Tuesday, October 28, 2008


As I was walking around the office today I walked by two coworkers who were having a personal conversation. One of them has a husband who is currently in a hospice for cancer. The other's husband died a year ago from cancer.
Somehow this chance encounter in the hallway made all my problems seem much smaller. It made me think of how selfish it is to focus so much on one's own problems. I need to get much better at sharing the burdens of my fellow beings.

Monday, October 27, 2008

False Dichotomy

All logical fallacies irritate me. But one that really gets under my skin is the false dichotomy. This is when someone takes a really complicated issue and narrows it down to just two choices. Sometimes there really is a true dichotomy, (for instance either 2+2=4 or it does not equal 4. all possible answers fit in one of these two groups) but most of the time I've heard people do this there are several other options. Perhaps even a whole spectrum of choices that they are not considering. Here's a quick apolitical example. When you RSVS to a party there is frequently a choice between chicken or fish. At first you may think these are the only options. But I can think of at least two more. Most caterers will make preparations for at least one or two vegetarians in a crowd. You could ask and see if that were possible. You could also just not eat anything. None of the above. My point is that almost always we do have other options besides the two we are given.

Since 9/11 often have we heard the phrase "You're ether with us or you're with the terrorists." Probably one of the worst abuses of the false dichotomy I could think of. Truth is there are several other positions that you could take that don't fall completely in either of these extremes. I could be 100% against the terrorists but disagree with the strategy of opposing them. This is my position. I'm against terrorism but I don't like sacrificing liberties, i.e the Patriot Act, in order to combat them. Or you could be somewhat sympathetic to a group's goals, but 100% against their actions. Pakistan? By turning the issue into a dichotomy many who may have minor strategic differences are unfairly labeled as un-American or as terrorists. Some politicians just find it easier to think in black and white and avoid the more realist, more nuanced nature of reality.

One abuse of this fallacy is the one that comes all too frequently from the pulpit. Either quoting Joseph Smith or any number of the other general authorities who have restated it, "The Book of Mormon is either the greatest book ever published or it is a fraud." As with the political example there are several varying other interpretations and positions. A religious scholar who doesn't have a testimony of the book doesn't necessarily have to think it is a fraud just because he doesn't believe the doctrine. An investigator who is trying to gain a testimony may gain a testimony step by step. There is no quantum leap from thinking it is a fraud to thinking it is doctrine. These things come "line upon line".
Specifically with regards to the Book of Mormon dichotomy, this can be a very disastrous way for someone who is struggling with their testimony to think. If they were to find a story about any number of the missteps of our early church leaders they may be tempted to "throw the baby out with the bathwater". The truth is much more nuanced. It is not an all or nothing proposition. I find it ironic that most LDS members can accept these same nuances and gradations of truth in the Bible, but would consider it heresy to apply these same rules to the Book of Mormon.

No matter what the subject. I find that only very rarely can my choices really be narrowed down to only two.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Autism's False Prophets

The book currently on my reading list is about a subject very close to me. The book is Autism’s False Prophets: Bad Science, Risky Medicine and the Search for a Cure by Paul A. Offit M.D. To begin with, my father was a microbiologist at CDC and we used to discuss his work a lot. I even did a science fair project using some of the data that CDC collected. Although I am far from being an immunologist, I do have a working knowledge of the theory and the processes. So when Offit describes certain aspects of his work I understand the concept pretty quickly. Secondly, for the last fifteen years or so I’ve had a personal interest in the search for a cure for Autism. My brother-in-law is autistic. So this field is not just an academic pursuit for me. It’s somewhat personal.
If you are not familiar with the controversy around autism this book would be an excellent primer. Though far more than just a primer, it goes into great detail of the history of vaccines, the testing they do to insure and keep them safe, and the ongoing checks and balances in the field. In comparison to the patient, detailed, extensive research done on vaccines those who proclaim that vaccines are unsafe appear at best to be amateurs who are letting personal profit, opinion, bias, or just an unrealistic optimism cloud their judgment and research. Far from just being ad hominem attacks on his opponents, Offit takes each study and points out the flaws, deviations from protocol, biases and conflicts of interest.
Offit does an amazingly thorough job of explaining the big picture concept of vaccinations. If you think that the airplane, the internet, cars or any other technical marvel has most changed our world in the last century, Offit will convince you that they all come in as distant seconds in any comparison that includes vaccines. Quite literally, many of us would not be here today if it were not for the life-saving ability of vaccines.
There is a group of people out there who base their opinions on emotion, flawed research, conspiracy theories and the hope against hope that they can find a cure. While I share their frustration, I deplore their tactics. Offit details where many of these groups sidestep logic and proper scientific procedure and truly join the ranks of the lunatic fringe. Jenny McCarthy self describes those on her side as an “angry mob”. The prologue to the book details several of the death threats that he and his family have received in response to him testifying in favor of vaccines. How ironic that those claiming to be all about saving lives are threatening the lives and safety of an immunologist and his children.
To spoil the ending for you; there is zero correlation between the MMR vaccines and autism. None. Zero. There is zero correlation between the preservative Thimerosal and autism. None. Chelation therapy is expensive and deadly and does not cure autism. Vaccines work. They save countless lives every single year.
If you get your news on this subject from Oprah, Jenny McCarthy, politicians with an agenda, or your Homeopath you will likely disagree with most of this book. However, if you prefer to trust respected scientist in the field, decades of research, and thorough evidence-based research you will enjoy reading this book. Offit won’t convert Jenny McCarthy with this book. But, if you are still open-minded, and able to be swayed by the evidence he will show you the facts and the research and let you connect the dots yourself.

“The trouble with the world is not that people know too little, it’s that they know so many things that just aren’t so.”
Mark Twain

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Shameless plug

For several years I worked at REI. It was a lot of fun and I'd probably still be working there today except for the fact that they really don't pay enough to raise a family. REI still gets a little flack for the fact that they seem to be higher priced that other stores. Well yeah if you compare a jacket at WalMart to a jacket at REI the REI jacket is going to be more expensive. However, on identical products I never found that REI was overpriced.
One of the things I really respected about REI was their 100% satidsfaction guarantee. It was really nice to have REI take care of things when something when wrong with your gear. Last month my GPS that I got for father's day a few years ago started acting up and finally it just stopped getting a signal all together. I took if back to REI and after a very brief explanation of the problem they gave me a full refund which I promptly turned around and spent in the store. I paid a few more bucks and got a upgrade of the same unit I had exchanged.
In today's world of customer no-service and outsourcing to India or just a voice mail it was really nice to have a human being help me out with such a positive result.

Wednesday, October 08, 2008

On My Honor: a review

Suppose you were in mood to watch a movie about bowling. You go to netflicks and find a movie that you suspect is about bowling based on the title. When it shows up in the mail you attempt to watch it and the whole movie is about school shootings and how conservatives and the NRA are making the world more dangerous. The movie repeats many of the tired old mantras of the fanatical left and just really doesn’t seem to have anything at all to do with bowling. Halfway through the movie, when it still hasn’t said anything about bowling you pop the movie out of the DVD player and return it to netflicks in disgust. I imagine this is just the way I would have felt had I rented Michael Moore’s propaganda movie “Bowling for Columbine” expecting a movie about bowling.

I had pretty much the same experience recently, but on the opposite end of the political spectrum, when I tried to read a book that was recommended to me about Boy Scouts. When I picked up On My Honor: Why the American Values of the Boy Scouts Are Worth Fighting For I was expecting a little bit of a conservative slant. I can accept that. The book was written by the republican Governor of Texas, Rick Perry with a forward by Ross Perot. I don’t share the idea that you have to be a Republican to be a good Boy Scout, but I recognize that many people do feel that way. So I gave the book a chance.

I was expecting several chapters of Perry describing his personal experiences and then detailed accounts of how the principles of Scouting had improved his life and the lives of others. If I were to write a book about Scouting and my personal experiences I would likely title a chapter about each point of the Scout Law and then tell personal stories of how Scouting has made me more trustworthy, loyal, helpful, etc, and then extrapolate on Scouting's potential future impacts.

Perry decided to take a much different strategy and it really disappointed me. It had an obligatory paragraph about the founding of Scouting and the eventual founding of BSA, but all too quickly the book took on the Coke v. Pepsi theme. Rather than tell what was good about Scouting he criticized those who do not share the same values. In only a few paragraphs the book took the tone of something written by Ann Coulter or Rush Limbaugh. He even made sure to include all the buzz words and phrases that readers of those types of books already accept without challenging. The “so called mainstream media”, “yellow dog Democrats”, “counter-culture perversions of the sixties”, “the onslaught of secularism” etc, etc ad nausea. Perry spent about 100 pages of the book going case by case describing the law suits that have been brought against BSA by the ACLU, Atheists, girls and homosexuals. This section felt like I had just been hired as BSA’s chief council and had to familiarize myself for an upcoming trial. It was very tedious.
Finally towards the last chapters Perry gives some statistics and examples of how boy scouts have grown up to be prominent and successful leaders in politics, business and philanthropy, but this was too little too late. Perry did not strike me as a leader with whom I would enjoy sitting down at a campfire with. Instead he came across as a bitter, defensive lawyer. I understand the point of his message and I have little criticism of his position only his strategy. The Boy Scouts of America is a private organization entitled to set their on requirements for membership. Hey, if Hooters can consistently have cases against them overturned for their strict hiring policy then all the more reason that BSA should have their requirements upheld as well.

My biggest complaint with the book is that it didn’t really live up to the title. It said substantially more about Scouting’s opponents. A better title would have been something like “Defending Scouting’s Values: A History of the Attacks Against the Boy Scouts of America”.

A quick note: Nothing in the previous review should be interpreted as support for those who would have Scouting change its policies. I see no conflict in simultaneously believing that values of Scouting should be unchanged and also that this was not a very good book. My words are critical of Perry and his strategy, but should in no way be taken as criticism of the Scouting program. I am currently jointly enrolled in two troops in two different councils as well as serving on the Adult Leader Training staff. I am currently working my Wood badge ticket and I will likely be donating several hours a week and a good portion of my vacation hours in support of BSA for the rest of my life. The two items on my resume that I am most proud of are the fact that I am a happily married father of four and that I am and Eagle Scout.

Tuesday, October 07, 2008

Negative Campaigning

Take a second and watch this smear ad from Senator Obama.
Now watch this one from Senator McCain.

Now read the following quotes from both men earlier in their campaigns.

Sen. John McCain: I pledge again a respectful campaign. A respectful campaign based on the issues and based on the stark differences we have on the vision for the future of America.

Sen. Barack Obama: I said I was looking forward to a civil substantive debate on the issues and he agreed.

McCain: I've pledged to conduct a respectful campaign and I urge, time after time, various entities within the Republican party to also do that.

Obama: We don't need John McCain and I to be demonizing each other. You won't get that from my campaign.

They must have drastically different definitions than I do of words and phrases like; respectful, based on issues, substantive, demonizing, etc. And now both of them are asking me to accept that they will bring "change" to Washington. I frankly don't trust either one at this point.


I’m shrinking. Ever since my first driver’s license I’ve been listing my height as 5’ 10”. My passport, although expired, shows my height as 5’10”. Every time I give blood they ask me my height and weight. Every time I just put down 5’ 10”. I’ve never had any reason to suspect otherwise. At my last physical I don’t remember them measuring my height. I think I just told them I was 5’10” and the nurse thought it was close enough that she didn’t challenge me.

We last night I was helping Noah with his homework. The task was to get a handful of measurements and than make comparative analysis. How high in feet is the ceiling in your kitchen? How tall is the kitchen table? How many tables could you stack on top of each other in your kitchen? Part of his comparisons was to measure your reach from finger tip to finger tip and then compare this to your height. He choose to measure me. Rock climbers refer to this ratio of reach to height as a “gape index”. Since I have always been just slightly taller than my reach I have always had a negative “gape index”. Better climbers have a slightly longer reach than their height giving them a positive “gape index”.

So last night as I stood with my back against the wall I was fully expecting Noah to confirm my height as 5’10”. Not So. I had him measure me twice and them Victoria double checked him. I am now only 5’8 ½” tall. I’m shrinking!!

I know that in ’97 when I broke my left leg I lost a little bit of height. My left femur is now about 3/4” shorter than it was before I broke it. Since my right leg didn’t get shorter I assume that this would average out to about a 3/8” loss of height. Okay, I can accept that. But where did the other 1 1/8” go? Oh well I guess I’m just going to have to chalk it up to getting older. Not that it really matters. At the rate my oldest is growing he’ll be taller than me sometime next month whether I’m 5’8 ½” or 5’10”.

Saturday, October 04, 2008

Unspinning the Spin

This is probably one of the most timely books that I've ever read. UnSpun: Finding Facts in a World of Disinformation is written by two of the editors for factcheck.org. I've been a fan of Factcheck for several years. I really enjoy their non-partisan analysis of the factual claims made by politicians. This book details the steps they take to get to the truth behind the deceptive claims made by advertisers and politicians. I'd recommend this book to anybody who is interested in learning how to find the truth. If, on the other hand, you are comfortable in just accepting that what you already believe has to be true then you might take issue with this book. It challenges the reader to evaluate the claims that they believe in even more than the ones that they disagree with. So if you are comfortable with voting for someone just because of the letter that the TV station puts behind their name then you might just want to leave this one alone.
Shortly after finishing the book I went down stairs and began watching the vice-presidential debate between Palin and Biden. Sure enough, both of them jumped into the same spin and deception that the book had cautioned against. One candidate spun the opponents position as voting for a tax increase when the facts behind the vote clearly show voting for a decrease, just not as big of a decrease as their side was asking for. Only in the twisted world of Washington spin-doctors is an vote for a decrease considered a vote for an increase. This book gives the reader the tools to identify such deception.
During the debates the deception was not limited to one side or the other. Neither side had a sincere allegiance to the truth. They just wanted you to believe their interpretation.

On the subject of debates: I was on the Debating team in high school. So, I'm familiar with what a real debate is intended to be. These political debates are nothing more than joint press conferences. I don't really understand the role of the moderator. The candidates just talked about whatever they wanted to after the time was turned over to them. Palin was asked a question on the mortgage crisis. She talked for 5 minutes on her energy policy. Biden was asked about Pakistan and he talked about Afghanistan. Palin was asked what programs she would scale back because of the Wall street bailout bill. She talked for another 5 minutes about the problems she saw with Obama's Plan and never even approached answering the moderator's question. Gwen Ifill might have well said, "I know you're both just going to ignore the question anyway so each of you talk for 5 minutes about whatever floats your boat". In my debate competitions if I've have pulled this type of diversion I'd have simply lost all my points for that question. As correct as the information I had given about the energy policy I'd have gotten a big whoppin' zero since the question wasn't about energy policy.
Both of the the major parties are trumpeting "change" as a major part of their platform. So far all I have seen in the ads and the first two debates is just more of the same, distortions, spin and propaganda. I want to thank factcheck.org and other organizations like them for helping me to see the facts behind the political nonsense that is shovelled out by those who want to represent me in Washington.