While pharmaceutical companies and their stockholders have profited greatly from flooding America with opioids, this has come at a terrible cost to others. Showing that the idea of gateway drugs can prove true, there has proven to be a clear path from legal opioids to illegal opioids (such as heroin). As would be expected, the use of opioids can have a terrible impact on health. One example of this is endocarditis.
Endocarditis is, roughly speaking, an abscess on a heart valve. While not limited to drug users, it is not an uncommon consequence of injecting opioids. Since the abuse of opioids is increasing, it is no surprise that the number of drug users suffering from endocarditis has increased significantly. As would be imagined, the treatment of endocarditis involves a very expensive surgery. As would also be imagined, many of the drug users getting this surgery are on Medicaid, so the taxpayers are footing the bill for this expensive treatment. To make matters worse, people typically return to using opioids after the surgery and this often results in the need for yet another expensive surgery, paid for by Medicaid. This does raise some serious moral concerns.
There is, of course, the very broad moral issue of whether Medicaid should exist. On the one hand, a compelling moral argument can be made that just as a nation provides military and police protection to citizens who cannot afford their own security forces or bodyguards, a nation should fund medical care for those who cannot afford it on their own. On the other hand, a moral argument can be made that a nation has no obligation to provide such support and that citizens should be left to fend for themselves in regards to health care. Naturally enough, if the nation is under no obligation to provide Medicaid in general, then it is under no obligation to cover the cost of the surgery in question. On this view, there is no need to consider the matter further.
However, it does seem worth granting for the sake of argument that the state should provide Medicaid and then consider the ethics of paying for endocarditis surgery for opioid addicts. Especially when they are likely to continue the behavior that resulted in the need for surgery. It is to this discussion that I now turn.
While it certainly appears harsh to argue against paying for addict’s heart surgery, a solid moral case can be made in favor of this position. The easiest and most obvious way to do this is on utilitarian grounds.
As noted above, the surgery for endocarditis is very expensive. As such, it uses financial and medical resources that could be used elsewhere. It seems likely that a great deal of good could be done with those resources that exceed the good created by replacing the heart valve of an addict. This argument can be strengthened by including the fact that addicts often return to the very behavior that resulted in endocarditis, thus creating the need for repeating the costly surgery. From a utilitarian perspective, it would be morally better to use those resources to treat patients who are far less likely to willfully engage in behavior that will require them to be treated yet again. This is because the resources that would be consumed treating and retreating a person who keeps inflicting harm on themselves could be used to treat many people, thus doing greater good for the greater number. Though harsh and seemingly merciless, this approach seems justifiable on grounds similar to the moral justification for triage.
Another approach, which is even harsher, is to focus on the fact that the addicts inflicting endocarditis on themselves and often doing so repeatedly. This provides the basis for two arguments against public funding of their treatment.
One argument can be built around the idea that there is not a moral obligation to help people when their harm is self-inflicted. To use an analogy, if a person insists on setting fire to their house and it burns down, no one has a moral responsibility to pay to have their house rebuilt. Since the addict’s woes are self-inflicted, there is no moral obligation on the part of others to pay for their surgery and forcing people to do so (by using public money) would be like forcing others to pay to rebuild the burned house.
One way to counter this is to point out that a significant percentage (probably most) health issues are self-inflicted by a lack of positive behavior (such as exercise and a good diet) and an abundance of negative behavior (such as smoking, drinking, or having unprotected sex). As such, if this principle is applied to addicts in regards to Medicaid, it must be applied to all cases of self-inflicted harms. While some might take this as a refutation of this view, others might accept this as quite reasonable.
Another argument can be built around the notion that while there could be an obligation to help people, this obligation has clear limits. In this case, if a person is treated and then knowingly returns to the same behavior that inflicted the harm, then there is no obligation to keep treating the person. In the case of the drug addict, it could be accepted that the first surgery should be covered and that they should be educated on what will happen if they persist in their harmful behavior. If they then persist in that behavior and need the surgery again, then public money should not be used. To use an analogy, if a child swings their ice cream cone around playing like it is a light sabre and is surprised when the scoops are flung to the ground, then it would reasonable for the parents to buy the child another cone. If the child then swings the new cone around again and the scoops hit the floor, then the child can be justly denied another cone.
An obvious counter is to contend that addicts are addicted and hence cannot be blamed for returning to the same behavior that caused the harm. That is, they are not morally responsible for what they are doing to themselves because they cannot do otherwise. This does have some appeal, but would seem to enable the justification of requiring addicts to undergo treatment for their addiction and to agree to monitoring of their behavior. They should be free to refuse this (which, ironically, assumes they are capable of free choice), but this should result in their being denied a second surgery if their behavior results in the same harm. Holding people accountable does seem to be cruel, but the alternative is unfair to other citizens. It would be like requiring them to keep rebuilding houses for a person who persists in setting fires in their house and refuses to have sprinklers installed.
These arguments can be countered by arguing that there is an obligation to provide such care regardless of how many times an addict returns to the behavior that caused the need for the surgery. One approach would be to build an analogy based on how the state repeatedly bails out big businesses every time they burn down the economy. Another approach would be to appeal to the value of human life and contend that it must be preserved regardless of the cost and regardless of the reason why there is a need for the medical care. This approach could be noble or, perhaps, foolish.
As a point of ideology, many conservatives advocate the broad application of free market principles. One key part of this ideology is the opposition of regulation, at least regulation that does not favor businesses. Since health care is regarded as a business in the United States, there is an interesting question in regards to the extent that health care pricing should be regulated by the state.
Because of the high cost of health care in the United States, there have been proposals to place limits on the cost of health care services. Some areas have implemented such proposals, but there is a general lack of such regulations on pricing. Those who oppose such regulations often contend that pricing should be set by free competition between health care providers and that consumers of health care should be savvy shoppers. The idea is that savvy health care shoppers will take their business to providers that offer better services or lower costs, which will force the competition to lower costs or improve quality.
There are various problems with the idea of savvy health care shoppers. The first is the challenge consumers face in finding the prices that health care providers charge. While it can be difficult to predict what services a consumer might need, health care providers often have a range of prices depending on who is paying for the services. For example, insurance companies negotiate prices with providers and these differ from what consumers without insurance would pay. Health care providers, although they always have a database of billing codes and costs, are generally reluctant to provide this information. This makes savvy shopping difficult.
A second problem is that health care consumers typically lack the medical knowledge to make informed decisions about health care. While a person might have some challenge in sorting out what sort of phone or laptop they should buy, sorting out what sort of medical care they might really need is typically beyond the skill of most people. That is why people go to medical professionals. As such, being a savvy shopper is rather difficult.
A third problem is that it is something of a mistake to describe a health care consumer as a consumer; it is usually more apt to call them a patient. While this might seem to be a mere difference in labels, the difference between consumer and patient is significant.
A rather important difference is that a patient is typically in duress—they are injured or ill and thus not in a very good state to engage in savvy shopping practices. While an informed rational consumer will be looking for the best deal, a suffering patient is concerned primarily with getting better. As people say to not go grocery shopping on an empty stomach, it would be best to not shop for health care when one is not healthy—but that is exactly when one needs health care. There are also the more extreme cases. For example, a person who is badly injured in a car crash is not going to be shopping in a savvy manner for emergency rooms as they are being transported in the ambulance.
It can be countered that there are cases in which a person can engage in savvy shopping, such as elective surgeries and non-emergencies. This is a reasonable point—a person who is not in dire need can take the time to shop around and be a savvy consumer. However, this does not apply to cases in which a person is sick or injured enough to impeded such savvy shopping.
Another important difference between consumer and patient is that the consumer often has a reasonable choice between buying a good or service and doing without. In contrast, patients usually have a real need for the good or service and doing without would be a real hardship or even fatal. When one must buy the good or service and the provider knows this, it makes it much harder to be a savvy shopper. This also provides a segue into the matter of regulating prices.
While free market pricing can work when consumers can easily do without the good or service, it runs into obvious problems for the consumer when the goods or services are necessities. To the degree that the patient cannot do without the health care goods or services, the patient is at the mercy of the provider. So, while a person can easily elect to do without the latest iPhone if they cannot afford it, it is much more difficult for a person to do without their chemotherapy or AIDS medication. True, a consumer could do without liposuction or breast implants, but such elective surgery differs from non-elective treatments.
The stock counter to such concerns is that if a consumer finds the price of a good or service too high, they can go to a lower priced competitor. Assuming, of course, that there is real competition. In the case of health care, the opportunity to find a lower priced competitor can be problematic. A patient might not have the time to shop around on the way to an emergency room. In many places, there is not any local competition with lower prices. As such, this free market advice is not very helpful.
In the case of pharmaceuticals, patients often find that there is no competition. When a company has a patent on a medication, the United States’ government uses its coercive power to enforce that patent, ensuring that the company retains a monopoly on that medication. Because of this, a patient who needs the medication has two basic choices: do without or pay the price. There is no free market competition, so without regulation on the part of the state, the company can decide to charge whatever is desired—subject to the cost of bad press, of course.
This monopoly system does create something of a quandary for a principled proponent of the free market. On the one hand, without such patents a free market of drugs would make it irrational for for-profit companies to invest in costly research. This is because as soon as the drug was developed, the competition would just duplicate it and can sell it cheaper because they would not need to recoup the cost of development. A solution, which would not be very free market, would be to have the state fund the expensive research and then provide the results to companies who would then compete without monopolies for consumer dollars. Another “solution” would be to let the market remain free and hope that medications would somehow be developed.
On the other hand, if the state stepped in to regulate prices as part of the agreement for using its coercive power to protect the monopoly, then there would also be no free market competition. But, the state could see to it that the companies charged prices that allowed profits while not gouging patients.
My own view, as might be suspected, is that since patients are essentially a coerced market when it comes to health care and medication, the state should act to regulate prices. In the case of pharmaceutical companies, this should be part of the bargain with the state that allows them to maintain their monopolies. After all, if taxpayer dollars are to be used to protect monopolies, then they should get something in return—and this something should be reasonably priced medication. In the case of health care providers, while they do not usually have a monopoly, they do have a coerced market. Just as the state justly steps in to prevent price gouging during large scale natural disasters, it can justly do so in regards to personal disasters—that is, injury and illness.
I am certainly sensitive of the desire of health care providers and pharmaceutical companies to make a profit and, as such, I would certainly advocate that the regulations on pricing leave them a reasonable margin of profit. While it might be objected that a reasonable margin of profit it hard to define, my reply is that if price gouging can be recognized in other areas, it can (and is) be recognized in the realm of medicine.
One way to argue that the state is obligated to provide health care (in some manner) to its citizens is to draw an analogy to the obligation of the state to defend its citizens from “enemies foreign and domestic.” While thinkers disagree about the obligations of the state, almost everyone except the anarchists hold that the state is required to provide military defense against foreign threats and police against domestic threats. This seems to be at least reasonable, though it can be debated. So, just as the United States is obligated to defend its citizens from the Taliban, it is also obligated to defend them against tuberculous.
Another approach is to forgo the analogy and argue that the basis of the obligation to provide military defense and police services also extends to providing health care. The general principle at hand is that the state is obligated to protect its citizens. Since anthrax and heart failure can kill a person just as dead as a bullet or a bomb, then the state would seem to be obligated to provide medical protection in addition to police and military protection. Otherwise, the citizens are left unguarded from a massive threat and the state would fail in its duty as a protector. While these lines of reasoning are appealing, they can certainly be countered. This could be done by arguing that there are relevant differences between providing health care and providing armed defenses.
One way to do this is to argue that the state is only obligated to protect its citizens from threats presented by humans and not from other threats to life and health, such as disease, accidents or congenital defects. So, the state is under no obligation to protect citizens from the ravages of Alzheimer’s. But, if ISIS or criminals developed a weapon that inflicted Alzheimer’s on citizens, then the state would be obligated to protect the citizens.
On the face of it, this seems odd. After all, from the standpoint of the victim it does not seem to matter whether their Alzheimer’s is “natural” or inflicted—the effect on them is the same. What seems to matter is the harm being inflicted on the citizen. To use an obvious analogy, it would be like the police being willing to stop a human from trying to kill another human, but shrugging and walking away if they see a wild animal tearing apart a human. As such, it does not matter whether the cause is a human or, for example, a virus—the state’s obligation to protect citizens would still apply.
Another approach is to argue that while the state is obligated to protect its citizens, it is only obligated to provide a certain type of defense. The psychology behind this approach can be made clear by the rhetoric those who favor strong state funding for the military and police while being against state funding for medical care. The military is spoken of in terms of its importance in “degrading and destroying” the enemy and the police are spoken of in terms of their role in imposing “law and order.” These are very aggressive roles and very manly. One can swagger while speaking about funding submarines, torpedoes, bullets and missiles.
In contrast, the rhetoric against state funding of health care speaks of “the nanny state” and how providing such support will make people “weak” and “dependent.” This is caring rather than clubbing, curing rather than killing. One cannot swagger about while speaking about funding preventative care and wellness initiatives.
What lies behind this psychology and rhetoric is the principle that the state’s role in protecting its citizens is one of force and violence, not one of caring and curing. This does provide a potential relevant difference; but the challenge is showing that this difference warrants providing armed defense while precluding providing medical care.
One way to argue against it is to use an analogy to a family. Family members are generally obligated to protect one another, but if it were claimed that this obligation was limited only to using force and not with caring for family members, then this would be rightfully regarded as absurd.
Another approach is to embrace the military and police metaphors. Just as the state should thrust its force against enemies within and without, it should use its medical might to crush foes that are literally within—within the citizens. So, the state could wage war on viruses, disease and such and thus make it more manly and less nanny. This should have some rhetorical appeal to those who love military and police spending but loath funding healthcare. Also to those who are motivated by phallic metaphors.
As far as the argument that health care should not be provided by the state because it will make people dependent and weak, the obvious reply is that providing military and police protection would have the same impact. As such, if the dependency argument works against health care, it would also work against having state military and police. If people should go it on their own in regards to health care, then they should do the same when it comes to their armed defense. If private health coverage would suffice, then citizens should just arm themselves and provide their own defense and policing. This, obviously enough, would be a return to the anarchy of the state of nature and that seems rather problematic. If accepting military and police protection from the state does not make citizens weak and dependent, then the same should also hold true for accepting health care from the state.
As a final point, an easy way to counter the obligation argument for state health care is to argue that the state is not obligated to provide military and police protection to the citizens. Rather, the military and the military, it could be argued, exists to protect and advance the interests of the elites. Since the elites have excellent health care thanks to their wealth and power, there is no need for the state to provide it to them. Other than the elites in government, like Paul Ryan and Trump, who get their health care from the state, of course. On this view, support for using public money for the military and police and not health care makes perfect sense.
Modern agriculture does deserve considerable praise for the good that it does. Food is plentiful, relatively cheap and easy to acquire. Instead of having to struggle with raising crops and livestock or hunting and gathering, I can simply drive to the supermarket and stock up with the food I need to not die. However, as with all things, there is a price.
The modern agricultural complex is now highly centralized and industrialized, which does have its advantages and disadvantages. There are also the harms of specific, chosen practices aimed at maximizing profits. While there are many ways to maximize profits, two common ones are to pay the lowest wages possible (which the agricultural industry does—and not just to the migrant laborers, but to the ranchers and farmers) and to shift the costs to others. I will look, briefly, at one area of cost shifting: the widespread use of antibiotics in meat production.
While most people think of antibiotics as a means of treating diseases, food animals are now routinely given antibiotics when they are healthy. One reason for this is to prevent infections: factory farming techniques, as might be imagined, vastly increase the chances of a disease spreading like wildfire among an animal population. Antibiotics, it is claimed, can help reduce the risk of bacterial infections (antibiotics are useless against viruses, of course). A second reason is that antibiotics increase the growth rate of healthy animals, allowing them to pack on more meat in less time—and time is money. These uses allow the industry to continue factory farming and maintain high productivity—which initially seems laudable. The problem is, however, that this use of antibiotics comes with a high price that is paid for by everyone else.
Eric Schlosser wrote “A Safer Food Future, Now”, which appeared in the May 2016 issue of Consumer Reports. In this article, he notes that this practice has contributed significantly to the rise of antibiotic resistant bacteria. Each year, about two million Americans are infected with resistant strains and about 20,000 die. The healthcare cost is about $20 billion. To be fair, the agricultural industry is not the only contributor to this problem: improper use of antibiotics in humans has also added to this problem. That said, the agricultural use of antibiotics accounts for about 75% of all antibiotic usage in the United States, thus converting the factory farms into for resistant bacteria.
The harmful consequences of this antibiotic use have been known for years and there have, not surprisingly, been attempts to address this through legislation. It should, however, come as little surprise that our elected leaders have failed to take action. One likely explanation is that the lobbying on the part of the relevant corporations has been successful in preventing action. After all these is a strong incentive on the part of industry to keep antibiotics in use: this increases profits by enabling factory farming and the faster growth of animals. That said, it could be contended that the lawmakers are ignorant of the harms, doubt there are harms from antibiotics or honestly believe that the harms arising from their use are outweighed by the benefits to society. That is, the lawmakers have credible reasons other than straight up political bribery (or “lobbying” as it is known in polite company). This is a factual matter, albeit one that is difficult to settle: no professional politician who has been swayed by lobbying will attribute her decision to any but the purist of motivations.
This matter is certainly one of ethical concern and, like most large scale ethical matters that involves competing interests, is one that seems best approached by utilitarian considerations. On the side of using the antibiotics, there is the increased productivity (and profits) of the factory farming system of producing food. This allows more and cheaper food to be provided to the population, which can be regarded as pluses. The main reasons to not use the antibiotics, as noted above, are that they contribute to the creation of antibiotic resistant strains that sicken and kill many people (vastly more Americans than are killed by terrorism). This inflicts considerable costs on the sickened and those who are killed as well as those who care about them. There are also the monetary costs in the health care system (although the increased revenue can be tagged as a plus for health care providers). In addition to these costs, there are also other social and economic costs, such as lost hours of work. As this indicates, the cost (illness, death, etc.) of the use of the antibiotics is shifted: the industry does not pay these costs, they are paid by everyone else.
Using a utilitarian calculation requires weighing the cost to the general population against the profits of the industry and the claimed benefits to the general population. Put roughly, the moral question is whether the improved profits and greater food production outweigh the illness, deaths and costs suffered by the public. The people in the government seem to believe that the answer is “yes.”
If the United States were in a food crisis in which the absence of the increased productivity afforded by antibiotics would cause more suffering and death than their presence, then their use would be morally acceptable. However, this does not seem to be the case—while banning this sort of antibiotic use would decrease productivity (and impact profits), the harm of doing this would seem to be vastly exceeded by the reduction in illness, deaths and health care costs. However, if an objective assessment of the matter showed that the ban on antibiotics would not create more benefits than harms, then it would be reasonable and morally acceptable to continue to use them. This is partially a matter of value (in terms of how the harms and benefits are weighted) and partially an objective matter (in terms of monetary and health costs). I am inclined to agree that the general harm of using the antibiotics exceeds the general benefits, but I could be convinced otherwise by objective data.
All professions have their problem members and the field of medicine is no exception. Fortunately, the percentage of bad doctor is rather low—but this small percentage can do considerable harm. After all, when your professor is incompetent, you might not learn as much as you should. If your doctor is incompetent, she could kill you.
The May, 2016 issue of Consumer Reports includes a detailed article by Rachel Rabkin Peachman covering the subject of bad doctors and the difficulty patients face in learning whether a physician is a good doctor or a disaster.
Based on the research in the article, there are three main problems. The first is that there are bad doctors. The article presents numerous examples to add color to the dry statistics and this include such tales of terror as doctors molesting patients, doctors removing healthy body parts, and patient deaths due to negligence, impairment or incompetence. These are obvious all moral and professional failings on part of the doctors and they should clearly not be engaged in such misdeeds.
The second is that, according to Peachman, the disciplinary actions taken by the profession tend to be rather less than ideal. While doctors should enjoy the protection of a due process, the hurdles are, perhaps, too high. There is also the problem that the responses to the misdeeds are often very mild. For example, a doctor whose negligence has resulted in the death of patients can be allowed to keep practicing with only minor limitations. As another example, a doctor who has engaged in sexual misconduct might continue practicing after a class or two on ethics and with the requirement that someone else be present when he is seeing patients. In addition to the practical concerns about this, there is also the moral concern that the disciplinary boards are failing to protect patients.
One possible argument against harsher punishments is that there is a shortage of doctors and taking a doctor out of practice would have worse consequences than allowing a bad doctor to keep practicing. This would be the basis for a utilitarian argument for continuing mild punishments. Crudely put, it is better to have a doctor who might kill a patient or two than no doctor at all.
This argument does have some appeal. However, there is the factual question of whether or not the mild punishments do more good than harm. If they do, then one would need to accept that this approach is morally tolerable. If not, then the argument would fail. There is also the response that consequences are not what matters—people should be reprimanded based on their misdeeds and not based on some calculation of utility. This also has some intuitive appeal.
It could also be argued that it should be left to patients to judge if they want to take the risk. If a doctor is known for sexual misdeeds with female patients but is fine with male patients, then a man who has few or no other options might decide that the doctor is his best choice. This leads to the third problem.
The third problem is that it is very difficult for patients to learn about bad doctors. While there is a National Practitioner Data Bank (NPDB), it is off limits to patients and is limited to people in law enforcement, hospital administration, insurance and a few other groups.
The main argument advanced against allowing public access to the NPDB is based on the premise that it contains inaccurate information which could be harmful to innocent doctors. Interestingly enough, this makes it similar to the credit report data—it is notorious for containing harmful inaccuracies that can plague people.
While the possibility of incorrect data is a matter of concern, that premise best supports the conclusion that the NPDB should be reviewed regularly to ensure that the information is accurate. While perfect accuracy is not possible, it would seem to be well within the realm of possibility for the information to meet a reasonable standard of accuracy. This could be aided by providing robust tools for doctors to inform those running the NPDB of errors and to inform doctors about the content of their files. As such, the error argument is easily defeated.
Patients do have some access to data about doctors, but there are many barriers in place. In some cases, there is a financial cost to access data. In almost all cases, the patient will need to grind through lengthy documents and penetrate the code of legalize. There is also the fact that this data is often incomplete and inaccurate. While it could be argued that a responsible patient would expend the resources needed to research a doctor, this seems to be an unreasonable request—a patient should not need to do all this just to know that the doctor is competent. A reason for this is that a patient might be in rough shape and expecting her to engage in all this work would seem unfair. There is also the fact that one legitimate role of the state is to protect citizens from harm and having a clear means of identifying bad doctors would seem to fall within this.
Given the above, it seems reasonable to accept that a patient has the right to know about her doctor’s competence and should have an easy means of acquiring accurate information. This enables a patient to make an informed choice about her physician without facing an undue burden. This will also help the profession—good doctors will attract more patients and bad doctors will have a greater incentive to improve their practice.
While my husky, Isis, and I have both slowed down since we teamed up in 2004, she is doing remarkably well these days. As I often say, pulling so many years will slow down man and dog. While Isis faced a crisis, most likely due to the wear of time on her spine, the steroids seemed to have addressed the pain and inflammation so that we have resumed our usual adventures. Tail up and bright eyed is the way she is now and the way she should be.
In my previous essay I looked at using causal reasoning on a small sale by applying the methods of difference and agreement. In this essay I will look at thinking critically about experiments and studies.
The gold standard in science is the controlled cause to effect experiment. The objective of this experiment is to determine the effect of a cause. As such, the question is “I wonder what this does?” While the actual conducting of such an experiment can be complicated and difficult, the basic idea is rather simple. The first step is to have a question about a causal agent. For example, it might be wondered what effect steroids have on arthritis in elderly dogs. The second step is to determine the target population, which might already be taken care of in the first step—for example, elderly dogs would be the target population. The third step is to pull a random sample from the target population. This sample needs to be representative (that is, it needs to be like the target population and should ideally be a perfect match in miniature). For example, a sample from the population of elderly dogs would ideally include all breeds of dogs, male dogs, female dogs, and so on for all relevant qualities of dogs. The problem with a biased sample is that the inference drawn from the experiment will be weak because the sample might not be adequately like the general population. The sample also needs to be large enough—a sample that is too small will also fail to adequately support the inference drawn from the experiment.
The fourth step involves splitting the sample into the control group and the experimental group. These groups need to be as similar as possible (and can actually be made of the same individuals). The reason they need to be alike is because in the fifth step the experimenters introduce the cause (such as steroids) to the experimental group and the experiment is run to see what difference this makes between the two groups. The final step is getting the results and determining if the difference is statistically significant. This occurs when the difference between the two groups can be confidently attributed to the presence of the cause (as opposed to chance or other factors). While calculating this properly can be complicated, when assessing an experiment (such as a clinical trial) it is easy enough to compare the number of individuals in the sample to the difference between the experimental and control groups. This handy table from Critical Thinking makes this quite easy and also shows the importance of having a large enough sample.
|Number in Experimental Group
(with similarly sized control group)
|Approximate Figure That the difference Must Exceed
To Be Statistically Significant
(in percentage points)
Many “clinical trials” mentioned in articles and blog posts have very small samples sizes and this often makes their results meaningless. This table also shows why anecdotal evidence is fallacious: a sample size of one is all but completely useless when it comes to an experiment.
The above table also assumes that the experiment is run correctly: the sample was representative, the control group was adequately matched to the experimental group, the experimenters were not biased, and so on for all the relevant factors. As such, when considering the results of an experiment it is important to consider those factors as well. If, for example, you are reading an article about an herbal supplement for arthritic dogs and it mentions a clinical trial, you would want to check on the sample size, the difference between the two groups and determine whether the experiment was also properly conducted. Without this information, you would need to rely entirely on the credibility of the source. If the source is credible and claims that the experiment was conducted properly, then it would be reasonable to trust the results. If the source’s credibility is in question, then trust should be withheld. Assessing credibility is a matter of determining expertise and the goal is to avoid being a victim of a fallacious appeal to authority. Here is a short checklist for determining whether a person (or source) is an expert or not:
- The person has sufficient expertise in the subject matter in question.
- The claim being made by the person is within her area(s) of expertise.
- There is an adequate degree of agreement among the other experts in the subject in question.
- The person in question is not significantly biased.
- The area of expertise is a legitimate area or discipline.
- The authority in question must be identified.
While the experiment is the gold standard, there are times when it cannot be used. In some cases, this is a matter of ethics: exposing people or animals to something potentially dangerous might be deemed morally unacceptable. In other cases, it is a matter of practicality or necessity. In such cases, studies are used.
One type of study is the non-experimental cause to effect study. This is identical to the cause to effect experiment with one rather critical difference: the experimental group is not exposed to the cause by those running the study. For example, a study might be conducted of dogs who recovered from Lyme disease to see what long term effects it has on them.
The study, as would be expected, runs in the same basic way as the experiment and if there is a statistically significant difference between the two groups (and it has been adequately conducted) then it is reasonable to make the relevant inference about the effect of the cause in question.
While useful, this sort of study is weaker than the experiment. This is because those conducting the study have to take what they get—the experimental group is already exposed to the cause and this can create problems in properly sorting out the effect of the cause in question. As such, while a properly run experiment can still get erroneous results, a properly run study is even more likely to have issues.
A second type of study is the effect to cause study. It differs from the cause to effect experiment and study in that the effect is known but the cause is not. Hence, the goal is to infer an unknown cause from the known effect. It also differs from the experiment in that those conducting the study obviously do not introduce the cause.
This study is conducted by comparing the experimental group and the control group (which are, ideally, as similar as possible) to sort out a likely cause by considering the differences between them. As would be expected, this method is far less reliable than the others since those doing the study are trying to backtrack from an effect to a cause. If considerable time has passed since the suspected cause, this can make the matter even more difficult to sort out. The conducting the study also have to work with the experimental group they happen to get and this can introduce many complications into the study, making a strong inference problematic.
An example of this would be a study of elderly dogs who suffer from paw knuckling (the paw flips over so the dog is walking on the top of the paw) to determine the cause of this effect. As one might suspect, finding the cause would be challenging—there would be a multitude of potential causes in the history of the dogs ranging from injury to disease. It is also quite likely that there are many causes in play here, and this would require sorting out the different causes for this same effect. Because of such factors, the effect to cause study is the weakest of the three and supports the lowest level of confidence in its results even when conducted properly. This explains why it can be so difficult for researchers to determine the causes of many problems that, for example, elderly dogs suffer from.
In the case of Isis, the steroids that she is taking have been well-studied, so it is quite reasonable for me to believe that they are a causal factor in her remarkable recovery. I do not, however, know for sure what caused her knuckling—there are so many potential causes for that effect. However, the important thing is that she is now walking normally about 90% of the time and her tail is back in the air, showing that she is a happy husky.
As mentioned in my previous essay, Isis (my Siberian husky) fell victim to the ravages of time. Once a fast sprinting and long running blur of fur, she now merely saunters along. Still, lesser beasts fear her (and to a husky, all creatures are lesser beasts) and the sun is warm—so her life is still good.
Faced with the challenge of keeping her healthy and happy, I have relied a great deal on what I learned as a philosopher. As noted in the preceding essay, I learned to avoid falling victim to the post hoc fallacy and the fallacy of anecdotal evidence. In this essay I will focus on two basic, but extremely useful methods of causal reasoning.
One of the most useful tool for causal reasoning is the method of difference. This method was famously developed by the philosopher John Stuart Mill and has been a staple in critical thinking classes since way before my time. The purpose of the method is figuring out the cause of an effect, such as a husky suffering from a knuckling paw (a paw that folds over, so the dog is walking on the top of the foot rather than the bottom). The method can also be used to try to sort out the effect of a suspected cause, such as the efficacy of an herbal supplement in treating canine arthritis.
Fortunately, the method is quite simple. To use it, you need at least two cases: one in which the effect has occurred and one in which it has not. In terms of working out the cause, more cases are better—although more cases of something bad (like arthritis pain) would certainly be undesirable from other standpoints. The two cases can actually involve the same individual at different times—it need not be different individuals (though it also works in those cases as well). For example, when sorting out Isis’ knuckling problem the case in which the effect occurred was when Isis was suffering from knuckling and the case in which it did not was when Isis was not suffering from this problem. I also looked into other cases in which dogs suffered from knuckling issues and when they did not.
The cases in which the effect is present and those in which it is absent are then compared in order to determine the difference between the cases. The goal is to sort out which factor or factors made the difference. When doing this, it is important to keep in mind that it is easy to fall victim to the post hoc fallacy—to conclude without adequate evidence that a difference is a cause because the effect occurred after that difference. Avoiding this mistake requires considering that the “connection” between the suspected cause and the effect might be purely a matter of coincidence. For example, Isis ate some peanut butter the day she started knuckling, but it is unlikely that had any effect—especially since she has been eating peanut butter her whole life. It is also important to consider that an alleged cause might actually be an effect caused by a factor that is also producing the effect one is concerned about. For example, a person might think that a dog’s limping is causing the knuckling, but they might both be effects of a third factor, such as arthritis or nerve damage. You must also keep in mind the possibility of reversed causation—that the alleged cause is actually the effect. For example, a person might think that the limping is causing the knuckling, but it might turn out that the knuckling is the cause of the limping.
In some cases, sorting out the cause can be very easy. For example, if a dog slips and falls, then has trouble walking, then the most likely cause is the fall (but it could still be something else—perhaps the fall and walking trouble were caused by something else). In other cases, sorting out the cause can be very difficult. It might be because there are many possible causal factors. For example, knuckling can be caused by many things (apparently even Lyme disease). It might also be because there are no clear differences (such as when a dog starts limping with no clear preceding event). One useful approach is to do research using reliable sources. Another, which is a good idea with pet problems, is to refer to an expert—such as a vet. Medical tests, for example, are useful for sorting out the difference and finding a likely cause.
The same basic method can also be used in reverse, such as determining the effectiveness of a dietary supplement for treating canine arthritis. For example, when Isis started slowing down and showing signs of some soreness, I started giving her senior dog food, glucosamine and some extra protein. What followed was an improvement in her mobility and the absence of the signs of soreness. While the change might have been a mere coincidence, it is reasonable to consider that one or more of these factors helped her. After all, there is some scientific evidence that diet can have an influence on these things. From a practical standpoint, I decided to keep to this plan since the cost of the extras is low, they have no harmful side effects, and there is some indication that they work. I do consider that I could be wrong. Fortunately, I do have good evidence that the steroids Isis has been prescribed work—she made a remarkable improvement after starting the steroids and there is solid scientific evidence that they are effective at treating pain and inflammation. As such, it is rational to accept that the steroids are the cause of her improvement—though this could also be a coincidence.
The second method is the method of agreement. Like difference, this requires at least two cases. Unlike difference, the effect is present in all the cases. In this method, the cases exhibiting the effect (such as knuckling) are considered in order to find a common thread in all the cases. For example, each incident of knuckling would be examined to determine what they all have in common. The common factor (or factors) that is the most plausible cause of the effect is what should be taken as the likely cause. As with the method of difference, it is important to consider such factors as coincidence so as to avoid falling into a post hoc fallacy.
The method of agreement is most often used to form a hypothesis about a likely cause. The next step is, if possible, to apply the method of difference by comparing similar cases in which the effect did not occur. Roughly put, the approach would be to ask what all the cases have in common, then determine if that common factor is absent in cases in which the effect is also absent. For example, a person investigating knuckling might begin by considering what all the knuckling cases have in common and then see if that common factor is absent in cases in which knuckling did not occur.
One of the main weaknesses of these methods is that they tend to have very small sample sizes—sometimes just one individual, such as my husky. While these methods are quite useful, they can be supplemented by general causal reasoning in the form of experiments and studies—the subject of the next essay in this series.
As part of my critical thinking class, I cover the usual topics of credibility and experiments/studies. Since people often find critical thinking a dull subject, I regularly look for real-world examples that might be marginally interesting to students. As such, I was intrigued by John Bohannon’s detailed account of how he “fooled millions into thinking chocolate helps weight loss.”
Bohannon’s con provides an excellent cautionary tale for critical thinkers. First, he lays out in detail how easy it is to rig an experiment to get (apparently) significant results. As I point out to my students, a small experiment or study can generate results that seem significant, but really are not. This is why it is important to have an adequate sample size—as a starter. What is also needed is proper control, proper selection of the groups, and so on.
Second, he provides a clear example of a disgraceful stain on academic publishing, namely “pay to publish” journals that do not engage in legitimate peer review. While some bad science does slip through peer review, these journals apparently publish almost anything—provided that the fee is paid. Since the journals have reputable sounding names and most people do not know which journals are credible and which are not, it is rather easy to generate a credible seeming journal publication. This is why I cover the importance of checking sources in my class.
Third, he details how various news outlets published or posted the story without making even perfunctory efforts to check its credibility. Not surprisingly, I also cover the media in my class both from the standpoint of being a journalist and being a consumer of news. I stress the importance of confirming credibility before accepting claims—especially when doing so is one’s job.
While Bohannon’s con does provide clear evidence of problems in regards to corrupt journals, uncritical reporting and consumer credulity, the situation does raise some points worth considering. One is that while he might have “fooled millions” of people, he seems to have fooled relative few journalists (13 out of about 5,000 reporters who subscribe to the Newswise feed Bohannon used) and these seem to be more of the likes of the Huffington Post and Cosmopolitan as opposed to what might be regarded as more serious health news sources. While it is not known why the other reporters did not run the story, it is worth considering that some of them did look at it critically and rejected it. In any case, the fact that a small number of reporters fell for a dubious story is hardly shocking. It is, in fact, just what would be expected given the long history of journalism.
Another point of concern is the ethics of engaging in such a con. It is possible to argue that Bohannon acted ethically. One way to do this is to note that using deceit to expose a problem can be justified on utilitarian grounds. For example, it seems morally acceptable for a journalist or police officer to use deceit and go undercover to expose criminal activity. As such, Bohannon could contend that his con was effectively an undercover operation—he and his fellows pretended to be the bad guys to expose a problem and thus his deceit was morally justified by the fact that it exposed problems.
One obvious objection to this is that Bohannon’s deceit did not just expose corrupt journals and incautious reporters. It also misinformed the audience who read or saw the stories. To be fair, the harm would certainly be fairly minimal—at worst, people who believed the story would consume dark chocolate and this is not exactly a health hazard. However, intentionally spreading such misinformation seems morally problematic—especially since story retractions or corrections tend to get far less attention than the original story.
One way to counter this objection is to draw an analogy to the exposure of flaws by hackers. These hackers reveal vulnerabilities in software with the stated intent of forcing companies to address the vulnerabilities. Exposing such vulnerabilities can do some harm by informing the bad guys, but the usual argument is that this is outweighed by the good done when the vulnerability is fixed.
While this does have some appeal, there is the concern that the harm done might not outweigh the good done. In Bohannon’s case it could be argued that he has done more harm than good. After all, it is already well-established that the “pay to publish” journals are corrupt, that there are incautious journalists and credulous consumers. As such, Bohannon has not exposed anything new—he has merely added more misinformation to the pile.
It could be countered that although these problems are well known, it does help to continue to bring them to the attention of the public. Going back to the analogy of software vulnerabilities, it could be argued that if a vulnerability is exposed, but nothing is done to patch it, then the problem should be brought up until it is fixed, “for it is the doom of men that they forget.” Bohannon has certainly brought these problems into the spotlight and this might do more good than harm. If so, then this con would be morally acceptable—at least on utilitarian grounds.
The United States recently saw an outbreak of the measles (644 cases in 27 states) with the overwhelming majority of victims being people who had not been vaccinated. Critics of the anti-vaccination movement have pointed to this as clear proof that the movement is not only misinformed but also actually dangerous. Not surprisingly, those who take the anti-vaccination position are often derided as stupid. After all, there is no evidence that vaccines cause the harms that the anti-vaccination people refer to when justifying their position. For example, one common claim is that vaccines cause autism, but this seems to be clearly untrue. There is also the fact that vaccinations have been rather conclusively shown to prevent diseases (though not perfectly, of course).
It is, of course, tempting for those who disagree with the anti-vaccination people to dismiss them uniformly as stupid people who lack the brains to understand science. This, however, is a mistake. One reason it is a mistake is purely pragmatic: those who are pro-vaccination want the anti-vaccination people to change their minds and calling them stupid, mocking and insulting them will merely cause them to entrench. Another reason it is a mistake is that the anti-vaccination people are not, in general, stupid. There are, in fact, grounds for people to be skeptical or concerned about matters of health and science. To show this, I will briefly present some points of concern.
One point of rational concern is the fact that scientific research has been plagued with a disturbing amount of corruption, fraud and errors. For example, the percentage of scientific articles retracted for fraud is ten times what it was in 1975. Once lauded studies and theories, such as those driving the pushing of antioxidants and omega-3, have been shown to be riddled with inaccuracies. As such, it is hardly stupid to be concerned that scientific research might not be accurate. Somewhat ironically, the study that started the belief that vaccines cause autism is a paradigm example of bad science. However, it is not stupid to consider that the studies that show vaccines are safe might have flaws as well.
Another matter of concern is the influence of corporate lobbyists on matters relating to health. For example, the dietary guidelines and recommendations set forth by the United States Government should be set on the basis of the best science. However, the reality is that these matters are influenced quite strongly by industry lobbyists, such as the dairy industry. Given the influence of the corporate lobbyists, it is not foolish to think that the recommendations and guidelines given by the state might not be quite right.
A third point of concern is the fact that the dietary and health guidelines and recommendations undo what seems to be relentless and unwarranted change. For example, the government has warned us of the dangers of cholesterol for decades, but this recommendation is being changed. It would, of course, be one thing if the changes were the result of steady improvements in knowledge. However, the recommendations often seem to lack a proper foundation. John P.A. Ioannidis, a professor of medicine and statistics at Stanford, has noted “Almost every single nutrient imaginable has peer reviewed publications associating it with almost any outcome. In this literature of epidemic proportions, how many results are correct?” Given such criticism from experts in the field, it hardly seems stupid of people to have doubts and concerns.
There is also the fact that people do suffer adverse drug reactions that can lead to serious medical issues and even death. While the reported numbers vary (one FDA page puts the number of deaths at 100,000 per year) this is certainly a matter of concern. In an interesting coincidence, I was thinking about this essay while watching the Daily Show on Hulu this morning and one of my “ad experiences” was for Januvia, a diabetes drug. As required by law, the ad mentioned all the side effects of the drug and these include some rather serious things, including death. Given that the FDA has approved drugs with dangerous side effects, it is hardly stupid to be concerned about the potential side effects from any medicine or vaccine.
Given the above points, it would certainly not be stupid to be concerned about vaccines. At this point, the reader might suspect that I am about to defend an anti-vaccine position. I will not—in fact, I am a pro-vaccination person. This might seem somewhat surprising given the points I just made. However, I can rationally reconcile these points with my position on vaccines.
The above points do show that there are rational grounds for taking a general critical and skeptical approach to matters of health, medicine and science. However, this general skepticism needs to be properly rational. That is, it should not be a rejection of science but rather the adoption of a critical approach to these matters in which one considers the best available evidence, assesses experts by the proper standards (those of a good argument from authority), and so on. Also, it is rather important to note that the general skepticism does not automatically justify accepting or rejecting specific claims. For example, the fact that there have been flawed studies does not prove that the specific studies about vaccines as flawed. As another example, the fact that lobbyists influence the dietary recommendations does not prove that vaccines are harmful drugs being pushed on Americans by greedy corporations. As a final example, the fact that some medicines have serious and dangerous side effects does not prove that the measles vaccine is dangerous or causes autism. Just as one should be rationally skeptical about pro-vaccination claims one should also be rationally skeptical about anti-vaccination claims.
To use an obvious analogy, it is rational to have a general skepticism about the honesty and goodness of people. After all, people do lie and there are bad people. However, this general skepticism does not automatically prove that a specific person is dishonest or evil—that is a matter that must be addressed on the individual level.
To use another analogy, it is rational to have a general concern about engineering. After all, there have been plenty of engineering disasters. However, this general concern does not warrant believing that a specific engineering project is defective or that engineering itself is defective. The specific project would need to be examined and engineering is, in general, the most rational approach to building stuff.
So, the people who are anti-vaccine are not, in general, stupid. However, they do seem to be making the mistake of not rationally considering the specific vaccines and the evidence for their safety and efficacy. It is quite rational to be concerned about medicine in general, just as it is rational to be concerned about the honesty of people in general. However, just as one should not infer that a friend is a liar because there are people who lie, one should not infer that a vaccine must be bad because there is bad science and bad medicine.
Convincing anti-vaccination people to accept vaccination is certainly challenging. One reason is that the issue has become politicized into a battle of values and identity. This is partially due to the fact that the anti-vaccine people have been mocked and attacked, thus leading them to entrench and double down. Another reason is that, as argued above, they do have well-founded concerns about the trustworthiness of the state, the accuracy of scientific studies, and the goodness of corporations. A third reason is that people tend to give more weight to the negative and also tend to weigh potential loss more than potential gain. As such, people would tend to give more weight to negative reasons against vaccines and fear the alleged dangers of vaccines more than they would value their benefits.
Given the importance of vaccinations, it is rather critical that the anti-vaccination movement be addressed. Calling people stupid, mocking them and attacking them are certainly not effective ways of convincing people that vaccines are generally safe and effective. A more rational and hopefully more effective approach is to address their legitimate concerns and consider their fears. After all, the goal should be the health of people and not scoring points.