Category Archives: Skepticism

Arguments in support of Homeoppathy

It has been some small while since I, your good Capitan, have taken you on a journey through the realms of logical fallacies and poorly constructed arguments. I’ve been off journeying in an absurd land populated by tramps and pompous industrialists, but even their repetitive & meaningless conversation could not drown out the call to adventure offered by the release of the Australian Government’s National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) draft Information Paper: Evidence on the effectiveness of homeopathy for treating health conditions, whose findings that “that the assessment of the evidence from research in humans does not show that homeopathy is effective for treating the range of health conditions considered” coincided perfectly with World Homeopathy Awareness Week, and prompted the expected response in the form of a press release from the Australian Homeopathy Association.

The press release is a treasure trove of poor arguments to explore, but first, a quick summary of the document it was responding to.

The NHMRC report was a systematic review of evidence into efficacy of Homeopathy that evaluated the methodology and validity of each study so reviewed before considering the outcomes of said review, and the document outlines the criteria a study must meet to be considered reliable, as well as the standards that must be met for a treatment to be considered effective. It actually provides a very good summary of the principles that determine an effective blinded trial, and the benchmarks that a treatment must meet to be considered to have an effect. If you want to pause now before embarking on our journey in order to go and read the NHMRC report, go ahead… I’ll wait…

All done? Ready to go? Good.

So then now let us set sail into the blue deep of logical fallacies and poorly structured argument as we navigate our way through the response penned to this report by the Australian Homeopathic Association. One small reminder before we get our brains wet: a properly structured argument generally requires a premise (the point being made), evidence in support of the argument (whether empirical, anecdotal, etc) and a conclusion to reinforce the premise. In an extended argument like an essay, it has an overarching argument, known as a thesis, which is supported by a series of premises, each of which need to be proven in turn in order to validate the thesis. With that in mind, lets look at the offering given up by the AHA.

It begins with two brief paragraphs that refer to the number of people in Australia, Europe and India that have used Homeopathy. These introductory passages assume the reader has some knowledge of homeopathy, and offers no explanation of what the practice actually involves, and instead seems to be trying to establishing a positive image of homeopathy based on the number of people who engage in it. When coupled with an actual claim of efficacy (which this opening does not offer) such an approach would be an example of the “appeal to popularity” fallacy, hoping people will accept a things popularity as a substitute for the need of actual evidence. In this case, the introduction makes no specific claim other than the number of people using Homeopathy, and therefore does not actually add anything to the discussion. It is also unclear what is meant to be the argument, if any, offered up by this opening. Is the writer trying to prove that lots of people use homeopathy? Okay, if we accept that, then what? It doesn’t address the question of Homeopathy’s efficacy, does it?

It then gives a description of the NHMRC’s report which, in all fairness, is a fairly accurate description, but doesn’t make any further claims. It does, however, use the phrase “This review has focussed exclusively on recent systematic trials” – the use of the word ‘exclusively’ will become important later on.

The document then offers a definition of homeopathy as a ‘holistic system of medicine’ that is ‘not ideally suited to systematic reviews which focus on isolated disease conditions without considering the overall health of the individual’. Unless I’ve forgotten how to read, this seems to be saying that scientific methodologies that focus on the efficacy of homeopathy at curing diseases are not appropriate as a way of evaluating the practice because it looks at a person’s health from a broader, ‘holistic’ perspective. Now this is an interesting case to make, but one that would be easily undermined if, for example, the Australian Homeopathic Association had made any claims that Homeopathy could actually treat specific conditions that could therefore be measured. If you go over to the AHA webpage about homeopathy you will notice that it does in fact offer quite a list of conditions that homeopathy is alleged to be able to treat, including:

Acute complaints – coughs, colds, earache, food poisoning, hangover, travel sickness etc.

Chronic complaints – skin conditions, hormone imbalances, depression, headaches, behavioural problems, digestive disturbances, asthma, arthritis etc.

First aid situations – bites, stings, hives, injuries, trauma, shock etc.

So the AHA seems to be at cross-purposes with itself at this point. On it’s website it claims that homeopathy can treat specific, measurable conditions, while in the press release it claims that it’s not appropriate to assess homeopathy by systematically reviewing it’s efficacy at treating specific conditions. The claim that homeopathy is a ‘holistic’ practice and that systematic reviews are not appropriate is an example of the logical fallacy of ‘special pleading’  – basically begging for the regular rules not to be applied to s specific situation. In this case, the AHA is pleading with the reader to excuse homeopathy from the regular rules applied to a scientific evaluation.

The press release then goes on to say…

The Australian Homoeopathic Association is disappointed that the NHMRC review focussed on only this one type of evidence and excluded other evidence types, which are more suited to the way homoeopathy is used in clinical practice. It should be noted here that the NHMRC working group did not include even one trained homoeopath even though the AHA suggested a number of qualified individuals who not only are homoeopathic practitioners but also have the relevant academic background.

They’re disappointed the NHMRC only used a scientific review process, as opposed to ‘more suited’ methods? Note that it does not suggest what other review methods it recommends, only that it rejects the scientific method as a process for reviewing the efficacy of Homeopathy. So what exactly are they trying to say? Not a whole lot. This is more ‘special pleading’, wishing to be allowed to exist outside the rules, as it were.

The comment about the working group not including a Homeopath is also a somewhat pointless statement. They’re not actually making a claim  that the lack of a Homeopath skewed results, simply identifying that there wasn’t a current practitioner involved. Like the paragraph above, it doesn’t seem to be actually stating anything of significance as it is not actually making a claim that requires substantiating. However, what I believe they are trying to do is build a Straw Man argument. Rather than actually address the reviews findings or its methodology in any way, they build up a false argument regarding the conduct of the review in the hope that the true-believers out there will latch onto that false argument instead, and use it in substitution for any actual evidence or argument against the review’s findings. More on that later…

The press release then goes on to refer to three occasions where studies of homeopathy has been proven effective: a review by the Swiss government, a 2005 German study, and a 6 year study at the Bristol Homeopathic Hospital. They further state that Homeopathy is on the UK’s NHS (publicly funded health service) and that GP’s in France and German offer Homeopathy as an alternative to pharmaceutical drugs.

Here we have a combination of the Argument from Authority and the Appeal to Popularity once again. The reference to countries that offer homeopathy as part of mainstream clinical practice do not actually support and specific argument and are clearly intended to make it seem as though the practice is accepted elsewhere, and so by extrapolation, why shouldn’t it be accepted in Australia?

The references to the study are Argument’s from Authority, hoping that the reader will accept the official sounding (or simply foreign) origins of the study as proof of their accuracy without questioning the accuracy of those studies themselves.

All of this, however, is offered without any actual argument being put forward. The press release HAS NOT REJECTED THE FINDINGS OF THE REVIEW! It has not put forward a counter argument and has instead attempted to attack peripheral issues such as the make up of the work-group or the methodology used in the review process, in the attempt to cloud the issue and distract from the primary finding of the review, which is that Homeopathy has no measurable effect as a health treatment.

The final paragraph is perhaps the most telling indicator that the AHA actually have no counter argument to offer, as it says that:

The Australian Homoeopathic Association recommend to the NHMRC that it take a more comprehensive approach to the analysis of homoeopathy’s efficacy and consider a large-scale economic evaluation of the benefits of a more integrated system and one which respects and advocates “patient choice” in healthcare provision – as is common across Europe where over 30 Million people use homoeopathic medicine.

It suggests a “More comprehensive” approach without identifying what that would actually mean or how it would be better than the systematic review already undertaken, and then they try to redirect the argument again by focusing on ‘economic benefits’ and the respect for ‘parent choice’, both of which are separate issues away from the question of ‘Does Homeopathy actually have a beneficial effect for patients suffering from health complaints?” (to which the answer is no, by the way). More misdirection, and a final failure to actually rebut the findings of the review itself.

So by the end of this process, what do we find? Appeals to Popularity, Arguments from Authority, Straw Man and disingenuous misdirection, all of which suggest, very strongly, that the AHA don’t actually have a strong argument to put forward about the efficacy of homeopathy. It is also worth noting that, at no point in this document has the AHA included a description of what Homeopathy actually is, or how it is supposed to work.

Now, I could go into an argument about homeopathy itself, and bring together a series of references that show how it is not even physically possible for homeopathy to work according to the principles that homeopaths themselves claim as the basis of the practice, but that would be to go outside of the frame of the presented argument and bring in third party information (of which there is an abundance!) and would be unfair to the homeopaths who, in this instance, are already licking their wounds and fighting back with weak cries the equivalent of yelling “Oh, Yeah!”.

So far, on the weight of evidence presented here, Homeopathy does not have a strong argument to stand on, and anyone who reads this press release and chooses to believe it represents a strong argument in favour of homeopathy is doing so sans evidence, and probably motivated by their own desire to continue believing in the powers of ‘magic water’.

That’s all for now, but in the spirit of people being motivated to hold on to irrational beliefs in the absence of appropriate evidence, I’ll wish you all a happy easter and look forward to our next adventure in critical thinking.

 

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Why no one should bother listening to Kevin Donnelly about education.

This opinion piece by long time Education writer Kevin Donnelly appeared on ABC’s The Drum today.

While I accuse this piece of being riddled with misleading arguments and logical fallacies that highlight Donnelly’s hard-right ideology with no respect for reason or evidence, a more thorough analysis of his piece will have to wait.

What I want to draw attention to is the justification for Donnelly’s piece being published in the first place. Aside from his long-standing career as a conservative education commentator, his pieces on The Drum finish with “Dr Kevin Donnelly is director of Education Standards Institute.”

Director of Education Standards Institute? And he’s a Doctor? Wow. Sounds very prestigious. But when you wander over to the Educational Standards Institute website, there are a couple of things that immediately seem out of place.

Despite being named an ‘Institute’, the website only talks about Kevin Donnelly, and in many places the website is written using the first person pronoun ‘I’, suggesting that the ‘institute’ consists of only Kevin himself.

Then on the ‘about us’ page, you find this line: “ESI is a trading name for Impetus Consultants Pty Ltd, ABN 73 737 609 643. ” So first of all, this ‘Institute’ or self described ‘think tank’ is actually a manifestation of a business, meaning that if there actually is anyone else working with Kevin, or for Kevin, they are actually an employee of Impetus Consultants. Seeing as an ABN is provided, we can easily look up that business for further information. Lets see what the ABN lookup can tell us about this company…

donnellyABN

It seems that Impetus Consulting, and therefore Education Standards Institute, are entirely owned by the K Donnelly Family Trust. So what does that make the Education Standards Institute?

It makes it a fraud. An obfuscation. A misdirection. It means that the Education Standards Institute is about as valid as an educational organisation as McDonald’s short-lived effort to get ‘heart tick approved’ meals on their menu was as a health campaign. If you look up Donnelly or Impetus consulting online you will find no shortage of criticisms of his hard-right views on social issues, as well as the large amounts of money he has been paid from the Liberal party and from companies like Phillip Morris, donations which seem to coincide with Donnelly publishing books that argue strongly in favour of Liberal party education policies, and his “I’ve got the power” educational packs that encouraged children to ‘make up their own minds’ on issues like smoking without providing information about the actual dangers of cigarettes. In you haven’t seen the movie ‘Thank you for Smoking’, now would be a good time.

So anyway, it seems that the ‘Education Standards Institute’ is nothing more than a prestigious sounding front, a sham, to attempt to validate the opinions that Donnelly spouts on behalf of clients of his consultation company. You’ll note on the ABN register that his company is not registered for tax-deductible donations, so any income he receives is going to be ‘for services rendered’.

He has deliberately tried to create an image of prestige to try and make the ultra-conservative opinions that he spouts seem like they’re coming from a third party. You’ll also notice that his biography always says that he was a teacher for 18 years, and also says that he is a Dr. but it never says what he is a doctor of. Surely if he held a Ph.D. in a field of research even remotely related to educational policy and school achievement he would be touting it from every conservative media platform that comes his way. While it may be an earned title, I suspect that this reference in educational matters is just another distraction used to give his opinions further air of authority. And after some time looking around online, I still don’t know what he has achieved to earn that title.

He has crafted a facade of educational credibility, one which appears to have been heavily criticised since the birth of the trading name that is the Educational Standards Institute, and my claim is that he would not have seen the need to craft such a facade if his intentions were genuine. In my opinion, his voice is, and has been for some time, just another distraction trying to muddy the waters of important issues with the selfish interests of businesses and conservative political ideologues.

EDIT: It appears that Donnelly did complete a Ph.D in an educational field in 1993, and his thesis was a critique of English teaching in Victorian schools. His thesis can be found here.

Thanks to Greg Thompson (@effectsofnaplan) for finding this.

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Blog Interrupted

While life, work (I’m writing this from a school camp) and a return to university for semester two are continuing to disrupt my time for my regular rants, I thought I’d share some of my favorite blogs, podcasts and shows that variously mix news, politics and skepticism with comedy and activism.

First up, there’s Skeptics Guide to the Universe and The skeptic Zone, American and Australian podcasts, respectively, about science and skepticism in society. Then there’s the skeptic magazine, produced by Australian Skeptics. All are highly recommended.

The Skeptic Zone

The Skeptic magazine, Australian Skeptics

For U.S. news and comedy, the following two shows are unsurpassed. Unfortunately it is no longer possible to watch video clips online from Australia (why?!?!) and so I subscribe to both shows on iTunes.

The Daily Show with Jon Stewart

The Colbert Report

Recently there’s been a new Australian entry into the field of news comedy/ satire. At present it is a bit more sketch comedy than I like, but I keep watching in the hope that it will take off. Best part is that like all ABC shows, it is available on ABC iview.

Mad as Hell, ABC

On the subject of education, the main journal I subscribe to is the Australian Journal of Education, published by the Australian Council for Educational Research. I’ll be attending on of their events this coming Thursday and am looking forward to it.

As mentioned in previous posts, I follow Diane Ravitch’s blog to keep an eye on development’s in U.S. education. A sad necessity seeing as Australia is currently drawing so many educational policy ideas from the U.S.

And of course, there’s TED.

Another podcast that I enjoy isFreakonomics, which carries on the work of the authors of the book of the same name, and it’s sequal, Superfreakonomics. There’s also a documentary film based on the second book.

And then there’s just sheer entertainment in the form of crass, crude celebrity-targeted humour in the form of Hollywood Babble-On.

Enjoy!

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#LSLD Just Add Logic; Won’t Hold Water part 2

In this next instalment of this series, in which I subject public announcements on education reforms in NSW to an analysis of logical argument to see what, if anything, they are actually saying, I will be going back in time a little to April 22, when Director-General of the Department and Education and Communities released a video statement addressing some of the issues with the Local Schools, Local Decisions policy.

The video can be found here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8DrIxTVGTWU&feature=relmfu

As before, I offer no counter argument or comment on the policy, and intend only to identify how well the logical argument of this announcement stands up to scrutiny.

Here we go:

After a greeting, Ms. Bruniges opens with:

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“I want to take this opportunity to tell you why local schools, local decisions is important for making our great public education system in NSW even greater.”

This is a great opening as it outlines a clear thesis for this message – this is the primary point that this video is attempting to prove. It means that from this announcement we should reasonably expect a clear explanation of how this policy will result in improvements in our public education system. There is one potential pitfall here, however, in that the words ‘great’ and ‘greater’, while colloquially used to mean ‘very good’ and to indicate an improvement on a scale of either effectiveness or efficiency, ‘great and ‘greater’ could also just mean ‘large’ and ‘larger’.

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“These are important changes and I know you’ll have a lot of questions.”

This statement is made without any qualifiers. Will she be addressing our questions? Offering an opportunity to ask those questions? Or is she just acknowledging that the audience might have questions? It is not made clear. It also does not directly follow form the thesis, but given that we are still in the introductory passage of the announcement, it does not definitely qualify as a Non-Sequitur, as it may be a sub-thesis that this announcement will address.

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“I want to address some claims that are being made about the educational reforms that are simply untrue.”

This next sentence, which does not address the audience’s questions, nor does it begin to develop the argument of making great schools greater, feels somewhat like a divergence from the thesis. It is, however, engaging in the logical fallacy of Begging the Question – making a statement or asking a question that is based on the assumed truth of another unproven premise or statement. In this sentence she begs the question that claims being made about the policy are untrue, she does not offer to explain why or how they are untrue, which would be a requirement of formal, logical argument.

“I want to be very clear from the outset, that Local Schools, Local Decisions (LSLD) is an education reform built on putting students at the centre of what we do. It is not about cutting the amount we spend in schools.”

Again, this does not follow directly from the previous statement. It does, however engage in another example of Begging the Question in the implication that the current model is not ‘student centred’. This is, in effect, making the argument that the current model of school management has something other than ‘students’ at the ‘centre’. For a comment about an education system, this might seem like quite an extraordinary claim and therefore, to paraphrase Carl Sagan’s famous quote, will require some extraordinary evidence.

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“The education minister has stated that the education budget is not going to be reduced. When you look at the education budget after taking away the commonwealth government stimulus packages, the amount spent on education by the NSW government has continued to increase steadily. Let me restate this point. The NSW govt. has made it clear that their investment in education will not decrease.”

This section was accompanied by a series of bar graphs that represented annual spending on NSW public education from 2008 to 2012, indicating a consistent increase, with figures inside the bars on the graph indicating a spending increase of 1.6 Billion.

The first sentence of the paragraph, however, begins with the logical fallacy of Argument from Authority, depending on the authority of the position of the minister as a substitute for any actual proof or guarantee of truth in that statement. While the minister may well have made that commitment, such a statement does not replace the need for proof to support the claim. Anyone who remembers Prime Minister John Howard’s promise not to introduce a GST, or PM Julia Gillard’s promise not to introduce a carbon tax will appreciate why a politicians promise does not actually mean anything.

This statement about finances, and the bar graph, presents itself as being one of two possible logical fallacies. Either an example of the non-sequitur, in which there is a logical link implied where none exists, or it could be an example of a previously unseen logical fallacy, which is that of the Genetic Fallacy. This fallacy suggests that the origins and history of something will automatically shape its current and future state. Whether Non-Sequitur or Genetic Fallacy, this argument that suggests that because budgets’ have increased that they will continue to increase is incorrect as it offers no argument for the safeguarding of that growth and is not, therefore, a reliable logical argument.

The final statement, while seemingly an emphatic statement against decreased budgets, makes a distinct change in the use of language. The previous sentences used the word ‘budget’ whereas this sentence uses the word ‘investment’. The different potential meaning of these words could be unintentional, or they could be deliberate. Lacking further explanation in the video, the difference can only be highlighted at this point.

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“There’ve also been lot of claims made about what local schools, local decisions will mean for your employment status. I want to set the record straight. LSLD will not affect teacher tenure.”

This is a rather direct statement, but offers no actual evidence or detailed explanation to support the point. Ms. Bruniges does not state that current tenure will remain, nor does she offer an alternative. Without evidence, however, this is another example of Argument from Authority, in which Ms. Bruniges is drawing on her own authority in place of any evidence to prove the statement.

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“Furthermore, the state transfer system, including incentive and nominated transfers will continue.”

This statement again has issues of specificity of language, however the general intention seems to be to say that current arrangements for state transfers will remain in place. However, once again there is no evidence or explanation offered, and this statement continues from the previous Argument from Authority, placing it within the bounds of that logical fallacy.

What follows is a series of singular statements that are made without explanation or evidence, and which have issues of specificity of language. Without evidence, such as specific details about the wording of new policies, or explicit explanation as to the how and why of each statement, they effectively remain unproven statements and have no reliable meaning. As all of these statements follow in a similar fashion from the earlier argument form authority, I assume that they are intended to be taken as true because Ms. Bruniges is saying them. Unfortunately this still does not replace the need for actual evidence.

I’ve added a few comments on the specific issues with each statement:

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“Principals will not be required to fire teachers. If a teacher is to be dismissed, that decision will be made by a senior officer of the department.”

How is that similar or different to current arrangements? Either way it needs to be explained.

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“Principals will continue to assess and manage the performance of their staff, as they always have.”

Same question/statement as above.

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“LSLD will in no way affect the permanent employment status of staff.”

Nice statement to hear, but still no explanation.

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“Suggestions of widespread casualization of the teaching staff are unfounded, irresponsible, and untrue.”

The use of the words Unfounded, Irresponsible and Untrue require explanation and evidence. If specific claims have been made, can you prove that they have no reliable evidence? What makes them irresponsible? How can you prove them to be untrue?

“Of course, from time to time, there will be a need for schools to hire a temporary teacher to meet the specific needs of a particular cohort of students, or to assist with a particular initiative.”

How is that similar or different to current arrangements? Either way it needs to be explained.

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“I reject any suggestion that we should not allow schools the flexibility to organise a temporary position at their school if it is designed to meet an immediate need or manage a particular situation such as a decline in resources due to falling enrolments.”

Another example of begging the question that depends on the audience believing that someone has actually made the suggestion that schools should not be allowed to hire temporary staff for targeted position. Ms. Bruniges needs to identify who has made that suggestion, and in what forum. Most news-watchers would be familiar with phrases such as “In a press release on (date), (person) stated that…”. Such a reference would constitute evidence. Without such a reference, this statement engages in logical fallacy and offers no reliable information.

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“We have already organised to meet with the teacher’s federation to discuss these matters.”

Yes? And? So? What?

Again, no explanation to give this statement meaning. All it could prove is that an offer of a meeting/discussion has been made.

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“But let me be very clear. The one size fits all approach to school staffing where we ignore the unique needs of some students and some school communities must, and will end.”

Begging the question: Are schools currently built on a one-size-fits-all model? Do schools ignore the needs of some students? These are extraordinary claims that require extraordinary evidence, and within this statement there is no evidence at all.

Also, the opening statement of Ms. Bruniges message described schools as ‘great’. Does our ‘great’ system ignore some students’ needs? This seems self-contradictory, unless the intended meaning of the word ‘great’ was actually just ‘large’.

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“I know there’s a lot more work to be done to implement local schools, local decision reforms. I know they matter to you.”

Statements of personal opinion. No evidence really necessary as she is not arguing that they are true. We can leave these alone.

“Which is why I’ve created a joint consultative group to help provide advice through this process. I have invited the three principals groups, as well as the aboriginal educational consultative group, the NSWTF, the institute of senior educational administrators, the public service association, and the federation of P&C of NSW to joint that group.”

This is a description of action, and as such fairly innocuous as she is not trying to argue that any contentious point is proven by this description.

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“Some important changes are already under way. From today the procurement processes used by principals have changed to help schools get a better deal. Principals will be free to make more local decisions or purchases of items up to 5000 dollars, allowing you to support local businesses and suppliers where you can get best value for money.”

I want to take a moment to pause and reflect on the paragraph above. It states a premise, that schools can get a better deal. Then it explains it by outlining that schools will now be able to deal with local contractors. This is, so far, the closest to a logically supported premise that we have seen so far in this announcement. I wanted to draw special attention to it as hopefully seeing this example of an argument with explanation will make the lack of supporting explanation of other points even clearer.

I must also point out, however, that this statement does engage a number of examples of Begging the Question in the assumptions that schools CAN get better ‘deals’ or ‘value for money’ locally. There do not appear to be any guarantees or offers of support in place for anyone who cannot negotiate such a better deal themselves.

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“We want you to be able to get the job done quickly and without having to fill in a lot of forms.”

Begging the question: are current processes unnecessarily slow and paper-work heavy? More explanation needed.

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“LSLD is about recognising that the school is the centre of our work.”

Begging the question: Does this mean that prior to LSLD the school was not recognised as the centre of ‘our’ work?

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“It is where the learning happens. It’s where relationships are formed between teachers, students and their parents and communities. Importantly, it’s where our students develop their love of learning.”

These statements are fairly innocuous. Moving on:

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“LSLD gives people working in our schools further flexibility and freedom to make decisions so that students get what they need, when they need it.”

I assume that this statement is re-enforcing the previous statements about dealing with local contractors. If it has greater meaning, particularly with the use of the words ‘flexibility’ and freedom’, then that meaning is not explained.

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“It enhances your capacities as principals and as teachers to be responsible professionals that you are.”

How? By buying stationary from a local retailer? Explanation needed.

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“It strengthens your authority to exercise your professional judgement, and I believe that this reform will build momentum to strengthen our core business of teaching and learning.”

How? How will the ability to get a local painter to cover graffiti make the professional judgement of a teacher ‘stronger’? The meaning of this statement is either much broader than the specific details of this message so far, or it is a non-sequitur.

“I hope that we can all work together as educators and people who support public education to make sure that we use this opportunity wisely and that we get the details right so that at the end of the process we will have built a schooling system that better supports teachers and principals as they strive to give each student the best possible education.”

Personal statement – fairly harmless.

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So in a five minute video, there is one logically explained statement about being free to seek goods and services at a local level, but one that still engages in the logical fallacy of begging the question.

Furthermore, the original statement that this video would “tell (you) why local schools, local decisions is important for making our great public education system in NSW even greater” does not seem to have been addressed, meaning that the argument within this video did not achieve its stated purpose.

For this announcement to hold together logically it would have required a clear and detailed explanation of how elements of the LSLD policy would lead to increased ‘greatness’ of the school system. This would have, of course, required a more clear definition of what it means for a school system to be ‘great’ in the first place, and what ‘greater’ would look like. Given that the few statements that referred to specific changes were made without evidence or explanation, they do not actually stand as evidence in support of the original premise.

So after a five minute video, the question of how LSLD will actually make our schools ‘greater’ remains unanswered.

In my next post, I will deconstruct one of the videos from the New South Wales Teacher’s Federation on the subject of LSLD – however, unlike the videos from the Department (so far), NSWTF videos tend to run for over 10 minutes and involve more than a single speaker, so it will require more careful analysis and take longer to write.

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@adamsbaldwin: When 140 characters isn’t enough.

@adamsbaldwin and Anti-Union rhetoric.

This post is the second in the series “Just add logic: won’t hold water”, only this time my focus is on American Anti-Union arguments and the ways in which they do not stand up to any kind of logical or critical scrutiny. It also is, in some way, an open letter in reply to a brief interaction between actor Adam Baldwin (@adamsbaldwin) and myself (@capitan_typo) over Twitter in the 24 hours prior to writing this post.

A quick backstory – I started following Mr. Baldwin primarily due to my love of the show Firefly, and my respect for his work as an actor. I quickly discovered that he is an outspoken conservative who, in my opinion, reiterated a lot of hyperbolic conservative rhetoric in his tweets.

When I responded to one of his tweets with a question, I was pleasantly surprised to receive a response which in turn led to a brief exchange of tweets in which I enquired after a more detailed reasoning behind his statement that ‘public sector unions are evil’.

In response to these requests, Mr. Baldwin tweeted that he agrees with FDR and Rush Limbaugh, and attached the following URL’s in support of his statements.

http://t.co/ZRB7Ngab

http://t.co/rOyWdosb

The first link is to an article entitled ‘F.D.R. Warned Us’ on realclearpolitics.com, which is actually an aggregate re-posting of a New York Times opinion piece in their Opinion Pages’ ‘Room For Debate’ section.

The second links to a Google search for the four words ‘rush Limbaugh public unions’. When I clicked that search, the first article at the top of the list was the link below, which is a transcript of a series of call-in conversations from Limbaugh’s talk-back radio show, all on the topic of public sector unions.

http://www.rushlimbaugh.com/daily/2011/02/17/public_sector_unions_monopolies_organizing_against_the_taxpayers

So it is at this point that my focus shifted from Mr. Baldwin’s blanket statement that ‘public sector unions are evil’ as I had some more significant conservative argument against public sector unions to sink my critically-thinking teeth into.

What follows is an analysis of the many, many, many (many, many, many) logical fallacies and outright false statements present in the two websites that Mr. Baldwin referred me to, which I offer up as another example of how the arguments of ‘conservatives’ just don’t stand up to the expectations of logical and reasoned argument.

To begin with a clarification, this (essay?) will not attempt to disprove the statement that ‘Public Sector Unions are Evil’, nor will I attempt to prove an opposite statement. Maybe public unions are evil, maybe they’re not. My point here is that the attempts to argue or prove such a statement, as represented by the examples provided by Mr. Baldwin, do not possess the logical consistency required to be able to prove the statement original premise, and as such, the original statement remains unproven, and the arguments made in these articles are logically invalid.

The first article, ‘F.D.R. Warned Us’ by James Sherk, was last updated Sept. 16, 2011.

The primary thrust of the article is that Public Sector unions are bad because when they strike, they are striking against taxpayers and voters, rather than against a business. The primary evidence for this premise is that “Franklin Dean Roosevelt Warned Us” (the title of the article) and that George Meaney, a leader of the American Union Movement in the early 20th Century, also spoke against the idea.

Sherk also offers other statements as reasons why public sector unions, and their right to strike, is a bad thing. To an unquestioning mind, this article could be mistaken for a reasoned and supporting argument as it offers a clear premise, with reasons and explanations to support the veracity of that premise.

What Sherk does, probably unknowingly, is base his entire argument primarily around two logical fallacies that render his argument logically invalid. While it may be a structured argument, it is a flawed argument based upon faulty logic, which ultimately results in a series of statements that mean nothing, while making very strong implications.

The first logical fallacy Sherk engages with is the Argument from Authority. This logical fallacy mistakes the authority or a person or their position for the evidence of truth in the things they have said. To put it another way, just because a person in power said something, doesn’t make the thing they said any more true than if another person said it.

In this article, Sherk’s Argument from Authority comes in the form of using FDR and Meaney’s statements as ‘proof’ that public sector unions are a bad thing or a bad idea. If everything that FDR said was to be considered as universally truthful, then shouldn’t Sherk also be arguing that while Public Sector Unions are bad, private sector unions are a good thing? Or perhaps that interning foreign nationals during times of war is also a good thing? After all, FDR did it to the Japanese during World War 2, so maybe America should be interning all Middle-Eastern born residents until U.S. troops pull out of Iraq.

In reality, FDR’s statements that militancy and strike action by public sector unions is “Unthinkable and Intolerable” has no greater claim to truth than the statement that ‘because Ronald Reagan raised taxes numerous times, that is it a good thing for a government to raise taxes.’ Both of those statements need to be considered in their social and political contexts, and do not possess any greater inherent truth because the person who said them happens to be in a position of authority.

The second logical fallacy that Sherk engages in is known as ‘Begging the Question’. The name of this logical fallacy has been somewhat twisted in recent usage, and is often used today to mean ‘repeatedly asking a question’. In its original form, Begging the Question refers to the practise of asking a question that includes a statement or premise that it itself has not been proven to be true.

An example of Begging the Question would be to ask someone “Have you stopped taking drugs?” without first ascertaining that they were actually taking drugs in the first place.

Sherk’s article is full of examples of Begging the Question, though I’ll identify only a few as to do them all would result in something more like a publishable book rather than a blog post. Hopefully once you’ve read this post, however, the other examples of this logical fallacy should become readily apparent.

“The founders of the labor movement viewed unions as a vehicle to get workers more of the profits they help create. Government workers, however, don’t generate profits.” This statement incorporates the assumption that profit shares were the primary motivation of Unions, and does not acknowledge the more-often disputed issue of working conditions. I acknowledge that improved working conditions for workers ultimately manifests as bottom line deductions for business and governments, but to my knowledge, many of the most significant landmark campaigns and victories of the union movement around the world have been on issues of better working conditions, rather than explicitly for a share of profits through direct wage increases. As an example:

In the days before the union movement, pre-pubescent children were used as mining labourers, legally allowed to be employed day or night, and for unrestricted hours (http://www.continuetolearn.uiowa.edu/laborctr/child_labor/about/us_history.html). It was labour unions that fought to outlaw child labour, during the early years of the union movement. For Sherk’s statement to be true, he would have to prove how union activism against child labour (as one example) was actually an attempt to ‘get workers more of the profits they help create’.

Without actually proving this statement in any meaningful way, Sherk’s assertion is unproven, as forceful as it sounds, and instead becomes an example of unfounded rhetoric.

“Government collective bargaining means voters do not have the final say on public policy.” This is perhaps my favourite example of begging the question in the article, as it is not only a prime example of a logical fallacy, but it also demonstrates an incorrect assertion about the nature of democratic government that seems to be the product of either an incomprehensible lack of understanding about democratic government for someone writing political opinion pieces, or the product of a disingenuous and manipulative misrepresentation of democracy. Or he could just be repeating an argument that he heard elsewhere without giving it any critical thought of his own. Given that this article lacks any citations of other sources despite references to some important and well documented issues and events, the possibility of ‘parroting’ also seems likely.

Anyway, to say that public collectivism means voters have no say on policy, and say it s though it were a bad thing, assumes that voters have ever had the final say on public policy in other issues, and that that is a good thing. The process of democracy does not give voters any direct say on public policy, instead voters get to elect the people they trust to form public policy. If it were true that the democratic process allowed voters to have a ‘final say’ on public policy, then why was George Bush Snr able to raise taxes shortly after taking office, despite his famous campaign slogan “Read My Lips, No More Taxes!”, a slogan that was largely credited with helping him win the election? (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Read_my_lips:_no_new_taxes) There is no evidence presented in Sherk’s article, or indeed anywhere I could find to suggest that the democratic process allows voters to have the ‘final say’ on public policy. At best, the democratic process allows voters a ‘preliminary say’, but ultimately once election results are concluded, public policy is primarily in the hands of the elected officials.

“Union contracts make it next to impossible to reward excellent teachers or fire failing ones.” This statement begs a question that ties into a long running debate, which is whether or not the practices of ‘rewarding’ excellent teachers (presumably with bonus payments) or firing failing teachers are worthwhile practices that actually have a beneficial influence on the process of education. PISA, the educational assessment arm of the OECD, conducted a study on the effects of performance based pay (http://www.pisa.oecd.org/dataoecd/33/16/50328990.pdf) and found that while performance based pay could have some effect, that factors such as respect for teachers in a society was a much bigger contributing factor to ‘improvements’ in teacher performance. Given that numerous states across America seem to be engaged in battles with their teacher unions over pay and conditions, and the rhetoric on the subject of teachers and their unions is pretty volatile (I direct attention to recent happenings in Chicago as my evidence) it does not seem like ‘respect for teachers’ is a likely outcome of these disputes, meaning any implemented performance pay (or punitive firing of ‘failing teachers) is unlikely to have any positive effect on education.

My point is that the premises upon which these statements are made are not inarguable facts, and to treat them as such is a logical fallacy that renders the argument meaningless until the facts can be proven. Alternatively, the argument needs to change.

So, as evidence for the statement that ‘public sector unions are evil’ this article offers no actual evidence at all. The only statements that this article can be used effectively as evidence for is “James Sherk did not make a logically valid argument”.

From Sherk I move on to Limbaugh.

For those of you in Australia reading this who don’t know who Limbaugh is, he is a conservative shock jock of a style similar to Alan Jones. Ultra-Conservative talk-back radio host whose comments… well… you’ll see.

The Limbaugh page was a lot longer, as it was the transcript of a number of phone calls in to his show. Here are some of the highlights.

“Union employment, private sector union employment, the percentages continue to drop. Now in the public sector, government, state, local, federal, union workforces are expanding, of course. But they can print money to pay people. But in the private sector, businesses can’t print money to pay people, nor can states, nor can cities, nor can towns.”

This paragraph here, which follows Limbaugh’s statement that he has a lot of sympathy for unionised workers, is positioned in such a way as to justify an opposition to public sector unions.

First point: ‘they can print money’. I not even sure if this is a formal or informal logical fallacy, but as a statement it is politically, economically and factually incorrect. Assuming ‘they’ refers to the government that hires the public sector employers, this statement, if taken to be serious, demonstrates a greater fundamental lack of understanding of economic practices than Sherk’s apparent lack of knowledge about democracy. That governments cannot just print money to pay debts is such a fundamental principle of modern economics that I don’t even feel the need to find suitable references to back this point up. When governments print money, overall currency is devalued and inflation rises rapidly, and in all the cases I am aware of in which a government has ‘printed money’ to solve a problem, the damage to that country’s economy has been equal or greater than the problem that the extra money was mean to fix.

Beyond this rather astounding assertion is also the self-contradictory logic in the sentences that come before and after. Follow this closely. He leads in by defining the public sector as saying that the public sector is ‘government, state, local, federal’, and that ‘they can print money’. Then in the next sentence he says that businesses can’t print money, ‘nor can states, nor can cities, nor can towns’. So, unless he is trying to argue that the physical bricks and mortar of a city cannot print money, it seems safe to assume that when he says a city can’t print money he means the local government… the same local government he just said COULD print money. He hasn’t even given himself the breathing space of a paragraph before contradicting his own argument.

It is only a couple of paragraphs later that he contradicts himself again on this same point. He says:

“This is about pension and benefits, and the fact that there isn’t any money. I don’t know what to tell people. There isn’t any money. In your own home when there isn’t any money, what do you do? Do you go on strike against your own family? What? What do you do? Well, you go out and maybe you get a second job, or you cut back on expenses, or you change jobs and try to get a raise or what have you.”

So at the beginning of his argument, he said governments could print money, and now he’s saying that there isn’t enough money.

This self-contradiction makes it impossible to draw any actual meaning from what Limbaugh says, and there is certainly no logically consistent argument against public sector unions to be found here. Only rhetoric. And this is just phone call number one.

In the next section of Limbaugh’s transcript, he reads out news item regarding Democratic senators failing to turn up to vote on a bill that would strip public employees of collective bargaining rights, this preventing the bill from being passed.

After reading the article he provides his perspective on the issue, in which he says:

“These public sector unions, folks, let’s just describe them accurately. They are monopolies. They are different than private sector unions and these public sector unions — like we see in New Jersey, like we see here in Wisconsin — are organizing against the taxpayers, the people who pay them.”

Despite my issue with his use of the word ‘Monopoly’ to describe public sector unions, this provides us with another example of a common logical fallacy, which is the Straw Man argument. This logical fallacy is a form of misdirection intended to create an alternate point of argument for the purpose of shifting attention away from the main point.

The Straw Man in this point is the idea that the Unions are organsing directly against the taxpayers. This idea is intended to position the ‘average tax payer’ as the target of union activism and, I assume, try to generate an emotional response by making the average tax paying listener feel that they are personally under attack.

The statement itself is based on the same misrepresentation of democracy that Sherk used to suggest that voters (or tax payers) have a direct involvement in the process of setting policies or writing legislation relating to teacher salaries.

By throwing up this Straw Man idea that the Unions are directly attacking tax payers, it diverts attention from the much more complex issue of the political relationship between unions and government, and perhaps more importantly, the relationship between governments and the public services they provide.

These contradictory statements are not singular, but rather indicative of the quality of Limbaugh’s argument, but I’m going to leave it there with the analysis as with Limbaugh, It really is too easy.

So as examples of arguments to support the statement that ‘Public Sector Unions are Evil’, these two articles don’t hold up to a standard of logical consistency, making them, as I have said previously, effectively meaningless. Most notably, this leaves the original premise unproven for now, and it becomes just another example of unjustified, angry rhetoric lacking reason to back it.

If you’ve read this far, congratulations on your stamina. And to Mr. Baldwin, if you’ve taken the time to read this far, feel free to offer a counter argument, or provide alternate evidence or argument to prove that ‘public sector unions are evil’. Until then, it is just so much meaningless rhetoric.

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Teaching Critical Thinking in the Classroom

This term I have taken a big leap forward in my efforts to explicitly teach critical thinking skills to senior students.

In past years i have inserted short two or three week courses into larger units of work, particularly in Extension English, but this term I jumped in the deep end and refocussed an entire unit of work so that critical thinking was the topic. The prescribed text for this senior English class, the poetry of Bruce Dawe, became the thing upon which students were to exercise their critical thinking skills, rather than the primary focus of the unit.

I kept the definition and detail of critical thinking pretty light on detail, and in fact the class devised their own definition which we ended up adopting. Their definition, paraphrased from internet sources and translated through teenage perceptions, is: forming serious opinions based on analysis of evidence.

Lesson activities focused on analyzing evidence, forming and answering research questions, and the writing of structured argument.

After 8 weeks, students who previously wrote a half-page long paragraph as the entire response to an hour long exam are now confidently producing two page long essays and still wanting to add more detail,while those students who were already capable writers are reporting a greater familiarity with the concepts of analysis and argument.

Previous papers I’ve read have evaluated the benefits of explicitly teaching meta cognitive skills, and this single unit of work has certainly provided me with some anecdotal evidence of the truth of this. I’m certainly keen to explore it further… Perhaps with some form of creative writing work in preparation for yearly exams.

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Just add logic; Doesn’t hold water. Part 1

This is the beginning of what I expect will be a lengthy series of posts about the number of arguments in public discourse that involve or sometimes depend entirely on a false application of logic, better known as logical fallacies, in order to appear valid.

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This first post comes from a discussion that I started in an online teacher’s forum. I had recently discovered that the Teacher’s Federation Health service, a restricted membership health fund developed for members of the NSW Teacher’s Federation and their families, not only supported but actually recommended practices like Homeopathy, Acupuncture and other Alternative Therapies as a way of dealing with morning sickness in pregnant women.

In response to my posts, I received a lengthy private message form another teacher who said that they were ‘highly offended’ by my post and gave a lengthy explanation of the role AT’s had played in their life. I will respect that person’s privacy and not post anythign more about them here.

Their message, however, was full of such a string of logical fallacies, that it could barely hold itself together and still be called a coherent argument. It prompted me to write this post about logical fallacies and the role they play in the ongoing debate about ATs and their funding.

Enjoy!

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So, as I mentioned earlier, I received a message describing my post about alternative therapies as ‘highly offensive’ by someone who shall remain nameless and undescribed in any way.

What I want to address, because I think it’s important and certainly imperative within of a community of educators, are the many logical fallacies that were used in that post as supportive arguments in favour of Alternative Therapies. I will not quote the message directly for fear of identifying the person who made the post, but the points raised are symptomatic of a tendency toward false belief that I think is worthy of debate.

First, I want to outline the issue that prompted this thread.
The issue IS NOT that Alternative Therapies exist. In a free market people have the right to spend their money however and on whatever they want, and in a free and democratic society people should have the right to pursue their own well-being and happiness in whatever method they feel best suits them.

The issue IS NOT that the majority of Alternative Therapies have been scientifically proven, in repeated double-blind studies, to have no effect greater than the placebo effect, meaning that they effectively do nothing but make a person feel better about themselves. Emotional support and wellbeing are important factors in life, and if you find those things in having a lit candle stuck in your ear then you are free to pursue that.

THE ISSUE IS the efforts to claim that these therapies have an actual medical effect, which are often supported by false logical conclusion, or in some cases deliberately false or misleading statements (powerbalance bands, anyone? Or ‘shape up’ shoes?) and in the most heinous of cases, these claims are backed up by deliberately manipulated or falsified ‘science’ (such as claims that vaccinations cause autism).

THE ISSUE IS that while people have the right to do whatever they please with their time and money, they do not automatically have the right to some form of government or fund-based subsidy to facilitate their involvement in that activity. The only reason our health care funding system currently recognises so may alternative therapies is that the burden of scientific proof was never applied to treatments before listing them for subsidy.

Ultimately, however, most Alternative Therapies have no measureable medical benefit. Utilising them only becomes an issue when people try to claim they have a medical benefit, or worse, when they forgo conventional medical treatment in favour of alternative therapies. There is a good chance that Steve Jobs would still be alive today if he had not avoided surgery for a decade in favour of ‘natural’ remedies.
The support for Alternative Therapies is argued in many different forums, however in every case, there are key logical fallacies that are used to support those arguments, and it is my intention to highlight a few of those in the hope that maybe only a few people will consider the evidence before making an emotionally charged decision.

Logical Fallacy no: 1. The Argument From Authority. I pointed this one out in response to a post earlier, and it is a big one. The argument from authority is one in which we supplement a persons authority for the need for factual accuracy or evidence. Religion, Education, Law Enforcement and a lot of other parts of our society depend on an element of submission to authority, but this means that authority can be easily abused to convince people to believe a person’s word on a subject rather than seek objective proof.

Consider my original post. If I succumbed to the argument from authority, I would have more likely said “The teacher’s Federation Health recommends Homeopathy, therefore it must be a valid medical practise.” In much the way that others have identified that the WHO support acupuncture. We may place our trust in a person or organisation, but we do so at risk. The primary risk is that organisations are just a collection of people and people are flawed, also organisations lead to bureaucracy which slows things down a lot. This means that an organisation like the WHO might be slow to react to new science, but they might also want to apply their own critical process to new discoveries – as well they should. This does not mean that what any person of authority says is inherently right.

This is especially important when an alternative therapists tries to tell you that they are an authority on a subject or that they know more or know something secret that doctors and conventional medicine don’t know. There is a tragic case in court in (South Australia? I think) at the moment, in which the family of a woman are suing the Homeopath who, together with a psychic, convinced a woman to abandon conventional medical treatment for her rectal cancer because they knew the true way to cure her. Her subsequent painful and prolonged death, and the pain it caused her family, is the subject of the lawsuit.

It is also one of the primary reasons given by people for justifying alternative therapies. “Person X (usually a doctor) recommended it.” First of all, just because they recommended it does not mean that it is an effective medical therapy. Sure, your doctor may have recommended aromatherapy or massage or herbal tea or acupuncture. That recommendation does not automatically imbue the treatment with medical validity. It could be that the person recommending it believes that it is a relaxing treatment and that above all else you just need to chill out for a bit. Maybe that person is relying on out of date or incorrect information.

It is a false assumption to assume that just because someone recommended a treatment that the treatment has some valid medical impact.

There are other variations of the Argument form Authority that crop up in this debate as well, they are:

The Argument from Antiquity – the idea that just because something is old that it must be true or valid. Acupuncture is often sold on the fact that it is an ancient Chinese practise, as if the ancient Chinese somehow knew more than we do now. Ruthless dictatorial rule and Savagery toward one’s own people were also ancient Chinese practices, so by this logic, they must also be good and valid practices.

This next variation doesn’t have quite as trite a name as many others, but the false belief that something is valid because a large number of people believe in it (the Authority becomes the collective). When people asserted that the world was round and that it revolved around the sun, the majority disagreed (violently). The majority were wrong. Just because they held a collective belief did not make that belief inherently true. It made their belief the law of the land, but that does not make it true. Likewise, if a group of people (usually on the net through forums and facebook pages) all hold a common belief, such as the belief that Homeopathy is better than Vaccination, that belief is no more credible or true than it was when only one person thought it.

Logical Fallacy no. 2: Argument from Ignorance. The idea that ‘Because there is not a known answer, then this alternative answer must be or might be true’. This is another big one. Let me begin by saying that medical science does not have an answer for everything. That does not automatically mean that someone else’s answer is valid. This logical fallacy is also strongly connected to the growing sense of entitlement in progressive generations (I’m on the X-Y cusp and I have a good dose of it, but I really hate it!). People seem reluctant to accept that sometimes life is hard, and that there must be an easy answer out there somewhere (and to the person who wrote me the message, please re-read your own post and see how many of your arguments against conventional medicine were based on the fact that they are not cheap/convenient/hassle free).

But, just because medical science does not have an answer does not immediately invalidate medical science! Maybe your problem is unique, or in such a minority that it hasn’t received significant attention in the world of limited research funding. If doctors and scientists can’t find a targeted solution to your particular problem, then that does not mean that an Alternative Therapies ‘one size fits all’ treatment is somehow going to work for you.

This is the same logical fallacy behind UFO conspiracies, Psychic powers and Intelligent Design. Just because science doesn’t know everything there is to know about the universe, the brain or evolution DOES NOT automatically validate someone else’s theory.

Logical Fallacy no. 3: False Dichotomy
This is another big and horrible one. Humans have a tendency to reduce things to simple terms, and usually into A vs B. In this case it is usually Medical Science vs. Alternative Therapies, as if you have to make a choice and stick to one.

Medical Science and Alternative Therapies are not two separate and opposing entities. If an Alternative Therapy is proven to have a dependable medical benefit, medical Science will adopt that practise as part of its repertoire. This dichotomy is often fuelled by purveyors of practices that are known to be ineffective, who then take up a combative stance against medical science.

The issue I raised in my initial post was an objection to funding support for therapies that have been repeatedly, consistently proven not to have any effect. There are a number of therapies still to be investigated as thoroughly as, say, Homeopathy, but once a practise can be clearly pointed to and identified as not working, then it should disappear from funding schedules. If people choose to keep using the practise once it is no longer longer subsidised, then that is their choice.

Logical Fallacy no. 4: Inconsistency. Why do people expect greater evidence of proof from medical science than from alternative therapies? People will expect evidence and examples and historical proof before submitting to a chemical therapy, but will happily take someone’s word for it that a lit candle in the ear has therapeutic benefits.

I can’t say more about this one without breaking my intention of neutrality.

Logical Fallacy no. 5: The Straw Man. This one is used aggressively by people who are being knowingly disingenuous. If you’re new to the concept of logical fallacies, learn this one and learn it well. It will change your life. The Straw Man is similar to the Ad Hominen (attacking the person rather than the issue) and the ‘No True Scotsman’ argument (disregarding someone or their argument because os a single arbitrary characteristic). The Straw Man argument is when a person responds to a claim or question by attacking a third point or claim that is not directly relevant but may seem to reduce the credibility of the claim that they are trying to avoid.

In Medical Science vs Alternatvie Therapies (a false dichotomy in itself) it goes something like this.

Medical Science: Alternative therapies don’t work. They are proven to have no medical effect.

Alt. Therapists: But Medical Services are so expensive! Most people can’t afford extended treatment.

Mr/Mrs. Gen Public: That Therapist is right, medical practices ARE expensive. Therefore the alternative therapy must be better for me.

There are many examples of this one in arguments about the validity of Alternative Therapies. It also appears a lot in politics. Like I said, learn it well.

The final one I will mention here is the Confusing of Association with Causation. If the Argument from Ignorance teaches us one thing, it is that medical science doesn’t know everything. As such, things can happen that have no known explanation. There is a human tendency to associate something known with the cause of the effect. Just because you were seeing a Homeopath at the time your migraines got better DOES NOT automatically mean that the homeopathy cured your migraines. It only means that the two things happened coincidentally, and proper research is needed to determine if any concrete and reproducible link exists.

This logical fallacy also manifests in the tendency to confuse anecdote with evidence. This is particularly prevalent in those online chat groups I mentioned above, where one or two people’s personal experiences are treated as incontrovertible evidence or proof of an alternate point of view. Annecdote does not equal evidence. Especially not when those annecdotes are in a significant minority. They may be in the majority on a particular forum, but then if that forum exists to support a particular group of people, of course it’s going to have a concentrated number of people with common experiences. That doesn’t make their experiences universal, or their opinions on those experiences any more factual.

I’m going to leave it here because I’ve addressed the main points I’ve encountered so far. I will reinforce my initial point that Alternative Therapies themselves are not the issue. It is the attempt to argue that they have any medical benefit or that they are deserving of public funding as medical treatments that is the issue.

To finish, I just want to point out that a common response from supporters of alternate therapies once all other arguments have been knocked down is “What’s the harm?”, well unfortunately there is a lot of harm being done.

First of all, there is the harm caused when money that could support necessary medical procedures is being done to support Alternative Therapies that are proven not to work, and then there is the harm done when a person is so bowled over by the logical fallacies above that they agree to give up conventional medical treatment in favour of alternative therapies, and potentially suffer and/or die. The government and health care subsidy for many alternative therapies gives them a chance to invoke the argument for authority that often convinces people of the validity of these practices, so there is direct harm being done by government and health care support for these practices.

If you’ve read this far you deserve a medal.

And upon the reasliation that I’m ever closer to becoming a cranky old man who write angry letters in his darkened basement, I’m going for a walk with my dog.

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