Why circumcision is a very good thing

I’ve written numerous posts about circumcision and its benefits, but I want to write one more big one. My goal here is to gather together all the relevant information to the debate in one place. Certain myths need to be dispelled in some places while the details of arguments need to be laid out with ridiculous clarity; the anti-circumcision crowd is as stubborn as young Earth creationists. As such, this post isn’t so much directed towards the entrenched anti-circumcision folk as it is towards the people on the fence. Perhaps there are a few people out there who have simply bought into easy arguments, and so their commitment to their position can be swayed. I would equate these people with the occasional church patron that grows up learning the Universe is 6,000 years old, only to later shed that false belief when engaged on the matter. I hope I’m able to adequately mount a defense of circumcision and change the minds of any such people who end up reading this post.

There are several topics that should be addressed when discussing circumcision. Safety, efficacy, and ethics are the broad categories, and each one contains its share of details. Let’s start with safety.

Safety:

As with any surgery, complications are possible. The most common complication due to circumcision is minor bleeding, which can be fixed with a little bit of gauze. Infections occasionally happen, but they’re rare. Circumcision should always be done under sterile conditions to maintain this rarity. (That means the Rabbis and other non-medical professionals out there who do these things need to be stopped.)

Pain and Trauma:

A favorite of the anti-circumcision crowd is to find awful looking restraining devices doctors use to keep infants steady. Aside from the fact that those devices aren’t the iron maidens people make them out to be, circumcision needn’t be painful in the least. Any search will find a mix of estimates for how frequently anesthesia is used during circumcisions, but it is certainly used a majority of the time, and its use is always increasing. Any parent worried about the pain their baby may feel can simply request anesthesia be used. This 100% addresses any pain argument the anti-circumcision crowd wants to raise. Indeed, it also addresses any trauma argument they wish to raise, but it isn’t necessary for that purpose. Trauma is something which has lasting physical or psychological damage. Since no infant can possibly remember being circumcised, there’s no way any amount of pain could be traumatic here. Moreover, the pain of being squeezed through a vaginal canal just days earlier is clearly much more significant than any minor medical procedure.

Nerve Ending Hypothesis:

There is a popular hypothesis that because the foreskin has 10,000 to 20,000 nerve endings, any removal of it must affect sensitivity. It makes sense and it’s worth investigating. Unfortunately, it’s that investigation aspect that many in the anti-circumcision crowd don’t like; for many, the hypothesis is conclusive. Occasionally, though, they may point to a study or two they incidentally find – so long as it supports their beliefs, of course. These studies (which are usually actually just subjective surveys) sometimes indicate decreased sensitivity in circumcised men. Other times, they show just the opposite. (The anti-circumcision crowd ignores those.) Mostly, though, they show statistically insignificant differences. Moreover, the better studies and meta-analyses out there show the same wash. Since science operates on bodies of evidence rather than individual studies – if you can’t repeat your data, it’s bullshit – the correct conclusion here is that not only is there no body of evidence that circumcision decreases sensitivity, but there is actually an active body of evidence which shows it has no effect.

Efficacy:

This is where the majority of this debate centers. It isn’t enough to look at all the evidence and conclude that circumcision is low-risk, painless, non-traumatic, and inconsequential in sexual sensitivity and performance. That’s all great, but none of that adds up to a reason to circumcise someone, much less to implement it as a public health policy. What we need is data which show circumcision offers some sort of benefit. You’ll never guess what we’ve had for the better part of a decade.

Three randomized control studies were undertaken and completed between 2005 and 2007. These studies looked at the effect of circumcision on HIV transmission rates from women to men during heterosexual intercourse. (Prior to these studies there was a body of observational studies which indicated a likely link between circumcision and HIV, but it wasn’t nearly concrete enough to enact any type of policy.) These studies concluded that circumcision significantly reduces HIV transmission in the aforementioned context; one study went so far as to compare the reduction to what would be achieved by “a vaccine of high efficacy”. Between the studies, the relative risk reduction was 60%.

Relative versus Absolute

For some time I had an anti-circumcision troll around here. He enjoyed raising the issue of relative risk versus absolute risk. I’m not sure he understood the difference, though. Whereas the relative risk reduction for circumcised males was found to be 60%, the absolute risk reduction is between 1.3% and 1.8%. Choosing the latter of these numbers is a good way to muddle the discussion. Here’s what these numbers mean.

Relative risk reduction is how much a given treatment, behavior, or characteristic reduces a given risk in one group versus another. This is the number that matters most of the time in lay terms. Absolute risk reduction, on the other hand, looks at an entire population and takes into account its susceptibility to some given condition. For instance, most people aren’t going to get the flu. It doesn’t matter whether a person has the vaccine or not. Odds are low that he or she will catch anything. That’s why anti-vaccine quacks love to use absolute numbers. The flu vaccine is generally somewhere near 60% effective, but absolute numbers are closer to 1.5%. That isn’t an argument against getting vaccinated, though.

Problems with the Studies

The three aforementioned studies were robust and have been largely accepted by the scientific community. The WHO, UNAIDS, the CDC, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and a dozen and a half African health ministries have all embraced their results. Of course, that isn’t going to stop the anti-circumcision crowd from coming up with something to question. Most commonly, the issues raised are non-issues. For instance, I’ve frequently seen the point raised that condoms are more effective. This is like when a creationist tries to argue against evolution by talking about the Big Bang. It just isn’t on topic. Other issues include the region where the studies took place, the early termination of the studies, and control and intervention groups being treated differently. Let’s start with where these studies took place.

It should first be noted that, as I mentioned earlier, there is a large body of observational studies on the effectiveness of circumcision in HIV transmission reduction. This body is global; what it indicated panned out in these trials. Second, Africa is massive. Uganda and Kenya are neighbors, but South Africa isn’t even close. These places have commonalities, but they are also significantly different in a host of aspects, including culturally. Repeated results across a wide swath of area cannot be simply dismissed out of hand: the limited region of each individual study could be a confounding factor, but when taken as a whole, the studies necessarily reduce any potential confounding factor due to regional effect.

Each study was halted early on ethical grounds. The results were so overwhelming, the monitoring boards for each study had no choice but to put an end to the trials and recommend that all the uncircumcised men be circumcised. Regardless, the studies still all lasted between about a year and a half and two years. Potential bias as a result of these abrupt endings was taken into account. From the Kenya study:

Because the Data and Safety Monitoring Board recommended to stop the trial after the intermediate analysis, it was not possible to follow all the participants as initially planned, and, as a consequence, only those participants recruited at the beginning had a full follow-up. This potential bias was taken into account by adjusting the analysis for the recruitment period; such an adjustment cannot fully account for the confounding effect associated with partial follow-up. When restricting the analysis to those participants who had a full follow-up, the intervention had an effect that was similar in size and significance, suggesting that this potential bias had a negligible impact.

Another common complaint is that a large number of participant follow-ups were lost due to the early terminations. The effect was likely negligible since the numbers actually weren’t that significant for these type of studies, plus many of the follow-ups were actually lost for reasons unrelated to HIV infection (such as moving from the area). Knowing this is one of the benefits of having actually read the studies rather than agenda-driven websites.

Finally, I frequently come across Internet comments that declare the control and intervention group were treated differently. The claim is that the intervention (circumcised) group was given education, condoms, and counseling over and above what the control group was given. This is simply a lie. I’m not sure of its origin, but I’ve seen it enough that I feel it deserves to be killed. The groups were given and/or offered consistent treatment. The only reason to say otherwise is for the same reason Lyndon Johnson told one of his aides to spread the story that one of his opponents fornicated with pigs. He knew it wasn’t true, but if he could make the other guy deny it, he would be giving it credence by simply addressing it. As usual, I’m willing to forgo the public perception in favor of assuming a literate readership.

How It Works

The evidence is in when it comes to circumcision, but how it works is still up for question. One hypothesis says that the foreskin offers a relatively damp environment that is friendly to various pathogens. Another hypothesis says that Langerhans cells are a target of HIV, causing them to act as a vector. Since the relatively thin foreskin has these cells, that means there is an increased surface area and number of these cells where HIV can attach.

Other Benefits

Circumcision has been found to have a host of other health benefits (.pdf). UTI’s are decreased among newborns, penile cancers are reduced, general infections are reduced, and HPV is 30% less prevalent. One study from 1954 to 1997 that looked at cases of invasive penile cancer found that 87 out of 89 (98%) of the men were uncircumcised. Other studies have found a 30% decrease in contracting herpes.

Developed World Efficacy

The CDC has recently come out as endorsing circumcision has a healthy decision for parents to make. It’s a one time cost for a procedure with a low incidence rate of what are only minor complications anyway. The child feels no pain, there is no trauma, sensation isn’t affected at sexual maturation, and a host of diseases are reduced. If the CDC didn’t stop short of recommending circumcision as a health policy for political reasons, then they only did it because STD’s are not an epidemic in the United States. But, then, neither is the flu.

Condoms and Hygiene

The anti-circumcision crusader may get to this point and say, “Fine, even if everything to this point is true, it’s still undeniable that condoms, education, and basic hygiene can best take care of the major health issues raised here where Africa is concerned.” And that’s fair enough. Condoms are 97-99% effective at preventing sexual transmitted diseases. Retracting the foreskin and washing with soap and water will prevent most (maybe even all) infection. But this is a poor understanding of reality.

Let’s start with condom use. Even with wide spread education campaigns, millions of Americans have unprotected sex with untested partners every single day. STD’s are still transmitted here and teen pregnancy (and other unintended pregnancies) still exist. It strikes me as near-racist to assume that we can throw education and condoms at people in Africa and get great results. They aren’t monkeys we first worlders get to train. People in Africa will largely behave how people around the globe behave. Some will use condoms. Some won’t. Some will be willing but unable. Sometimes people run out of condoms and want to have sex. Sometimes they will have sex where they don’t happen to keep their condoms. Sometimes they want to take a risk because it feels better. The “they” here is global.

It’s obviously true that condoms and education are key components in the fight against HIV. However, we should never limit ourselves to one option simply because it may be the most effective option. This fight isn’t a zero sum game; we can – and should – use every tool available. Doing so will literally save lives.

As for hygiene, even with rigorous cleaning practices, infections can still happen. I have a friend who got circumcised in his early 20’s for this exact reason. He showered every day and was specific about his cleaning regimen, but he still had issues. That won’t be the case for everyone, but it will certainly be the case for many. It’s far easier to entirely prevent this issue after birth than to force men to see doctors later in life for something that needn’t be an issue.

Ethics

The anti-circumcision crowd has lost on the scientific front. Circumcision protects against HIV and other STD’s. It reduces penile cancers and other infections. It doesn’t hurt and it doesn’t alter sensitivity. Aside from the minor risks of surgery (which exist largely by virtue of what surgery is in the first place), it literally has zero physiological drawbacks. That leaves the anti-circumcision folks with limited recourse in the debate. Enter the ethical argument.

There is effectively only one ethical argument against circumcision. It isn’t a good one, but it does have a basis in established ethical theory. However, before I address that argument, I want to address a common philosophical argument I hear. It isn’t technically about ethics, but we’re in the same ballpark. It’s the argument that says removing the foreskin in order to protect against disease is like removing a foot to prevent foot cancer or gout. Eventually, the argument usually ends with the suggestion of death in order to prevent all disease. Even without the especially absurd end, this is nothing more than an argumentum ad absurdum. Removing a piece of skin which has no discernible function and the loss of which has no negative consequence is not the same as removing a significant body part or altering the body in a way which affects quality of life negatively.

The primary ethical argument against circumcision – the argument from bodily autonomy – is slightly better. This argument says that it is wrong to permanently alter a person’s body without their consent for non-medically necessary reasons. That means a haircut is fine, or even a piercing (though there may be other objections to the latter). Indeed, any life-saving procedure is allowed under this argument. Like with most ethical arguments, there will be examples that raise gray areas (and those will generally come down to personal judgement calls more than anything), but there are certain things that are black and white. Tattooing one’s infant wouldn’t be allowed, for example. The child necessarily cannot consent and the procedure is absolutely not medically necessary, so there is not justification for it.

With circumcision, it is true that the procedure is not medically necessary. All the benefits laid out above are still very much true, but that doesn’t make the procedure necessary. A person who doesn’t get circumcised can live a perfectly happy life, free from all sexually transmitted diseases and infections. Indeed, billions have done and are currently doing it. Furthermore, it cannot be reversed. Once that foreskin is gone, it’s gone. Some people will say it can be returned, but it will simply be extra skin, at best.

Now let’s make a comparison.

Vaccines are some of the greatest achievements of science. Everyone should get at least the basic vaccines we expect people in the 21st century to have. And for those who live in certain areas or travel to certain areas, a number of other vaccines are recommended. For instance, I have a vaccine for yellow fever because I visited Tanzania about 5 years ago. If I visit any similarly at-risk location 5 years from now, I’ll get a booster shot first. All that said: vaccines are not medically necessary. Again, they’re fantastic and everyone should get them. Public policy should dictate all students must get them. These are things which save lives. But, again, they are not medically necessary. Even when polio was a significant public health concern, very few people actually died from the disease. Only a small minority of the population ever contracted it, and of that small minority, only a minority became sick at all. It was great when a vaccine became widely available. Lives were saved. But being unvaccinated did not put someone at active risk of sickness or death; being unvaccinated was a passive risk. This exactly mirrors the issue with circumcision. Furthermore, vaccines cause permanent change to the body via the addition of anti-bodies. This again mirrors the permanent change of circumcision.

The first counter to this comparison is generally to note that anti-bodies aren’t a visible change whereas removal of the foreskin is. The argument from bodily autonomy makes no such exception. The argument doesn’t say it’s wrong to permanently alter a person’s body without their consent unless you totally can’t see it. That would entirely gut the argument, making it into nothing more than a cosmetic argument. Something so superficial doesn’t pass any sort of ethical muster in my book. Besides, I’m not so sure the anti-circumcision crowd should be making a cosmetic argument anyway.

The second counter to the circumcision-vaccine comparison is to note that whereas vaccines add something to the body, circumcision actually removes something. I suppose that’s true, but I don’t see where such a distinction would matter within the argument from bodily autonomy. We can no more rid ourselves of anti-bodies than we can rejuvenate foreskin.

Before I reach the end of this post, I want to quickly recap the argument from bodily autonomy. The argument says it’s wrong to permanently alter a child’s body without his consent unless it’s for a medically necessary procedure. Neither circumcision nor vaccines are medically necessary. Both are highly effective and both save lives. Without either, we would have fewer people in the world, that’s for sure. However, neither one is required to live a long, happy, and healthy life. This, of course, is not an argument against either one. This is an argument against this incantation of the argument from bodily autonomy. That isn’t to say bodily autonomy isn’t important. It is. But it isn’t an argument that works under the auspices of libertarian ethics as applied to global health issues. That is, bodily autonomy is important because it is the best way to protect the individual and populations at-large; it isn’t important in and of itself/because it maintains liberty. (Dead people don’t have liberty.) Or to put it another way, bodily autonomy only works under a utilitarian framework.

Conclusion

This one is simple. Circumcision is a safe procedure that needn’t cause pain, doesn’t cause trauma (indeed, it can’t cause psychological trauma by definition), and it doesn’t affect sexual sensitivity, satisfaction, or performance. Furthermore, it reduces female-to-male HIV transmission, invasive penile cancers, UTI’s, STD’s, and general infections. Along with education and condom use, circumcision is a phenomenal tool in the fight against HIV; circumcision literally saves lives. The World Health Organization, UNAIDS, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, a dozen and a half African health ministries, the CDC, and the AAP all support it as good health practice. The science and the ethics are in: Excepting for the minor (and rare) risks inherent with surgery by virtue of what it is, there are literally zero drawbacks to circumcision; when performed under sterile conditions and by medical professionals, circumcision increases the odds a boy will have a disease and infection free life.

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Revenge justice is no justice at all

As I’ve mentioned before, I like to lurk at the website reddit. It’s a good site for finding a lot different links to a huge variety of content. From long form articles to short news pieces to funny pictures that will show up on your Facebook newsfeed two days later, reddit offers a lot. Unfortunately, it is also subject to being a hivemind. It isn’t like, say, Freethought Blogs, but it does sometimes have a few of the same problems. The only thing that saves it from being unbearable is the sheer number of users (which is around 175 million according to Wiki) from around the globe. Still, though. It has it problems. Let’s take reddit’s overwhelming attitude towards revenge justice, for example. Comments on this recent article drive home my point; from the article:

In a literal application of the sharia law of an eye for an eye, an Iranian man convicted of blinding another man in an acid attack has been blinded in one eye, marking the first time Iran has carried out such a punishment.

The convicted acid attacker, who has not been identified, was rendered unconscious in Rajai-Shahr prison in the city of Karaj on Tuesday as medics gouged out his left eye, according to the state-owned Hamshahri newspaper.

What this attacker did was horrendous and deserves a severe punishment, but he did not deserve to lose his own eye. The entire reason we find his actions so horrible is that they were barbaric. Doing the same thing to him was only less barbaric in method, not intent.

Of course, this is Iran. The overwhelming majority of redditors are from the U.S., Canada, Australia, and the U.K. (with a sizable portion from many other western nations). Surely the majority will condemn this sort of stone age thinking, right? Think again:

I don’t have a problem with this punishment. What this guy did to these women is unforgivable. An example must be made to all. To be blinded in such a humane way in a medical setting isn’t something the victim was afforded, flesh melting off her face.

and

That’s a tough one.

Part of me feels like everybody deserves a basic level of ‘human rights’ protections no matter what.

But another part of me feels that there are some acts that are so barbaric and animalistic that a person who willfully commits them could only be considered sub-human, and doesn’t deserve the same human rights enjoyed by everyone else.

and

This guy threw acid into 12 women’s faces because he didn’t like the way they dressed. This guy obviously didn’t care about their human rights, he ruined their lives.

I think this punishment isn’t NEARLY harsh enough.

And perhaps worst of all, here is one of the most popular comments:

I know I will be down voted; but I can’t feel sorry for the attacker in anyway shape or form, nor do I fault Iran. They threw acid on a person’s face, and this is the consequence as depicted by the law of Iran. I am sorry but truthfully just stuffing somebody in jail doesn’t deter a lot of people.

Jail to some damaged people is nothing more than a time out. Furthermore I have said this before, stuffing jails with the worse possible offenders of society doesn’t create an environment of punishment or rehabilitation, it becomes a monster creation factory. Just check out the number of violent gangs in prisons. They carry out murders the same way, they rape the same way, they continue to sell contraband the same way.

Yes I am all about being ethical, but there is nothing ethical about putting a person in a cell, feeding them and keeping them alive while the person they have destroyed must suffer through life. The acid attacker deemed their actions and the consequences were worth the price.

Whenever a person starts a sentence with “Yes I am all about being ethical, but…”, you can be sure it’s off the rails.

What we have here are instances of people allowing emotion to trump ethics. Comments which say some people don’t deserve human rights or comments which advocate for the lifelong suffering of others are philosophically incoherent. Indeed, let’s go further – the mindset is disgusting. Once we begin to differentiate human rights based upon human actions, we no longer have any concept of human rights in the first place. This really shouldn’t be that hard. Whatever one wishes to say is the source of human rights, whether it be a god or providence or consciousness or nature, they are necessarily premised upon the notion that they apply to all. The moment we say they apply to some but not others, we’ve made a distinction based on something which is inherently not inherent. That is, our basic human nature is inherent. It exists by definition; we are humans, therefore it is our nature to act as such. The same can be said of any other animal. That inherent base doesn’t change because someone did something awful. To think it did would be like thinking a father who disowns his deadbeat son really no longer has a son. “You’re a drug addict and a moocher! You’re no son of mine! Therefore we are no longer genetically related!” Please.

I had originally titled this post “Vigilante justice is no justice at all”, but the quoted story didn’t technically fit the definition of “vigilante justice” since it was carried out by a government. However, it certainly fits the spirit of the definition. And reddit definitely loves its vigilante justice. That’s because, on some level, the justice is often equal to the ‘crime’ (which often times is just an example of someone being a jerk). It doesn’t matter that both actions were wrong. For reddit (and, really, half the Internet), two wrongs do make a right.

What’s the ethical argument against incest?

A recent news article has been going around about a father-daughter incestuous relationship:

An 18-year-old woman from the Great Lakes region told New York magazine she planned to marry her formerly estranged, biological father and move to New Jersey, where she said there is no legal prohibition against adult incest.

“We plan to move to New Jersey where we can be safe under the law, since adult incest isn’t illegal there, and once I’m there I’ll tell everyone,” the woman, whose name was not published, told the magazine for its “What’s It Like” column, which explores unusual and taboo topics.

It turns out the two had been estranged since the girl was 5. Other articles I’ve read portrayed the two as having no contact until she was 17, but this one says they had minor (non-sexual) interactions from when the girl was 5 to 15. This article also indicates they’ve been dating since she was 16, but it doesn’t say the age of the father; another source indicates he was about 34. At any rate, whatever the specifics here, it’s pretty clear their relationship isn’t okay. There’s a power dynamic at play that makes it wrong. Moreover, most people would simply point out that incest is wrong. I’m wondering, though, why we consider that latter point a good enough argument.

We tend to reject incestuous relationships for two primary reasons. First, they often are not consensual. Second, they can result in genetic abnormalities in offspring. But hang on. Those aren’t arguments against incest in and of itself – those are arguments against non-consensual sex and incestuous reproduction. What if we have two sisters or two brothers? At best we may have a power dynamic at play. What if they’re twins? Or they were estranged their entire lives and only met as adults? What’s the argument then?

There tends to be an “ick” factor when we talk about incest, but that isn’t an ethical argument. It’s a feeling, and no matter how strong it may be, it isn’t a very good basis to reject an idea. Indeed, it’s actually the same reason same-sex marriage still isn’t a thing everywhere.

The article that got me thinking about this topic isn’t a good case study for talking about what makes incest in and of itself wrong, so I don’t particularly want to discuss it. It was merely a jumping-off point: What makes incest wrong? Is it that incest has higher odds of leading to genetic abnormalities? Again, that’s an argument against incestuous reproduction, not incest itself. But let’s pretend that argument does address incest itself. It also addresses people with Huntington’s disease. A person with that disease will die a painful death around middle age while also having a 50% chance of passing it onto his/her children. Those are far greater odds than any incestuous relationship produces. Who is ready to lobby for laws barring people with Huntington’s disease from sexual activity that has any chance of producing children? I’m not.

Let’s be clear, then: The genetic argument against incest is out. It’s not even on point, and even it was, it’s an argument against a lot of other types of reproduction. Moreover, it entirely fails to address relationships where children aren’t possible/would be aborted.

I’m not about to go lobby for new laws regarding incest, but it strikes me that there isn’t a good ethical argument against incest in and of itself. If, at the end of the day, we’re talking about two consenting adults who don’t have an asymmetrical power dynamic at hand, there just isn’t an argument to be had. Society would certainly ostracize anyone who made it public that their relationship was incestuous, and I can’t imagine a healthy relationship would be at all easy as a result, but the same has historically been true of interracial and homosexual relationships.

EDIT: Given some other discussions I’ve had around the Interwebs, I’ve once again had it reaffirmed that some people are genuinely too dumb to have conversations above the most remedial, superficial levels.

Definitions

The feminist definition of sexism is ‘discrimination based upon sex + power’. In other words, the more powerful of the sexes is the only one which can be ever be sexist. Just the same, this definition is appropriated for racism: a power asymmetry is key in determining what is and is not racist. This means that in looking at the US as a whole, only white people can be racist. But this opens up some questions about more specific interactions.

Let’s say we’re in the US southwest. Most of the residents are Hispanic. The city council is Hispanic. The mayor is Hispanic. Most businesses are Hispanic-owned. In this area, the local power is undeniably in favor of Hispanic people. Does that mean a white/black/Asian person cannot be racist here? If not, and if they can be racist a few miles away, what happens in the gray areas? That is, if they can’t be racist in neighborhood A because they aren’t part of the powerful group, but they can be racist in neighborhood C where they are part of the powerful group, what happens in the middle in neighborhood B? Do we defer to national socioeconomics?

And what of minority interactions? If, say, Asian people have greater power as a group than, say, black people, can black people not be racist towards Asian people?

This all seems like a major problem to me. An anonymous statement simply written on a piece of paper apparently may or may not be racist. We can’t know until we’ve found out the skin color and power dynamics of where we are. And then that same statement said by someone of a different skin color suddenly becomes non-racist. I guess I don’t entirely get it. There’s certainly context in statements, but saying “This racial group is less intelligent than that racial group” strikes me as racist no matter who says it.

It seems as though it would be easier to just say sexism is discrimination on the basis of sex, racism is discrimination on the basis of race, and mindsets which force us to view people not as people but as segregated groups defined by their outward characteristics are fundamentally toxic and simply a reverse of the problem, not a fix.

Harbin, China: A libertarian dream

From time to time a meme will pop up on Facebook that talks about Somalia being a libertarian utopia. There’s no regulation, everyone has to more or less go it alone, and the government is virtually non-existent. Of course, this claim falls flat when one realizes that libertarians are not anti-police or anti-military. The minimal necessary governmental organization necessary to prevent anarchy is well within the philosophy of libertarians. So, fair enough, Somalia is not a libertarian utopia. However, the regulatory conditions that have led to smog problems in Harbin, China are exactly a libertarian dream:

Choked with smog that shut down roads, schools, and its main airport, the city of Harbin (map) this week offered a striking reminder that China has a long way to go in addressing the hazards caused by its dependence on coal.

Visibility in the northeastern city of more than 10 million people reportedly was reduced in places to less than 65 feet (20 meters) as coal-fired heating systems ramped up for the winter months. Officials also pointed to farmers burning crop stubble and low winds as additional causes for the pollution crisis.

Roads have been shut down due to the intensity of the smog. People in this area of the country die much sooner than those in cleaner areas. It’s a serious problem that has been fueled, in part, by a desire to grow, grow, grow.

Now, to be fair, it was actually the government that encouraged the use of coal in the first place. That, of course, is not a libertarian dream. Libertarians would rather the magical hand of the free market guide the energy markets. But let’s be reasonable. The use of coal in China is going to be significant with or without the government. It’s a cheap, easy energy source. Moreover, one cannot ignore the fact that it is a complete lack of government regulation that has allowed carbon emissions and other pollution to get so out of hand. Forget that the government shares blame in this: This is the difference between handing a child a loaded gun with the safety off versus handing a child a loaded gun with a child safety lock in place. The kid shouldn’t have the loaded gun in the first place, but if he’s given a Glock anyway, he shouldn’t be able to so easily shoot himself in the head. But under libertarianism? Who cares if he’s dead? What’s important is that he had the FREEDOM!!! to kill himself in the first place.

A thought experiment on Down Syndrome

I’ve written about thought experiments quite a few times on FTSOS. I think they’re one of the most powerful tools we have in philosophy, yet people unfortunately have a distaste for their occasional inconvenience. That is, thought experiments lay out a host of parameters, generally, and it is often difficult for people to accept them all. This tends to betray a misunderstanding of the entire point of a thought experiment.

I want to present a thought experiment on Down Syndrome, but I need to emphasize the importance of the parameters I’m going to lay out. They are not meant to be realistic at all. They are simply a method for isolating one or two factors in a situation. It’s like someone asking, “If we had flying cars, do you think we would have traffic signals like we do for the roads or would it all be radar?” There are many appropriate ways to answer this, however, one of those ways does not include saying, “Cars don’t fly.” Yes, we know cars don’t fly. This is a hypothetical thought experiment with the key parameter being that cars do fly. Noting that they do not, in fact, fly is the type of comment that should be saved for lazy sitcoms.

So here is my thought experiment. Suppose it is up to you to decide whether or not pregnant women with Down Syndrome fetuses will get abortions. This is your decision, whether you’re a man or a woman. You can say, “Yes, abort them all”, or you can say, “No, don’t abort any”, or you can say, “Abort some given percentage.” An explanation is needed for any answer, but the last one especially requires explaining.

Now, I want to be sure the parameters are clear. This is your decision. Whatever you choose, it will hurt no one. The women involved will take a pill that causes an abortion (provided that’s your choice). They will agree with your decision no matter what you choose. The same goes for the father of the fetus. And the sister. And brother. And cousin. And grandmother and grandfather. And everyone else in the world. Your decision will cause no financial hardship, no emotional or physical pain, and it will take place in a developed nation like the US. EDIT: I should be clear on this point: the lack of financial/emotional/physical hardship only applies during pregnancy, not after. That is, the hardship of pregnancy itself shouldn’t be considered a factor here. Assume all the women are of equal socioeconomic standing. You cannot ask them anything and you don’t know any of them. If you don’t make a choice, the entire planet will be destroyed immediately (and for the sake of this argument, let’s assume that you do no want that to happen). (Some philosophies argue that passive and active decisions are one and the same, but for this thought experiment, you must make an active decision. You cannot stand by idly and let nature take its course; if you stand by, Earth is immediately destroyed.) All the fetuses are no more than 4 weeks along.

Again, let me emphasize: This is your decision to make for every woman. Personal autonomy, liberty, freedom, etc are all irrelevant here. (And if it helps you to recognize that this isn’t an issue having anything to do with women’s rights, pretend this all takes place 100 million years into the future at a time when we’ve somehow evolved into an asexual species, so there are no males or females, but Down Syndrome or the asexual genetic equivalent still exists.)

Finally, if you’re of the position that abortion is always wrong in every situation, then your answer is already known and not especially interesting in this context.

So, what is it? Do you choose to abort (a decision with which everyone, including those taking the pill, will agree) or do you choose not to abort (a decision with which everyone will also agree)? Or do you choose some percentage between 0 and 100?

What would constitute evidence for God?

As a so-called New Atheist, one of the cornerstones of my worldview is that evidence is absolutely key in coming to any sort of important conclusion. To believe otherwise is to believe dangerously, at least when it comes to anything important. (Our belief that, for instance, a bridge isn’t going to collapse beneath us is an assumption, and so I exclude such beliefs when I use the word “important”.) That is, to believe something without evidence is to believe on faith. And, of course, that is entirely random; faith is not a method of belief by any means, but rather an arbitrary basis that can lead a person to absolutely any conclusion, including abortion clinic bombings, giving a homeless person a dollar, and committing war atrocities. In short, faith is the worst thing the world has ever seen.

So all that said, I reject faith fully. This is why I call myself an atheist: I am without any form of theism because there is no evidence in its favor. Indeed, there is no good evidence in favor of even deism. (I’m also an anti-theist, but for different reasons.) But I’ve often wondered, what sort of evidence would I accept as pointing towards a knowing, intervening creator? I recall Jerry Coyne and PZ Myers having a back and forth prior towards everyone in the New Atheist movement, including Coyne, shunning Myers for various reasons, so it was a civil exchange, but I don’t recall the details. All I remember now is that Coyne said there is possible evidence whereas Myers took the faith-based position in saying that no evidence could convince him. I won’t bother finding those posts since they aren’t especially relevant here. What is relevant is this B-level Onion article:

Researchers at Harvard University announced today that they have found what appears to be a message from God written inside the human genome.

In a little-explored section of non-coding DNA, a team of top geneticists discovered a 22-word snippet of ancient Aramaic in which God confirms his existence and his role in creating life on Earth.

The stunning finding represents nearly irrefutable evidence of God’s existence and his role in creating the process of evolution by natural selection.

The message was discovered when researchers noticed strange mathematical patterns appearing within a certain section of the genome.

“Hello my children. This is Yahweh, the one true Lord. You have found creation’s secret. Now share it peacefully with the world.

Again, this is an article in the style of TheOnion, a tongue-in-cheek piece meant to be funny. It comes from The Daily Currant, which has had some success in fooling people with its articles (not that that was their intention), but I’m not a big fan.

At any rate, this is a perfect example of what it would take to show me evidence God exists. It isn’t that if we find there are no hidden messages in our DNA we’ve falsified the God hypothesis. No, rather it’s that something like this would be strong evidence for the existence of a creator, I think. The odds that natural selection would, by chance, produce something so precise as this is very, very small.

Of course, let me take this moment to point out that natural selection is not actually a chance process. I only describe it as such in the above instance because natural selection acts to increase an organism’s ability to survive – it does not act to produce linguistic codes that translate into multiple sentences in order to form a coherent message. That is, natural selection is not a chance process, but for it to produce a lengthy message would be insanely freak chance since no part of its regular process leads to anything like messages. That old creationist chestnut about a tornado producing a 747 would actually have some applicability here.

So there we have it. There certainly is possible evidence for the existence of God, and I think this brings us to an important conclusion: God is a refutable hypothesis that can be subjected to the rigors of science just like anything else postulated to exist and/or have an affect on the Universe. The problem for theists is that they’ve never been able to present a test their particular, cultural god could pass.