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Jan 09 2014

How Ayurveda Works (Not Really)

This piece appeared in The Hindu this morning – Understanding How Ayurveda Works. The Hindu does have a soft corner for “complementary and alternative medicine” (CAM), but normally it’s limited to the writings of B.M. Hegde in the “open page”, where anyone can write in. This is different – it appeared in the Science and Technology section.

The piece starts with a list of differences between what it calls “traditional medicine (TM)” and “modern medicine (MM)”. Including this: “TM looks at results, not how the treatment works while MM advances by understanding the mechanism of action, and cause and effect.” This is a convenient trope in CAM – convenient because it absolves CAM proponents from explaining how their drugs do what they’re claimed to do. The rest of the article describes a study done on 2 ayurvedic preparations which was published about two years ago in PLOS ONE – “In Vivo Effects Of Traditional Ayurvedic Formulations in Drosophila melanogaster Model Relate with Therapeutic Applications”.

The scientists did an experiment on the effects of these formulations on fruit flies – one formulation is based on amla (gooseberry), the other contains mercury sulphide. As if often the case with CAM substances, their supposed benefits are multitudinous – one “enhances life expectancy, body strength, intellect, fertility and gives freedom from illness”, and the other is used “in a wide variety of disorders including chronic and recurrent infections (pneumonia/bronchitis), fistula-in ano, rheumatological diseases especially those of auto-immune origin, sexual and general debility and benign and malignant neoplasms”. With an aim of analysing “effects of the whole Ayurvedic formulations rather than their “active” components”, the scientists tested the fruit flies for “effects on longevity, development, fecundity, stress-tolerance, and heterogeneous nuclear ribonucleoprotein (hnRNP) levels”.

The problem is plausibility – no plausible mechanism for these substances to have these effects is given, other than a routine mention of anti-oxidants. Science-based medicine looks at plausibility because the prior probability of a drug working makes a big difference to such studies. This article – The Plausibility Problem – explains pretty much everything you need to know on the subject, including things like true/false positives/negatives, what we mean by power and specificity of a study, prior probability and positive predictive value. (Also see this other article on science-based vs. evidence-based medicine.) This is essentially Bayesian reasoning. In a nutshell, a low prior probability matters:

Even for a well designed, powerful study, if the premise is highly unlikely, a positive result does not give us convincing evidence that the premise is true. For studies with weaker power, the results are even less persuasive. So why do extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence? Because for implausible claims, ordinary evidence is highly unreliable. A single positive study with a P value of .05 is ordinary evidence. For a very implausible hypothesis, a result of this sort is quite likely to be a false positive.

So without any hypothesis on how amla and mercury sulphide have these beneficial effects on “life-history”, this single study cannot be taken as proof that they have these effects. The vagueness of the supposed benefits is problematic too (and is a common trope in CAM with its descriptors like “holistic”, “boosts immunity”, “removes toxins”, “promotes well-being”). The more specific the claimed benefit, the easier it is to test it. (Compare the ayurvedic vagueness with the highly specific benefits and mechanisms of gooseberry listed here.)

Here’s a contrasting example also from “ancient” medicine – the anti-malarial drug Artemisinin. Artemisinin comes from the herb Artemisia annua, and its anti-malarial properties were first described by Tu Youyou and colleagues in the 1960s when Chinese scientists investigated more than 2,000 herbal recipes found in traditional Chinese medicine. So far so good – ayurveda proponents would be happy reading this. But read a bit more and the differences start to appear – the active compound was identified, the original extraction method didn’t work, only three treatments emerged while the rest were useless (I wonder if ayurveda proponents would do such a culling instead of making blanket assertions like “Ayurveda works”), even more powerful derivatives and combination treatments have been synthesized (i.e. they’re not “natural”), and crucially, the chemical mechanism of the drug is mostly known. This is a good example of Bayesian principles applied to medicine – the combination of a good prior probability and an overwhelming amount of data confirms that the drug works.

So what the scientists investigating ayurvedic substances should do is: (1) propose mechanisms i.e. HOW does the substance do what they claim it does and (2) do proper repeated trials to gather evidence that it does do what they say it does.

 

Jan 06 2014

What to Say When Someone Dies?

My grandmother died today – she was 97 years old and had been on the decline for some time. She had also endured a very low quality of life for years (once saying, “How long is this going to go on?”), not being able to move or read or feed or bathe herself – so her death comes more as a relief than as a shock. At work today when I told a colleague about this, they said “May her soul rest in peace”.

Awkward silence followed.

I’m sure I’m not the only atheist who’s faced this problem, so I thought I’d pen down my thoughts on what to say – for believers talking to atheists, as well as atheists talking to believers.

First, do say something – don’t remain silent. Any awkwardness you feel is irrelevant. This is not about your feelings – it’s about the feelings of the person who’s lost a loved one. Even a heartfelt oh fuck – i.e. expressing shock – is better than saying nothing.

My mother died several years ago. That death was particularly raw and painful for me, as (a) she was my mother, and (b) she died of cancer and this involved suffering. I still have the emails my friends and relatives sent me back then. Here are some snippets from the emails I appreciated:

Sunil – Extremely saddened to hear about this. Both __ & I express our condolences and hope you and your dad are ok (or as ok one can get given the circumstance). Let me know when I should call you; I’m tempted to right now, but I won’t. (I had asked people not to call.)

 

Sunil you have been so much in our thoughts these last few weeks, knowing that the news you sent this morning would finally arrive, but that death, however long expected, still comes as a terrible and painful shock. We are so very sorry.

 

I am just not sure what should I write to you. I am just thinking aloud with you and just trying to feel your feeling. This is what our life is, ups and downs, birth and death. Though we tell each other “we have to face it”, but I can feel few things are so so very much hard to face. (This person also wrote “may her soul” etc., but there was enough substance in the email for it not to matter.)

 

Hi Sunil, really sorry to hear about your mom, didn’t know what to write all these days. I hope you, your dad and sister are ok.

 

Sunil, we are very sorry.  I don’t have any words of condolence, I can’t even imagine what you must be going through right now. You have ALL our support.

 

And here are 2 emails which I did NOT appreciate. Both these friends were Christians, and subsequently, I mentally “downgraded” our friendship:

Dear sunil, I know you claim to be not much of a believer in God but at this moment I don’t know what else to say – may the comfort and peace of God be with you and your family during this really difficult time. Take care.

 

I have no idea what to say except that I would like to share with you a piece that I read out at my Nana’s memorial service. Its a beautiful piece and somehow it does bring one immense solace. (The rest of the email comprised of the poem Death is Nothing at All, which offers solace by saying that there is an afterlife, and ends with the line: “How we shall laugh at the trouble of parting when we meet again!”.)

 

So basically I think the thing to do is, express empathy and acknowledge the person’s loss – that this is a horrible thing that’s happened to them. That’s pretty much it. What you should NOT do when giving condolences to an atheist is bring gods into it. Gods don’t exist, so you’re not helping us at all with that.

What about the reverse – what should an atheist say to a grieving believer? Once a colleague of mine lost their father, also to cancer. I sent them a message saying something like My condolences __, I lost my mom to cancer so I have some idea of what you’re going through. They messaged back saying Thanks Sunil, let us pray for his soul. I didn’t reply any further, which I think was all right – you don’t need to lie about your beliefs, but you don’t need to bring them up either. There is a time and place for arguments about the existence of gods, and this is not it. I heard another good example recently, from an atheist friend who was speaking to the mother of someone who had died. The mother explicitly asked if my friend was an atheist too and said that there was indeed a supernatural power. My friend didn’t react to that – “I listened quietly to whatever she said”. Again, I think this is the right approach.

If you have any tips on what to say and what not to say, feel free to leave them in the comments.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Jan 02 2014

Quick Post: Results of Domestic Work Survey

The results of the survey How Much Do YOU Pay Your Domestic Worker? have been published on the main Nirmukta site – you can find it here.

 

Dec 21 2013

How Much Do YOU Pay Your Domestic Worker? Take the Survey

One aspect of the recent Devyani Khobragade controversy has been the treatment of domestic workers, particularly how much (or how little) we pay them. We’ve decided to do an online survey to get an idea of how much domestic workers in India are paid, and for what kind of work. It’s a short survey, consisting of just 10 simple questions. It will only take 5 minutes of your time, so if you employ a domestic worker in India, please do take it – and please spread this link around too. We’ll publish the results on the main Nirmukta site in due course. Thank you! (UPDATE Jan 2 2014: The results of the survey have been published here.)

Click Here to Take the Survey

A female domestic worker sitting on the floor and washing kitchen utensils.

A female domestic worker sitting on the floor and washing kitchen utensils.
(Image via The Hindu; links to source.)

 

Dec 19 2013

It’s Domestic Work, Not Domestic “Help”

The Indian media is abuzz with the Devyani Khobragade controversy these days – she’s the Indian Deputy Consul General in New York, who was arrested recently by US authorities. One of the issues it raises is the rights of domestic workers, since one of the things she is charged with is having paid her Indian domestic worker, Sangeeta Richard, far below US minimum wage.

And as usual, we’re seeing domestic work referred to as domestic “help”. Today’s front page in The Hindu (Bangalore edition) used the phrase domestic worker once, domestic employee once, and domestic help three times.

It’s not help. It’s work.

About a year ago, I attended a panel discussion in which one of the participants was Donna Fernandes, founder of the women’s rights organisation Vimochana. One of the things she had been campaigning for was domestic workers’ rights, and she made a point which stuck with me: she said it was a constant battle to get lawmakers and powers-that-be to see domestic work as work and to make them drop the conceptualisation of it as “help” or “assistance”. She said that the reason is patriarchal: domestic work is seen as something that is a woman’s “duty”, something that she does for free over and on top of any work she does outside the home. The wife is simply expected to do it; and so the domestic worker’s work is devalued too, it’s seen as simply helping along the house owner’s wifely duties.

The consequences of this are truly horrible. Here’s a sample:

Domestic workers – where would you be without them?

Said Premamma (45), who has been working as a domestic help for 10 years: “Over the years we have learnt to ask for a salary dependant on how big the house is or the amount of work we do. While people from other professions are paid for the number of hours they put in or the quantum of work they do, we still have not evolved a mechanism to fix salaries.” Another domestic worker, Sarojamma (30) who lives in Kamakshipalya, said her repeated requests for a salary hike had been rebuffed. “I have been working in one house for nine years. My initial salary was Rs. 200, which is now Rs. 800. Initially I would only wash clothes. Now they make me clean the house and utensils as well.”

Child domestic workers suffer from statistical invisibility, says ILO:

The world over, around 15 million children work as paid or unpaid domestic workers, of which at least 10.5 million are below the legal minimum age, according to an International Labour Organization (ILO) report titled Ending Child Labour in Domestic Work, released on the occasion of World Day Against Child Labour. These children work under conditions either hazardous or “tantamount to slavery” says the report. Not surprisingly, in these slavery-like conditions where physical, mental and sexual abuse is rampant — the report establishes through individual case studies from across the world — girls far outnumber boys. In fact, 71.3 per cent of children employed between the ages of five and 17 in domestic work are girls (2008 statistics).

The invisible workers:

In 2011, the International Labour Organisation (ILO) adopted the Domestic Workers Convention. India supports the Convention but is yet to ratify it. One big reason for the absence of a targeted law, say activists, is that the law-makers — the babus in Delhi and elsewhere — are themselves employers and a law protecting the rights of domestic workers could be antagonistic to their interests.Belonging to the unorganised sector means that in case of a dispute with the employer, the worker cannot go to a labour court, as she is not technically recognised as a ‘worker’. “All laws since Independence are formulated for the organised sector, which is hardly 5 per cent in this country,” says Subhash Bhatnagar of Nirmala Niketan, which organises domestic workers.

I didn’t know that last bit – that the ILO had a Domestic Workers Convention and that India had not ratified it. India is by no means alone in that: there are many countries which haven’t ratified it, including the US and the UK. In fact, only ten countries have ratified this convention.

We’re putting together a short online survey, titled How Much Do YOU Pay Your Domestic Worker? As the title suggests, the aim is to get a sense of how much Indians – Nirmukta members in particular – pay their domestic workers. I’m guessing that as we fill up the survey, we’ll suffer the dawning realisation: that isn’t enough. Watch this space, we’ll publicise the survey once it’s ready.

 

 

 

Dec 11 2013

Unity in Bigotry

You might have read the news about the Supreme Court upholding a 19th century law that criminalizes gay sex, saying that the law needs to be repealed via legislature.

In our schools, we are taught the phrase “Unity in diversity” to emphasize the diversity of cultures in India and yet how they all belong to one country. But today we are seeing unity in bigotry where bigots all across the board have ganged up against LGBT rights.

In 2009 the Delhi high court called Section 377, the law in question, as discriminatory. Taking affront at this sudden outbreak of decency from a high court, various political, social and religious groups have filed an appeal in the supreme court.

Now the only way the law can be put where it rightly belongs – a garbage bin – is via legislation. That is going to be tough given that no major political party has come out in support of gay rights.

Here is a sample of how “united” they all are (Quotes taken from this article):

Mohammad Abdul Rahim Quraishi, a Hyderabad-based spokesman for the All India Muslim Personal Law Board, one of the groups that appealed against the 2009 decision, said the Supreme Court had made the right decision.

“We are very happy with the judgment,” said Mr. Quraishi. “There is no space for homosexuality in our social setup. It is a sin, it is a heinous crime.”

“Homosexuality is a disease,” a tweet from Mr. Ramdev’s verified Twitter account read shortly after the Supreme Court’s judgment.

“We should not encourage homosexuality in our society. It is against the laws and customs and harmful to people in India’s civilized society,” said Zafarul Islam Khan, president of the All India Muslim Majlis-e Mushawarat, an umbrella body of Muslim organizations in the country.

Subramanian Swamy, a politician with the Bharatiya Janata Party, said that homosexuality was a malfunction of the human body and should be treated medically.

“I welcome Supreme Court judgment holding homosexuality as illegal,” Mr. Subramanian told The Wall Street Journal in an email statement after the Supreme Court judgment.

“It is no accident that men and women are born in equal proportion. Moreover survival of the human race requires one man one woman cohabitation,” he added.

Any behavior which disturbs this natural selection should be regarded as deviant and treated as illegal, Mr. Subramanian said.

“The government and corporates must fund research to find a cure for homosexuality at the earliest. It is a malady that should not be celebrated but cured with compassion,” he said.

Oct 21 2013

Growing Up Saudi

Saudi Arabia would easily top the list of countries most hostile to a freethinker. I can’t imagine living in a country that has a ban on theatres. Many expats justify living in Saudi, saying it is a good place to work for a few years and save money. After all, there are not many distractions. It’s pretty much Eat, Work, Sleep. But the damages on a person’s self-development are, in my opinion, not worth it. It is not a good place for children to experience life. In the ten years I lived there I never made any Saudi friends. There was very little interaction between the expats and Saudis. In a country like India where children are exposed to a variety of life changing experiences, Saudi Arabia offered very little. For instance, as my father once pointed out, in the time I lived there, I had never seen a death. Never seen a family grieve. This might seem like a small matter, but I feel experiences such as these are important. Reading about death is one thing, but seeing a dead body at a funeral is something else. It puts somethings in perspective and makes you aware of death as very real, rather than an idea.

Now I may not be the best person to write about life in today’s Saudi Arabia. I left Saudi in 2001 and I can only give you my version of the Saudi life until that point.

Read the rest of this entry »

Oct 12 2013

Arguments From Analogy in Victim Blaming

Important!

“Analysing Arguments” is an ongoing series which analyses arguments found in daily life. Some good background material for this is Coursera’s enormously popular course Think Again: How to Reason and Argue, and the book Understanding Arguments: An Introduction to Informal Logic. You might also find the primer How to Argue Online useful. Other installments of the series are listed in the analysing arguments tag here and also on nirmukta.com.

Summary

This post analyses various arguments from analogy (“AFAs”) used in victim blaming. It also talks about victim blaming in general – what we mean by blame and responsibility, and the psychological causes of victim blaming. Finally, it argues that victim blaming is wrong in general. If you’re already well-versed in debunking the AFAs, you might want to read only the section on Moral Responsibility, and then skip to the last two sections at the end. If you are interested in the AFAs, please read How to Analyse Arguments From Analogy first, so that you’re familiar with the structure of AFAs and how to evaluate their strength.

Contents:

The Components of a Victim-Blaming AFA
Moral Responsibility
The Lollipop/Lollipop Owner
The Bear Attack Victim
The Careless Pedestrian/Helmetless Biker
The Job Interviewee
The Laptop/Car/Home Owner
The Late Night Walker and the Football Fan
The Psychology of Victim Blaming
Why Victim Blaming is Wrong

The Components of a Victim-Blaming AFA

To recap from the first post, an AFA has the following form:

1. Object A has property P (and possibly Q, R…).

2. Object B also has property P (and Q, R…).

3. Object B has property X.

——————————————————

4. Object A also has property X. (From 1-3.)

A victim blaming AFA has the following components. This is something I settled on after thinking about it for ages – there are variations of it which could work, but I think this is the best version:

A = a person who suffers harm

B = another person who suffers harm

P, Q, R etc. = (severity and circumstances of harm)

X = is (or ought to be) blamed/punished.

So a victim blaming AFA essentially says: we blame/punish this victim in this case of harm, therefore we should also blame/punish that victim in that case of harm. Before we get to some examples, I want to talk a bit about the property X above – i.e., why it says blamed and punished - and hence why this called victim blaming in the first place.

Read the rest of this entry »

Sep 29 2013

Group Protest Over Slow Dabholkar Murder Investigation

Nashik, 21st Sept.

One month after the assassination of Dr. Narendra Dabholkar, rationalist and founder of MANIS (Maharashtra Andhashraddha Nirmoolan Samiti), the police have been unable to identify suspects and nab the killers and their masterminds. The activists of Nashik branch of ANIS (Andhashraddha Nirmoolan Samiti) and MANIS decided to hold a protest on 21st September 2013, to urge the government authorities to transfer the case to a competent investigative agency so that justice is served speedily.

Activists at the event, holding placards and with black bands across their mouths.

Activists at the event, holding placards and with black bands across their mouths.

Dr. Dabholkar had recently held a training workshop at Nashik in his campaign against caste panchayats.

I reached the spot at 10.30 AM and the activists had started gathering in front of the Collector’s office. Regional channels from major television networks were present to cover the event. About 140-160 activists, stoically sat down for an hour of silent protest with black bands tied around our mouths.

The protest ended with singing of MANIS’s signature song in Marathi, “Doke wapra” (use your heads/brains) exhorting people to take rational decisions and not be swayed by superstition.

I discovered that Dr. Dabholkar’s name had entered the realms of the subaltern heroes, as I heard the second song to the tune of Marathi folk ballads which eulogised Dr. Dabholkar as being born in the land of Bheem and Phule (Dr. B. Ambedkar and J. Phule – the great social reformers).

We then marched across and handed over the letter from MANIS to the Collector, Nashik, who assured us that the criminal investigation was not being neglected and the killers would be caught and prosecuted.

As we dispersed, veteran activists told the younger ones that it’s your responsibility now to take the movement forward. MANIS has published a booklet to distribute in its camps to create awareness about the Ordinance passed the State government:
“Maharashtra Prevention and Eradication of Human Sacrifice and Other Inhuman, Evil and
Aghori Practices and Black Magic Act- 2013″ (In Hindi-English)
Here is the link to the booklet on their Facebook page.

Activists at the event, holding placards and with black bands across their mouths.

Activists at the event, holding placards and with black bands across their mouths.

Here is a video clip of the protest from Star Majha news channel:

Sep 26 2013

How to Analyse Arguments From Analogy

Important!

“Analysing Arguments” is an ongoing series which analyses arguments found in daily life. Some good background material for this is Coursera’s enormously popular course Think Again: How to Reason and Argue, and the book Understanding Arguments: An Introduction to Informal Logic. You might also find the primer How to Argue Online useful. Other installments of the series are listed in the analysing arguments tag here and also on nirmukta.com.

An argument from analogy is similar to what we simply call an analogy, but is different in that it’s an argument, whereas an analogy is usually just a stating of a similarity. “Your driving is like Rahul Dravid’s batting” – that’s an analogy (and a compliment I once received!). It’s simply saying A is like B. But an argument from analogy – henceforth referred to as an “AFA” – is an inductive argument, which states the existence of a further similarity as its conclusion. It takes the following form:

1. Object A has property P (and possibly Q, R…).

2. Object B also has property P (and Q, R…).

3. Object B has property X.

——————————————————

4. Object A also has property X. (From 1-3.)

Here’s an example which some of us might have experienced. Say I’m up for a promotion at work, and I think I’ll be promoted, but I’m not. And then I find out that my colleague has been promoted. So I go to my boss and I argue for my promotion by saying:

“You promoted <colleague>, why didn’t you promote me?”

I’ll try to reconstruct this AFA in the above form. First, what are the two objects being compared? Easy enough – me and my colleague. I.e.,

A = me

B = colleague

Next, what are the common properties P, Q, R and so on? It’s implicit that there must be some similarities between my colleague and I, so let’s say we both joined around the same time, and have similar experience levels:

P = 5 years of relevant experience

Q = joined the company in 2009

Finally, X is the property of being promoted:

X = got promoted

So as you can now see, the conclusion “A also has property X” is “I should also be promoted”.

When is an Argument From Analogy Strong?

An AFA is stronger when it has the following attributes:

  • Many relevant similarities: the similarities P, Q, R… are relevant to X and many in number. The similarities I noted above are certainly relevant to the issue of promotion. But other similarities might not be relevant – e.g. if my colleague and I both have degrees in philosophy, but philosophy isn’t relevant to our job, then that similarity isn’t relevant to our promotion. But if my colleague and I both hit a particular sales target in the last quarter, and we both won a particular award… the more relevant similarities there are, the stronger the argument becomes.
  • Fewer relevant dissimilarities: there are fewer relevant dissimilarities between A and B. What if it turns out that my colleague passed a well-regarded industrial certification, and I hadn’t? Or received previously-unheard of praise from the customers? Or won major new business? Or hired and coached a brilliant team? If I have done none of these things, then these differences are relevant, and they would weaken my argument.
  • Diverse objects: there are other objects C, D, E… which also have similarities P, Q, R… and X. If I can identify three or four other colleagues who also share those similarities and got promoted, then my case for promotion becomes stronger.
  • Weaker conclusion: If instead of saying “You definitely should have promoted me”, I say “You probably should have promoted me”, the argument becomes stronger. Granted, in this particular example it wouldn’t make much sense, since promotion is a yes-or-no state. But in general, the principle holds – a weaker conclusion has more support from the premises of an AFA.

Here’s a real-life AFA from a few days ago – in a Wall Street Journal interview, the CEO of American financial services firm AIG said this while responding to criticism of AIG executives receiving bonuses despite the company being in bad shape:

The uproar over bonuses was intended to stir public anger, to get everybody out there with their pitch forks and their hangman nooses, and all that–sort of like what we did in the Deep South [decades ago]. And I think it was just as bad and just as wrong.

He later apologised (kind of). Most of us can instinctively make out what’s wrong with this argument, but it helps to break it down into the above form, to see just why it’s a weak argument:

A = executives of AIG who received bonuses

B = African-Americans in slavery/civil rights era

P = demonised by media and public opinion

X = ought to be left in peace.

The argument appears to point out an additional similarity by use of the phrases pitchforks and hangman’s nooses, but for one object (A) these phrases are rhetorical, but for the second (B) they are literal (an equivocation fallacy perhaps?). So we’re left with that one similarity P, of questionable relevance, and of course there are a host of relevant dissimilarities between A and B. As a result, this is a very weak argument from analogy.

A more detailed and academic look at AFAs can be found at the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. I plan to continue with the same subject next time, where I’ll look at arguments from analogy which routinely show up in the act of victim-blaming.

 

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