Everything Cures Cancer

This post originally appeared on The Latest.

It seems like every evidence-free treatment is marketed as curing cancer. You don’t need to think too hard about “Where’s the harm?” with this one.

If you believe everything people say, cancer is the most easily treatable disease on the planet. Whenever people are offering cures free from the burden of having to provide actual scientific proof, they’ll advertise their thing as curing cancer.

I’ve been gathering such claims and anecdotes for a while, when I happened to come across them, and the list just goes on and on. Many of these stories also reveal the danger of believing in unproven, ineffective treatments.

Actress Susan Strasberg praised psychic healer Nicolai Levashov for healing her cancer. Of course, later she died of cancer. A friend of hers thought it was all a miracle anyway. Levashov also advised the parents of thirteen-year-old brain cancer survivor Isabelle Prichard not to do anything about the new unidentified mass growing inside her skull, because he said it was new brain cells, not a new tumor. I haven’t found a follow-up on that, but I’m not too hopeful.

-Mari Lopez claimed her own cancer had been healed through veganism and prayer, and marketed the same methods to others… until she died of cancer. Of course, her fellow believer Liz Johnson was ready with the explanation that she only died because she’d started using conventional treatments and deviated from veganism in the end.

Steve Jobs died regretting that he’d tried to treat his cancer with alternative medicine for so long – his being a type of cancer that might have actually been curable in the early stages.

-Cancer was also one of the many, many things that Linus Pauling, genius double Noble prize winner turned true believer in vitamins against all evidence, claimed that vitamins can cure. Both he and his wife later died of cancer.

-Both rhinos and sharks are threatened by being hunted to make completely fake cancer cures out of their horns and cartilage.

Brittany Auerbach has over 100,000 followers on YouTube and sells (or sold) health services for a price. She also says, in so many words, that cancer is a good thing: it’s a warning that your body is too acidic, and all you need to do is get it more alkaline again. (To my understanding, this makes no sense whatsoever.)

-The list of things that are claimed by someone to cure cancer still goes on and on. Here are some more.

Cancer is one of the examples that shows that unscientific “alternative” treatments aren’t just harmless. It seems that it’s typically in their nature to claim an overall explanation of how the human health works. This might not be too harmful if you get imaginary relief from a harmless treatment, and that’s all you needed.

But when you claim to have a full theory of disease and the body–mind, how would you not also know how to cure cancer, or other serious diseases needing something more than a placebo?

And if you’re selling false hopes to the desperate with no accountability, how could you resist offering a treatment to cancer?

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Looking at the Race or the Face

This post originally appeared on The Latest.

The old idea that people of a particular ethnicity look all the same has a basis in how our brains process information, but there may be a way around it.

In his absolutely fascinating book Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst, Robert Sapolsky describes a number of ways in which our brains and thereby automatic reactions are biased based on race. One of the effects is the following:

“[S]ubliminal signalling of race also affects the fusiform face area, the cortical region that specializes in facial recognition. Damaging the fusiform, for example, selectively produces “face blindness” (aka prosopagsonia), an inability to recognize faces. Work by John Gabrieli at MIT demonstrates less fusiform activation for other-race faces, with the effect strongest in the most implicitly racist subjects. …

In accord with that, white Americans remember white better than black faces; moreover, mixed-race faces are remembered better if described as being of a white rather than a black person.”

So basically, the old cliché that people of that other group look all the same shows in our brains, in that the part that recognizes faces doesn’t even bother to activate as much when we think we’re looking at someone of a different ethnicity.

Years ago, I read about some research about the same topic. I couldn’t tell you the source anymore, but the basic idea was that the research had found that we don’t recognize other-race faces as well because when we look at them, we concentrate on the “racial” features rather than the individual ones.

I thought this fascinating, though obviously not very nice. Then, an occasion came when I was able to test whether I’d be able to consciously do something about it.

Not too long after hearing about this research, I was sitting in a bus, in a place where I could see the faces of a number of other passengers. The passengers were rather diverse for Finland (though that never means anything compared to, say, New York). So it was a good chance to just… try to start looking at everyone’s individual facial features instead of the racial ones.

It was quite a weird experience. Suddenly, I was seeing things differently. The faces of the people of other ethnicities didn’t actually change, of course, but at the same time, they did for me. Just trying to focus differently made me see different things than before.

I can’t generalize because I haven’t read any research on this, but in my experience, this trick works, and quite remarkably. I’ve done it since, and one thing I’ve noticed is that I’ll suddenly start seeing that, say, an Asian-looking person’s face suddenly starts resembling some typical type of face I’ve seen a lot in the ethnic Finns that I’m used to. I have a clear impression that I’m seeing more.

For me, this is a really neat trick that both allows me to play around with the limits of how my brain functions – and to stop it from presenting the world to me in a stupid racist way.

Slocums

This post originally appeared on The Latest.

I want to coin a term for a type of character in fiction, though I’m not quite sure what I think about them.

I want to introduce a term I’ve devised in my head for a kind of character in fiction. A slocum is a character – maybe I should say protagonist – who doesn’t meaningfully care about anything and achieves nothing. They lack any real drive or higher principles, and during the course of the story, they go from nowhere to nowhere much. They may have strong feelings about some things, but those things are trivial, and thus, the feelings pretty meaningless.

The concept is named after Bob Slocum from the misleadingly named novel Something Happened by Joseph Heller. This original Slocum drifts around in his life doing meaningless and often objectionable things, never happy with anything but never really doing anything about anything. He’s afraid of just about everything, but since it’s everything, nothing really stands out.

I was also somewhat tempted to name the concept after Mersault from Albert Camus’ L’Estranger. However, “slocum” sounds just perfect for this purpose. (Apologies to anyone who happens to be called that.)

Mersault is shown as someone who doesn’t really care about much of anything. His arc goes from behaving inappropriately indifferently at his mother’s funeral to shooting someone for not much of any reason.

David Lurie in Disgrace by J.M. Coetzee is a college professor who doesn’t get around to much besides questionable, meaningless affairs with women. He’s identified with Byron’s Lucifer, who doesn’t care about good or evil, just follows his impulses. He may get some kind of development by the end, but I found it hard to get a grip on it.

Jane Gray in The Waterfall by Margaret Drabble is a case I’m not so sure about. Back when I read it, I thought of her as being a complete slocum. She gets powerfully anxious over little things, is extremely ineffectual, and has nothing going on but an affair that’s allegedly very important to her but seemed meaningless and devoid of content to me as a reader.

However, I’ve wondered afterwards whether Gray isn’t simply a portrait of a person suffering from anxiety and depression.

In One Hundreds Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, the story follows the generations of a family who have strong slocum tendencies as a whole. The family’s tragedy is supposed to be that they are unable to love. I think the real tragedy is that the relationship of the final couple who are supposed to be in real love comes across as just as meaningless as everything before it.

I’m not sure what I think about this trope, and I wouldn’t have space to say it anyway if I did know. I’ll just say that what literary fiction I’ve read has leaned uncomfortably towards it, even when not going all the way, far too often for my tastes. There’s nothing wrong with slocums done intentionally, but if a protagonist ends up like that accidentally, you’re in for an extremely dreary read.

The Battle for Azeroth: Resisting the Temptation

This post originally appeared on The Latest (on August 3, 2018).

I still don’t intend to play the new “World of Warcraft” expansion, but I’m starting to see how I might want to.

I wrote previously about how I wasn’t going to play World of Warcraft any more: the story had reached the point where it should end, and it always required too much time anyway. Besides, the next expansion evidently forces the “heroes” to be pawns in a tribalist conflict, which is just depressingly real-worldly.

Nevertheless…

The first time I got the feeling that playing the expansion might make sense after all was, curiously, when a certain character smiled grimly in the opening cinematic. I had seen the cinematic before. The first time, I was all but rolling my eyes. The second time, I thought it was just sad. But the third time, I eventually felt a positive surge of adrenaline.

Here’s why: However awful these events might be in-universe, the character smiling when her opponent made a good move reminded me of something else from a player’s perspective. Player-versus-player gameplay really is just a game with no life-and-death implications, and it offers an enjoyable challenge. I’m sure it has made me grin at the challenge more than once.

Another cinematic brought home the point that the writers are still perfectly aware of the irony and tragedy of the Horde–Alliance conflict and are working with that aspect in the story.

Still, this video posted on Facebook also brought out the other side of things. I took a brief glance at the comments visible underneath it. Someone was arguing about which side “started it”, apparently defending an in-universe action meant to be heinous. This is one thing I’ve never liked and that I’m afraid of: people really take to these imaginary sides, at least sometimes. I’ve seen someone remark “Never liked Alliance players, never will.”

I’m afraid people are probably at least a little serious with hateful, illogical rubbish like this. Sure, the sides are just what you pick when you create a character, but any kind of group seems to be good enough for tribal instincts.

Maybe the upcoming story has some potential to help some people see the folly of such division. Maybe it will even explore it deeply. That thought makes me want to go on playing.

However that may be, it’s still true that the story shouldn’t go on forever. It’s also true that it makes no sense to play the same game for over ten years, especially when it’s not half as good as other games out there. (I do acknowledge it could have made more sense to me if I had engaged in it differently, such as by keeping my hardware more up to date and properly focusing on aspects of the game like socialization and more advanced PvP.)

And do I have the time for something like this now? Absolutely not. Is it a good way to spend time overall? Nope. I’m going to miss that world, but I don’t see how going back could make sense.

Faidros: Filosofista puhetta

Tämä kirjoitus julkaistiin Indeksi-opiskelijalehdessä 1/19, tosin tämä on editoimaton versio.

Kävin vuoden alussa erilaisen filosofian kurssin, jonka lopputuloksena äänitettiin kunkin kurssilaisen haastattelu tai esitys hänen tutkimastaan filosofisesta aiheesta.

Kurssin pitäjä ja ideoija oli VTM, filosofian tohtorikoulutettava Jari Kärkkäinen, joka halusi ennen kaikkea paikata suomen kielellä tällaisessa muodossa olevan filosofisen viestinnän puutetta.

Kurssi alkoi kaikille avoimella seminaaripäivällä filosofian yleistajuistamiseen ja viestintään liittyen, jossa useammat puhujat esittelivät erilaisia tapoja viestiä filosofiaa ja tuoda sitä laajempaan tietoisuuteen.

Nauhoitetusti ääneen puhuminen saattoi hieman pelottaa filosofeja, koska itse kurssille ei loppujen lopuksi tullut kuin viisi osallistujaa. Siitäkin saatiin aikaan mukava sarja ”ohjelmia”. Alkuseminaarin ja lopun äänityksen lisäksi kurssiin kuului muutama pienryhmätapaaminen, joiden aikana hiottiin esityksen pohjana olevaa seminaaritekstiä puhuttavaksi ja harjoiteltiin äänitykselle puhumista.

Kärkkäinen oli lupaillut, että tekstiään oppii vihaamaan matkan varrella, mutta minulta ainakin sujui sen tiivistäminen ja muuttaminen uuteen muotoon kivuttomasti – ehkä siksi, että minulla on aikaisempaa kokemusta kaikenlaisten tiivistelmien kirjoittamisesta. Valitsin monista seminaaritöistäni aiheen (tietoisuuden vaikea ongelma), jota koskevia ajatuksiani ja niiden selittämistä halusin kehittää. Yleistajuistaminen tosiaan selkeytti ajatuksiani jonkin verran. Loppujen lopuksi en vihannut edes omaa ääntäni sopivasti käsitellyssä lopputuloksessa, mikä oli aika vaikuttavaa.

Itse äänitys suoritettiin Publicumin alla haarailevien käytävien varrelta löytyvässä kaiuttomassa huoneessa. Sen jälkeen Kärkkäinen hoiti äänitysten muokkaamisen uskottavamman kuuloisiksi.

Kokemus oli minusta kiinnostava ja antoisa, ja kehotan kaikkia vähääkään kiinnostuneita kokeilemaan, jos tällainen tilaisuus tarjoutuu uudestaan – filosofiassa tai muissa aineissa. Kehotan myös käymään kuuntelemassa tuotoksiamme. Valmiit äänitteet julkaistiin viikolla 7 hankkeen blogissa, jossa ne säilytetään kesään asti. Oikeudellisista syistä opinnäytteiksi laskettavia töitä ei voi pitää esillä loputtomiin, tosin minä ainakin aion lisätä omani omaan blogiini ja antaa yliopiston blogiin linkin sinne.

Faidros-projektin blogi: https://blogit.utu.fi/faidros/

Äänitteet: https://blogit.utu.fi/faidros/category/aanite/

The Agnostic Fallacy

This post originally appeared on The Latest.

Paradoxically, it might be more agnostic not to believe in any gods than to be agnostic about them.

A headline from Scientific American: “Atheism Is Inconsistent with the Scientific Method, Prize-Winning Physicist Says”.

Of course, Marcelo Gleiser won the Templeton Prize for spiritual contributions, as it were, not physics. Not sure whether that should make him more or less credible on this matter.

Anyway, he sounds like a deep and respectable thinker in that interview… except for this one thing I want to argue against. I’m sure my argument has been made many times before, but as long as esteemed thinkers keep disregarding it, it bears repeating.

He says: “I honestly think atheism is inconsistent with the scientific method. … It’s a statement, a categorical statement that expresses belief in non-belief. ‘I don’t believe even though I have no evidence for or against, simply I don’t believe.’ … But in science we don’t really do declarations. We say, ‘Okay, you can have a hypothesis, you have to have some evidence against or for that.’ And so an agnostic would say, look, I have no evidence for God or any kind of god (What god, first of all? The Maori gods, or the Jewish or Christian or Muslim God? Which god is that?) But on the other hand, an agnostic would acknowledge no right to make a final statement about something he or she doesn’t know about. ‘The absence of evidence is not evidence of absence,’ and all that.”

To get a couple of things out of the way first:

Firstly, absence of evidence is evidence of absence in the sense that’s usually relevant. Sayings are not arguments.

Secondly, atheists could claim they have evidence against the existence of god(s). But, all right, let’s consider the case where absence of evidence is cited as the evidence.

If the case is that there’s no evidence for the existence of any gods, then there is no reason to think gods exist. Anti-scientific, is it? What else is there in science that we believe in spite of lack of evidence? Not finding evidence in spite of trying to is cause to abandon a hypothesis. Having no initial evidence whatsoever suggests there is a reason not to even test it.

Further, if you’re agnostic in the sense that we can’t know anything about things like gods, that doesn’t imply things like the gods we imagine could be real. There could be something unknowable out there, but if you say that something has a non-negligible chance of being like anything like gods, that only makes sense if we can know about it. If it’s unknowable, what we imagine about it has no meaningful chance of being right.

Hence, it makes sense to be “agnostic atheist”.

When people express belief in an unknowable god, they usually mean you can know about it somehow, can have some evidence, probably by inference or intuitions. But then others challenge them by applying standards to their evidence, and they retreat into saying the normal standards don’t apply… and that they know it because it’s unknowable.

Mary Midgley Answers the Devil

This post originally appeared on The Latest.

The devil’s speech about God in “The Devil’s Advocate” raises a good question about the justification of moral rules. Philosopher Mary Midgley’s explanation of the nature of morality answers it perfectly.

There’s a scene in the movie The Devil’s Advocate in which the titular devil talks about how God is a perverse prankster. It’s quite fun to watch, but it also raises a serious question about morality.

“Let me give you a little inside information about God. God likes to watch. He’s a prankster. Think about it. He gives man instincts. He gives you this extraordinary gift, and then what does he do, I swear, for his own amusement, his own private, cosmic gag reel, he sets the rules in opposition. It’s the goof of all time. Look, but don’t touch. Touch, but don’t taste. Taste, don’t swallow. And while you’re jumping from one foot to the next, what is he doing? He’s laughing his sick, f*cking ass off!”

It’s a question that has just the same weight even if you drop religion or God out of the equation: Why are moral rules like that? Why are they always telling us to go against our instincts? Doesn’t that mean they are against our nature? Or are our instincts bad?

Before I go to my real point, this needs to be said: Some so-called moral rules really are just pointless restrictions. Some rules seek to control us for its own sake. They tend to be on the more “conservative” end, and typically try to force people to conform to certain roles and power structures. So I’m not defending every “moral” rule here.

Nevertheless, even a more “liberal” morality still frequently tells us to deny our instincts. It turns out there’s a very good reason for this.

In her book The Ethical Primate: Humans, Freedom and Morality, Mary Midgley presents a view of how morality works and why it’s necessary. This view goes back to Charles Darwin’s explanation for morality in The Descent of Man, but it works better as a philosophical than an evolutionary explanation.

According to this view, moral rules by their nature control and overrule our instincts and other impulses, but this is not because our instincts are somehow evil. It’s because our impulses are various and contradict each other.

Various motivations manifest in the human mind at different moments at various strengths. Notably, some motivations (passionate impulses) are momentary but strong, whereas others (caring about things and people) last longer. If we were to always follow the strongest impulse at the moment, we would do things that we’d regret later. With every decision we make, we need to keep in mind how much we value different things overall. Decisions need to be based on an evaluation of how they affect the totality of our lives, not just on what our instincts tell us to do at the moment, or they will soon lead to unhappiness.

This leads to the conclusion that even if we hold our “instincts” in high regard and seek their satisfaction, even before we start taking other people into account as well as we should, we already need rules that sometimes rein in our instincts.