Category Archives: science

The Narcissistic Ape

Since last fall I’ve been simultaneously compiling and reading my way through a list of classic nonfiction books, which is an endeavour originally prompted by my receiving a copy of The New New Journalism many years ago for Christmas. Naturally, after I finally got around to reading it, I had to follow up by reading Tom Wolfe’s classic anthology The New Journalism, and the rest is you-know-what. A recent recipient of the proverbial check mark was The Naked Ape, by Desmond Morris:

The Naked Ape, by Desmond Morris.

Desmond Morris, author of The Naked Ape, is a now-elderly English zoologist-turned-anthropologist (and later -turned-surrealist-painter), who apparently became concerned about the rapidly escalating rates of human population growth and decided to do something about it in the form of a zoologist’s take on the human animal. An odd choice of action for someone concerned about population growth, perhaps, but although his reasoning is convoluted, is is extant nonetheless: he believes that it’s our ignorance of our limitations as animals that leads to our substituting sappy humanistic sentiment for good ecological or evolutionary sense. “There is no hope of shrugging off the accumulated genetic legacy of [man’s] whole evolutionary past,” he argues, and man “would be a far less worried and more fulfilled animal if only he would face up to this fact.”

“Ladies love my fleshy earlobes.”

Of course, the book is couched at first as more of an expression of the ecstacy of scientific exploration, and it’s not until the end of the book that Morris admits the political nature of his motivation:

Sooner or later we shall go, and make way for something else. If it is to be later rather than sooner, then we must take a long, hard look at ourselves as biological specimens and gain some understanding of our limitations. This is why I have written this book, and why I have deliberately insulted us by referring to use as naked apes, rather than by the more usual name we use for ourselves.

This insult was received largely as he intended; the book received a lot of criticism, enough that dust jackets of subsequent editions hailed the book as a “controversial classic.” Morris posited that our simian heritage is frequently a source of embarassment, and there’s little doubt that in conceiving of the book the way he did, he was aiming to generate some bad publicity for himself (which is to say, good publicity) by hitting Homo sapiens below the belt. Russell H. Tuttle, of the University of Chicago, said of the “unfortunately chosen” title:

Morris states on page 15 that “At this point and without further investigation, it is justifiable to name this species (viz. man) the ‘naked ape.'” One suspects that “further investigation” stopped shortly after it was realized that “the naked ape” would make a catchy title for the book.

Some humanists chomped on this bait as expected. George Gaylord Simpson, in reviewing the book for the New York Times, opined that “the overt intention of treating man as a zoological species or a biological specimen is not only unobjectionable but is also admirable,” yet he ultimately objects to the book because of his conviction that “man is not an ape, not by far.”

Actually man is an ape, and Morris was right in trying to pull some of the wool away from our eyes. Next time you scratch an itch, think about how that reflex helps to keep bugs from crawling on your skin, and realize how clumsy an animal you really are. The problem isn’t that Morris treats humans as apes, it’s that his approach to doing so is predominantly bad biology; large swaths of the book read like nothing more than drawn-out, rambling hypotheses, with little in the way of evidence. If such and such is the case about humans today, he’ll say, then perhaps so and so is the explanation. Hypotheses are fun to think about, but they’re hardly science unless they’re followed by experimental verification. In the cases where he does draw on existing research, his conclusions are mostly audacious and his generalizations are indefensible.

Morris’s goal, as stated, is clear—to elucidate our biological limitations. Yet throughout the book, he tends to vacillate between knocking humans down from their “grandiose ideas and . . . lofty self-conceits” and lifting them up as prototypes of evolutionary success. At times, in exchange for a theological anthropocentric view, Morris substitutes fitness as a measure of a creature’s rank on the Great Chain of Being. This latter tendency is inherent in Morris’s teleological account of evolution—many of his hypotheses are posited as though certain adaptations were devised as solutions to some kind of problem. Thus, he writes things like, “As the battle was to be won by brain rather than brawn, some kind of dramatic evolutionary step had to be taken to greatly increase his brain power.” Or, “The males had to be sure that their females were going to be faithful to them when they left them alone to go hunting. So the females had to develop a pairing tendency.” This isn’t actually how evolution works; see Wikipedia for details.

Unfortunately, this misunderstanding leads him to imply in a lot of cases that certain creatures are more highly evolved than others. Perhaps the clearest manifestation of this mistaken view of evolution, and the aspect of the book that’s most worthy of criticism, is in Morris’s ranking of human cultures in terms of evolutionary fitness. Most of Morris’s hypothesizing is derived from research conducted on whiteys from Western Europe and North America:

Most of the detailed information we have available stems from a number of painstaking studies carried out in recent years in North America and based largely on that culture. Fortunately it is biologically a very large and successful culture and can, without undue fear of distortion, be taken as representative of the modern naked ape.

Note the appeal to biological success: white people are numerous and powerful, and therefore they are the purest manifestation of the naked ape’s evolutionary goals. Nevermind that when the book was written, North Americans constituted just 220 million out of 3.5 billion people on earth. Morris justifies this leap of faith by characterizing other, non-white cultures as backward failures:

The earlier anthropologists rushed off to all kinds of unlikely corners of the world in order to unravel the basic truth about our nature, scattering to remote cultural backwaters so atypical and unsuccessful that they are nearly extinct . . . . The work done by these investigators was, of course, extremely interesting and most valuable in showing us what can happen when a group of naked apes becomes side-tracked into a cultural blind alley . . . . The simple tribal groups that are living today are not primitive, they are stultified.

And later:

Only if a culture becomes too rigid as a result of its slavery to imitative repitition, or too daring and rashly exploratory, will it flounder . . . . We can see plenty of examples of the too rigid and too rash cultures around the world today. The small, backward societies, completely dominated by their heavy burden of taboos and ancient customs, are cases of the former. The same societies, when converted and ‘aided’ by advanced cultures, rapidly become examples of the latter.

I might note that two of the worlds biggest religions, Christianity and Islam, are burdened with taboos and customs, and they constituted about half the people on earth when this book was written. Clearly his regard of the cultural East and economic South is so low that he can write them all off—two or three million people in Africa, a couple billion Asians, about two hundred million Central and South Americans—as being no more typical than the people of Papua New Guinea. This isn’t necessarily an impediment to Morris’s worldview, though, because culturally sophisticated, relatively wealthy white scientists like himself are even purer expressions of evolutionary destiny:

Certain types of belief are more wasteful and sultifying than others and can side-track a community into rigidifying patters of behaviour that hamper its qualitative development . . . . A belief in the validity of the acquisition of knowledge and a scientific understanding of the world we live in, the creation and appreciation of aesthetic phenomena . . . , and the broadening and deepening of our range of experiences in day-to-day living, is rapidly becoming the ‘religion’ of our time.

Not surprisingly, these assumptions—that upper-middle class 1950s America is more or less representative of the entirety of humankind—bleeds over into his discussion of work and leisure.

When the pseudo-hunter is relaxing he goes to all-male ‘clubs’, from which the females are completely excluded. Younger males tend to form into all-male gangs, often ‘predatory’ in nature. Throughout the whole range of these organizations, from learned societies, social clubs, fraternities, trade unions, sports clubs, masonic groups, secret societies, right down to teenage gangs, there is a strong emotional feeling of male ‘togetherness’ . . . . Females frequently resent the departure of their males to ‘join the boys’, reacting to it as though it signified some kind of family disloyalty. But they are wrong to do so. All they are witnessing is the modern expression of the age-old male-grouping hunting tendency of the species.

Indeed, going to all-male clubs is part of our nature, so get over it, woman!

“Excuse me while I express my primitive hunting urges.”

When you conceive of evolution as a process designed to meet certain goals, and your goal is to produce an organism exactly like Desmond Morris, it’s inevitable that your examination of humankind will come out looking like The Naked Ape. Overall, Morris’s goal to turn his pen on Homo sapiens to provide a much-needed account of the species from a zoologist’s perspective was unmet–there’s very little in this book to tempt a practicing zoologist. But his goal to make a name for himself by inflaming passions worldwide, in a style that would later be adopted by people like Anne Coulter, was wildly successful; the book has sold over twelve million copies, and Morris went on to apply his money-making formula to a number of subsequent books, like The Human Zoo and The Naked Woman, that I have no intention of reading.

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Use-Value of Scientific Knowledge

Rationally Speaking is a podcast created by Dr. Massimo Pigliucci and Julia Galef of New York City Skeptics. Dr. Pigliucci is currently a professor of philosophy at the City University of New York, but he also holds two other PhDs in genetics and botany. Ms. Galef is a writer and public speaker with a BA in statistics, who has a particular interest in science, technology, and rationality. In their podcast entitled “Is anthropology still a science?” they respond to the American Anthropological Association’s decision to remove all references to science from their mission statement—an interesting topic, and their discussion is worth hearing, but I’m particularly interested in a short exchange about the use-value of knowledge.

First, Dr. Pigliucci distinguishes between advocacy and science using ecology as an example (since he spent a considerable amount of time earlier in his career studying invasive species):

If you study the environment, you are an ecologist, but if you are advocating on behalf of particular, you know, types of defense of the environment or managing of the environment then you are an environmentalist or you are interested in policy and things like that, so you’re not doing science anymore . . . . If I publish an article as an ecologist, I’m expected not to do advocacy; in fact, the article would very likely be rejected if I started doing advocacy in a scientific journal, because the editor would correctly point out that what the science of ecology is about is to find out how things are, not to make value judgments or suggestions about value judgments . . . . That doesn’t mean that the same person cannot involve himself or herself in both activities, but it does mean that the two activities are, it seems, distinct . . . . If you want to make your department or your association or your journal mostly about advocacy, then you really ought to be, in fact, decoupled from the science branch.

Julia responds, “I’d like to talk a little bit more about the question of whether the knowledge in anthropology is generalizable or not . . . .” She refers to a comment on the Rationally Speaking blog from a grad student who asks, “what is the purpose of anthropology if not to produce generalizable knowledge? Of what empirical use is anthropology to anyone if it doesn’t produce this kind of knowledge?” Elaborating on this idea, Julia asks, “are the questions that it asks specific questions, like describing this particular society or this particular culture, or . . . are we trying to get at general principles of why things happen the way they do?” And later, in clarification, “what is the use, I mean, should anthroplogy be asking these specific questions, or should anthropology be trying to answer general questions?”

Dr. Pigliucci replies:

Why is it that certain people . . . see ungeneralizable knowledge as [un]worthy of science? I don’t think that’s the case. . . . There’s a lot of knowledge in science that is not actually generalizable . . . [such as] almost anything you get out of evolutionary biology. . . . One of the problems with the study of invasive species is precisely that it seems very hard to find any generalizable conclusions. It seems to be the fact that invasive species behave in a fairly idiosyncratic way. . . . But that doesn’t mean that that research is useless, because, for instance, if it comes to managing a particular species that is invasive in a particular area, . . . well, then you want to know a lot of specific knowledge about that particular system, and it doesn’t really matter whether that knowledge is generalizable or not–you have a problem to solve, and you’re solving it upon scientific grounds, you’re not solving it in a nonscientific manner . . . . It’s pretty clear,

he goes on,

that science is a highly heterogeneous kind of enterprise that addresses a variety of questions at a variety of levels, and these questions may have different degrees of generalizability, and some of the specific questions may be actually more useful, frankly, than general questions. We may come up with some general platitudes about, for instance, again, the behaviour of invasive species, but if they’re not particularly useful in terms of managing the species in the field, then it seems to me that we haven’t gained that much.

This is an interesting exchange, to me, because it implies that even scientific knowledge has some kind of use-value, and that the use-value of the knowledge is more or less the point of creating that knowledge. This is particularly interesting coming from Dr. Pigliucci, who argues for the importance of distinguishing the creation of scientific knowledge from the use of it. (I will note that it’s not a foregone conclusion that all or most scientists would agree that the purpose of creating knowledge is for its use-value; even Dr. Pigliucci seems to suggest that the goal of generalizable knowledge, as opposed to specific knowledge, is to contribute to the development of overarching theories—as is the case in physics, for example. Still, it’s not clear what the point of such a theory would be.) I agree from a practical perspective that what’s published in a scientific journal should be science, as opposed to advocacy, but I don’t think journal articles are the be-all-and-end-all of science as it’s practiced. If a scientist’s job is merely to produce scientific knowledge, but we argue that knowledge is produced for its use-value, then whose responsibility is it to make use of that knowledge?

An anthropologist who also commented on the Rationally Speaking post suggested that in the case of anthropology, at least, advocacy cannot really be separated as cleanly from science as Dr. Pigliucci would like. He suggested that a picture of anthropology that ignores the use-value of the knowledge it creates (i.e., “tak[ing] all of our research data and go[ing] up into the Ivory Tower”) doesn’t accurately reflect the nature of anthroplogy. Thus, although I agree with Dr. Pigliucci about the distinction between science and advocacy in principle, I’m not sure that looking at a field such as anthropology through that lens gives an accurate or complete picture of what’s going on there (it might give a picture of what should be going on there, but that’s not a scientific approach to studying anthropology). Nor does it give an accurate picture of what’s going on in ecology. If we look at science as it’s practiced, I think both ecologists and anthropologists are equally likely to use their knowledge for advocacy purposes as part of their jobs, and in the case of anthropologists, this occurs under the auspices of the American Anthropological Association.

To give a concrete example, here is the goal of some ecological research that was conducted by a friend of mine:

. . . to determine if channel geomorphology controls (a) the sensitivity of small streams to the altered rates of terrestrial inputs that result from riparian management, and (b) the extent to which these changes are conveyed downstream.

Is this science or advocacy? Or both? Maybe it makes more sense to look at certain applications of science as a part of advocacy, rather than an activity done by a discrete group of people to create knowledge that’s used by another discrete group of people. In this case, a problem is identified with our current forest management practices, some research is carried out to determine the specifics, some recommendations are made, some regulators are lobbied, some policies are changed. And in practice, as Dr. Pigliucci acknowledges, several of these steps might be done by the same person. But this doesn’t mean that the articles produced by this project were motivated by value judgments, and I don’t think this is grounds for “decoupling” the scientific part of the forestry department from the advocacy part, even though the forestry department is ostensibly “mostly about advocacy.” (Forestry, according to the Association of University Forestry Schools of Canada, is “the art and science of protecting, conserving and managing forests.”) I’m inclined to think it’s more likely that the invocation of such a distinction in a discussion about anthropology is a result of some kind of bias.

Clothing affects performance on math tests

I stumbled across an interesting article recently, entitled “The Swimsuit Becomes You: Sex Differences in Self-Objectification, Restrained Eating, and Math Performance” by Fredrickson et al. (1998). In the article, the experimenters describe how they attempted to measure the effects of clothing on self-objectification, or the tendency for an individual to appropriate the perceived opinions of others regarding their appearance. They randomly divided their participants into two groups, one of which would try on a swimsuit, and one of which would try on a sweater, and while each individual regarded themselves in a full-length mirror, they were asked to complete several questionnaires and do some other tasks. Not surprisingly, they found that the female cohorts who tried on the swimsuits experienced increased shame about their bodies, and those participants with high body shame scores tended to eat less when presented with an “unlimited” amount of food (i.e. they could eat as much as they wanted of what was presented). Men tended to experience significantly less body shame, and they showed much less restraint when eating than did the women.

More interesting, however, is their finding that wearing a swimsuit affected women’s scores on standardized math tests. Each participant did a fifteen-minute math test while wearing either the sweater or the swimsuit, and after the test scores were adjusted for each participant’s score on prior tests of math (i.e. the SAT or ACT), the overall tendency was for the women who were wearing the swimsuit to do much worse on the math test than the women wearing the sweater. This effect was not seen in the male group; in fact, the males who were wearing the swimsuit did slightly better than their counterparts in sweaters.

While I’m hardly qualified to judge the soundness of the methodology or the statistical analysis in this paper, I find this result fascinating in the context of, for instance, Leonard Sax’ and others’ arguments for sex segregated education, where the knee-jerk tendency is for people to attribute gender differences in scores on tests of cognitive abilities to some kind of biological or genetic factor. Clearly, the ability of a standardized test to capture some “absolute” measure of intelligence is not so cut and dried when the clothing that the test-taker is wearing can have such a remarkable effect. This seems especially relevant in the context of the increased sexualization of young girls, where the pressure to wear certain outfits might affect more than just socialization practices.

Bruno Latour on science

The CBC documentary series Ideas did a 24-part series entitled How To Think About Science. In Part 5, Bruno Latour said this:

When I did this work on science practices, no one understood it. It was taken as a “debunking” of science. So I was very interested because I never though that that had to be debunked. I though it had to be studied and described, but not – debunking never interested me. And yet it was taken by people as debunking. So I became very interested in that argument – why is that people, when you describe science, […] people believe it is a debunking? So what’s their idea of society when a description of science becomes a threat?

This question was a response to the backlash that he received because of his first book, entitled Laboratory Life: The Social Construction of Scientific Fact, based on his use of the term “social construction” to indicate the book’s focus on the social aspects of scientific practice. He indicated that it was never his intention to debunk science, and that he only intended to enrich science by providing a more thorough and socially-grounded explanation of how science is actually done. After people began expressing distaste at the idea that scientific fact could be “socially constructed,” he came to realize that the possibility of this distaste is predicated on a dualistic view of the world that posited a sharp demarcation between nature and culture. Under this paradigm, science can be viewed as purely rational, and consequently a mere description of nature unaffected by the messy social influences of culture. Thus, a description of scientific facts as being socially constructed threatens to make science “disappear,” because it does not fit neatly into the nature/culture paradigm. (Compare arguments that gender is socially constructed; opponents of this view often feel as though traditional gender roles are in danger of disappearing. Because the view of gender as being “natural” rather than “social” fits so well into a dualistic nature/culture worldview, the acceptance of a paradigm that legitimates social influences on gender is hard to swallow, despite it’s being ostensibly more thorough.) Not surprisingly, Latour suggested that the split between nature and culture is merely political, and that it serves institutions that are in a position to benefit from speaking for one side or the other: science for nature, and politics for culture. I’ve repeatedly stated, here and elsewhere, that the nature/culture dualism is frustratingly normalized, and that things that are posited as purely in the realm of one or the other are almost always affected by a combination of both. I agree with him that overcoming this false dichotomy is a critical project. Latour seems unduly optimistic, though, when he suggests that, in David Cayley’s words, “this myth […] is now clearly finished, undone by an ecological crisis in which human and non-human agencies are clearly blended” (namely, global warming). This may be the case in philosophy of science circles, as it seems to be in academic feminist ones, but I think this dualism still underscores a vast majority of people’s understanding of the world and serves as the basis of their decision making about issues that affect it, and that fact legitimates the existence of, for instance, climate change deniers in the highest echelons of power.

Humans and men: there are differences

The tendency to equate men with humankind is an old one, evidenced by little things like the age-old icon of evolution seen here:

declaration-evolution

Bob McDonald, on his CBC show Quirks and Quarks, did a masterful job of talking about humankind without ever mentioning or speaking to a woman on his August 22nd “best of” show, which was a re-broadcast of his show from April 25th, 2009 (available in full here). In attempting to answer the question “Are we inherently violent, or are we a naturally peaceful creature trapped in a violent culture?” Mr. McDonald, not surprisingly, seeks out academic sources who support the former option.

The first person he talks to is Dr. Richard Wrangham, professor of “biological anthropology” at Harvard University and coauthor of the book Demonic Males: Apes and the Origins of Human Violence. Dr. Wrangham describes to Mr. McDonald the incident in chimpanzee research that led to the idea that chimpanzees may be inherently violent; prior to 1974, the bulk of chimpanzee observation, primarily constituted by Jane Goodall’s work with the Gombe chimpanzees in Tanzania, had revealed that chimpanzees are only mildly violent, with most altercations being only minor (with the exception of one incident in which they stole and killed a human baby). In 1974, a group of chimpanzees was observed to silently approach a male member of a neighbouring chimpanzee community and then ambush and brutally kill him.  Since then, the same behaviour has been observed a number of times, and is in fact featured prominently in the popular BBC series Planet Earth. Prof. Wrangham explains that this behaviour is evolved as a way for groups of chimpanzees to expand their territory so as to have more resources to support more children.

The second person Mr. McDonald speaks with is Dr. David Carrier, a comparative physiologist at the University of Utah. Dr. Carrier points out that there is an energy cost to bipedalism, which suggests that there must be some evolutionary advantage to standing upright. This advantage is the ability of bipeds to use their forelimbs as weapons. Dr. Carrier rejects the notion that there might be other uses for one’s forelimbs that might offset the mechanical disadvantage of being two-legged, based on the two facts that a) Australopithecines had short legs, which would have given them a stabler base for hand-to-hand combat, and b) human hands are better-proportioned for forming fists than those of any other primates. [He really said this! I recommend to Dr. Carrier that he punch someone, and see how well-evolved his  metacarpals are.]

The third person invited on the show is Dr. Aaron Sell, an evolutionary psychologist from UC Santa Barbara. Dr. Sell did an experiement where he took male participants to the gym and had them lift weights to determine their level of strength, then they photographed the participants’ faces and had other participants look at the photos to see how well they could judge the strength of these people by their looks. As it turns out, “at least with men,” people were generally able to determine the strength of a person by looking at their face. Dr. Sell suggests that facial structures such as the brow and the jawbone are determined by testosterone, which is the same hormone that makes men big and strong; thus, men with low brows and big jawbones are more likely to be strong. That’s why, when someone makes an angry face, the muscles they use tend to accentuate the brow and the jawbone.

The fourth and final guest on the show is Dr. Craig Kennedy, a neuroscientist at Vanderbilt University in Nashville. He noticed that trained male mice are able to learn a complex task (in this case, pushing a button) in order to get the chance at fighting with another male mouse. The same mice, with their dopamine receptors disabled, do not exhibit the same behaviour; this suggests that the mice’s brains release dopamine – the “pleasure chemical” – when they experience aggression. Dr. Kennedy wanted to see if humans were the same way, so he designed an experiment that involved young men watching things such as hockey fights and scantily clad young women. He found that watching a hockey fight and ogling a scantily clad woman had similar effects on the dopamine receptors in these men’s brains, thus supporting the hypothesis that watching violence is pleasurable. [He conventiently declined to remark on the effects of partaking in violence.]

Although they all have their flaws and quirks, these particular experiments and hypotheses are not what I have a problem with. I have a problem with the fact that Bob McDonald had four men on his show and used their observations about male behaviour as grounds for the conclusion that “humans are inherently violent.” It shouldn’t take a university degree to notice that the guests on Quirks and Quarks were only talking about half of humankind. Using evidence from a small and non-representative sample to make conclusions about a whole population is known in philosophy as a hasty generalization, the bane of inductive reasoning. It’s a scientists job to avoid making generalizations by using as representative a sample as  possible; with the exception of Dr. Carrier, who appears to have his own set of problems, all of these scientists do their job very poorly in this regard, as does Mr. McDonald.

Correlation does not equal causation

One of the central talking points in the recent hullabaloo over evolutionary psychology has been the difference between correlation and causation.  Thanks to Echidne, I came across this remarkable example of correlation being confused with causation in USA Today (not exactly a bastion of good science):

Breast-feeding has well-documented benefits. Studies have shown it nourishes babies while fighting off infections and even boosting IQ. Now a study in Monday’s Pediatrics suggests nursing also may protect infants from neglect.
.
In a study of 6,621 Australian children over 15 years, researchers found that those who were breast-fed were far less likely to be neglected or abused by their mothers. Babies who weren’t breast-fed were more than 2½ times as likely to be maltreated by their mothers as those who were nursed for four months or more, the study shows. There was no link between breast-feeding and the risk of maltreatment by fathers or others.

Apparently a hormone released during breastfeeding that strengthens the bond between mother and child is responsible for this correlation. Although this dubious claim is discredited by a disinterested psychologist later in the article, the wording of the claim contains an interesting linguistic twist. Compare the sentence in the article

those who were breast-fed were far less likely to be neglected or abused by their mothers

with a revised version that switches the components around:

those who were neglected or abused by their mothers were far less likely to [have been] breast-fed.

What exactly is the difference between these two sentences? Well, among other obvious things, I had to change the aspect of the second sentence because the abuse usually comes after the breastfeeding, and the present perfect aspect indicates a completed action (i.e. the breastfeeding was completed before the abuse started). The order of events are important in this case because the two sentences have no overt semantic indication of causation other than the order in which the events occurred.

If we took a sample population that was made up of 20 cows and 20 dalmatians, and out of the 20 cows only 5 were Holsteins, we might say that those animals that are spotted are much more likely to be dalmatians. This claim has no inherent or implied indication that the cause of the animals being dalmatians is their spots; rather, the relationship between being spotted and being a dalmatian is simply one of strong correlation. (Note that the inverse, “those animals that are dalmatians are much more likely to be spotted,” is also true without need for the present perfect.)

However, if we take the same sample, and out of the 15 brown cows 13 of them were born in May, we might say that those cows that are born in May are much more likely to be brown. In this example, although their are still no overt or deliberate signs of causation, the sentence is more easily interpreted as depicting a relationship of causation because of the time element. Unlike in the case of the last example, the inverse of this sentence has to be “those cows that are brown are much more likely to have been born in May.”

I don’t want to give the impression that the cow examples are meant to be parallel to the breastfeeding example; I just want to show that the time element is encoded in the first type of sentence, and that time element implies causation rather than simply correlation. The use of the progression of time to indicate a relation of causation is known, in the parlance of our times, as the post hoc fallacy – post hoc, ergo propter hoc is Latin for “after this, therefore because of this,” and it is the name for the classic tendency to confuse correlation with causation that has been around since the dawn of argumentation.

Like the post hoc fallacy, the tendency for researchers to notice relationships of correlation and then make up reasons why the correlation might be causal is one of those things that just won’t go away.

Do potatoes need drugs? No.

As a follow-up to this post and this post, I wanted to link to a recent SciAm article about antibiotics in vegetables. According to the article, 70% of all the antibiotics used in the United States are fed to livestock pre-emptively to prevent disease. Since 90% of the drugs then come out as excrement or urine, which is then used to fertilize vegetable crops, antibiotics are showing up in vegetables at alarming concentrations, including in organically grown vegetables.

[Steve] Roach [public health program director for the non-profit Food Animal Concerns Trust] said “the clearest public health implication” from treating livestock with antibiotics is the development of resistant bacteria that reduces the effectiveness of human medicine. Past studies have shown overuse of antibiotics reduces their ability to cure infections. Over time, certain antibiotics are rendered ineffective.

The Do Bugs Need Drugs campaign gives no indication that the drugs used by prescribed-antibiotic users constitute the minority of antibiotics produced, nor does it give any indication of what impact the rest of these drugs has on drug-resistant bacteria due to their gratuitous use in the farm industries.