Thursday, December 23, 2004

Anti-Inflammatory Drugs

Here's an article by Steve Milloy at Fox News with some hopeful news for those who find the quality of their lives much improved by anti-inflammatory drugs but who are concerned about recent reports of increased incidence of heart attack and stroke among those who use them:

The questions recently raised about whether Vioxx, Celebrex, Aleve and other anti-inflammatory medications pose some small heart attack or stroke risk to certain individuals should be answered as soon as possible.

In the meantime, however, it would seem that the great weight of data - gathered over years and even decades - evidencing the undisputed benefits and general safety of these drugs should have prevented any panic caused by the relative novelty, paucity and inconclusive nature of the data underlying the ongoing scare.

The clinical trials triggering the controversy are contradicted by many other studies which haven't reported any increased risk of heart attack and stroke; nor are the trials particularly impressive from a statistical viewpoint. The reported correlations are small and may, in fact, be artifacts caused by inappropriate study design.

None of the clinical trials giving rise to the questions about Vioxx, Celebrex and Aleve were, after all, specifically designed to test whether the drugs posed a heart attack or stroke risk. The data on Vioxx came from a study of gastrointestinal effects; the Celebrex data came from a cancer prevention study; and the Alleve data came from an Alzheimer's prevention study.

If weak statistical correlations are to raise legitimate concerns about drugs that have been widely used for years without noticeable problems, those correlations should at least be produced by studies specifically designed to examine the precise health endpoints of concern. Results from well-designed studies would allow physicians and arthritis sufferers to choose whether to manage any clearly identified risks of effective drugs, rather than be told to be happy with "safe", but ineffective treatments such as acupuncture.

Those who have not yet reached the stage in life where arthritis makes even the simplest tasks a painful endurance test may find it hard to imagine how much of a difference these drugs can make in one's life. Let's hope that further tests show their risks to be minimal.

Dunderhead Watch

The task of keeping up with the stupefying stupidity of school administrators has become daunting this Christmas season, but we're still at it. Our latest exhibit is a Mr. Muscara, a principal at Hampton Junior High School (location unknown). Mr. Muscara distinguishes himself in a crowded field of dunderheads this season by making not only one ridiculous judgment but by following it up in quick succession with two or three more:

HAMPTON - A parent of a Hampton Academy Junior High School student says the principal of the school told his son to leave the school's holiday dance on Friday night because the boy was dressed in a Santa Claus costume, which was politically incorrect.

Michael Lafond said his son, Bryan, went to the dance dressed as Santa because it was a holiday party. "He asked if he could dress like Santa and we said yes," said Lafond. "We went to Brooks and purchased the outfit and everything."

Lafond said his wife dropped off Bryan at the school. "I went to the dance with my friend," said Bryan Lafond, who is in seventh grade. "He had an elf hat on and we thought it was pretty cool. Everyone loved the suit, but when I went by the principal, he asked why I was dressed like that."

Principal Fred Muscara said he told the boy he couldn't get into the dance because he was wearing the costume. "It was a holiday party," said Muscara. "It was not a Christmas party. There is a separation of church and state. We have a lot of students that go to Hampton Academy Junior High that have different religions. We have to be sensitive to that."

Viewpoint pauses to try to control our mirth and to wonder if this is the sort of man the Hampton school board really wants setting the academic tone at their school. Somone needs to instruct Mr. Muscara in the basics of Christian theology and how to distinguish religious symbols from cultural icons. The story continues:

Bryan said while Muscara didn't say he had to leave, he told Bryan if he wanted to go the dance he would have to change out of the suit and put on proper attire for the dance. Having nothing to change into, Bryan left the dance to try and find his mother.

"My wife was leaving the parking lot when she saw Bryan running out of the building," said Lafond. "He told her that the principal said it was politically incorrect to wear the Santa outfit."

"I saw him running out of the building crying," said Leslie Lafond, Bryan's mother. Lafond said while he disagrees with their reasoning he could almost understand it.

Perhaps Mr. Lafond is himself a graduate of Hampton Junior High. We can think of no other explanation for how one could almost understand Mr. Muscara's decision to turn away a 7th grade boy in a Santa suit. But it gets worse, or better, depending upon your point of view:

What [Mr. Lafond] couldn't understand was why his son was able to leave the dance. "One of reasons why we are so angry is that the school has a policy that says once you go to the dance you can't leave until it's over," said Lafond. "You can't leave school grounds unless they call a parent. If my wife wasn't there, my son would have been out roaming the streets."

Bryan's mother picked up her son and drove him home to change. Lafond said his wife had to persuade Bryan to go back to the dance.

"He was so embarrassed," said Lafond. "It wasn't like he was trying to pull a prank. He is just a good-natured kid getting into the holiday spirit who just happened to walk right by Scrooge."

Mr. Lafond is here erring on the side of kindness. Scrooge is not the character who comes immediately to our minds. Scrooge, despite his faults, was no dunce.

Muscara said he was unaware that Bryan left the dance. "I asked if he had something he could change into and he said he did," said Muscara.

Lafond said when his wife drove Bryan back to the dance, she complained to school officials. She said she also complained to several School Board members and Muscara. On Monday, Bryan's parents went before the School Board to voice their concerns.

"I don't want this to happen again," said Leslie. "It is unacceptable. When Bryan returned to the school, the principal said, 'What are you doing, trying to get me fired.' That is not a proper comment to make to a student."

Indeed. This man needs to spend some in-service time at a refresher course on professional ethics. The concern he expresses, however, should not be ill-founded given his maladroit handling of this situation from beginning to end and what it tells us about his competence to supervise children.

Superintendent James Gaylord told the School Board it would discuss the matter in non-public session because it involved a student and personnel. When contacted at her house Monday afternoon, Hampton School Board Chairman Nancy Serpis said she was concerned with what she heard. "We need to look at the whole situation," said Serpis.

This can be translated from school-board speak to "Mr. Muscara has demonstrated extremely poor judgment, and we're not yet sure how we're going to be able to pull his fat out of the fire."

Lafond said political correctness is getting out of control. "I don't get it," said Lafond, citing a PTA breakfast with Santa at the school a couple of weeks ago. "What's next? Are they going to get rid of Halloween because of paganism?" he asked. "The last time I checked, Christmas was the celebration of the birth of Christ and not Santa Claus," Leslie said. "I want them to make an apology to my son. My son was humiliated."

The story can be found here. It'd be a hoot if it weren't so sad.

Two Candid Admissions

Last week Viewpoint discussed the book by philosopher Victor Reppert titled C.S. Lewis's Dangerous Idea. Reppert examines the corrosive effect that metaphysical naturalism, if true, has on the status of Reason. Reppert's basic argument is an elaboration of an argument employed by C.S.Lewis, but Reppert expands it and addresses several objections raised by critics.

His contention is that if matter, energy, and physical forces like gravity are all there is then everything is ultimately reducible to material, non-rational particles. If so, our beliefs are just brain states that can be completely explained in terms of non-rational physical forces. But any belief that is fully explicable in terms of non-rational causes cannot itself be rationally grounded. Therefore, if materialism is true, none of our beliefs are rationally grounded, Reason itself is a non-rational illusion, and both truth and the reliability of scientific invetsigation are chimerical. Thus the materialist has no rational grounds for believing that materialism is true or that anything is true.

Whatever the eventual verdict on this argument and its several derivatives is, one of the things the author does which is hard to gainsay is show that the atheists' claim to intellectual superiority based upon the rationality of their beliefs is something of a self-delusion. It intimidates the unsophisticated and unsuspecting perhaps, like suddenly encountering a bloated puffer fish, but there's nothing there to be particularly fearful of.

Reppert quotes two well-known intellectuals, one a leading materialist scientist and the other a philosopher, who inadvertantly reveal that whatever role reason plays in their professional lives, it has little to do with their ultimate commitments and that some of Reason's most eminent proponents are perfectly willing to abandon it when it suits their purpose. The first passage is from Richard Lewontin:

Our willingness to accept scientific claims that are against common sense is the key to an understanding of the real struggle between science and the supernatural. We take the side of science in spite of its failure to fulfill many of its extravagant promises of health and life, in spite of the tolerance of the scientific community of unsubstantiated just-so stories [in evolutionary biology] because we have a prior commitment, a commitment to materialism. It is not that the methods and institutions of science compel us to accept a material explanation of the phenomenal world, but on the contrary, that we are forced by our a priori adherence to material causes to create an apparatus of investigation and a set of concepts that produce material causes, no matter how counterintuitive, no matter how mystifying to the uninitiated. Moreover, that materialism is absolute, for we cannot allow a Divine Foot in the door. The eminent Kant scholar Lewis Beck used to say that anyone who believes in God can believe in anything. To appeal to an omnipotent deity is to allow that at any moment the regularities of nature may be ruptured, that Miracles may happen. (1997)

This is an extraordinary expression of dogmatic faith in naturalism, and it's not just non-rational, it's anti-rational. To see how, Reppert asks us to imagine the reaction of a materialist to a similar claim made by a Biblical theist:

Our willingness to accept biblical teachings that are against common sense is the key to an understanding of the real struggle between faith and unbelief. We take the side of Scripture in spite of its failure to fulfill many of its extravagant promises of health and life, in spite of the existence of unsubstantiated just so stories in Scripture, because we have a prior commitment to Scripture's inerrancy. It is not that the methods and institutions of biblical study somehow compel us to accept only interpretations which are in accordance with the Bible's inerrancy, but on the contrary, that we are forced by our a priori adherence to biblical inerrancy to create a method of biblical study that [produces explanations that are consistent with inerrancy, no matter how counterintuitive, no matter how mystifying to the uninitiated. Moreover, our commitment to inerrancy is absolute, for we cannot allow doubt to get its foot in the door. For anyone doubting the Word of God in any respect will end up doubting it in all respects.

Any Christian who wrote something like this would be laughed to scorn by skeptics, including, no doubt, Lewontin himself, yet a scientist of his stature writes almost exactly this, and his colleagues merely nod sagely and think nothing of it.

The second quote is from philosopher Thomas Nagel and his book The Last Word:

In speaking of the fear of religion, I don't mean to refer to the entirely reasonable hostility toward certain established religions and religious institutions, in virtue of their objectionable moral doctrines, social policies, and political influence. Nor am I referring to the association of many religious beliefs with superstition and the acceptance of evident empirical falsehoods. I am talking about something much deeper - namely, the fear of religion itself. I speak from experience, being strongly subject to this fear myself: I want atheism to be true and am made uneasy by the fact that some of the most intelligent and well-informed people I know are religious believers. It isn't just that I don't believe in God, and naturally, hope that I'm right about my belief. It's that I hope there is no God! I don't want there to be a God; I don't want the universe to be like that. (1997)

And Freudians accuse believers of engaging in irrational wish-fulfillment. Nagel's atheism is based upon a hope that there is no God, which is itself based upon a subjective preference for a Godless universe. The point here is that neither Lewontin nor Nagel is ultimately basing his anti-theism on anything rational. Even if the evidence went against them they would not yield in their adamantine refusal to accept the existence of God. Their ultimate commitments are founded primarily upon an aesthetic predilection for one kind of reality as opposed to another. The much vaunted role of Reason in the rejection by atheists of belief in God is shown, in these two men at least, to be quite irrelevant.

Suspicious Minds

There's a good retrospective on Rwanda at The Fourth Rail. It examines the failure of the U.N. and the Clinton administration to do anything at all to stop the slaughter of 800,000 Tutsis and draws a parallel or two with our situation in Iraq.

Meanwhile, Belmont Club raises some pointed questions about how an AP photographer who captured the execution of Iraqi election workers in Baghdad found himself in just the right spot to catch it all on film:

It was the surely the most amazing of coincidences that placed an Associated Press photographer in a position to openly photograph an execution, where we are reliably informed, no less than 30 armed men were firing guns and hurling hand grenades....

There may be a perfectly plausible explanation for everything, but for the record let me wonder:

How the Associated Press photographer happened to be at the attack site at the time. Was it on his route to home or work?

How he photographed the execution sequence in the midst of an attack by 30 persons from the middle of the major road.

It is astonishing, now that Wretchard calls our attention to the matter, that this intrepid photographer was in just the right place, at the right time, with camera ready for action. It's also remarkable that he evidently stood tall amidst the gunfire to get the angle he did, when the normal human tendency would've been to call as little attention to oneself as possible. How did the photographer know that the killers weren't just grabbing people at random to be murdered? Why did he think that he would not be a target? He's either very brave and lucky, or he was tipped off. We wonder if anyone is questioning him about this.