Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Seeming ducks

"I beseech you, in the bowels of Christ, think it possible you may be mistaken!"
—Oliver Cromwell

I teach philosophy. When I tell this to people—even to my learned colleagues at the college—they seem fuzzy about what I do. (Sometimes, when they tell me what they teach, I have the same problem. Kinesiology? What's that?)

So here’s a glimpse into what kind of thing we philosophers do—or at least what this philosopher does.

For one thing, we talk about logic and reasoning a lot. “Logic,” of course, is a field within philosophy and it is, one might say, the language of (Western) philosophy. In my intro courses, especially for the first few weeks, I talk logic, logic, logic. Just ask my students.

And what I teach them about logic applies to everyday events and news stories. Consider:

From yesterday’s New York Times:

An Outbreak of Autism, or a Statistical Fluke?
Autism is terrifying the community of Somali immigrants in Minneapolis, and some pediatricians and educators have joined parents in raising the alarm. But public health experts say it is hard to tell whether the apparent surge of cases is an actual outbreak, with a cause that can be addressed, or just a statistical fluke.

[Comparison with cancer clusters:] It is “extraordinarily difficult” to separate chance clusters from those in which everyone was exposed to the same carcinogen, said Dr. Michael J. Thun, the American Cancer Society’s vice president for epidemiology.

Somali immigrants seem convinced that their community is experiencing a high rate of autism—even a “surge” in autism.

But (asks the logic-minded philosopher), is that even true? Unlike seeming ducks, seeming surges are often actual non-surges. Epidemiologists are now attempting to resolve the cluster/surge question re immigrant Somali kids. (Results will be available soon.) Anecdotal evidence seems mixed: possibly, there are high rates of autism among the Somali population in at least one other country, but not all cities in the U.S. with significant Somali immigrant populations report “surges” as does Minneapolis.

And what if there really are clusters (unusually high numbers) of autism in some immigrant Somali communities? That doesn’t necessarily mean that there is some environmental cause. As statisticians and epidemiologists like to say: correlation does not imply causation. (Here, “imply” is used in the strict logical sense, meaning, “is a sufficient condition for.”)

On the other hand, if (a big “if”) there really is a correlation, one explanation is that there is some cause afoot.

This puzzle will be particularly difficult since we don’t really know what causes autism in the first place. Some of the popular theories one encounters (vaccinations, etc.) are at best controversial or are simply disproved.

Hey, in my philosophy courses, I talk about this stuff (i.e., cum hoc ergo propter hoc, post hoc ergo propter hoc, etc.) all the time. It’s not all that I do, but it is something that I always do, each semester.

So, no, I don’t just talk about Plato's cave, Descartes' dreams, Berkeley's noisy forest, or Bertrand Russell's noisy love life.

—You know, the stereotypically philosophical things.

Tell us what YOU do (or don’t do) in YOUR courses.

(Do tell.)

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