Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Right for the Wrong Reason

NOTE: The following eight articles are cited in my essay "A Matter of Perspective, or, Not So Off-Topic After All". As they were originally posted in my now defunct blog Random Notes, I am reproducing them here.

Those who have followed this blog may know that I have suffered from some unusual health problems for the past several years. In fact, for a little over five years, I endured pain, tiredness, numbness, spasms, and a host of other symptoms without a diagnosis. At one time or another I was provisionally diagnosed with MS, ALS (thanks to the effect certain medications had on me), RSD/CRPS and a few others. About a year ago we finally established that I did have nerve loss in my hands and feet, which was good news, as without a real diagnosis, there is always the threat that pain medication may be discontinued1. But even that "diagnosis", small fiber neuropathy, was really just a symptom disguised as a diagnosis, it didn't explain why I had these problems.

Fortunately, despite the fact that it annoys doctors, I continued to try self-diagnosis. My wife had pointed out bright light tended to leave me confused and weak, and I noticed that as summer approached, during the daylight hours I would suffer from sudden blackouts. (Doctors tried to convince me it was "sleep apnea", but having read those symptoms it made no sense. The sleep lab confirmed apnea, but as a friend told me at 18 I stopped breathing in my sleep, and my symptoms only appeared in my 30's, I think the two are unrelated, no matter what they say.) In any case, after looking through countless possibilities, the only one that made sense was porphyria, and so I asked for a urine test for the disease. The first time the results came back high, but within normal range. But the symptoms continued. So I asked to take another test, and while collecting my sample, I did everything supposed to trigger an episode. And sure enough, the results came back "three times elevated", which is not conclusive, but seemed odd enough to get me referred to a hematologist. He was skeptical, as I had no relatives with the disease, and lacked some symptoms, but his tests finally confirmed that I do have some variety of intermittent porphyria. While I lack the indicators for a genetic cause, my symptoms otherwise match acute intermittent porphyria, and blood and urine tests finally confirmed it. (See here and here.)

The reason I went into this long introduction is that prophyria actually serves as an interesting illustration of a principle that I wish to discuss. Or, to be accurate, it could be used to "prove" an invalid argument, were not people more sensible when it comes to everyday matters, such as health. On the other hand, the same poor logic is quite common in politics and economics, as people tend to accept shoddy logic quite readily when dealing with those topics. (See "Absolute Values", "The Danger Inherent in Banning "Bad Ideas"", "The Right Way",  "The Inherent Disappointment of Authoritarianism", "With Good Intentions" and  "Slippery Slopes".)

You see, one of the treatments for some versions of porphyria is phlebotomy, that is the drawing of blood on a regular schedule. This works in those specific cases, as the person suffering porphyria can build up an excess of various substances (often iron) in the blood, which can be relieved by removing some blood. However, it is interesting because it allows us the spectacle of a modern medical facility using a treatment which was popular in the middle ages (and later), bleeding.

Of course the similarity is only superficial. Bleeding in the case of porphyria is done for very specific, scientifically established reasons, as described above. Bleeding in the past was done to balance the "bodily humors" and ensure the balance of yellow bile, black bile, blood and phlegm. In other words, historical bleeding was part of a theoretical system as well, but one that is inconsistent with observed fact. 

The reason I mention this is that often the use of medicines derived from herbs, or the use of treatments resembling historical or folk remedies (eg. bleeding) will inspire "natural medicine" types to argue that it is evidence that the ancients were more wise than we are now2. It is nonsense, but it is popular nonsense, so allow me to give a brief explanation of why this argument holds appeal for some, and why it is completely invalid. (Hopefully  most readers will have figured out the latter for themselves.)

The appeal of the argument is easy to see, at least for some. For those afraid of technology, dismissive of western science, of reason, of logic, those who shun consistency and logic, the primacy of the primitive, the irrational and the strange is obviously appealing. As I wrote before ("The Dishonesty of Avatar", "Rousseau's Foolish Legacy", "Happiness", "Opinion Masquerading as Fact", "A Western Evil?", "A Great Quote"), when discussing the appeal of primitive, foreign or ancient cultures, religions and philosophy, when one is alienated from his own culture, he seeks truth in the most distant and strange sources possible. Similarly, those who hold ideas which are at odds with reason and logic reject western rationality, effectively making themselves alienated from their culture. As a result, they also begin to seek support in those same sources, and so they find great comfort in anything which suggests that ancient or non-rational treatments have proved their worth, showing that western science is not the sole source of knowledge.

The problem with this is that they supposed "proof" is nothing of the kind. Or, to be precise, it may be proof, but proof that man has used rational methods for longer than many admit, and in both western and non-western cultures. But, if it is not proof of early rational thought, then, as I said, it proves nothing at all. But as those embracing "alternative medicine" are no fans of logic and rationality, they have a tendency to overlook the rational explanation, and instead embrace the irrational argument, with all its faulty logic.

The rational argument is simple. We often hear that one medicine or another comes from some plant which was used since time immemorial by folk healers to treat the same type of disorder. For example, willow bark was long sued by herbalists to treat minor pains and fevers, just as is aspirin which is derived from the same. And from this many proponents of irrationality draw the conclusion that ancient, non-rational sources of knowledge are valid, even superior.

But that ignores three facts. First, that the ancient herbal remedies, much like modern herbal treatments3, are inferior to the modern synthetics derived from those same plants, that ancient treatments using inconsistent plant sources might have worked, but modern science has standardized and improved those remedies, making them many times more effective. Second, it also ignores that among the herbal remedies which led researchers to find new treatments, there were many which were inferior to chemical medicines used for the same ailment, and even more which were simply entirely worthless as treatments. Finally, it ignores the very important fact that ancient and modern herbalists actually used basic logic to find most of these remedies. Oh, they may have started their search using invalid theories, eg. looking for plants shaped like hearts to treat the heart, or using the doctrine of the four elements to figure which plant would cure a cough, but once they started, they tried plant after plant, remembered the results, and only kept trying those which showed promise, testing them again and again. In other words, they used a rough version of the scientific method to determine which plants worked as cures, and so they were, in their way, every bit as rational as modern researchers. Their underlying philosophy might have been at odds with reality, but once they moved to the practical application of that theory, they ended up using the same methods scientists do today. So, while it will upset many who despise rationality, the herbalists were every bit as rational as we are.

Even if we ignore those facts, and accept, as was true in many cases4, that the remedies were based entirely on specious theories, and not tested against results5, leaving no residue of rationality at all, there is still a problem with the conclusions the opponents of reason draw. Their conclusions are easy enough to explain, and the follow the basic pattern of formal logic. A is followed by B, therefore B is caused by A. Of course, in logic, this is not sufficient to prove causality, and even the non-rational rarely accept simply proximity in time of a single pair of events as evidence. Usually there are many such sequences, the continual occurrence of B after A offering proof that the two are linked, and from which many conclude A is the cause of B. Or, in addition to, or in place of, such a weight of evidence, a theoretical framework is offered explaining the causal link between such events.However, in these cases, the causal links are based upon, not valid theories, but non-rational, magical theories, be it the doctrine of signatures in folk medicine, or Keynesian economics in monetary theory.

And, having touched upon the relation of this observation to more political matters, let us move on to that subject.

Obviously, medical claims by irrationalist romantics is hardly the only area in which "proof" is sought in simple temporal coincidence. Monetary theory is rife with such nonsensical claims, especially when applied to actions by the government.

One common example is the tendency to assume that any event which takes place after monetary manipulation is directly caused by that manipulation. Even before Keynesianism became popular, spreading absurd notions about the supposed benefits of inflationary growth of the money supply, there was a tendency among rulers to claim any beneficial event following a debasement of the currency was the outcome of that debasement. (Just as they claimed any positive economic events were the result of protectionist measures they enacted.)

A moment's thought would show the biggest problem with this theory. Or, rather the two biggest problems. 

The first is one that is often overlooked, but should not be. It is a subject I have addressed several times ("Two Perspectives", "Bad Economics Part 11", "Absolute Values", "My Censorship Is Your Discretion", "The Most Misleading Word", "Luxury and Necessity"), but which I rarely see mentioned in economic or political literature. Even vonMises, who understand the reasons subjective value theory invalidate socialist ideas better than anyone seemed to rarely, if ever, address this subject head on. That is the fact that there are no "good" or "bad" events. All events are good or bad to varying degrees to each individual. For example, a rise in wages is generally seen as favorable as for those of us who are employees it means more income, but we forget that the rise ion labor costs also raise the price of the goods we buy, which could more than make up for any increase in income. In addition, for those seeking work, it may mean it is harder to find an employer, and for those who need employees, it means hiring them will be more expensive. Similarly, as I mentioned elsewhere, we imagine a rise in housing prices is good, and it is for those owning houses, but for first time buyers it is bad news, and the same for renters, as rent is always tied to the alternative income from selling the property. In other words, all events are bad and good, depending on the observer's circumstances, and so it is impossible to say anything is a "good" outcome.

But even if we ignore that and imagine there is some general consensus concerning the good, there is the second issue. That is that our economy is not only dynamic, but insanely so. Every second prices change, demand changes, supply changes. Firms are born and firms die. People take new jobs, quit jobs, lose jobs. Any given moment is full of all manner of changes. And so, if you picked any minute, or any hour, it would doubtless be filled with good and bad events, and by choosing your focus ("The Problem of the Small Picture", "Arguing In Hindsight"), you could make that moment either good or bad. And so, if we select the minute, hour, day or week following a government action, and choose events carefully, it is very easy to make any event beneficial or harmful based entirely upon the random ups and downs already present in the economy. And so it is hard to take seriously most such claims.

On the other hand, there are some events which do seem to follow with some consistency upon the same monetary changes. For example, following an expansion of the money supply sufficient to cause inflationary changes, it is not unusual to see unemployment drop slightly. It is not always consistent, but it is common enough that Keynesians claim that inflation is a cure for unemployment.

Except that the theory is wrong. It is true that inflation sometimes brings about slight growth in employment, but to claim it is a cure is nonsense. The decline in unemployment is easy enough to explain, and once it is explained, it is also obvious that the supposed "cure" offers little more than a brief respite, hardly compensating for the harm done by inflation. ("Monetary Issues Made Simple Part I", "Monetary Issues Made Simple Part II", "The Inflation Engine", "Inflation and Uncertainty", "Bad Economics Part 7 ", "Bad Economics Part 8", "Why Gold?", ""What Is Money?", "What Is A Dollar? "). Most often, the dip in unemployment is simply the outcome of increased money making new hiring possible before prices rise in response to the increase in currency. Sometimes it lasts long enough for new investment and construction to take place, causing an even larger growth in jobs, but followed by an even more severe subsequent slump as prices adjust. In other cases, the declining value of currency causes minimum wage and union wage rates to more closely approach the values the market would set, making employment rise until the government or union adjusts the rates to reflect the new monetary circumstances6. But again, the benefit is normally brief. Once the money circulates through the economy, prices rise, wages are adjusted, and everything returns to the previous condition, except now burdened with the ills caused by inflation7.

Of course, such logical errors are of great benefit to many in government, and so such faulty reasoning is encouraged not only by government office holders and bureaucrats, but also by friendly academics and supporters in the media. Thus, when the government enacts "stimulus" packages, or passes measures intended to "help the economy", it has become commonplace for friendly reporters to list every apparently beneficial occurrence (see above about the difficulty in finding truly beneficial events), and attributes it to the recent legislation. It does not matter that there is no logical connection between the two, that there is no possible causal link. The media, and often the government officials themselves, who follow the lead of reporters in claiming unwarranted credit, tends to find in temporal proximity more than enough evidence of cause and effect. If a law was passed with the intent to help the economy8, and subsequently the economy underwent a change that appears beneficial to the public at large, the press will claim the event was clearly a consequence of the legislation. 

Not that this can be laid entirely at the feet of one political movement, or even solely to the party in power at the moment.While the political left tends to favor more expansive government, and thus is more prone to attribute any improvement to recent government action, the right has their own version of the error9. Several, actually. And one particular version we have seen quite a bit recently.

The most common version of this error, and the one favored by parties which are temporarily out of power, is the reverse of the more common political faulty logic. That is, taking any particularly bad incident and ascribing it either to the sitting president, the party controlling congress, or a specific piece of detested legislation. One recent example would obviously be the finger pointing over the economic woes which closed out the Bush administration and opened the Obama. As I described in "Place Blame Fairly, Regardless of Party ", the truth is that the collapse can be laid at the feet of both parties. From the underlying cause (fiat currency and inflationary monetary policy) to the immediate precursors in the Community Reinvestment Act and its many related pieces of legislation, neither party did much to stop the conditions which made the collapse possible10. Yet, as we all know, both sides used the event as an excuse to criticize the opposition. And so, no matter how little sense it made, we were treated to person after person claiming the collapse was the fault of the other guys, with little for evidence other than claims of cause and effect based only upon one event following another.

The list could go on, and could even expand beyond the more obvious political applications to embrace many other economic and political mistakes, but I think my point is clear. In our everyday life, most of us are well aware that events can follow one after the other, even do so with some regularity, and yet prove nothing about causation. For instance, students return to school shortly before leaves begin to change colors and fall from the trees, this is true almost every year, and yet no one would begin to believe the two have a cause and effect relationship. In mundane matters, touching upon or normal lives, or even questions related to events far beyond our ordinary lives, but outside of the arena of politics, say the physical sciences, we are logical enough to recognize the sequence of events is far from proof of a causal relationship. And yet, when it comes to politics and economics, we lose every last ounce of common sense, and come to accept absurdities as gospel. And that is very dangerous.

But, having said so, let me qualify my statement. It is dangerous for us to accept absurdities in economic reasoning, or in political arguments, but the remedy is nowhere near as difficult as some might think. We need to be careful to look at every bit of evidence presented and ask whether it truly supports the argument being made. We do not need to become experts in economics and politics, any more than healthy skepticism concerning claims of science or medicine require us to be experts in those fields. All we need to do is ask ourselves, when viewing evidence, whether another interpretation is possible, if not there could be some less obvious cause, making the argument invalid. If we just display this small bit of skepticism, it would make us much less prone to accept the absurd claims of many economists and politicians, and give the political class much less opportunity to enact harmful laws and regulations.


1. For a short history of my medical woes, read "Standing By My Principles",  "It Doesn't Matter to ME...", "Drug Legalization" and "Who Does It Harm?". I also mentioned some of this in the more recent "Slippery Slopes".

2. This is the one exception to my premise that we are especially foolish with regard to economics and politics. Medicine seems to be an area where most exercise common sense, but a handful are quite determined to swallow any quackery that arises. (Not that I am in favor of banning quacks  -- see"Medical Regulations" and "Medical Regulation II" -- but I also recognize that almost every quack, if not every one, is at odds with observed facts.) Still, in general, people limit their willingness to accept foolish arguments to politics and economics, but a few add medicine into the mix as well.

3. It is bizarre that many believe herbal remedies are "better' than synthetic medicines. Herbal remedies both contain inconsistent quantities of the active chemicals and also contain additional, unnecessary -- perhaps harmful -- ingredients, along with uncontrolled impurities. Unless one subscribes to a completely irrational "spirit of the plant" theory of healing, there is no reasonable argument that the herbal treatment is superior to the derived medicine.

4. Bleeding may be the best example,though purgatives are another good example. Bleeding was used to make sure the four bodily humors were in balance, and thus has no basis in fact. Similarly, purgatives were, at some points in history, intended to balance the humors by expelling bile. On the other hand, purgatives also were used in some times through a thaumaturgical theory, based on the idea that sick people vomit then recover, so inducing vomiting may create recovery. Then again, it is arguable whether this approach is thaumaturgical magic, or rational experimentation based upon seeing a possible cause and effect and attempting to reproduce it. And that is where we run into problems. Many rational actions can be explained as magical thinking, or primitive experimentation, and which one chooses is wholly arbitrary. Sadly, most take the magical approach, and ignore the possibility of primitive science entirely.

5. It is hard to believe that no rational experimentation would ever be used, even by the most primitive or hide bound cultures. If I try something one hundred times, and it never works, I am unlikely to try again, even if my strongest beliefs say it is needed. The reason superstitions survive is that chance makes them appear to work some of the time. And so, though it reaches incorrect results, a sort of very basic experimental testing makes some embrace superstition. And it seems unlikely that anyone, no matter how primitive or disinclined to rational thought, would do differently. And so, even in very irrational settings, there is still some limited reason in the abandonment of failing approaches and a favoring of those that produce consistent results.

6. Keynes himself proposed inflation as a cure to unrealistic union wages, but that is akin to drinking poison to kill off mosquitoes that try to bite you. Far easier solutions are available, without the damage done by inflation. For example, eliminating closed shop and collective bargaining laws, or recognizing that the unions have no right to block laces of employment and intimidate workers. Without the government granting unions powers not available to individuals or private groups, they could not set fixed wages, and there would be no need for inflation either.

7. Not the least of which is the lack of trust in the government and the currency. This tendency to sow distrust and turn normally amiable relationships hostile or at least suspicious is discussed in "How the Government Corrupts Relationships" and, to a lesser degree, "In Praise of Contracts".

8. This is another example of the phenomenon I discussed in "With Good Intentions". To the left (and sadly a few nominally on the right), intent is more significant than any other aspect of a political debate. If the actor intended the "right things", he is a champion of the people. Similarly, in this case, if a law was intended to bring economic relief, then it must be responsible for any subsequent improvements. It does not matter how little sense it makes to attribute a given incident to the law, the intent of the law's drafters mean that the law must have those consequences, regardless of how little reason there might be for ascribing those improvements to the law. 

9 Of course, as I discussed in "The Political Spectrum", and also in a host of other posts ("How Conservatives Defeat Themselves", "Defending Freedom?", "Why We Lose", "Giving Away the Game", "The Single Greatest Weakness",  "What We Deserve", "What is Wrong with Us", "Pyrrhic Victories", "Who Is To Blame?", "Don't Blame the Politicians", "The Difficulty of Principle", "Damn the Torpedoes!", "You Lose When You Think You Win", "The Shortcomings of Pragmatism", "Pragmatism Revisited", "Pragmatism Revistied, Again", "Impractical Pragmatists", "The Problem of the Small Picture", "Arguing In Hindsight", "The Best Historical Example", "A Passing Thought", "Rethinking the Scopes Trial", "The Political Spectrum", "Child Labor and the Industrial Revolution", "Mistaken Perceptions of the Industrial Age") the right is hardly uniformly opposed to the actions of the left. Many on the right have big government thoughts not too different from the left. And so, besides the alternate versions I discuss above, the right is also sometimes guilty of the same errors as the left.

10. I do not mean both sides are equally culpable. There were some efforts by Republicans to rein in the CRA, but the Democrats shot them down, which clearly makes it seem one party bears a bit more guilt than the other. Still, the right did not expend much political capital in fighting this fight, nor did they ever press for a stable currency (most likely because both right and left are enamored of the unlimited spending inflation makes possible). So, while the right deserves some small praise for half hearted efforts to reduce the damage the CRA was likely to cause, they deserve as much, or more, blame for failing to do more, as well as for quietly endorsing soft money policies, or even outright inflationary laws, enjoying the easy credit and massive spending such laws allow, while failing to even bring to the public's attention the damage such laws do, much less taking any serious steps to defeat those same bills. 

Originally posted in Random Notes on 2010/12/14.    

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