Monthly Archives: October 2014

Brian Cox on opinions


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Acupuncture, zombie fish and Humpty Dumpty

The Conversation

By Michael Vagg, Barwon Health

“When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.’

’The question is,’ said Alice, ‘whether you can make words mean so many different things.’

’The question is,’ said Humpty Dumpty, ‘which is to be master — that’s all.”

Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking Glass

My daughter is a huge Katy Perry fan, and thus it came to my attention that the songstress had tweeted about eating acupuncture-treated sushi and loving it. Naturally, my antennae were twitching at the suggestion that there were integrative fishmongers out there. What next, I thought, reiki-treated wagyu? Reflexologized spatchcock? Quinoa harvested by shamans with planetary tuning forks, perhaps?

Now, I’m all for eating healthily, and I’d also like to make it clear that it seems Katy had not gone out of her way to insist that the fish had been needled prior to consumption, but rather that some top Japanese fishmongers like to use acupuncture needles to treat the tuna and salmon to keep them fresh.You can see some video of the practice here.

Far from using the ancient wisdom of acupuncture to balance the qi and bring perfect health and amazing vitality to empowered and health-conscious aquatic consumers of the deep, the needles are used to disconnect the brain of the fish from its spinal cord, effectively letting it continue breathing with brain stem reflexes only to oxygenate the flesh while being transported. The more upmarket way to get fresh fish in Japan is to have it filleted while still alive, such is the value placed on freshness. Clearly this is not a practice that has much appeal for diners not culturally attuned to such cruelty. I’m not totally sure that the needling is much more humane, despite it being given the soothing euphemism of “kaimin katsugyo” which translates as “living fish sleeping soundly”. The fish with needles sticking out of them are packed in seawater-soaked cloths for transport, and are said to expire peacefully during the transport to the restaurant, where chefs and diners swoon at the exquisite flesh.

I’m intrigued though that this use of acupuncture needles for a purpose that clearly has absolutely nothing at all to do with health and wellbeing is even called acupuncture. It illustrates one of the fundamentally irritating and illogical things about acupuncture in general ,ie which form of it is the real acupuncture?

If the underlying premise of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) acupuncture is about balancing yin and yang with a view to manipulating the flow of qi along meridians, then why is there also Japanese acupuncture, which uses shallow needle insertions, Korean acupuncture which concentrates on the hands and auricular acupuncture, which was invented by a Frenchman in 1957? If meridians were real, and acupuncture works in the manner claimed by any of these schools with diametrically opposed opinions, then there must be a winner if they are put to the test. Why hasn’t that happened? Where are the crossover studies from TCM proponents showing head-to-head comparisons with Korean or Japanese techniques? Where are the basic science studies demonstrating in animal models (since animals apparently have meridians as well) why Korean acupuncture has it right, and TCM has been doing it wrong all these years?

Part of the frustration of trying to take acupuncture seriously (which I do, that’s why I’m always annoyed about it) is that the definition and supposed theoretical model cannot be defined in a meaningful way. As Humpty Dumpty points out rather scornfully, ‘acupuncture’ seems to mean whatever you can do with an acupuncture-like intention. As a wonderful example of the genre, this study was an instant classic when it was published in 2009. The authors can’t admit it was a resoundingly negative study. Instead they want more research into the possible mechanisms of ‘toothpick acupuncture’ since it seemed more effective than their best-practice TCM version. Similarly, the popularity of ‘laser acupuncture’ is testament to the fact that complete lack of plausibility and rationale for a treatment is no barrier to widespread use if you get the feels right.

So let’s be clear, zombifying fish to give them a prolonged death is no more acupuncture than using toothpicks, lasers, electrodes, tong ren hammers or needles to restore health. There is no genuinely accepted definition of the term. There is just a bunch of sectarian splitters.

The ConversationMichael Vagg does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. (Republished with permission). Read the original article.

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Confusing correlation with causation

Consider two events A and B.  Event B closely follows Event A in time.  Does this mean that Event A caused Event B?  Possibly, but not necessarily.  Both events could have been cause by a third event C, or more likely, the close timing of Events A and B is a coincidence.  So not only is causation not the only explanation, it is not even the best explanation.

Post hoc ergo propter hoc (Latin: ‘after this, therefore because of this’ – often shortened to post hoc) is a logical fallacy that states ‘Since Event B followed Event A, Event B must have been caused by Event A.’ It is subtly different from the fallacy cum hoc ergo propter hoc (‘with this, therefore because of this’), in which two things or events occur simultaneously or the chronological ordering is insignificant or unknown. These fallacies are also known as ‘False cause’.

Post hoc is a particularly tempting error because temporal sequence appears to be integral to causality.  Indeed, if Event A did cause Event B, Event B would probably occur soon after Event A in time.  But the reverse connection is not necessarily true – temporal correlation does not imply causality.  The fallacy lies in coming to a conclusion based solely on the order of events, rather than taking into account other factors that might rule out the connection.

The form of the post hoc fallacy can be expressed as follows:

Premise: A occurred, then B occurred.

Conclusion: Therefore, A caused B.

The following is a simple example: ‘The rooster crows immediately before sunrise, therefore the rooster causes the sun to rise’.  This conclusion is false, not just we happen to know that it is factually incorrect, but because the argument is fallacious.

When B is undesirable, this fallacy is often committed in reverse: Avoiding A will prevent B.  This is the basis of many superstitious beliefs, such as bad luck associated with Friday the 13th or walking under ladders.

An example of the cum hoc fallacy is as follows.  Sleeping with one’s shoes on (A) is strongly correlated with waking up with a headache (B). Therefore, sleeping with one’s shoes on causes headache.  A more plausible explanation is that both are caused by a third factor (C), in this case going to bed drunk, which thereby gives rise to a correlation between A and B.  So the conclusion is false.

Another example, is that ice-cream sales are correlated with the level of house burglaries during warmer weather when more people are on holidays (vacation). But ice-cream doesn’t cause burglaries, nor vice versa.


Source: Wikimedia Commons

On the other hand, if A is often correlated with B, then although we still can’t logically conclude that A causes B (or vice versa), such a causal link may be a hypothesis worth testing via properly designed scientific experiments.

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Hitchens on faith

“Faith is the surrender of the mind; it’s the surrender of reason, it’s the surrender of the only thing that makes us different from other mammals. It’s our need to believe, and to surrender our skepticism and our reason, our yearning to discard that and put all our trust or faith in someone or something, that is the sinister thing to me. Of all the supposed virtues, faith must be the most overrated.” – Christopher Hitchens

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Centrifugal force fiction

A claim of the existence of a ‘centrifugal force‘  is not strictly a logical fallacy, except when it is argued to be a real force. It is actually a fictional force that appears to draw a rotating body away from the center of rotation. It is caused by the inertia of the body, which would otherwise continue in  the direction of a straight line, if it were not for the constraining force causing  the body to rotate about the centre. Professor Julius Sumner Miller entertainingly demonstrates these forces here:


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Searle against the rejection of realism

Prof. John Searle (born July 31, 1932) is an American philosopher and currently the Slusser Professor of Philosophy at the University of California, Berkeley. Widely noted for his contributions to the philosophy of language, philosophy of mind and social philosophy, he began teaching at Berkeley in 1959. He received the Jean Nicod Prize in 2000; the National Humanities Medal in 2004; and the Mind & Brain Prize in 2006. Among his notable concepts is the “Chinese room” argument against “strong” artificial intelligence.

“I actually think that philosophical theories make a tremendous difference to every aspect of our lives. In my observation, the rejection of realism, the denial of ontological objectivity, is an essential component of the attacks on epistemic objectivity, rationality, truth, and intelligence in contemporary intellectual life. It is no accident that the various theories of language, literature, and even education that try to undermine the traditional conceptions of truth, epistemic objectivity, and rationality rely heavily on arguments against external realism. The first step in combatting irrationalism – not the only step but the first step – is refutation of the arguments against external realism as a presupposition of large areas of discourse.” – John Searle


Searle, John R. The Construction of Social Reality. London: Penguin Books, 1995 p.197.


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Drange on methodological atheism

Methodological atheistsclaim that there is no good objective evidence either for God’s existence or for God’s nonexistence, but there is a certain methodological principle which places the burden of proof upon theists, and since they fail to meet that principle, the only rational position to take is that of atheism. (Some methodological atheists formulate the principle by saying that the burden of proof is always on any person making an existence claim, since, from a logical point of view, existence claims are only capable of proof, not disproof. No one has ever proven the nonexistence of Santa Claus, or elves, or unicorns, or anything else, simply because the very logic of an unrestricted existential proposition prohibits its disproof. It is impossible to go all over the universe and show that, for example, there are no elves anywhere. For this reason, rational methodology calls for us to deny the existence of all those things which have never been shown to exist. That is why we all regard it rational to deny the existence of Santa Claus, elves, unicorns, etc. And since God is in that same category, having never been shown to exist, it follows that rational methodology calls for us to deny the existence of God.)” –  Theodore M. Drange

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Vanstone on civility

“John F. Kennedy had a great line in his inauguration speech pointing out that civility is not a sign of weakness. Civility is much more than the absence of shouting, much more than the veneer of a smile. It  demands that we really listen and try to understand the other point of view, that when we disagree we do so without rancour and that we have respect for the other person despite the fact that they hold a different view. It is a fairly simple test, but much of what we hear in the media and from some politicians fails that test. The constant denigration of politicians as a class contributes to the diminution of our civil discourse. Of course, when a politician fails to live up to a required standard, that should be pursued vigorously. But what damages all of us is the endless undermining of our democratic institutions by the seemingly daily presentation of politicians as feckless, self-serving users. Is it any wonder that a Lowy Institute poll shows a worrying proportion of young Australians are not enamoured with democracy? The constant denigration undermines the institutions we enjoy and for which people from all corners of the earth are willing to die.” – Amanda Vanstone


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Russell on reality

“We all believe that we live in a common world, peopled not only by sentient beings like ourselves, but also by physical objects. I say we all believe this, in spite of the fact that some philosophers have pretended to doubt it. There are on the one hand solipsists who maintain that they alone exist, and make desperate efforts to make others agree with them. Then there are philosophers who hold that all reality is mental, and that while the feelings we experience when we look at the sun are real, the sun itself is a fiction. And as a development of this view there is the theory of Leibnitz, according to which the world consists of monads that never interact, and perception is in no degree due to the action of the outer world upon the percipient. In this view we may be said to be all dreaming, but the dreams that we all have are identical in structure. These different views, I say, have been advocated by different philosophers, and I do not think that any of them can be disproved. On the other hand, none of them can be proved, and, what is more, none of them can be believed, not even by their advocates.” – Bertrand Russell

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Russell on doubt

“The whole problem with the world is that fools and fanatics are always so certain of themselves, and wiser people so full of doubts.” – Bertrand Russell

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