35 Comments

  1. When I saw the Speed Bump on release (12/23) I am the sad sort of person who noticed that the “mother/wife” bird’s beak was indicative of a seed eating bird and not one likely to mate withe long-billed, beer-ordering male.

  2. In the early 1990s, before the web, before Mosaic, there was CU-SeeMe. It was a point-to-point conferencing program using the early Internet. Initial versions served only video over IP. Later, the authors added audio.

    In 1999 I bookmarked a webpage that advertised – shall we say – a mechanically enhanced version of CuSeeMe. The bookmark points to fufme.com. Use your imagination.

    I’m not going to visit that bookmark now, because it insists that I enable Javascript. Nope! But if you search the web with the keyword fufme, you’ll probably find something similar, if not identical, to the 1999 page as I recall it. Don’t view it if you’re easily offended. Also, you might want to make sure that any little ones in your house are elsewhere before viewing the page.

    I don’t know of anything similar to the comic, which falls between the two extremes I mentioned above. It’s not such a bad idea, though, methinks.

  3. Targuman, I also reacted with a practical-matters level problem to the Speed Bump, but it was for me just a question of how she would fetch any bottles or cans of beer. Then I caught on that that maybe was the joke (and the Ewww) — she would handle it similarly to how she feeds the chicks — consume it temporarily then bring it back up for delivery. Eww!

  4. deety— I assumed the joke was that he was expecting to have the beer regurgitated down his throat– why else would he have his mouth open. My thought was how is she expected to separate the baby food from the beer if you has ingested both.

    I’m not sure the Off the Mark’s intent was “What has this modern world come to?” but maybe the intention was to be sweet. Or both.

  5. Regarding the placebo strip, this sort of thing is why “double blind” trials exist (neither the patient nor the administering medical professional know whether the treatment is real or placebo/control). Sure, actually blurting out “Here’s your placebo” doesn’t happen, but when the person giving the treatment knows whether it’s the placebo, it can result in behavior that unintentionally tips off the patient.

  6. @dvandom, to be fair, maybe this wasn’t an experimental drug trial, but just individual treatment-by-placebo. Of course, even in that case the nurse or pharmacy assistant in the cartoon is spoiling things.

    The idea of individual treatment-by-placebo is quite old, and still is used. But can spark serious debate in medical-ethics circles.

  7. A point someone once brought up, and which then bothered me for a while, until I discovered it had actually been addressed, was: Never mind trying to remove placebo effect from your medical trials to see if drug x works, why is nobody studying the placebo effect itself?? If it can be up to 30% effective, and often more effective than the million dollar drug you are trying to market, why aren’t we harnessing the placebo effect??

    And then I read a book about exactly that, and it turns out that it has been studied, and the results are that it is most effective for pain management and other “soft” issues that are only really measurable by self reporting them — anything that has a hard objective way to measure is not affected by placebo (your arm will not grow back because you think the pill you’re taking works to do that). Other effects, like cancer remission, are mostly improvements in quality of life and attitude towards the disease, while actual remission remains more or less random and hard to measure systemically (there is actually no evidence beyond anecdotal that placebo will cause cancer remission). And yes, it should be utilized more for pain management.

    (Sadly, a quick check of my archives has been unable to turn up the title of this book, it was a couple years ago, maybe even like 15…; there does seem to be a recent book covering the subject, but I haven’t read it — the blurb does seem to indicate that is covers the limitations of placebo, and I’d expect the conclusions to be similar to those I mention above from the book I read, but I haven’t actually read the book: The Magic Feather Effect by Melanie Warner)

  8. A confusing feature of the sort of treatment-by-placebo that Danny mentions, and is involved in larK’s reflections, is that there can be some measurable effect (in the sort of cases larK’s sources seem to be approving) even when the patient knows the treatment is a placebo . Which, first of all, is plenty surprising. And second, plays into those ethical debates Danny mentions, since it changes the consequences of following a “don’t lie to the patient” maxim.

  9. Philosophy professor Ted Cohen (author of Jokes among other titles) once told our class a story about his visit to a doctor, for a certain condition (which he did not care to discuss with the class). She told him there was a treatment for it; however, this was “just an empirical treatment”. Cohen told the class he wanted to respond that that sounded much better than if there was just an ad hoc treatment! (Or would it be a priori?)

  10. Anyway, why should telling the patient that they’re taking a placebo destroy the placebo effect? Just explain to them studies show placebos are incredibly effective. 😉

  11. Mitch, could you elaborate on Cohen’s expected understandings by his class of the word “empirical” and why that would be in opposition to “ad hoc” (and/or “a priori”)? Empirical is one of those words that has drifted so far from it’s original meaning (having to do with the Empire) that it can and does mean just about anything depending on the field, or at least I have a hard time pinning down a hard meaning. For me it has to do with evidence-based things, though I won’t digress into what actually constitutes evidence at this time. Anyway, as such, what the doctor supposedly said makes no sense to me, unless she was trying to convey that this treatment actually has evidence to back it up, but that sounds the exact opposite of what she was trying to convey (that there was something inferior or lacking about this particular treatment). And I don’t see how contrasting it with an ad hoc treatment would highlight or illustrate the misuse, especially again as it sounds like the speaker thinks an ad hoc treatment would be even worse. My understanding of an ad hoc treatment would be one that works only for this specific instance, which, really, would be exactly what you would want, no? This treatment works exclusively for cancer, not a broken foot, so it’s a good thing you have cancer, and not a broken foot. Even if it only works exclusively for your cancer, isn’t that a good thing? As long as it works? Even if it isn’t empirically proven to work? And is that the dynamic tension the anecdote is aiming at? This treatment has been proven to work, but that doesn’t mean it willl work, especially for you, whereas this treatment that has been made just for you this one time has not been proven to work in all cases? (and how does a priori fit in?)

  12. “Homeopathic” remedies are basically placebo effect. Remember the bizarre “HeadOn – apply directly to the forehead!” commercials.

  13. (I think the book I read is Placebo: Mind over Matter in Modern Medicine by Dylan Evans, from 2004, though I may have read it any time between then and 2008 when I started tracking my library book activity. It seems like the book I read, and the time period is right, but without rereading it, I can’t at this point be 100% sure that this is the book I was referring to above, but I’d give it a good 95% chance that it was…)

  14. I have to run, but will briefly reply that “empiric therapy” is a normal medical term, not something invented by Cohen’s doctor. It means something that has been shown to work (so, empirically) but does not have grounding in good theoretical explanation. Thus, maybe not as trusted as you would like. I’m sure Cohen was not “correcting” her but amused at how the term differed for her sphere and his.

  15. Mitch4: What’s confusing about that story, at least for me, is that from the way that it’s structured, I expected the two categories (“empirical” and “ad hoc”) to be contrasting or complementary descriptions that in some way illustrate some concept or conflict. But instead they seem to be two categories that don’t have a lot to do with each other – they’re not exclusive, but they don’t appear to be particularly correlated either.

  16. Right, they are meant to be opposing terms. Sorry there wasn’t an easy way to toss in a posteriori as an equivalent to empirical which would be the needed obvious opposition to a priori .

  17. Check out the Wikipedia article on “Two Dogmas of Empiricism” for an overview of some of these issues, and something about the overlapping sets of contrast terms.

    Here’s a passage from that wiki article
    ——
    In his book Philosophical Analysis in the Twentieth Century, Volume 1 : The Dawn of Analysis Scott Soames (pp 360–361) has pointed out that Quine’s circularity argument needs two of the logical positivists’ central theses to be effective:

    All necessary truths (and all a priori truths) are analytic
    Analyticity is needed to explain and legitimate necessity.
    —-

    Where was “empirical” in this? Back to the title, Two Dogmas of Empiricism — he was positioning the whole thing as an argument about relying on the empirical to be foundation .

  18. Sorry about the fragmented responses I’ve been making to questions about my Ted Cohen anecdote. I was away from my computer and working clumsilty at an ipad, also cooking… In class, it was yes a story or joke (but not at the doctor’s expense), but also a teaching part of a class lesson, to put us to thinking whether we trusted having a grip on terms like “empirical”. (And my commenting about it was meant to tie in with the thread about the placebo comic and the use of placebos. Which are perhaps examples of “empirical treatment” in that doctor’s sense — we know about them working sometimes, but are short on studies to help explain why.)

    In 20th Century analytic philosophy there was a bundle of important but debatable distinctions, or oppositions. I’ll list them, in a second, as three things. They clearly couldn’t be “all the same” , nor even a pair being the same, because they applied to different things, coming from different branches of philosophy, such as how do we know something, or how is it true or false, or how is its statement put together. But setting that aside, the things (statements, facts, beliefs) each one divided up in two ways were divided very similarly. A dispute was over whether the division was exactly the same for some of them, or just a substantial overlap; and whether the exact match, if there was one, was mere correlation or something that had to be.

    1) Necessary vs contingent
    Or “necessary truths” or “necessarily true statements”, versus “contingent statements”.
    A necessary truth couldn’t be otherwise. Or, a necessary truth states a fact about the world that could not have been otherwise. A contingency did not have to be that way, but could have been different.

    2) A priori knowledge (or rationalistic theory of knowledge) vs A posteriori knowledge (or empirical knowledge or fact)
    Something known (or believed) a priori is known without investigation or evidence from the senses (or “prior to” investigation, hence the latinate name). A posteriori knowledge or belief comes after (posterior to) investigation; it is empirical (based on evidence of the senses).

    3) Analytic truths or analytic statements vs synthetic statements
    An analytic truth is true by virtue of the construction of the statement, or the form of language. A synthetic statement says something about a condition in the world.

    You can see even from the skeletal definitions that these come up in different ways. But also pretty clearly they line up — necessary truths tend to be knowable a priori and these both tend to be analytic — contingent facts (if true!) tend to be established a posteriori (or empirically), and these both tend to be synthetic.

    That sort of “mostly-overlap but possible small mismatch” may at first suggest a Venn diagram with the commonly seen convention of very large circles and relatively small overlap “lens” areas. Though envisioning the above distinctions via Venn diagram would not be strictly wrong, using the big circles would be misleading. In two ways. One, it overemphasizes the nonshared areas and understates the overlap. Two, for each distinction it privileges one side for the in-group circle, and pushes the other out.

    So instead I picture one big circle, with three circular colored-transparent plastic overlay discs, pinned thru the same center, each with a diameter line drawn across it, independently rotatable. Each one of these overlay discs represents one of those dictinctions listed above, and its strong diameter line divides up the items shown on the underlying paper into two sets. The angles of each disk relative to the others amounts to a difference in degree of overlap. But we agree to begin with that they are pretty close; the debates are over whether they match exactly.

    “Are all necessary truths analytic?” This ran into problems galore because both terms are awfully slippery. One of the “Two Dogmas” in Quine’s landmark paper mentioned in a previous comment was a trust that we could understand and woork with the concept of analyticity.

    “Can there be a synthetic a priori?”
    “Can there be an empirical necessity?”

    All three of these questions (and other similar ones) are asking if the lines on the dials match exactly, or to put it in other terms, if a certain intersection is strictly empty or may have some oddball stuff in it. I mean could there be a fact about the actual world that we can know without having found out about it? These questions were even sometimes handed off to theology!

  19. I am nowhere closer to understanding the anecdote. I understand that “empirical” has many understandings / meanings, I said as much in my original request for clarification. I asked which meanings where being put into contrast. You answer half that by explaining the doctor’ use (which I did not know about, so thank you!), but I still don’t see how Cohen was using it, and how it contrasts or compliments “ad hoc”….

  20. I’m sorry about that, larK. It was just a little story. Does it help if I add that Cohen must have meant “empirical” and “a priori” to be nearly exact antonyms? His meaning for “empirical” thus being “based on evidence” and of “a priori” as “taken as given, without regard for evidence”?

  21. OK, sure — but then why the “ad hoc” misdirection?

    Basically, I feel very insecure around words like “empirical” because so many important-sounding people use them so confidently, so I feel like I must have missed something in my education, which is why I’m so interested in exactly understanding an anecdote of the kind you gave.
    Feynman has an interesting anecdote about reading texts that intimidated him using big fancy words, and him translating it to the basic meaning, which then turns out isn’t very deep at all. I’m torn between this interpretation, and the interpretation that deep, complex thoughts require expanded, specific vocabulary. I guess the hard part is that there is a lot of both in the world (real deep thoughts that require specific vocabulary, and bullshitters pretending to have deep thoughts), and there’s no easy way to distinguish the two.
    Although I do really think that it would help that if you are in need of specific vocabulary, you don’t just grab a word already in common usage and change the definition — “empirical” would be almost a poster child for this plea — how does being evidence based have anything to do with relating to the Empire (and which empire at this point?)?

  22. larK, I have to question your suggestion that empirical derives from empire and that the philosophical and scientific meanings about “originating in or based on observation or experience” [def. 1 of 4 at M-W] were distortions. I just now checked M-W online, Dictionary.com, Lexico.com UK, and Lexico.com US, and all of them give definitions in the senses we are discussing, and none of them say anything about empires, even in the historical sections.

    Here is the M-W entry .

    Were you thinking of Imperial?

  23. Yeah, OK, I’m confused (and wrong, it seems); I got led astray early on when I looked up some version of “empirical” right at the start of this whole thing to double check my understanding of it, and got back a definition of “relating to the Empire”, which sounded very straight forward to me, so I didn’t doubt it, but I can’t find that right now; I might have spelled it wrongly or gotten confused, which re-enforces my claim of insecurity with regards to this word! Thanks for your forbearance with me…

    M-W says that empirical goes back to Greek empeirikos, meaning “experienced”, and that goes back to the verb peiran, meaning to try, attempt, or experiment. So, yes, with this root, I withdraw my objections to the use of the word. As I say, I feel very insecure around this word — I guess now I can feel less insecure….

    But my problems with the word “empirical” (and they are literally my problems, ie: I harbored wrong ideas about the word)…) were an aside to my question: why bring “ad hoc” into it?

    (And maybe to forestall another digression based on my ignorance, I understand “ad hoc” to mean literally “to this” or “for this”, and generally to be used when you come up with a one time solution, or a newly invented solution, maybe jury-rigged, to address a problem currently in front of you — for this problem.)

  24. I’m glad we got past that issue. If ad hoc is all that’s bothering you, please just ignore it. I thought a priori might give people some trouble so added ad hoc to reinforce the idea of “without scientific support”.

  25. For the reasons larK has already articulated, I don’t understand “ad hoc” to mean, or even tangentially allude to the idea of “without scientific support.”

    “a priori” perhaps hints at it a little more, but the story still wouldn’t have worked for me with that phrasing. I don’t take “a priori” to mean “without scientific support.” a priori beliefs can be well-justified. It’s just that they’re formed before some specific additional piece of evidence. For example, if I find a random penny on the street, before inspecting the penny I would say that I have a high a priori expectation that it’s mostly zinc. This a priori belief is formed in advance of looking at the penny, and may change as I get more data on the penny (e.g. if I see it was minted before 1982). But that a priori belief isn’t without scientific support; it’s reasonable based on my knowledge of American pennies.

  26. Carroll Spinney was a guest on “Wait Wait, Don’t Tell Me,” both as himself and in character as Big Bird. During the interview, somehow the discussion came around to mammals and milk drinking. Big Bird pointed out that birds aren’t mammals and don’t drink milk. “Instead we eat worms that our mother regurgitates for us. Have you tried them? They’re yummy!”

  27. Now Robert is the opposite – he is so sure the actual medication will not work for him – it doesn’t!

    When he was in terrible pain back in 2018 with a pinched nerve and arthritis in his left shoulder (bad enough that the pain shooting down his arm from it, sent him to the emergency room as he was afraid he was having a heart attack) and if he voluntarily even has me call the doctor when he does not feel well – it means he is REALLY feeling bad, – a trip to the emergency room suggested by him shows how bad it was. He turned down the opioids offered by our doctor (emergency room – no heart attack – go see your doctor for the pain) and took some other meds offered to help to relieve the pain along with taking extra strength Tylenol per the doctor – none of the meds were doing him any good, including the muscle relaxers as he was sure they would not and he had to just tough it out.

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