

** I am practicing doublespeak in case I ever get elected President.

Category: science, pseudoscience
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Tuesday, June 14, 2005

Gulf War Syndrome, Revisited;
Relationship Between Pain and Depression

Sooner or later, I had to get back to science.  I'm even going to try to avoid putting any political slant in this post...

Recently, an article was published about the health effects of military service in the <Persian|Arabian> Gulf.  The authors found that the most significant elevation in risk was for the risk of developing fibromyalgia and chronic fatigue syndrome.  A bit earlier, an article appeared that described the relationship between depression and pain in patients with fibromyalgia. In this post, I show how the results of these two studies

After the first US war in the Gulf, some veterans reported various somatic problems that came to be known, collectively, as Gulf War Syndrome.  This was controversial right from the start, because the symptoms often were nonspecific, and there were no consistent abnormalities found on physical exam or laboratory studies.  Some physicians were convinced that there was some kind of problem.  In fact, there is a group at the University of Michigan Health System that has been studying this.  There's another group at the Washington University (St. Louis) School of Medicine.  (The WUSTL group does not appear to have a web page.)

Led by Seth Eisen, MD, the WUSTL group found (Web MD article, journal abstract) that these veterans have an increased risk of skin rashes, indigestion, fibromyalgia, and chronic fatigue syndrome.  No one has been able to determine exactly what factor or factors cause the increased risks.  The absolute numbers were small, but the relative risks were significantly elevated.  Vets who had deployed to the Gulf War were 2 times more likely to have fibromyalgia, and 40 times more likely to have chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS), compared to contemporaneous vets who did not serve in the region.  The study was not designed to detect problems that occurred earlier, but which had resolved prior to the study.  

Fibromyalgia and CFS used to be controversial, but now both are generally accepted to be serious, definable problems.  The reasons for the controversy were similar to the reasons  that Gulf War Syndrome was controversial.   It turns out that patients with nonspecific symptoms and minimal findings on physical exam or on laboratory testing often are dismissed, perhaps even marginalized.  In some cases, though, it is possible to find indications of distinct pathology.  

A good example of this comes from the UM group, led by Danial Clauw, MD, published in the journal Arthritis & Rheumatism.  They did various kinds of sensory testing as well as functional MRI (fMRI, brain imaging.)  They studied patients with  fibromyalgia, with varying level of depressive symptoms.  There is a statistical association between depression and fibromyalgia, but many people have one without the other.  

In the study, they measured two components of pain: sensory, and affective.  The sensory dimension of pain is the intensity of the sensation itself; the affective dimension is the intensity of the emotional response to the pain.  It turns out that fMRI can localize each dimension of pain in different brain areas.  This makes it possible to see if the level of depression is correlated with the severity of each of the two dimensions of pain, using subjective measures (patient ratings) and objective measures (fMRI.)

The results indicated that the level of depression did correlate with the affective dimension of pain, on both the subjective and the objective tests.  However, there was no relationship between the level of depression and the sensory dimension of pain.  

Physicians and others who have studied pain have long made a distinction between the two dimensions of pain, based upon clinical observation.  The UM study, however, provides a nice way to show that there are distinct brain pathways for each.  It also shows that it is not realistic to attribute the pain experienced in fibromyalgia to depression.  Together, the two studies indicate that there is at least some truth to at least some of the claims about Gulf War syndrome, and that at least some of the problems these vets experience cannot be attributed to depression.

category: medicine
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Anonymous Posting

I've been accused of leaving nasty comments anonymously on other people's sites.  This is a charge that is impossible to refute, since this blog is semi-anonymous anyway. As it happens, though, the name I use for posting here is the name I usually use when I leave comments. Sometimes I use my real name, but I never post purely anonymously.  I will say this, though.  I do not leave nasty comments.  It's rather pointless to do so, since most often the host will delete them, write something even nastier back, and/or block your IP address.  More importantly, nobody cares, and why write something nobody cares about?

Furthermore, if I really wanted to be anonymous, I would be really anonymous.  This picture is a screenshot from my sitemeter:

Notice that the IP address is in Europe, even though I am in the United States.  The domain name, operating system, and browser are not identified.  The language is correct, although I could change that if I wanted to.  Interestingly, the time and time zone are correct, and the time zone obviously is not a European time zone.  That is a clue that something funny is going on.  I don't think that the time can be altered, although the time zone could be.  But, it would not be difficult to write a script that would post a comment at a specified time, then arrange to have some kind of witnesses who could say that you were not using a computer at the time the post was posted.  

The obfuscation is accomplished by using a nonstandard web browser (Konqueror) that allows one to turn off the transmission of the usual identification strings, and by using an anonymous proxy server.  There are many of these proxy servers, so it would be possible to use a different one every day for a while.  Note that the level of anonymity is not sufficient for criminal purposes, since a government agency could subpoena the ISP and whoever is running the proxy server, and trace the origin of the post.  Alternately, one could break or hack into the servers and examine their logs illegally.  It would take a lot of time and effort, though. Ordinary folks would not be able to do that.  

Anyway, the point is that I happen to know a lot about this kind of thing, and if I really wanted to be anonymous, I would be really anonymous.

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Monday, June 13, 2005

Huffington Post Review;
Predictions About Blogs in the Political Process

I admit, I was highly skeptical of the idea of the Huffington Post.  It was characterized as a "celebrity blog," and it was not at all clear to me why anyone would care.  I thought it was going to be the Blogosphere's equivalent of People magazine.  

The day it went online, I looked and was not impressed.  Sure, it is nicely done, from a technical standpoint.  It has well-structured xhtml-compliant code, and makes good use of css stylesheets.  It obviously is well-financed, because it loads quickly despite what must be a heavy server load.  It has an RSS feed, and a diversified blogroll.  But so what.  Interestingly, almost as soon as they went online, a number of parody blogs sprung up. (Huffington's Toast, Bluffington's Post)

In the last few days, though, there have been things posted there that I actually wanted to read.  And they've picked up on some news items that I had missed.  Which is not easy to do.  (I had missed the story about the investigation into Bill Frist's campaign finances.) And they have some posts written by Congresspersons, which I really appreciate.

For example, on Friday, Rep. John Tierney blogged about his proposed legislation that would tighten congressional oversight of spending for the War on Terrorism (I'm not sure where this war is, but I do know what it is against), as well as the parallel War in Iraq (I'm not sure what this war is against, but I do know where it is.)
Our ongoing efforts to pass our legislation -- which garnered the support of close to 200 Members when it was last considered on the House floor -- have been repeatedly blocked by the Republican Leadership in the House in an effort to simply avoid the embarrassment of having its members support legislation leadership opposes.
The Republican Party can ill-afford to have a public display of any kind of challenge to the popularity of its leaders.  The momentum is swinging away from them, what with the stem cell legislation, the lack of progress on Social Security privatization, investigations of DeLay's associates, and Frist himself, the filibuster compromise, the resignation of Philip Cooney, etc.

What is most interesting to me, though, about the Huffington Post, is the way in which it the blog itself, and the reaction to it, resembles the political process.  It's a lot like high school: everything is us against them.  Basically, a bunch of people get together and declare that they are popular.  Then another group of people get together and say "no, you're not."  One person in the bunch does something to grab the spotlight, then someone from the other group mocks them.  The antics are all silly and I wish it would all go away, but it's a persistent part of our culture; there's nothing anyone can do about it.

Clearly, it is more important to look at the content of the site, not argue about whether it is cool or hip or hot (or whatever today's adjective for popular things is), or not.  

Rep. Tierney's post is passable, by blogging standards.  He includes a couple of hyperlinks, which is good; but he does not link to the text of his proposed legislation, an oversight that betrays his blog-newbie status.  He links to the Downing Street Memo, which seems superfluous, but it makes it clear what clique he belongs to.  His post is well-written, on the sentence and paragraph levels, but the paragraphs don't all hang together.  That's OK, in my opinion, for a blog.  The point of a blog is to get the ideas out there, quickly.  Other people can organize the ideas in their own heads, if they want, or write their own posts.  Just get the ideas on the 'net.  That is even more important than the facts.  News organizations spew facts; the role of blogs is to promulgate ideas.

Everyone is wondering what role blogs will have in the political process.  That isn't really clear, yet.  Most people didn't know what a blog was during the last election cycle.  If I'm right, though, the impact that blogs will have on politics is similar to the impact that viewer voting would have on a Miss America contest.  All over the country, millions of viewers are watching the contestants signs and twirl their batons or whatever, voting and commenting continuously.  And while they are voting and commenting, they are looking to see what other people are doing.  If people they consider to be popular are voting one way, they will tend to vote that way, too.  If a popular blogger declares that Condi's piano routine is awful, then everyone in that clique will say it's awful, even if they actually liked it.

What a way to run a country that would be.

Category: sociological musings
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