A Philosopher's Blog

Philosophy & My Old Husky I: Post Hoc & Anecdotal Evidence

Posted in Medicine/Health, Philosophy, Reasoning/Logic by Michael LaBossiere on April 4, 2016

dogpark065My Siberian husky, Isis, joined the pack in 2004 at the age of one. It took her a little while to realize that my house was now her house—she set out to chew all that could be chewed, presumably as part of some sort of imperative of destruction. Eventually, she came to realize that she was chewing her stuff—or so I like to say. More likely, joining me on 8-16 mile runs wore the chew out of her.

As the years went by, we both slowed down. Eventually, she could no longer run with me (despite my slower pace) and we went on slower adventures (one does not walk a husky; one goes adventuring with a husky). Despite her advanced age, she remained active—at least until recently. After an adventure, she seemed slow and sore. She cried once in pain, but then seemed to recover. Then she got worse, requiring a trip to the emergency veterinarian (pets seem to know the regular vet hours and seem to prefer their woes to take place on weekends).

The good news was that the x-rays showed no serious damage—just indication of wear and tear of age. She also had some unusual test results, perhaps indicating cancer. Because of her age, the main concern was with her mobility and pain—as long as she could get about and be happy, then that was what mattered. She was prescribed an assortment of medications and a follow up appointment was scheduled with the regular vet. By then, she had gotten worse in some ways—her right foot was “knuckling” over, making walking difficult. This is often a sign of nerve issues. She was prescribed steroids and had to go through a washout period before starting the new medicine. As might be imagined, neither of us got much sleep during this time.

While all stories eventually end, her story is still ongoing—the steroids seemed to have done the trick. She can go on slow adventures and enjoys basking in the sun—watching the birds and squirrels, willing the squirrels to fall from the tree and into her mouth.

While philosophy is often derided as useless, it was actually very helpful to me during this time and I decided to write about this usefulness as both a defense of philosophy and, perhaps, as something useful for others who face similar circumstances with an aging canine.

Isis’ emergency visit was focused on pain management and one drug she was prescribed was Carprofen (more infamously known by the name Rimadyl). Carprofen is an NSAID that is supposed to be safer for canines than those designed for humans (like aspirin) and is commonly used to manage arthritis in elderly dogs. Being a curious and cautious sort, I researched all the medications (having access to professional journals and a Ph.D.  is handy here). As is often the case with medications, I ran across numerous forums which included people’s sad and often angry stories about how Carprofen killed their pets. The typical story involved what one would expect: a dog was prescribed Carprofen and then died or was found to have cancer shortly thereafter. I found such stories worrisome and was concerned—I did not want my dog to be killed by her medicine. But, I also knew that without medication, she would be in terrible pain and unable to move. I wanted to make the right choice for her and knew this would require making a rational decision.

My regular vet decided to go with the steroid option, one that also has the potential for side effects—complete with the usual horror stories on the web. Once again, it was a matter of choosing between the risks of medication and the consequences of doing without. In addition to my research into the medication, I also investigated various other options for treating arthritis and pain in older dogs. She was already on glucosamine (which might be beneficial, but seems to have no serious side effects), but the web poured forth an abundance of options ranging from acupuncture to herbal remedies. I even ran across the claim that copper bracelets could help pain in dogs.

While some of the alternatives had been subject to actual scientific investigation, the majority of the discussions involved a mix of miracle and horror stories. One person might write glowingly about how an herbal product brought his dog back from death’s door while another might claim that after he gave his dog the product, the dog died because of it. Sorting through all these claims, anecdotes and studies turned out to be a fair amount of work. Fortunately, I had numerous philosophical tools that helped a great deal with such cases, specifically of the sort where it is claimed that “I gave my dog X, then he got better/died and X was the cause.” Knowing about two common fallacies is very useful in these cases.

The first is what is known as Post Hoc Ergo Propter Hoc (“after this, therefore because of this”).  This fallacy has the following form:

 

  1. A occurs before B.
  2. Therefore A is the cause of B.

 

This fallacy is committed when it is concluded that one event causes another simply because the proposed cause occurred before the proposed effect. More formally, the fallacy involves concluding that A causes or caused B because A occurs before B and there is not sufficient evidence to actually warrant such a claim.

While cause does precede effect (at least in the normal flow of time), proper causal reasoning, as will be discussed in an upcoming essay, involves sorting out whether A occurring before B is just a matter of coincidence or not. In the case of medication involving an old dog, it could entirely be a matter of coincidence that the dog died or was diagnosed with cancer after the medicine was administered. That is, the dog might have died anyway or might have already had cancer. Without a proper investigation, simply assuming that the medication was the cause would be an error. The same holds true for beneficial effects. For example, a dog might go lame after a walk and then recover after being given an herbal supplement for several days. While it would be tempting to attribute the recovery to the herbs, they might have had no effect at all. After all, lameness often goes away on its own or some other factor might have been the cause.

This is not to say that such stories should be rejected out of hand—it is to say that they should be approached with due consideration that the reasoning involved is post hoc. In concrete terms, if you are afraid to give your dog medicine she was prescribed because you heard of cases in which a dog had the medicine and then died, you should investigate more (such as talking to your vet) about whether there really is a risk of death. As another example, if someone praises an herbal supplement because her dog perked up after taking it, then you should see if there is evidence for this claim beyond the post hoc situation.

Fortunately, there has been considerable research into medications and treatments that provide a basis for making a rational choice. When considering such data, it is important not to be lured into rejecting data by the seductive power of the Fallacy of Anecdotal Evidence.

This fallacy is committed when a person draws a conclusion about a population based on an anecdote (a story) about one or a very small number of cases. The fallacy is also committed when someone rejects reasonable statistical data supporting a claim in favor of a single example or small number of examples that go against the claim. The fallacy is considered by some to be a variation on hasty generalization.  It has the following forms:

Form One

  1. Anecdote A is told about a member (or small number of members) of Population P.
  2. Conclusion C is drawn about Population P based on Anecdote A.

For example, a person might hear anecdotes about dogs that died after taking a prescribed medication and infer that the medicine is likely to kill dogs.

Form Two

  1. Reasonable statistical evidence S exists for general claim C.
  2. Anecdote A is presented that is an exception to or goes against general claim C.
  3. Conclusion: General claim C is rejected.

For example, the statistical evidence shows that the claim that glucosamine-chondroitin can treat arthritis is, at best, very weakly supported. But, a person might tell a story about how their aging husky “was like a new dog” after she starting getting a daily dose of the supplement. To accept this as proof that the data is wrong would be to fall for this fallacy. That said, I do give my dog glucosamine-chondroitin because it is cheap, has no serious side effects and might have some benefit. I am fully aware of the data and do not reject it—I am gambling that it might do my husky some good.

The way to avoid becoming a victim of anecdotal evidence is to seek reliable, objective statistical data about the matter in question (a vet should be a good source). This can, I hasten to say, can be quite a challenge when it comes to treatments for pets. In many cases, there are no adequate studies or trials that provide statistical data and all the information available is in the form of anecdotes. One option is, of course, to investigate the anecdotes and try to do your own statistics. So, if the majority of anecdotes indicate something harmful (or something beneficial) then this would be weak evidence for the claim. In any case, it is wise to approach anecdotes with due care—a story is not proof.

Chipping Pets

Posted in Miscellaneous by Michael LaBossiere on August 16, 2009

When I took my husky, Isis, in for her yearly shots, I got her chipped. I had been meaning to do this for a while, but always managed to forget when I took her in.

Being a husky, Isis is prone to wandering. She has managed to escape a few times, mainly when someone else has left the gate to my backyard open.  I now have a lock on the gate. Once she made a break through the front door, but that was after I had been in Maine for a week and she had not been out for a run, just walks. She even escaped once by squeezing through a gap between the fence and the porch wall  that should have been too narrow for her (and by pulling up two blocking poles). I fixed that with a so far husky proof three layered defense. My previous dog, Chrissy, was a Golden Retriever and she never let me out of her sight when we were outside and never wandered. Adapting to the ways of the independent and wandering husky was a bit of an adjustment.

I’ve been lucky and always got her back, twice because of her collar tag. But, I take her collar off at night (like most dogs she likes to get up around 3:00 am and throw down a big full bodied, tag rattling shake). So, in theory, she could escape without her collar. Or she might get stolen and have her collar taken, or it might just fall off.

Getting chipped means that she has  a built in ID. That is the main purpose of the chip. On the downside, the chip can only be read by a special reader and it is not at all obvious that a pet has been chipped. In the past, not all readers could read all chips, which was (and is) a problem. As such, you will want to make sure that your pet is chipped with the sort of chip that can be read in your area. Going with a national registry service, such as AKC also makes it more likely that the chip can be read anywhere.

Chipping seems to be fairly painless (Isis didn’t even flinch) and is supposed to be quite safe. It cost me about $50 to get Isis chipped and this included the “free” lifetime enrollment with the AKC. So, if Isis escapes, loses her collar and ends up at the animal shelter, I’ll get her back.

While I have not had to use the service, I feel a bit better knowing that she is chipped. I would, in fact, recommend it.

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Pets Inside

Posted in Miscellaneous, Relationships/Dating by Michael LaBossiere on August 9, 2009

One ongoing discussion I have had with a friend is whether pets should be allowed inside or not. My view is that they should (at least for pets like cats and dogs; horses probably should not be house pets). I have this view on non-rational grounds: I grew up that way and it seems normal to me.  in fact, it never occured to me to justify my view, at least until it was challenged.

The main reasons given as to why pets should be outside are that they are animals and that they dity things up (fur, literal dirt, barf , slobber and so on).

My reply about them being animals is that humans are also animals and this does not seem to entail that we should not be inside. Of course, some folks see humans as being distinct from animals. While I do agree that (most) humans are people, this distinction does not seem to warrant humans being allowed inside while entailing that all non-human animals should be outside.

The point about animals making things dirty is a reasonable point. After all, I have spent a great deal of time cleaning up after my pets and repairing the damage they have done. It would be easier and cleaner to keep them outside. However, my view on this is that the dirt and destruction are part of the cost/price of having a pet. As with most things, deciding whether it is worth it or not involves weighing the cost versus the value. In the case of my pets, I like having them around me and I feel better that I can see them. If they were always outside, I would be worried that I might not see that one of them was sick, hurt or in danger in time. Also, being outside all the time inceases the chances that they would become sick or injured. For me, the extra effort of cleaning up pet stuff and dealing with the fur problem is a reasonable trade for having my pets. I think the same way about my friends. Friendship comes with a cost, but I find my friends worth the effort.

I do recognize that this is my own subjective assessment. For some people, the mess of a pet outweighs any benefits that having a pet inside (or a pet at all) would provide. In such cases, it would be rational for that person to not have an indoor pet (or any pets at all). Or they might be willing to tolerate pets, provided that someone else did the cleaning and was aware of their concerns about pet messes.

While I am not a relativist about most things, I think that this is a case in which what is “right” is relative to each person. It is a matter of what the person values, what bothers him/her, and how they regard pets. I’m willing to deal with the extra cleaning, the occasional hair in my food, and even dog slobber on my clothes. But, this is my choice and others might have a different, but equally correct, view.

PETA & Vick’s Pits

Posted in Ethics by Michael LaBossiere on December 24, 2008

The other day I saw a brief bit on CNN about Michael Vick’s rescued pit bulls. As most people know, Vick got into considerable trouble for his horrible treatment of dogs. He and some associates trained and fought them. The dogs that lacked the desire to fight were killed, often in rather brutal ways.

When the dogs were rescued from Vick, PETA and the Human Society took the position that the dogs were beyond rehabilitation and that it would be a poor use of resources to try to do so. The bit I saw yesterday showed a PETA spokeswoman restating that view: although the rehabilitation worked in some cases, the dogs should have been euthanized and the money should have been spent to help other animals.

While this view struck me as heartless, a case can be made for her position. She is, of course, presenting a standard utilitarian approach: the action that should be taken is the one that generates the most good. So, if the resources spent to help Vick’s pit bulls could have helped many more animals, then the money should have been spent on the other animals.

This approach does match the commonly accepted principle of triage. Put a bit simply, it is the principle that medical resources are to be spent saving the most lives. This can mean allowing some people to die, but this is justified because saving more lives is better than saving fewer lives. The situation with the dogs can be looked at as a form a triage: while it would be best to help all animals, if all cannot be saved, then we should save more animals even if these means that some are not saved. On this view, PETA is correct.

Of course, there are ways to take issue with PETA in this matter.

First, there is the fact that the PETA view is that the dogs should have been euthanized. As such, it is not a case of letting the dogs die in order to save more dogs. It would be a situation in which the dogs would be killed. In this sort of case, our moral intuitions tend to change. For example, consider a (possibly) similar situation: suppose you have five patients who need organ transplants immediately or they will die. You could kill a sixth person to save them, but most people would regard that as morally wrong. Perhaps the same is true in the case of the dogs.

Of course, it could be replied that the dog situation is a bit unusual. Unlike the organ case, the dogs would not being killed to take their organs to save other dogs. They would be killed because that would be regarded as more merciful than keeping them locked away. But, it could be replied that the two cases are alike. The pit bulls would be killed to take something from them that others need: the money and resources. As such, the cases seem alike in the relevant way. Intuitively, such killing seems wrong.

Second, there is the concern that acting in this way (euthanizing the dogs to free up resources) would have serious negative consequences. For example, to do so would (as Kant argued) tend to harden people’s hearts and make them more inclined to cruelty. Then again, perhaps it would not.

Third, there is the moral concern that the dogs are owed restitution for the wrong done to them. While the resources could have been used to help more dogs, Vick and his fellows wronged those dogs. As such, there is a debt that must be paid to those dogs and the evil done to them should be countered.

To use an analogy, imagine that a defect in a product maims dozens of people and that a law suit awards a large sum of money in damages. The money could probably do more good if it were spent to help other people. It could, perhaps, be used to fund preventative medicine. After all, it is far cheaper to help people avoid illness than it is to treat people who have been seriously maimed. By PETA’s principle, the money should not be wasted on the maimed people but spent so as to do the most good. This, however, seems wrong.

As such, to kill the dogs would have been one last crime against them. It would be analogous to murdering rescued survivors simply because it would be expensive to help them. That would be monstrous.

It might be replied that dogs lack moral status and hence cannot be wronged and cannot be owed a moral debt. Of course, this view would undercut the whole notion of treating animals ethically by making them morally irrelevant.  As such, it would not seem to be a viable option for PETA.

From a practical standpoint, it seemed unwise of PETA to issue a statement saying that the dogs should have been euthanized. When I heard the PETA spokeswoman, my intellectual reaction was to consider the ethics of the matter. But, when I saw the photos of the rescued dogs with their families, my emotional reaction was to think “what a horrible thing she said” and I thought much less of PETA at that moment. Naturally, the news segment was calculated to do just that. I am sure other people felt as I did and that certainly does not help PETA.

Yes, the money could have probably done more good if it had been spent elsewhere. But here is some practical advice for PETA: never tell dog owners that it would have been better to kill a good dog. That does not go over well. Not well at all.

Lost Dogs & ID Tags

Posted in Miscellaneous by Michael LaBossiere on July 24, 2007

Over the past few days I’ve found three lost dogs wandering in San Luis Park while I was running. While one had a harness and a rabies tag, none of them had any ID that was very useful to me-like a number to call. Fortunately, I was able to get the dogs into the dog park area and there was someone there with a cell phone who could call the animal rescue people.

One dog I found seemed to have had an encounter with a car or something bad-he had some wounds on his front and was limping. I was just glad I found these poor dogs before they were run over.

While owners can take steps to keep their dogs from escaping, dogs are quite good at getting out and about. That is why it is a very good idea to have your contact information on your dog’s collar. Hartz, the company that makes a variety of pet products, sells very nice custom ID tags on their web site. The tag is only $2.95 and I got mine in just a few days (Isis’ previous tag had been worn down).

Some people have actually told me that they do not put an ID tag on their dog because they worry that weird or dangerous people will find the information. If you are really worried about that, you could create an extra free email account and put that on the tag. That way if someone finds your dog, s/he can contact you while you will be safer from weird or dangerous people.

Our pets depend on us to keep them safe and we are obligated to not let them down. If you don’t have an ID for your pet, then you really should get one.

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