A Philosopher's Blog

Critical Thinking, Ethics & Science Journalism

Posted in Ethics, Medicine/Health, Philosophy, Reasoning/Logic, Science by Michael LaBossiere on June 3, 2015

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.


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Posted in Philosophy, Running, Sports/Athletics by Michael LaBossiere on December 12, 2012

As a runner, martial artist and philosopher I have considerable interest in the matter of the will. As might be imagined, my view of the will is shaped mostly by my training and competitions. Naturally enough, I see the will from my own perspective and in my own mind. As such, much as Hume noted in his discussion of personal identity, I am obligated to note that other people might find that their experiences vary considerably. That is, other people might see their will as very different or they might even not believe that they have a will at all.

As a gamer, I also have the odd habit of modeling reality in terms of game rules and statistics—I am approaching the will in the same manner. This is, of course, similar to modeling reality in other ways, such as using mathematical models.

In my experience, my will functions as a mental resource that allows me to remain in control of my actions. To be a bit more specific, the use of the will allows me to prevent other factors from forcing me to act or not act in certain ways. In game terms, I see the will as being like “hit points” that get used up in the battle against these other factors. As with hit points, running out of “will points” results in defeat. Since this is rather abstract, I will illustrate this with two examples.

This morning (as I write this) I did my usual Tuesday work out: two hours of martial arts followed by about two hours of running. Part of my running workout  was doing hill repeats in the park—this involves running up and down the hill over and over (rather like marching up and down the square). Not surprisingly, this becomes increasingly painful and fatiguing. As such, the pain and fatigue were “trying” to stop me. I wanted to keep running up and down the hill and doing this required expending those will points. This is because without my will the pain and fatigue would stop me well before I am actually physically incapable of running anymore. Roughly put, as long as I have will points to expend I could keep running until I collapse from exhaustion. At that point no amount of will can move the muscles and my capacity to exercise my will in this matter would also be exhausted. Naturally, I know that training to the point of exhaustion would do more harm than good, so I will myself to stop running even though I desire to keep going. I also know from experience that my will can run out while racing or training—that is, I give in to fatigue or pain before my body is actually at the point of physically failing.  These occurrences are failures of will and nicely illustrate that the will can run out or be overcome.

After my run, I had my breakfast and faced the temptation of two boxes of assorted chocolates. Like all humans, I really like sugar and hence there was a conflict between my hunger for chocolate and my choice to not shove lots of extra calories and junk into my pie port. My hunger, of course, “wants” to control me. But, of course, if I yield to the hunger for chocolate then I am not in control—the desire is directing me against my will. Of course, the hunger is not going to simply “give up” and it must be controlled by expending will and doing this keeps me in control of my actions by making them my choice.

Naturally, many alternatives to the will can be presented. For example, Hobbes’ account of deliberation is that competing desires (or aversions) “battle it out”, but the stronger always wins and thus there is no matter of will or choice. However, I rather like my view more and it seems to match my intuitions and experiences.

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Sports Candy

Posted in Sports/Athletics by Michael LaBossiere on June 13, 2010

When I first started running about the only sports supplement was Gatorade. However, as people realized that there was money to be made, the options expanded.

While things like sports bars provided a ready source of energy, they tended to be lacking in taste. For example, a bar might be sold as having peanut butter flavor. However, at best it tasted like the cardboard that jars of peanut butter were shipped in.

Over the years, the flavor of the sports foods improved and they reached the point that eating them was like gnawing on, for example, cardboard dipped in peanut butter. However, recent years have seen the arrival of sports foods that are actually very tasty. Perhaps even too tasty.

While I have had the PowerBars that are, in effect, candy bars, I was only recently exposed to actual sports candy. Florence went to a conference on exercise and brought back some samples including a gummi product by PowerBar as well as (I kid you not) Sports Beans made by the fine folks at Jelly Belly. The Sports Beans taste like normal Jelly Belly beans but are supposed to be more sporty.

On the one hand, I do like sports foods that taste good. I think I have gnawed on quite enough sports cardboard and don’t see any real virtue in sports food that does not taste very good.

On the other hand, it does seem a bit odd eating what amounts to candy as a “healthy” food for sports. One minor concern I have is that I know people eat these sports foods thinking that they are somehow better than candy. True, they are better than the usual junk food. However, it would be a mistake to think that because they are intended for sports use they are somehow not fattening. In fact, sports food tends to be rather high in calories-after all, they are generally intended to provide or replace energy and that means calories.

Interestingly enough, the sports “candy” is rather close to normal candy as the following will show.

Here is the information for a typical candy bar, the classic Hershey bar:

Hershey Bar (43g)
Fat: 13 g
Sat Fat: 8g
Carb 26g
Fiber: 1g
Protein: 3g
Vitamin A: 0%
Vitamin C: 0%
Calcium: 8%

Here is the information for a “candy like” sports bar, specifically a PowerBar.

Power Bar  Triple Threat Energy (55g)
Fat: 9 g
Sat Fat: 4.5g

Carb 30g
Fiber: 3g
Protein: 10g
Vitamin A: 0%
Vitamin C: 30%
Calcium: 15%

On the face of it, the Power Bar seems to be better than the Hershey bar (in terms of carbs provided, etc). However, the Hershey bar is 43g to the Power Bar’s 55g. If the Hershey Bar is adjusted to 55g it looks a little better:

Hershey Bar (adjusted to 55g)
Fat: 17 g
Sat Fat: 10g
Carb 33g
Fiber: 1.28g
Protein: 3.8g

While the PowerBar has more protein, the “adjusted” Hershey bar as more carbohydrates. The Hershey bar is also cheaper than a PowerBar. As such, a Hershey bar could be seen as a viable “sports candy” in that it is rather close to the PowerBar in terms of what it provides. Interestingly enough, I’ve been eating Hershey bars with peanut butter after runs for years. I suspect that the result is about as good as eating a PowerBar. Of course, my preferred recovery drink is chocolate milk-so perhaps I just really like chocolate.

I do still eat PowerBars, but I would be interested in seeing a study conducted comparing PowerBars to Hershey bars as sports food.

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Chocolate Milk & Sports Drinks

Posted in Sports/Athletics by Michael LaBossiere on July 18, 2009
A glass of chocolate milk

Image via Wikipedia

While the Colbert Report is a comedy show, it typically features real (if often odd) news. This morning (I don’t stay up late enough to watch the show at night) I saw an episode in which Colbert noted that chocolate milk has been found to be as good as sports drinks. Of course, this is not a new claim. Back in 2006 there was a small study that supported this claim. I also recall that a study of sports drinks done years ago included Yoo Hoo (apparently as something of a joke). It seems that Yoo Hoo did better than the sports drinks.

While it might seem odd that chocolate milk (and Yoo Hoo) would be better than special formulated sports drinks, it actually makes sense. After all, most sports drinks work by providing fluids and calories. Chocolate milk does just that, plus the milk actually has a decent amount of nutritional value. Interestingly, many protein shake products are based on milk proteins.

Whenever I’ve felt a bit run down from working out, I’d go and buy a bottle of chocolate milk and drink it, despite the mocking that I would sometimes receive for drinking a kid’s drink. It always made me feel much better. the drink, not the mocking, of course. I had initially assumed it was mostly psychological (I really like chocolate milk) but, on reflection, realized that the milk has sugar, chocolate and other stuff that can restore energy. Apparently, I was ahead of my time once more.

While chocolate milk is a good sports drink, it does have some obvious problems. First, people often find it harder to keep milk down when exercising. Second, chocolate milk is not the sort of thing you want warming up in your sports bottle as you bike or run. Third, spilling milk over yourself and your clothes is even worse than getting sports drinks on you.

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