Thursday, December 1, 2016

Humanist definition of truth

I was recently reading Richard Rorty’s “Contingency, irony, and solidarity.” In the introduction, he delineates the core problem he is talking about: relationship between individualism and solidarity. Should people be altruistic or should they be antisocial? Following a common philosophical practice, Rorty completely ignores the entire scientific body of evidence related to this topic which was available to him at the time when he was writing the book. There is no mention of evolutionary basis for altruism or other scientific theories of human motivation and social interaction. Instead, Rorty discusses what people like Nietzsche or Hegel, ignorant of any scientific investigation into the topic, pulled out of thin air hundreds of years before. This is why I don’t like (most) philosophers.

In the following chapter Rorty explains what he thinks “the truth” is. The explanation contains statements like “The world can, once we have programmed ourselves with a language, cause us to hold beliefs” and culminates in a statement that “truth is a property of linguistic entities, of sentences.” As it turns out this is a common understanding of what the truth is, among people involved in humanities like, say, anthropologists. Rorty himself is a popular philosopher having his part in shaping of the modern liberal academic ideology. The book I am discussing here was cited over 10,000 times according to Google Scholar.

The aforementioned definition of truth made me come up with a quick example. Consider a dog. Show two cups to the dog and put a bone into one of the cups. Then, distract the dog and quickly swap the cups. Then, let the dog choose one of the cups. The dog will choose the cup it remembers to have a bone in it. That is, the dog believes that bone is in a certain cup. This belief is false if you swapped the cups and is true if you did not swap the cups. Since the dog cannot speak, the existence of beliefs and their truth or falsehood do not depend on existence of a language.

This definition of truth is an expression of anthropocentrism that seem to be central to the modern liberal academic ideology. Nothing but humans is important. Nobody bothers to question whether the reasoning presented would be valid for agents who do not share all human characteristics, in this particular case, the use of language. As a result, Rorty’s arguments depend on how he implicitly defines human nature. Yet he is explicitly against the notion of human nature. The whole structure is internally inconsistent.

Why is it important? Well, it shows how modern liberal ideology is grounded in ignorance. This ignorance gives rise to dogmatically defended stances like cultural relativism. It makes otherwise perfectly reasonable people to say things like “2+2=4” is no better than “2+2=5” if the latter is an inherent element of a culture which assigns truth to it. The intellectual discourse deteriorates. Harmful policies gets enacted.

Thursday, March 17, 2016

Persecution of homosexuals

It is just a hypothesis.

Because they invest much more resources in giving birth and rearing children, women are generally pickier than men when choosing their sexual partners. They are harder to get than men.

Men on the other hand have high libido that motivates them to compete for women and to pursue them, often despite their reluctance.

Men could easily release the sexual tension if they could have sex with each other instead of women. However such behavior would lead to lower chances for reproduction. So, the evolution came up with a solution: man feel repelled when thinking about having sex with other man.

In other words, males have an innate revulsion towards sexual interaction with other men (i.e. gay sex). Otherwise they would be releasing their sexual tension by having sex with each other instead of pursuing women. I suspect this mechanism has been around for many million years. It was created in our ancestral animals (which could not masturbate) and lingers on since then.

Women on the other hand do not have to compete or pursue men as vigorously, and so their everyday libido is at a lower level. They do not need the protection against the possibility of releasing their sexual tension in an evolutionarily disadvantageous way – because they do not have as much tension. As a result, they do not have the same innate revulsion towards lesbians as men have towards gays.

Also, according to this hypothesis, men do not have reasons to feel revulsion towards lesbian sex and women do not have reasons to feel revulsion towards gay sex. It seems that these predictions more or less conform to reality.

In the end, the discrimination of gays comes from the fact that men are naturally repelled by gay sex for evolutionary reasons. The reason why this sometimes extends to the entire society being against both gays and lesbians is trough guilt by association often institutionalized by various cultural vehicles like religious scriptures.

Literature on attitudes towards homosexuals

Monday, March 7, 2016

Battle over e-cigarettes

I was recently asked to create a report on e-cigarettes by a friendly company. Some of the workers started complaining about secondhand e-cigarette vapor. The discussion got heated up because five pregnant women were working at the open space office where the vapers were located. The HR did some preliminary research and sent out an email with new rules. They said that e-cigarettes were more carcinogenic than traditional cigarettes and that WHO advised to prohibit vaping at workplace because of the threat of secondhand vapor. Vaping got banned.

This resulted in a backlash and some vapers ended up writing long emails on how this is all untrue. They cited sources like NHS as well as scientific papers supposedly debunking claims made by HR. Nevertheless the management decided that the ban on e-cigarettes was here to stay. In the meanwhile they asked me about my opinion.

In a nutshell, e-cigarettes are most likely much less harmful than traditional cigarettes. They do not contain most harmful substances released by burning tobacco. The amounts of other supposedly harmful substances in the secondhand vapor may be lower than in other products happily ingested or inhaled by people (including pregnant women). There exist no scientific proof that e-cigarettes are toxic to bystanders.

E-cigarettes are indeed a different product than traditional cigarettes and the comparisons of the two are unjustified. Their sin is that they share the name, a single ingredient (nicotine), and the consumption looks similar to that of the super-villain traditional cigarettes. Guilt by association on one hand and the interest groups on the other hand contribute to fearmongering about these products. As a result, e-cigarettes in the eyes of public are guilty until proven innocent.

Nevertheless, there is a small risk that the exhaled vapor contains amounts of nicotine high enough to damage or otherwise hamper the development of a fetus. Pregnant women should have the right to be protected from exposure to vapor, until research shows that e-cigarettes are safe for fetal development. In general, regular adults should have the right to breathe air that is not contaminated by emissions of other people, be it cigarette smoke, scented candles, body odor, farts, or vapor. In the same way visual and sonic pollution of common spaces are often limited.

In the context of office environment, vaping should be thus prohibited if coworkers strongly request so. Since there is currently no definite scientific evidence either way, a firm can decide to do whatever maximizes the profit. If vaping reduces productivity by making workers unhappy, it should be banned. If it increases productivity by eliminating cigarette breaks, then it should be allowed. As for the litigation, it is unlikely that the plaintiff can succeed in suing a company for exposing them to a secondhand vapor because there is no scientific proof that it is harmful. It is more likely that vapers succeed in suing a company that confined them to a space occupied by regular smokers, since the tobacco smoke is proven to be harmful.

All these ideas will be developed in detail in what follows. Let us start with nicotine.


Nicotine is addictive. This in itself is not bad for the health of an individual. The only well-established risk associated with intake of nicotine is increased chance of developing cardiovascular disease. But, since nicotine is the addictive component of tobacco, it is the sworn enemy number one of many health officials. Thus, much more effort is done to prove its harmfulness than to disprove it or to prove its benefits. Scientific papers on benefits of nicotine always underline that it is also harmful but scientific papers on its disadvantages (much more numerous) hardly ever mention any benefits at all. This is a signal that scientific community is not objectively analyzing the issue. Nevertheless, despite all the effort, few adverse effects of nicotine are confirmed.

There is a number of theories linking use of nicotine to malfunction of various systems in the body. Most notably, nicotine is often linked to cancer or fetal problems. These two claims are however made up on the basis of guilt by association – they are proven results of smoking which involves inhalation of many other substances. Clinical trials with nicotine replacement therapy do not confirm any of these claims. As one influential study says: “The safety of NRT in terms of effect on fetal development and birth outcomes remains unclear in pooled data from this review.”

The current scientific knowledge indicates that if the dose is right, the effects of nicotine on human body are similar to those of caffeine. The only difference is that nicotine is more addictive.

The difference between cigarettes and e-cigarettes

Smoking cigarettes involves inhaling smoke generated during combustion of tobacco leaves. Some studies try to prove that chemical composition of tobacco makes its smoke especially carcinogenic, but the truth is that any regular smoke has a lot of carcinogenic substances. Smoked food has been identified as a cause for cancer (fried food as well). Any other smoke, including smoke from chimneys, cannabis, scented candles, or car exhaust fumes (especially diesel) also contains carcinogens. Two main factors influence how carcinogenic it is: (1) dirtiness of the smoke – low temperatures and limited oxygen can contribute to incomplete combustion leaving many reactive particles intact and (2) the amount of smoke inhaled – definitely higher in case of smoke produced exclusively for the purpose of inhaling it multiple times a day.

On the other hand, the aerosol (often called vapor) generated by e-cigarettes is not a result of combustion. A part of e-cigarette called atomizer increases the temperature of the e-liquid causing it to turn into aerosol. As a result, there is no change in the chemical composition of the ingredients (unless there is contamination).

Cigarette smoke contains thousands of different substances, many of which are identified as harmful, either as carcinogens or otherwise. E-cigarette aerosol do not contain these substances. Chemical composition of regular cigarette smoke is much closer to the smoke generated by a scented candle or a chimney than to vapor generated by e-cigarettes. It is thus silly to automatically associate e-cigarettes with regular cigarettes because they are used similarly and they have a similar name. They are completely different products with highly separated sets of advantages and disadvantages.

Potential harms of e-cigarettes

Looking for negative effects of e-cigarettes, it is easy to come across lists including items such: (1) lithium-ion batteries of e-cigarettes sometimes explode causing burns, (2) e-liquid can cause poisoning in children who drink it, or (3) adults sometimes confuse e-liquid with another product like eye drops which also causes poisoning. These are ridiculous claims that are not idiosyncratic to e-cigarettes but can be applied to any electronic or chemical product. They are found on such lists not because e-cigarettes are especially prone to such accidents but because anti-e-cigarettes activists try to make them look scarier (this tactic may have an adverse effect as it undermines credibility of the authors in the eyes of a skeptic reader). For the purpose of this analysis I will focus only on the aspects related to inhaling vapor.

The ingredients of e-liquid are most often: propylene glycol, glycerol, water, and nicotine. The first two compounds are widely used in the food industry and are proven to be safe for consumption by humans including pregnant women. In addition, e-liquid often contains flavorings and other additives that depend on the brand of the product. These need to be checked individually for potential adverse effects in the same way flavors and other additives to food products need to be checked.

Some studies indicate that e-liquid may get contaminated and then vapor contains other potentially toxic chemicals, for example heavy metals. It is however important to remember that most of these potentially harmful substances are present virtually everywhere. For example, lead is present both in the air at the top of Mount Everest and in the seawater of Mariana Trench (as a curiosity, lead in seawater is three times as common as gold but a hundred time less commont han uranium). Just the fact that the substance is present does not matter. It matters only if the concentration is high enough to affect human health. And no study has shown that vapor contains harmful quantities of contaminants.

There does not seem to be anything in e-cigarettes that justifies the outcry and fearmongering about its potentially harmful ingredients.

Why people are so wary of e-cigarettes then?

There are four main articles on Wikipedia about e-cigarettes: (1) Electronic cigarette, (2) Safety of electronic cigarettes, (3) Electronic cigarette aerosol and e-liquid, and (4) Positions of medical organizations on electronic cigarettes. Health-related parts of these articles look like battlefields. They consist of intertwined positive and negative statements debunking each other. Almost every sentence has references to scientific sources. The irony is that virtually none of these statements prove anything. Words like “may” or “can” are much more common than “is” or “do.” The overall message (often explicitly expressed at the beginning of an article) is that nobody knows anything. These Wikipedia articles are thus the longest, most elaborate and well-sourced but also entirely meaningless and pointless texts one can ever imagine.

What are the forces that created these battlefields? In one corner there are vapers (who want to vape) and the vaping industry (who want to make profit). In the other corner are concerned citizens, most health organizations (with the notable exceptions of British ones) and politicians. Surprisingly, Big Tobacco – the most obvious potential opponent to e-cigarettes as they constitute competition – does not seem to be a driving force. To the contrary, the Big Tobacco slowly tries to diversify by investing in the e-cigarette industry.

Consider California. Master Settlement Agreement – a deal between 46 US states and the major tobacco companies – provides California (and other states) with a steady stream of money intended to cover medical expanses caused by tobacco use. The source of money are tobacco companies and the amount depends on their sales (a few cents per cigarette). Like other states, California decided to securitize the future payments in order to get more money upfront. This resulted in creation of so called tobacco bonds. Government issues these bonds and the buyers gets repaid with the money government receives over time from tobacco companies.

When the sales of cigarettes are too low and the amount of money is not enough to repay the debt, the bonds are in default. However, since the revenues will continue as long as cigarettes are being sold, the default often means that the creditors will eventually receive their money, although later. Some states (including California) chip in their backing to boost creditworthiness of tobacco bonds. That is they promise they will repay creditors using tax receipts if the money from tobacco companies is not enough.

Because state revenues depend on the amount of cigarettes sold, states have incentive to maintain this source of revenue by, say, banning or taxing e-cigarettes. In addition, securitization created a lobby – people who bought tobacco bonds – whose interest is in maximizing the number of regular cigarettes sold. And the amounts of money we are talking about are not small – by 2007 California has emitted nearly $17 billion worth of tobacco bonds. Various statesare working on banning or taxing e-cigarettes comparably to regular cigarettes, including California. Members of California’s tax commission shamelessly spread bullshit in the documents calling for higher taxation: in a 2015 report Ms. Fiona Ma, in addition to making statements already debunked in this article, writes that: “Tobacco companies claim that E-cigarettes are not as harmful as conventional cigarettes (…). However, these claims are refuted by strong scientific evidence that claims that E-cigarettes can be just as harmful as conventional cigarettes.” What evidence? Unfortunately no sources are provided.

Health organizations

But the worst source of misinformation and fearmongering are health officials and health activists. Let us analyze the 2015 report signed by the then director of the California Department of Public Health. A long litany of concerns regarding e-cigarettes starts with indications than they are more and more popular, especially among young people and many of these young people never smoked cigarettes. These are all true facts. But they are not obviously bad. They would be bad if the overall health of population was declining due to growing trend in consumption of e-cigarettes. And nobody was able to prove that so far. The fact that adolescents who never smoked tobacco use e-cigarettes does not mean anything: maybe these individuals would use regular tobacco products instead, if e-cigarettes were not available.

The report states: “Research suggests that kids who may have otherwise never smoked cigarettes are now becoming addicted to nicotine through the use of e-cigarettes and other e-products.” And then there is a reference to a scientific paper in which we read: “This is a cross-section study, which only allows us to identify associations, not causal relationships.” That is, the study itself says that they do not claim that e-cigarettes cause increase in addiction to nicotine. Whether the authors of the report intentionally lied is hard to say – it seems more likely that they did not read the paper they were citing and their conclusions were influenced by strong confirmation bias. In a nutshell: they did not lie, they were just lazy and biased.

Some additional statements in the report include:
  • Nicotine is highly addictive neurotoxin, especially in adolescents. The report fails to specify that it indeed is harmful to adolescent rats when administered through injection. Trials in humans do not confirm these claims.
  • Vapor is a concoction of toxic chemicals, at least ten of which are known to cause cancer, birth defects, or other reproductive harm. This statement can be equally truthfully made about many types of food we eat daily, e.g. french fries.
  • E-liquid may be confused by children who would eat it; e-cigarettes sometimes leak which can lead to poisoning when e-liquid is ingested or are used as an eye-drop by mistake. Yes, misuse happens with every product. But does it happen more often with e-cigarettes?
  • Claims that e-cigarettes help to quit smoking are unproven. But switching from smoking to vaping precisely is quitting smoking, isn’t it?
  • E-cigarettes are undermining current smoke-shaming norms and provide a way around smoking bans. True, only if you equate smoking with vaping in your mind. Otherwise false.

The overall picture that emerges is as follows. Health officials are under influence of several forces that make them such strong opponents of e-cigarettes:
  • They are often incompetent, biased, and lack critical thinking (traditional human characteristic). They engage in herd behavior – if so many people around me say it, it must be true (traditional human characteristic). They are lazy and do not check other people, especially not those whom they agree with upfront (traditional human characteristic).
  • Their job is to protect population from any health risks (also those overblown or imaginary). They take their task of policing other people and telling them what to do too seriously. They often neglecting aspects other than direct impact on health (economic issues, unintended consequences, etc.).
  • Bashing e-cigarettes is popular because it is easy to associate e-cigarettes with regular cigarettes and the latter are proven to be harmful. They respond to pressures: some people demand bashing e-cigarettes, especially fearful parents.
  • Their views are reinforced by other officials, most notably those responsible for tax revenues.
  • They worked hard to brand smoking as bad and e-cigarettes constitute a new trend that in their eyes threatens this achievement. 

To vape or not to vape?

Now that we have established what the facts are and explained the sources of confusions, it is time to make a decision: to vape or not to vape?

A rational individual should consider both advantages and disadvantages of vaping and chose whatever this cost-benefit analysis indicates. This is hard to do in practice because the ideological warfare reduces the quality of available objective information. For example, the research on the positive effects of nicotine is seriously underdeveloped meanwhile the research on its negative effects if overdeveloped and full of exaggerations.

If you are a smoker, than the answer is simple: stop smoking and start vaping. If you are a non-smoker, there are probably better methods of getting benefits nicotine provides: for example, if you need to get focused, you may consider drinking coffee. But if there are no other ways for you to, say, relieve stress, you may try to see if vaping can help you. Remember to consider how addictive your personality is. Some people get addicted much easier than others. If you belong to the former group, it is riskier for you to experiment with nicotine because you may get addicted even if benefits turn out to be not worth the costs.

But the main objective of this article is to advise a company on a policy. Should HR ban vaping in the company buildings? Things to consider when answering this question are summarized in the table below:

Vaping is allowed in common spaces.
Vaping is not allowed in common spaces.
Health effects on employees.
Non-smokers may be exposed to vapor (which has no proven negative health consequences). Also, people who quit smoking may be exposed to nicotine, which may induce relapse.
Vapers may end up vaping in the same areas as smokers which may be unhealthy to them due to secondhand smoke.
Some workers may consider it irritating or may estimate risk of inhaling vapor to be high. These workers may become less productive. Tensions between workers create unproductive working environment for the entire company.
Vapers take multiple breaks a day to go out. Productivity decreases, although probably not as much – breaks are often needed by workers and would happen anyway but in a hidden way, say by sitting idle next to one’s computer.
Possible lawsuit.
Non-smokers can sue a company for forcing them to be in vicinity of vapers, especially if they ended up having health problems, as in the case of traditional cigarettes. A very unlikely scenario.
Vapers can sue company if they can prove that company rules forced them to be in the vicinity of smokers, especially when they have prescription for e-cigarette or if they develop a disease associated with secondhand tobacco smoke but not with vaping. A very unlikely scenario.

In general, productivity issue seems to be most important. If many employees request a ban, one probably should be enacted. Otherwise not.

Thursday, February 18, 2016

Medical news reporting

This is such a bullshit. Let me just glance over the fact that these studies hardly ever establish causality. What they do, is that they establish partial correlation which is as good as control variables they used. In a nutshell, you are more likely to get heart failure with the kind of people who both drink a lot of soda and do not exercise. If the study does not account for the exercising aspect, the rate of heart failure will be attributed only to drinking soda even though it should be attributed to lack of exercising as well. This is so called “omitted variable bias” and biomedical studies are plagued with it. The only way to eliminate it, and the only kind of evidence that should be accepted as definite are randomized controlled trials.

But this is only scientists’ wrongdoing and I want to complain here about how their findings – whether true or not – are twisted and misinterpreted by the public. To see it, let us look at the three news articles mentioned above and the corresponding research articles (which can be found here, here, and here). Let us discuss the 33% stroke figure from the first article. Upon reading the article, it seems that out of around 600,000 people, roughly 1700 had a stroke, which gives us average incidence of less than 0.3%. That is, if you work over 55 hours a day, your chances of getting a stroke are 0.4% instead of 0.3% that you would have if you worked just under 40 hours a day. In fact, your chances of getting a stroke if you work over 55 hours increase by 0.1%, not 33% as the article implies.

Second story: supposedly, drinking at least two sugary beverages a day increases your chances of heart failure by 23%. From the source article, we see that there were around 42,000 men taking part in the study. Around 4100 of them had heart failure. That gives us an average incidence of 9.8%. Drinking a lot of coke increases incidence to 12%. Therefore, your chance of getting heart failure raises by 2.2 percentage points, not by the implied scary 23%.

Finally, let us consider the claim that light drinking increases chances of breast cancer. According to the study, out of around 88,000 women, roughly 19,000 developed cancer. This tells us that an average women in this study had a probability of 21.6% of developing cancer. On the other hand an average drinking women had a probability of 24.4% of developing cancer. Thus, the probability increases by 2.8% which does not seem too much when compared to the overall risk of developing cancer. (My calculations in all the three examples are approximate and based on a number of simplifying assumptions, yet they should illustrate the problem).

So what is going on? What is the source of all these discrepancies? The numbers that are reported by medical journals are relative risks (and the statements about them are technically correct but may be misleading to an untrained person). That is, they tell you how many times a person who is involved in a “risky” behavior is more likely to contract a disease as compared to a person who is not involved in the “risky” behavior. That is, it may be true that a person who works a lot, a person who drinks a lot of soda, and a person who drinks a little alcohol every day are 1.33, 1.23, and 1.13 (respectively) times more likely to contract a disease in question than a person who does not do it. But the probability for the person who does not do it is usually small anyway, so even doubling it often does not increase your overall probability of contracting the disease enough to worry about it.

A related problem has to do with labeling substances as carcinogenic. Usually, anything that increases probability of causing cancer is labelled as carcinogenic. Therefore, a substance that increases your chances of contracting cancer from 15.2% to 15.3% (that is by 0.1% overall) is treated by the media frenzy in the same way as a substance that increases your chances from 7.5% to 38.1% (that is by 30.6% overall). People easily swallow it: to a raging mom dead set on protecting her baby from all harm, something labelled as a carcinogen is pure evil, no matter how strong a carcinogen it is and whether it also has some unrelated health-enhancing benefits.

But this is not all. Even if the numbers were reported correctly, they still would be a bad guidance for making decisions. This is because virtually everything has its advantages and disadvantages. Drinking a glass of wine a day may increase your chances of developing cancer but may also decrease your chances of getting a stroke. Quitting smoking may save you from lung cancer but may also cause you to eat more which will make you obese and increase your chances of heart failure. And so on. The only way to make a good decision is to perform a complete cost-benefit analysis with respect to an ultimate variable of interest. That is, a study is most useful for a person deciding what to do to stay healthy, if it reports whether doing something increases or decreases your expected healthy lifespan (and by how much). Only then you know full potential impact of such a decision on your health and can decide whether changing your habits is worth it. Unfortunately, studies reporting effects on healthy lifespan are hard to come by.

The focus on incidence and disregard for life expectancy is the source of another public misunderstanding of the current state of affairs: the notion of cancer epidemic. It is so scary: the cancer is currently much more prevalent than it was decades ago and is projected to be even more common in future. The world surely is becoming worse place, at least in this one respect, right? Bullshit. The reason why cancer is becoming ever more prevalent is because we are better and better at fighting other diseases. The average lifespan continuously increases because we successively eliminate other causes of death. This leaves cancer (along a few other culprits) to kill those people who did not die from other reasons. To sum up: the cancer epidemic is a positive sign of the overall progress in medical sciences.