Published on: 2020-07-15

Divergence causes isolated demands for rigor

If you question enough things you can poke whole in any theory, argument, statement, or any other information-transmitting abstraction.

The fully-fledged argument for this is made fairly well in Beware isolated demands for rigor, so I won't repeat it in full.

The gist of it is that you can always disprove an argument if you dig deep enough into the epistemology and context backing it up, but, by doing so, you can make any productive discussion impossible.

I

For example:

A: I found that molecule X cures brain cancer.

B: But does it really "cure" cancer? Are you certain? Or did you just observe it in some percentage of patients?

A: No, I observed it in an n=50 study, all of them showed no sign of cancer after 1 month of treatment.

B: But 50 is an awfully low number, I think to have any certainty you need a bigger number.

A: I mean, I think it's fairly stunning, considering any other treatment has only p<0.001 to lead to those kinds of outcomes in 50 people. But I get your point, let me run a bigger trial.


A: Ok, I ran a trail on 5000 people, cancer cured in 100% of them based on 6 different state of the art assays, p < 0.000... that this finding is spurious, etc.

B: But really, there's some underlying assumption you're making about the world by giving us that p-value, it wouldn't hold if you started with different priors about the relationship between truth and the null hypothesis.

A: Ok, point taken, but whatever method I use to determine the p-value you could argue the same thing, and there's basically no method of analysis you could apply here that wouldn't reach the same conclusion about the results being stunning.

B: Why, of course, you can. Actually, I needn't even do that, think about your claim 100%. That's a fairly tight claim, what if in the next hundred years a single individual would not be cured by this molecule. Who knows, maybe he has a weird gene coding for an enzyme that destroys it?

A: But couldn't make that point about literally any single drug?

B: Look, let's focus on your claim specifically, ok, we're not talking about other drugs here. Anyway, you claim the cancer went away but how did you deduce it "went away", how accurate was your measurement?

A: Well, for one, we used a radioactive carbon glucose assay plus a drug to increase blood uptake to the brain and brain-blood-barrier permeability and then ran an MRI.

B: Oh my, that's not a very accurate method is it? I mean, you need huge clumps, hundred of thousands of cells, to detect them that way. Besides which, even though it is common, not all cancerous cells absorb more glucose than neighboring cells. Maybe you've just stumbled upon the first incidence of ketogenic cancer.

A: But, that would make almost all studies about cancer invalid.

B: And anyway, doesn't the human brain contain thousands of cancer cells at any moment in anyone? With the immune system fighting to keep them from causing a tumor.

A: I guess it does, but we don't really call it cancer until it becomes a potentially life-threatening tumor.


B: Oh and by the way, what do you mean by "cure", can you come up with a rigorous definition of that word? Why are you so sure cancer is "cured", maybe some strange people have a weird happiness determination mechanisms and they really enjoy cancer? Maybe the brain cancer damaged an area of their brain that was cause for their unhappiness. Maybe it made them realize the shortness of life and thus finally made them do meaningful things.

A: But then you're just saying that nobody in medicine should use the word "cure" anymore, this argument applies to literally all of medicine.

B: Even then, saying your molecule cures cancer is being naive, you're confusing correlation to causation. Until we have a perfect model of the human brain at a cellular level it's really impossible to know if this is a cause or if your drug is really just correlated with something cancer curing. Maybe it's the drug wrapping that emanates some cancer-curing aura.

A: Fuck you!

II

I think people have isolated demand for rigor from their outgroup.

The obvious example here is something like:

This behavior starts way before our most stupid political instincts kick in, you can see it in children.

The "unpopular" kid is someone that's divergent from the rest of the group for various reasons: different social stratum, different religion, different skin color, different accent, different background knowledge from parents. They will become the but of jokes and insults that could equally well apply to any of the other kids.

Yeah, maybe you're good at the game, but your mom is fat.

Statistically, "your mom is fat" descriptor applies to ~60% of the kids in the UK, it is also probably unrelate to whatever games the kids are playing. But "Your mom is fat" becomes a valid insult when speaking to the divergent kid, the outgroup.

III

"Your mom is fat" lives on into adulthood and seems to be present even in very rigorous fields.

An interesting example here is the Bates method for improving eyesight. It seems to be done by doing something like: starting at various images, looking towards the sun with your eyes tight shut, and tracking objects with your vision.

Wikipedia tells me that this is a discredited method based on a lack of evidence and the underlying theory being false, which seems fine. But let's look into why it's so:

There is no good evidence that any kind of training can change the refractive power of the eye. Moreover, certain aspects of the Bates method can put its followers at risk: they might damage their eyes through overexposure to sunlight, not wear their corrective lenses while driving, or neglect conventional eye care, possibly allowing serious conditions to develop.

For some of those claims, I can find in a single secondary source (nr 5 on Wikipedia) and it specifically mentions the sunlight damage to the eye being caused only if people open their eyes... while looking at the sun, with their eyes closed. So, let's look at this argument again and split it into parts:

There is no good evidence that any kind of training can change the refractive power of the eye

It doesn't really seem like a fully-fledged clinical trial was run to do this, even more so, the method was advocated for so long ago that it's hard to believe people even knew how to run a clinical trial that would have been believable to today's medical establishment.

Still, this seems like a fair point: There's no proof this works besides some case studies that could be fake/biased.

Then follows:

Moreover, certain aspects of the Bates method can put its followers at risk:

they might damage their eyes through overexposure to sunlight

Based on this same reasoning let's find some risk categories in the glass-wearing demographics:

not wear their corrective lenses while driving

Based on this same reasoning let's find some risk categories in the glass-wearing demographics:

neglect conventional eye care

Let's see:

possibly allowing serious conditions to develop

Wikipedia seems to just be wrong in even citing this one because it's actually a claim against the dangers of Iridology (some other alternative medicine BS), not the Bates method, found in the same secondary source.

In short, all but one of the arguments are bullshit isolated demands for rigor that aren't applied to modern optometry or modern medicine in general.

Except for the first "no evidence" argument, all of these could be arguments against any sort of intervention to correct eyesight.

So let me rephrase this argument:

There is no good evidence that any kind of training can change the refractive power of the eye. Moreover, Bates' mom is fat and he's ugly and somebody once told me they tried this and then they looked into the sun for too long and went blind.

IV

This is more or less the argument being made and accepted here, why?

Because "fuck alternative medicine", it's the outgroup, it's evil, evil people should be hit with any and all arbitrary and isolated demands for rigor because we don't like them.

At least I can't think of any other reasoning. Any doctor or researcher will "score virtue points" by arguing against alternative medicine. Thus, everyone will throw insults at the method until some stick, and none will bother pointing out how unfair this is... because they'd be defending alternative medicine, they'd be defending the evil outgroup and be shun because of it.

I think my hate for alternative medicine is about as high as it can get, BUT, this approach is still stupid and harmful to everyone. By throwing isolated demands for rigor at the thing, you are weakening the only relevant claim:

There is no good evidence that any kind of training can change the refractive power of the eye.

Why even bother doing this? In itself, this is disproof enough of the method.

Now, imagine a somewhat intelligent alt medicine kinda person reading this. What would happen there? Might she figure out that some of those are just arbitrary demand for rigors coming from a place of bad faith? Might she chose to thus go ahead and also distrust the studies that investigate the refractive power claim? Might she conclude that medicine is just a political game 99% of medics just so happen to be on the wrong side of the fence at the moment?

That's how you turn relatively smart people into homeopaths, anti-vaxxers, and 5g conspiracy theorists. You try to disprove the theory so hard, because it seems divergent and evil, that you get a few semi-intelligent contrarians (the linguistically-inclined kind) which can notice some of your argument are just shit-talking.

What happens afterward? Maybe they study the literature carefully and discover the rest of the argument are good... or maybe they just decide you're full of shit and shouldn't be trusted. I get a feeling that's how otherwise smart people often get into alternative medicine, they never get a raw dose of the argument against it, they get status-signaling shit-talking with the real arguments intermixed.

V

A blooming idea should be nurtured by cutting it some epistemic slack rather than holding it to standards higher than those to which we hold all of our other ideas.

Otherwise aggressive tribes that never discuss things are formed. Because each tribe will hold the other's ideas to stricter standards of rigors than theirs, ending up in thought bubbles that are impossible to break.

Otherwise, people are lead away from believing perfectly reasonable mainstream theories in favor of quacky nonsense. Because when quacky nonsense is held to standards of proof so high as to invalidate everything else, quacky nonsense seems about as valid as everything else.






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