Wake up, Marianne!
Everyone seems to think you're too much, Marianne
Everyone seems to think they know you, Marianne
Why, you don't even know yourself
Poor little girl, you're out of this world, Marianne
Wake up, Marianne!1
In a previous entry on presidential candidate Marianne Williamson2, I raised the question of what someone who quoted with approval the claim that "reality is an illusion" thought about the reality of disease. Williamson got her start in the public eye with her book A Return to Love, which was actually a book about another book, A Course in Miracles. I haven't read either book, but here's a brief summary of the latter:
Itís impossible to summarize "A Course in Miracles'" doctrine concisely because itís not coherent. But let me give it my best shot: The external world isnít real. All of our problems are illusions. You are the son of God, so am I, so is every other sentient being, so is Jesus, who is writing the book. There is no sin. Evil does not exist. Sickness is an illusion.3
And Williamson's take on it:
According to Williamson, not only is the real world an illusion, everything is an illusion, except love. God is love. We only think that we are separate from each other and separate from God―in reality, we are all one. All of our problems, including sickness, are illusory. If we could just get beyond the illusion of sickness, we wouldnít be sick. If sickness is all in our mind and our minds can be changed by miracles, you might assume that miracles can cure disease. "Sometimes a miracle is a change in material conditions, such as physical healing," Williamson writes in "A Return to Love." "At other times, it is a psychological or emotional change." This is the bait-and-switch at the heart of Williamsonís teachings. Maybe youíll get well, or maybe youíll feel better about being sick….3
I haven't read any of Williamson's books yet4, so I can't verify that this is an accurate description of her views. The description makes it sound very similar to the ultra-silly book The Secret, which I have read and reviewed5. If it is accurate―and it's certainly in line with the fake "Einstein" quote―then Williamson's statements about vaccines aren't surprising.
If diseases are "illusions", then the way to prevent them is simply to recognize that they are. Vaccines, on this view, are not only unnecessary, but may be counter-productive by encouraging a belief that the diseases they prevent are real. If illness is all in the mind then so is health, and being healthy is not a matter of vaccines, drugs, surgery, or any other medical intervention, but of mental state. Refuse to acknowledge that you're sick, and you aren't!
The attraction of this doctrine is that it means that you have god-like powers, but a downside is that when you do get sick―and you will―it's all your fault. You just didn't keep the right attitude. A bigger problem is that it's not reality that's the illusion, but the claim that it is. If you get ill and refuse to face facts, you may delay treatment and die prematurely.
I mentioned in the previous entry that Williamson is already as skillful as any politician at dodging questions. Here's an excerpt from a recent interview displaying her prowess at doubletalk:
Ari Melber: You had cast skepticism on vaccinations. I wonder if you could better explain to us where you come down on that given the science and the concern that vaccinations do work and people need them to keep these communities safe.
Williamson: …I think it's an overstatement to say that I cast skepticism on vaccinations. On the issue of vaccinations, I'm pro-vaccination, I'm pro-medicine, I'm pro-science. On all of these issues, what I'm bringing up that I think is very legitimate and should not be derided and should not be marginalized, particularly in a free society, is questions about the role of predatory big pharma. … When I was a child we took far fewer vaccines, and there was much less bungling, and there was much less chronic illness. I don't know why….
Melber: But do you think vaccinations are contributing to things being worse now? Is that what you're suggesting?
Williamson: No, no, no. What I'm saying is that in 1986 there was this vaccine protection law. There was and there have been $4 billion in vaccine compensation payments that have been made, and there was much less chronic―there was something like 12 percent chronic illness among our children previous to that law, and there's 54 percent now. I don't see why in a free society―you know, what is going on here? When you look at the fact that big pharmaceutical companies lobby Congress to the tune of $284 million last year alone as opposed to oil and gas which is lobbied Congress to the tune of $125 million last year. When you look at all the money that is spent by pharmaceutical companies even on our news―on our news channels, when you look at the fact that there are two pharmaceutical lobbyists for every member of Congress, and even when you look at the tens and even hundreds of thousands of dollars that have been paid into the conference of even presidential candidates, why are we so OK with the complete shutdown of any conversation about this topic? …
Melber: …[J]ust so we're clear, your view though of federal or state government vaccination requirements is they are valid or you may impose them?
Williamson: Absolutely, with any medical intervention, there are benefits and there are risks. The government always has to come down on the side of the public good. Absolutely, I was vaccinated, my daughter was vaccinated. …6
Notice that Williamson claims to not have "cast skepticism on vaccinations" right before she casts skepticism on them. She first does so in her remark: "When I was a child we took far fewer vaccines…and there was much less chronic illness." So what? Williamson is older than I am, and when we were children things were different in a myriad of ways than they are now. Why pick on fewer vaccines and more chronic illness if she's not suggesting that the one causes the other? If that isn't casting skepticism on vaccination, what is it?
After Melber then asks her whether she's suggesting that vaccinations have contributed to higher rates of chronic illness in children, she strongly denies it―"no, no, no"―and then immediately suggests it again! She brings up the "vaccine protection law" of 1986, saying: "there was something like 12 percent chronic illness among our children previous to that law, and there's 54 percent now."
This is primarily a logic check and not a fact check, but it's difficult to even make sense of what Williamson was claiming without delving into some factual questions. For instance, you may wonder, as I did, what law is she talking about? In brief, over thirty years ago manufacturers of vaccines were being sued out of the business. In 1982, there were three companies that made the diptheria-pertussis-tetanus (DPT) vaccine, but by 1984, only one was still producing it7. Then, in 1986, that company announced it would no longer make it8.
Pertussis, also known as whooping cough, is a disease that killed thousands of infants every year in the United States prior to the introduction of the vaccine9. Just as in the supposed vaccine-autism link, the DPT vaccine was blamed for causing brain damage in vaccinated children; also, as in the case with autism, it turned out that the vaccine did not cause brain damage10. Nonetheless, scientifically-ignorant juries were awarding multi-million dollar verdicts against the companies that manufactured it.
The 1986 law was designed to save the vaccine industry in the United States, and in fact did so11. Presumably, Williamson would be happier if they all had gone out of business. What else can she be claiming than that the law has led to more vaccinations, which have led to an increase in childhood chronic illness?
Speaking of which, has there really been a rise in chronic illnesses in children from 12 to 54 percent? No, not really. The logical problem here is the vagueness and ambiguity of the notion of "chronic illness". There are a large number of chronic illnesses: asthma, diabetes, epilepsy, etc. Is obesity a chronic illness? Depending on how you define "chronic illness", on what conditions you consider both "illnesses" and "chronic", you can get a wide range of percentages.
In particular, the numbers cited by Williamson were cherry-picked: the first percentage comes from a 2010 study while the latter one comes from a 2011 study12. Now, you might think that the latter percentage was chosen from a different study because the first one did not provide a recent estimate of chronic illness in children, but you would think wrong. The study in question examined three cohorts of children, the first of which was followed from 1988-1994 and produced the number 12.8% for the "prevalence of any chronic health condition". However, the same study had a later cohort followed from 2000-2006, which had a prevalence of 26.6%13. Even though this is a doubling of chronic conditions, apparently it wasn't alarming enough. So, the later number was taken from a different paper, which used a list of twenty chronic illnesses, and then added obesity, overweight, and "being at risk for developmental delays" to get 54.1%14.
To return to the logic check, whether there has been a quadrupling or only a doubling of chronic childhood illnesses in the past thirty years, there's no reason to think it has anything to do with vaccinations15. Either Williamson is committing the post hoc fallacy, or she is setting up a logical boobytrap to trick others into doing so. The only reasons she gives for thinking that the rise in such illnesses in children is related to vaccines are the before and after claims about the 1986 law and the apparent rise. In other words, post hoc ergo propter hoc: "after this therefore because of this.16"
Of course, I suspect that Williamson's views on the unreality of disease have contributed to her willingness to jump to such unsupported conclusions, as I discussed above. She was primed by her beliefs to downplay the physical factors, such as viruses, that are responsible for some diseases, as well as those factors, such as vaccines, that can prevent them.
When it comes to talking out of both sides of her mouth at the same time, Williamson has most professional politicians beaten. She can assert something, deny it in the next sentence, then turn around and immediately assert it again in the sentence after that!
Who are you going to believe: Marianne Williamson or your lying ears?
- Stephen Stills, "Marianne", Stephen Stills 2, 1971.
- C'mon, Marianne, 7/30/2019.
- Lindsay Beyerstein, "Marianne Williamsonís philosophy is a New York phenomenon", City & State New York, 7/24/2019.
- I dread doing so, too, since I fear they will be undiluted drivel.
- The Secret, The Fallacy Files Bookshelf.
- "Democrats tackle liberalism and electability. TRANSCRIPT: 7/31/19, The Beat w/ Ari Melber.", MSNBC, 7/31/2019.
- Paul A. Offit, Deadly Choices: How the Anti-vaccine Movement Threatens Us All (2010), p. 19.
- Offit, p. 21.
- Natalie Zarrelli, "Whooping Cough Killed 6,000 Kids a Year Before These Ex-Teachers Created a Vaccine", History, 4/16/2019.
- Offit, pp. 28-32.
- Offit, p. 22.
- As I said, this isn't a fact check; for the full story behind these numbers, see: David Gorski, "Is todayís generation of children 'the sickest generation'?", Science Based Medicine, 8/5/2019.
- J. Van Cleave J, S. L. Gortmaker & J. M. Perrin, "Dynamics of obesity and chronic health conditions among children and youth.", JAMA, 2010 Feb 17;303(7):623-30. This is the abstract; I haven't read the full paper.
- Christina D. Bethell, et al., "A National and State Profile of Leading Health Problems and Health Care Quality for US Children: Key Insurance Disparities and Across-State Variations", Academic Pediatrics, Volume 11, Issue 3, Supplement, May-June 2011.
- Williamson appears to have taken her arguments and cherry-picked statistics from propaganda put out by a group founded by Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., who is notorious for peddling conspiracy theories about vaccines, among other things; see Gorski, above, linked in note 12, for details. On Kennedy, see: Sarah Kaplan, "The truth about vaccines, autism and Robert F. Kennedy Jr.ís conspiracy theory", The Washington Post, 1/10/2017.
- For more on this logical fallacy, see under "Post Hoc" in the alphabetical listing of fallacies available from the menu in the left navigational pane.
Rule of Argumentation 71: Aim at objectivity!
Objectivity seems to have a bad reputation nowadays, so the first thing I need to do is explain why you shouldn't be prejudiced against it. Unfortunately, "objective" and "subjective" have several different meanings, which is one reason for the confusion surrounding the topic of objectivity.
Objectivity, of course, contrasts with subjectivity2, and it's easier to get at what I mean by the former by talking about the latter. The relevant sense of "subjective" is at least similar in meaning to "biased", "prejudiced", or "partial", so that as I use it the word "objective" means "unbiased", "unprejudiced", or "impartial". This means that other ways of stating this rule would be: Aim at being unbiased (or unprejudiced, or impartial)!3
- Objectivity is impossible: Is objectivity possible? The arguments that it is not are hard to pin down, but they seem to involve pointing to the fact that everyone has biases. We all see the world from a particular point of view, and there's no way to see it through someone else's eyes, let alone from a God's eye viewpoint that sees everything.
All that's true enough, and if I was recommending that you adopt a God-like viewpoint you'd be right to reject it as impossible. God, if such a thing exists, is perfectly objective and, of course, I am not asking you to be perfect.
Consider the following argument: we are all imperfect and, therefore, sinners. It is impossible for us not to sin. Since "ought" implies "can", and we cannot fail to sin, then it's not the case that we ought not sin. That is, morality is impossible, and therefore non-obligatory. Therefore, do what thou wilt!
What's wrong with the above argument? It's a non sequitur: while it may well be true that it is impossible for anyone to be perfectly moral, that doesn't mean that we cannot be more or less moral. It's true, as the argument says, that "ought" implies "can", which means that we are not morally required to be perfect. Rather, the rule is that we should be as moral as we can be.
If you subtitute the word "objective" for the word "moral" in the above argument then, mutatis mutandis, you have the argument against objectivity on the grounds that it is impossible. Perfect objectivity may well be unachievable5 but, just as we can be more or less moral, we can be more objective or less objective, and the rule is: Be as objective as you can be!
It may be objected that you can't even aim at what you can't achieve, but it's no argument against aiming at morality that it can never be achieved. While perfection may be unattainable, we can always get closer to it. Moreover, we will certainly approximate these goals to a lesser extent if we don't even aim at them.
- Objectivity is undesirable:
Given that one accepts the above argument that it is possible to aim at objectivity, a fall-back position for those who oppose it is that objectivity is undesirable. The notion that objectivity is not desirable usually comes from passionate advocates for causes. For such advocates their causes are all-important, and there's no guarantee that an objective examination of the facts will support those causes.
For instance, one characteristic of objective research is that the results are not determined in advance; if they are, then it is advocacy research6. Similarly, the outcome of objective journalism is not pre-determined to support one's favorite cause, unless the reporter is engaged in advocacy journalism7.
The goal of objectivity is to discover the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, whereas advocacy at its best usually leaves out the middle one of this triad: the advocate only tells that part of the truth that advances the cause. At its worst, advocacy researchers and journalists suppress information, distort the facts, or even lie to advance their preferred causes8.
In order to be an honest and effective advocate of a position, one must be able to objectively evaluate the other side's arguments as well as see the strengths and weaknesses in one's own. If you don't know or understand your opponent's arguments, how can you expect to answer them?
Moreover, the way in which objectivity is pursued in some of our social institutions―notably, in the Anglo-American legal tradition―is through an adversarial process in which each side advocates its position. Similarly, the social institution of debate involves two or more advocates presenting cases for and against some position. While each side presents a one-sided case for its position, the goal is for the whole truth to come out through the entire process. In these institutions, the role of an honest advocate advances the cause of objectivity. Finally, in any such adversarial process, a decision must be reached by a judge or jury, and those who judge must aim at justice, fairness, and impartiality―in a word, objectivity.
So, there is a place for open and honest advocacy, and there is also a place for objective research and reporting. Objectivity does not preclude advocacy, and honest advocacy need not reject objectivity. Advocacy and objectivity are not enemies; rather, objectivity is the friend of honest advocates and the enemy of only the dishonest ones.
Given that you accept the goal of being less biased and more objective is both possible and desirable, even in your role as an advocate, how can you do that? I have three simple and practical suggestions:
- Know your biases! You should know your biases better than anyone else does. What is your religion if any? What are your moral beliefs? What are your political opinions? Knowing your biases won't by itself make you any less biased, but it's a necessary step to take before the following one.
- Compensate for your biases! If a boat is listing over to one side, you can compensate for it by moving heavy objects to the other side until the boat levels out. Similarly, once you know your own directions of bias, you can compensate by bending over backwards―or sideways, as the case may be―to give the side you are biased against a fair chance.
- Don't be afraid to change your mind! Rule 2, you may remember9, is: Be ready to be wrong! That is, be open-minded to changing your beliefs if confronted by sufficient evidence. The attitude I was recommending there is a positive one towards changing your beliefs. People often react to arguments against their existing beliefs as if they are being personally attacked, especially if those beliefs are religious, moral, or political ones. These beliefs are often central to one's sense of self, but do you want your identity founded upon falsehoods? If you realize that changing a false belief to a true one is a gain, rather than a harm, you won't be afraid to change your mind.
If you follow these simple steps, I can't guarantee that you will be completely objective, but if you don't even know your own biases, if you make no effort to compensate for them, and if you're afraid to change your mind, then you will be more biased than if you make an honest effort to follow these suggestions. I guarantee it.
Next Month: Rule 8
- Previous entries in this series:
- Rule of Argumentation 1: Appeal to reason!, 12/14/2018.
- Rule of Argumentation 2: Be ready to be wrong!, 1/26/2019.
- Rule of Argumentation 3: Focus on claims and arguments!, 2/13/2019.
- Rule of Argumentation 4: Be as definite as possible!, 3/8/2019.
- Rule of Argumentation 5: Be as precise as necessary!, 5/29/2019.
- Rule of Argumentation 6: Defend your position!, 7/7/2019.
- Another relevant contrast is between metaphysical objectivity, which has to do with whether there is an objective world independent of the human mind, and epistemological objectivity, which deals with whether the human mind can know that objective reality. This entry deals with the latter type of objectivity, and I assume here that there is an objective reality.
- One reason that I don't actually phrase the rule in one of these alternative ways is that in this series I'm trying to be as positive as possible, so I use "objective" instead of "unbiased", "unprejudiced", or "impartial" due to the negative prefixes in the latter words. Another reason is that the prejudice against the word "objectivity" is unwarranted, as I argue below, and should be resisted. However, if you prefer to avoid the anathema word "objectivity" and think of this rule instead in terms of "unbiased", "impartial", "neutral", or "intellectually honest", be my guest.
- This note is a digression relating to the recent theme on this weblog of fact-checking: If objectivity is impossible or undesirable, then fact-checking is also impossible or undesirable. If objectivity is impossible, then either there are no facts to check or the fact-checker cannot do so; and, if objectivity is undesirable, then the fact-checker shouldn't do so.
- I'm not so sure that it is, but I don't need perfect objectivity to be attainable for my argument above to work; all I need is that it's possible to be more or less biased, which seems to be undeniable.
- For an egregious example, see: Headline, 12/11/2011.
- I've discussed advocacy journalism further here: New Book: Skewed, 7/7/2017.
- There are many examples throughout these files, but here's a good one of advocacy journalism: Fake News Headline, 12/19/2016.
- If you don't, you might want to revisit it. See under note 1, above.