Rationally speaking, is a presentation of New York City skeptics dedicated to promoting critical thinking, skeptical inquiry and science education. For more information, please visit us at NYC Skeptic's Doug. Welcome to, rationally speaking, the podcast, where we explore the borderlands between reason and nonsense. I'm your host, Masimo, and with me, as always, is my co-host, Julia Gillard. Julia, where are we going to talk about today?
Well, Masimo, in honor of the recent passing of the advice columnist Dear Abby, we have decided to make this episode of, rationally speaking, all about advice and advice columns, giving advice. Are we going to give any advice? Yeah, I was planning on giving a lot of advice about how to give advice. That was my plan. Right. So we were going to talk about how to give advice, how to take advice, like how to evaluate it, and also any ethical or philosophical issues involved in the advice column format and in the giving of advice in general.
Sound good and all of that in less than 40 minutes. Yeah.
Such a good deal. Especially for your money. Exactly. OK.
So are you happy you know that I didn't know much about her. You know, I've heard about of course, her column. I never read it actually. But as it turns out, we're talking big numbers here. Apparently, Diaby had as a column appeared in fourteen hundred newspapers worldwide with a daily readership of about one hundred ten million people. And she received something along the order of ten thousand letters and emails a week, which is just stunning, if you think about it.
Wow. It's an incredible reach. And before we get into the sort of the heavy philosophical or whatever it is matter of bicycle stuff, I actually want it. If you don't mind to give a couple of quotes from Dear Abby, because a good one.
She's done some really good ones. A lot of Bonanos. Yeah. Yeah. So, for instance, I wonder if yours overlap with my family.
Maybe so there's two or three that I picked. So one is this. The letter said, yeah, I beat my wife sleeps in the role so.
So it was some sometime ago then she showers brushing their teeth and fixes our breakfast still in the buff. We're newlyweds and there are just the two of us. So I suppose that's really nothing wrong with it.
But what do you think about her flyboy's. Yeah, and it's OK with me, but tell her to put an apron one on when she's frying bacon.
As someone who spent three weeks in the hospital because she was trying things while not wearing enough clothing, I can hardly second that advice.
All right. So this is the second one, Dear Abby. Our birth control pills deductible.
Bertie Dear Bertie, only if they don't work. I read that one, too.
And the last one on my part. This is the letter, Dear Abby, two men who claim to be father and adopted son just bought an old mansion across the street and fixed it up. We notice a very suspicious mixture of company coming and going at all hours blacks, whites, Orientals, women who look like men and women. Yeah, this has always been considered one of the finest sections of San Francisco, and these weirdos are giving it a bad name.
How can we improve the neighborhood? Nob Hill residents, dear residents, you could move.
Also one of my favorites so cheap that she was definitely something. There's no question about it.
I read that her politics evolved, I guess understandably, over the course of her advice, giving in that she became somewhat more progressive about issues like the acceptability of divorce and so on, which is nice. I like when advice columnists change with the Times.
Yeah. In fact, she's something interesting. But, you know, the the advice columns have have a long, very long history. For one thing, at least as far as I could dig out. The earliest column on record advice column and record was published in the Athenian Mercury in sixteen ninety one.
I know I was just pouring over some of the old letters to the Athenian mercury. They're delightful. Yeah, I kept them double checking to make sure they weren't hoaxes or to make sure this entire story wasn't an urban legend or a hoax or a satire or something because they just seemed so too perfectly quaint. Yes. And yet at the same time, modern, like like someone took modern letters and rewrote them in your old quaint English or something. Yeah.
And there were, of course, from the beginning about, you know, things like essentially manners and issues of sort of social behaviors, like, you know, could an a married couple lived together? That was one from the from the Athenian mercury. But what I was going to point out, actually, is that you're right that not only Derby's own sort of views of life and politics and all that evolved, but in fact, the economy, the idea of advice columns itself evolved obviously since the 17th.
And one particularly sharp transition apparently happened right before with Dear Abby herself, essentially a very famous Colin, Colin Bascombe before her was by a woman whose pen name was Dorothy Dix and whose real name was Elizabeth Gillmer, I think. And she published this column between 1896 and 1950 in, among other places, the New York Journal. And when the the there was a transition between of these early part of the 20th century column and in the abbey, the type of of problems, questions that people posed changed dramatically.
I mean, we went from, you know, intimate, familiar things, you know, in a family setting and most of the questions about manners or what to do under that circumstance to really serious stuff like, you know, a lot of the readers of Dear Abby had. There are children who, you know, came out of the closet as gay. There was divorce all over the place. And so Dear Abby really found herself in an interesting situation, a sort of changing, dramatically changing times.
So I'm not surprised that that, you know, that her views changed also significantly over over over the years in the response to a different social environment.
Mm hmm. Yeah, the Athenian mercury, which. Yes, was the first advice coming back from 16. Anyone one, I think 16. Ninety seven seemed more like a cross between an advice or etiquette column and a scientific curiosity about the universe column. One article I was reading compared it to a cross between Dear Abby and Straight Dope, which is Cecil Adams column answering people's curiosities about how things work and so on. And some of my favorite queries to the Athenian Mercury were of the How does the World Work?
Sort of, for example, where had Adam and Eve their needles and thread to sow their fig leaves together? That's a good question. I always write about that. You're not alone in various people during the restoration surgery. Same question why looking against the sun causes sneezing. What is the strongest creature in the universe given its bulk? And my current favorite, why should the putting of a man's hand in cold water occasion a sudden emission of urine, notwithstanding his being fast asleep?
Wow, that's pretty cool.
Is another one of my favorites from the opinion Mercury, which falls under the category of let me tell you about a problem. A friend of mine is having a question. I knew a gentleman who wept the first night she slept with her husband, whether it was joy, fear or modesty that caused these tears. This totally happened to a friend of mine.
Wow. And so what sort of advice given in response to these things is, you know, several of the things you mentioned actually. Well, maybe not not specifically the ones you mentioned, but are the kinds of things that today we would just look it up on Wikipedia. Right. When you say things, if you want basic information about certain facts about the world, that pretty much you look it up at this point. But but when it comes to advise on how to behave or how do you know what to do in certain situations?
And of course, that's that's a little more difficult than you really are asking for advice.
Although even though the whole genre is usually referred to as advice columns, I was reading an article preparing for these for this podcast about a much more recent sort of current column. The column is called Dear Sugar, and it's written by Cheryl Strayed. And apparently the idea here is that the the author doesn't really give advice as much as essentially empathy, so that the basic the basic point of the column is that, OK, these people are sharing things with you and you're telling them, yeah, I know these things happen.
You know, it's it's more of a psychological support than actual advice on how to do things in a manner that is very successful, very, very popular. And so I wonder if that also hasn't changed or isn't is not changing as far as people can look up stuff, factual things very easily, much more easily than any other time before in human history, then perhaps the thing they it's harder to find, on the other hand, instead of a sort of actual practical advice, is is just somebody who listens to you and somebody who says, yeah, I've been there or, you know, I hear I feel your pain and that sort of stuff.
And I assume people who write letters to advice columnists must be to some extent choosing the kind of reaction that they want. Right. So people who write in to say Dan Savage are they must know if they ever read his column that they're going to be getting a harder line from him. He's going to be more likely to tell the writer to dump their current paramour. Or two, I don't know, insists that their current mates be more good giving and game or something like that, whereas writing to carry tennis, for example, you're going to get two pages of long, serious philosophical ramblings and maybe that's what you want.
You seem to be pretty popular, right? Or, you know, you write to dear sugar and you want empathy and you're not alone.
And of course, there's also the other thing that to keep in mind that that is a comment that I read several times about from people who write about advice columns. And that is you always have to remember that the set of people actually write to advise. Columnists, of course, have at the very least a large enough ego to think that their problems, their private problems are actually good enough for or interesting enough for public consumption, or perhaps they're simply have the kind of personality that likes to be put out there, even though most of these of these columns actually the letters are the anonymous, right?
So you don't get I don't I don't know. I mean, the sample the set of letters that we see is chosen for relatively chosen for INTERESTINGNESS. So I assume that advice columnists get a lot of letters from people that are not as interesting as the ones that we see. That's. Yeah. Yeah.
I mean, I was thinking about the sample in somewhere. Yeah. I was thinking about where the bias or the selection factor where sort of sampling bias comes in to the advice column issue. And I don't know that it would come into the nature of the advice that the columnist would give to a particular letter, although, of course, every columnist has their own particular biases about morals or human psychology. But it would mainly come in, I guess, from the perspective of the reader who's maybe thinking of these letters as some kind of representative sample of the kinds of problems people have and is not consciously thinking of the fact that they were chosen for INTERESTINGNESS or chosen because there was sort of a clear answer to give or something like that.
Like those would be the selection of facts that would determine which letters we see. Right.
And actually, now that you mention it, that sort of selection, in fact, of course, is true for media in general. I mean, I'm just shocked by those columns, right? I mean it if you watched the evening news or read the newspapers, you would think that the world is on fire every minute.
It's probably not true is just that if you know what's interesting to people, what is what makes news is, is, in fact, in fact, the the anomalies, the the violent or the controversial, you know, you wouldn't have a newspaper lasting a second if they were publishing a bunch of boring stories about, yeah, there was another nice day in the town and everybody got along together, pretty much 99 percent of people.
Nothing happened. Exactly what I'm sorry. Were we recording a podcast? Actually, you know what?
I just thought of one potential source of probably slight bias that could creep into the columnists advice that she or he chooses to give, which is the bias towards cleverness or pithiness or wit. Right. Like we were talking about how Dear Abby was celebrated for her witty bomas. And I could imagine that if a clever answer occurs to you, you would be biased towards choosing that answer rather than choosing a somewhat more nuanced and practical answer that has less wit. Like one of the things you named a couple of things that were on my list of favorite Dear Abby bombers.
But one that you didn't mention was to a woman who wrote in asking about, you know, my husband for years has had this wandering eye. You know, he keeps chasing skirts, even though we've been married for so long. How can I cure this problem?
And Dear Abby responded rigor mortis, which is very funny and may in fact reflect her opinion that, you know, such a man is never going to change. But if she had believed that there was the potential for change or that there was something the woman could do to feel better about the situation, I could see how she would be biased against saying that instead, because that would mean passing up the chance for such a criticism. You're right. Oh, sorry.
My last point on this topic, people are biased towards believing things that sound pithy or that rhyme, as one study found, are interesting.
That rhyme. Yes, interesting.
I never actually particularly appreciated rhyme. So that's that's interesting to me.
That's just sort of idioms like birds of a feather flock together. Yeah, yeah. Yeah. That sort of thing. Right. Yeah. Of course there is no no particular reason to believe other than somebody was clever enough to put together the rhyme but.
Right. Well the study in particular that found this result tried coming up with non rhyming versions of the idioms that deserve the meaning, but altered the whether it rhymes or not. Although now that I'm calling this, the study was a little shaky methodology. So I had a grain of salt to what I just said. One thing that I wanted to point out is that, you know, it's interesting to me that that the advice column is actually surviving to the age of the Internet, but I was thinking about that, too.
But perhaps that actually is somewhat less hard to understand.
If you actually realize that Upendra, for instance, in the case of Dear Abby, it wasn't just readers writing to her and her begging stuff and answering, and that was it. Apparently what many newspapers allowed was the surtees follow up by other readers that sort of would chime in over and this would turn into and she would answer back again.
And so some some of these threads would actually run for weeks and weeks and weeks, during which a good number of people would actually get their turn and saying their opinion. So there isn't really that much difference.
It's certainly a forerunner, let's say, a blog with a comments section where people can keep going for sometimes months, in fact, after the original piece was published. So obviously the timeframe is very different. Clearly, if we're talking about a printed newspaper as opposed to, say, a blog, but the basic idea is there. And so I'm assuming, you know, I don't I don't know this for a fact, but I'm assuming that actually there is quite a bit of advice columns on the Internet at this point as opposed, meaning that they're migrating to to the Web, to a Web based platform.
After all, newspapers themselves are doing that. So I suppose that's that's not particularly surprising. Yeah, I guess I'm I'm less surprised by the public's appetite for reading advice columns than I am for the steady supply of people interested in writing into advice columns, especially given how unlikely it is that your letter is going to get picked, right? Like, yeah.
Are there any advice columns for skeptic's? Because I could ask the question, what kind of advice were you imagining people seeking in a skeptic advice column?
Well, I don't know. So for one thing, first of all, it seems to me that maybe we should start one. But second of all, first, let's decide on what kind of advice we're going to we're going to give.
So on the one hand, I don't see why, you know, people who think of themselves as skeptic, humanist to whatever it is wouldn't have the same kind of problems pretty much that everybody else does.
Right. So so issues in terms of relationships or at work or, you know, how to behave in certain situations and all that, but of course, from a rationalist or humanist or atheist perspective.
And so that for these kind of people, you know, sort of standard advice kind of may not work depending on the point of view and, you know, sort of background beliefs if the person writes the column. So I don't know that that could be one thing or of course, one could imagine much more specific advice column for for skeptics on, you know, how to deal with cognitive biases or something like that, although that sort of thing is probably already covered, actually, not as an advice that I always advise, but simply, you know, when people write blogs or columns for things like Skeptical Inquirer, that's pretty much what they write about.
So, yeah, yeah.
I think the new value added would be in the advice that doesn't fall into the kinds of I was going to say Miskell, but I don't mean in the pseudo scientific way. I just mean in the sort of fuzzy thinking way that that often happens when people give advice, like everything works out in the end or, you know, there's someone out there who you're meant for. Those kinds of things tend to crop up when people give advice. And so maybe a skeptic or rationalist advice column.
I mean, this is sort of, you know, outside of the main main topic for today. But but this does remind me of, you know, online dating sites. There are a few, actually.
Well, there are a few that are actually specific for, you know, sceptical atheists and so on and so forth. But but there are remarkably few and not particularly well populated, I know, from first person experience.
But what are they called? I'm not sure I've heard of this, actually. I don't I don't even remember. But I know that there are there are several, actually, but they're all very, very small populations, which, of course, in that kind of particular game means trouble.
Well, you can kind of create your own on a site like occupied by, you know, setting a really high filter. Like you're going to answer questions on OK, Cupid about religion or science, et cetera. Right. And set it so that you don't receive messages from anyone who answers sufficiently differently from you and then do only keyword searches for things like Feynman or, you know, skeptic or whatever.
It should be obvious to the listeners at this point that we both have used OK, Cupid, but that's not right.
Oh, we should do an episode on, OK. You bet.
We probably should, because they actually have a lot of data, as you know, they have a lot of data and I have my issues with some of the statistical analysis they've done. And there's a bunch of interesting ethical issues there too anyway. Yeah.
Anyway, close parentheses dating for a while. And let's go back to to advice columns. So there are some advice columns that actually much more specific than than Dear Abby, for instance.
There is a good number of advice columns that deal only exclusively with medical advice. And those are actually interesting. I looked a little bit into into those.
And they're interesting because on the one hand and we're talking about columns written by actual doctors, you know, not Dr. Oz or Dr. Phil, but, you know, professional medical professionals.
And we've presumably a better reputation than the two that I just mentioned.
But the problem is so on the one hand, these can be seen as good things because quite frankly, just like we can use better scientific literacy in the population, we can certainly use better medical literacy. You know, a lot of people tend to have similar very similar problems.
And so having a professional writing for briefly and to the point and clearly for the public, it's a good thing.
But of course, that raises the issue of, well, how accurate are these? These is this advice, which in the case of medical advice is particularly important because, of course, people can act on that advice and and get into serious, serious health problems. So it turns out that there are some studies about this thing. This aspect, for instance, is there's a study published a number of years ago now by Canadian researchers entitled Assessing the Quality of newspaper medical advice columns for for elderly readers.
So they focus specifically on geriatric problems.
And the results, frankly, are not that good, as it turns out. So, first of all, I found interesting the way in which they did the study.
So they they tabulated a bunch of advice given by in a number of newspapers, by a number of medical practitioners, and then they asked a panel of independent experts, also medical practitioners, to rate that advise independently. So the panel was each member of the panel was was doing the readings independently.
Then they brought them together and they calculated basically an index of congruity of agreement between the different responses of the panel.
And what they did is that in several cases they found that a pretty good degree of agreement when they did not, they employed a technique that I was not aware of, actually called the Delfi process.
And the Delfi process consists in this. So you explain now at this point to the panel that, look, this is actually something you guys disagreed on, this particular column, let's say. So you give them a second chance to reread the column and give a separate assessment. Mm hmm.
If the agreement if the level of agreement has not changed significant is not gone up, then what you allow is now a five minute open discussion about the content. But it's timed. So it's a very short discussion on the contract after which you asked the panel to to rate the the object once again. And finally, you calculate the final agreement. And whatever you get at that point, is it what goes? If the disagreement remains, then it remains apparently the Delfi.
This is called Delphi processes.
And the Delphi process apparently is very popular when it comes to panels of experts. And it very often does yield good results. There is an increasing consensus if the if the experts can actually exchange their ideas.
And it tends to make the case which has been applied to the prediction of things as opposed to like in this case, that we're talking about a sort of simple ranking of of advice that was there was given.
It actually gives yields predictions that are comparable, if not better, to those. If you get from a market, a market approach to predict the predictions, which is something we've already talked also in in on the show.
So, yeah, so so I find it is as an aside, I found it was interesting. So this this thing called a difficult process. Anyway, the results of this particular study were not particular encouraging for the idea of medical advice columns they found, and I'm quoting from the from the paper now that in how well fact could be differentiated from opinion, 84 percent of the articles were either potentially in clear or misleading 84 percent. And a total of fifty eight percent of the articles were found to provide unsafe or potentially dangerous advice.
Yeah, that's that's good to know. I'm sorry. In other words, first shut up in this case.
So that's that's that's kind of the sort of thing that people might want to be aware of that, you know, you read these kind of things and we're talking about not sort of soft psychological advice here. We're talking about actual advice on procedures and problems for in this particular case, the dramatic population. So there was definitely not good.
So now that we've gotten onto the subject of evaluating advice, ah, how to make sure you're getting good advice, I will mention that I actually teach a class on evaluating advice at the Centre for Applied Rationality Workshops that I help run. So I am kind of a meta advice giver. And what advice on advice and. Well, I wanted to share a couple techniques that I use to make myself better at deciding how much to update my own opinions in response to hearing other people's opinions or other people's advice that they give me.
And one technique I use all the time is just called the outside view. So I just ask myself, what would an outside party like a third party? Who would the outside party think was more likely to be right about this question that we disagree about me or my friend based on our backgrounds, any relevant expertise or experience we have, and just our general reasoning and judgment ability. So, for example, last spring when my organisation was preparing to run its very first workshop, I had a disagreement with my co-founder, Anna, about whether we could possibly be ready to run a workshop in only six weeks.
My inside view, just based on the evidence that I had at my disposal about how how well our past test sessions had gone and how much time I thought it would take to do all the tasks we would need to do in six weeks, like marketing and logistics, etc., was that there was no way we could be ready in six weeks. It seemed pretty clear to me. But Anna disagreed. She thought we could be ready and she had access to the same evidence.
But I did outside view two is at least as good a prisoner as I was. She had no less experience than I did with business or non-profits. And the only difference between our relevant experience was that she had run a workshop the year before. That was sort of an informal version of the workshop we were going to run and she had not had very much time to prepare and it had gone well. So. Oh, and then there was the fact that we each had sort of an inchoate, massive intuition built up from the experiences that we'd had over the course of our respective lives, just getting to model how humans work and what they're likely to like and so on.
And that's hard to share because it's not explicitly, you know, in your brain as something shareable. But I'll tell you again, there was no reason to think that her experience that was causing her intuitions was less relevant than the experience that was causing my intuitions. So I grudgingly overruled my inside view and we scheduled a workshop and it went really well. So she you shouldn't update too much on the one instance since we could have gotten lucky. But that's the kind of way he's going to say it's a sample size of one now.
But that's totally true. Yeah, but the technique that you use that you mentioned actually is is similar or is probably, in fact, pretty much the same thing as as there's an entire area of sort of epistemology that deals with epistemic immunity. Yeah. And right.
And so in that area, one of the things that the people often often agree on in sort of philosophical circles is that if somebody who is comparably smart or credentialed, the New York epistemic peer.
Your epistemic idea raises a question of about whatever it is that you just proposed. You're thinking that in and of itself is a good reason to stop and ponder whether, in other words, to take it seriously just because it comes from an epistemic peer. Now, of course, it could be that one or the other is wrong. Could be actually that both of them are wrong. There's no in your case, you couldn't there were only two possible outcomes that you think went well or not.
But but in many cases, there's multiple outcomes, including the possibility that both candidates are actually wrong. But the idea basically is that it is a good epistemic practice and it's a it's a matter of epistemic immunity that as soon as somebody of of equivalent, roughly equivalent epistemic credentials raises a question that in and of itself, regardless of what the context of the question is and the content in the question is, is reason enough to sort of to stop and take a breath?
Yeah. And that's to some extent this technique helps guard against the tendency, which I think most of us have to privilege our own impression just because it's our own as opposed to because we have special expertise or no knowledge about the issue. But I should also note that it helps me avoid another a different failure mode that I often have, which is under privileging my own opinion. So I never.
Example, you said you never, never have that. Yeah, I could have. I think our listeners know that. But I, on the other hand, sometimes will find myself, for example, in a meeting, will be disagreeing about how much money to ask a prospective donor for someone will throw out a number. And I'll be internally surprised because I had thought we should ask for a different number and I'll just sort of automatically assume that I should discount my own opinion and assume that I must be wrong since they disagree with me.
And then they I remember I take outside viewing and notice, hey, they don't have any more experience on this topic than I do. And you know, the reason I have no reason to think their reasoning would be better about this issue than mine. So there's no reason to underrate my opinion so much more than theirs.
So those are those are interesting ways of thinking now that, again, there is there is a broader perspective there.
One can can take, for instance, I think I mentioned a couple of times before on the show, but what you're talking about reminds me a lot of Ellen and Juneau's idea of how philosophy in general philosophy, science, but I'm sorry, philosophy of science in general should work.
That is by bringing in as many perspective as possible, particularly including, you know, different ethnic backgrounds, obviously different genders and so on. The reason for that is because the more you do that, the more you have a serious, you know, a significant challenge. Your perspective, if you stack your group, your your peer group with people who already are very likely to agree with you because they have similar life experiences, they have similar views of the world and so on and so forth, then you sort of inflate artificially the the the level of agreement that you're going to get from your group.
So that basically that turns into an epistemic argument for diversity within a particular group of, you know, in this case or in the case of a group of scientists. But I assume that that works for pretty much any. Situation where you have to make a decision based on incomplete evidence and on human judgment, which is essentially every situation really.
Yeah, and then the interesting hairy questions come in when you start deciding, well, surely not all kinds of intellectual diversity are valuable, right? Like, no. Do you really want to have people on your board of advisors who think that faith is just as valid of a way of reaching conclusions as that? You know, empiricism? That's right. And there are some extremists, you could call them in this philosophical field of epistemic disagreement. Who would argue that?
Well, yes, of course. You think that reason is a better method of reaching truth than faith, but they think that you're just as wrong as you think they're wrong.
And, you know you know, you're it's interesting there because actually Longinus more recent book that on the same topic actually raises exactly that question. That is, in fact, the way she approaches is by essentially stipulating, not by fiat, but by argument, that there are some values that are, in fact, bad, and therefore that that proponents of those values in this in the case of your example, somebody would say, you know, well, reason for that reason.
Well, that's a bad value.
So you do excluded from from the conversation, because after all, in order to have a conversation, you have to share a certain amount of, you know, a background, because otherwise you're playing what Dickinson would refer to as a different language game.
You know, in other words, you're not talking about the same thing or you're not approaching. Your approach has become essentially incommensurable. So you're right, it's a difficult balancing act between increasing sort of diversity of opinion. But at the same time, you don't want to increase that diversity so much so that then you get all sorts of random or positively negative and hurting opinions.
Now it seems we're talking about philosophy. I actually have a I'm curious and I have a quiz for you, if you don't mind. So one of the one of the advice columns that I looked into is The New York Times ethicist column.
Aha. Yes. I was wondering if, yes, she has a long history and it's been actually written by different people.
It's not always the same person. The current occupant, Randy Cohen, no current author is Chuck Klosterman.
And this changed recently, actually, I think about a year ago at any rate. So I read one one column in particular recently that had an interest. This was January 22nd, 2013, and it was interesting. And so I had my opinions about how he responded. But I wanted first to hear your your take on it. The question was about somebody who says, you know, my mother is unnamed and who now practices alternative medicine and is anti vaccine.
And so this person grows up as an anti vaccine, alternative medicine kind of person.
And now whatever the story says, you know, like a kid in inheriting his parents faith, I grew up with a strong sense of that value system.
So question medically, ethically obligated to get a flu shot when when you know, when he goes to work. So she goes in in restaurants, in actually, I'm sorry. You worked in an open air office, eating crowd, eats in crowded restaurants and takes the subway. So I know it's all situations where you could have in fact, you can communicate flu now. Hmm. KOSTERMAN Response A The New York Times ethicist response. I wanted it in its entirety, but it goes along these lines.
It says, well, should you get the flu a flu shot? Yes. It's more socially responsible and thus more ethical relative to doing the opposite. But are you obligated to take to get a flu shot? You are not. And the reason he says you're not is because your question involves the potentiality. It is certainly possible that not getting a flu shot could affect other people, but that possibility is not even close to absolute. And it's just not reasonable to make every personal decision based on what might theoretically happen to a stranger.
So could say that about drunk driving to my own right. Thank you. So that was my response to it. I said, no, wait a minute, this makes no sense. So we should fire the ethicist at The New York Times.
I think the two of us should apply for the for the position of ethicist of The New York Times.
But I hereby put out to the NRA suggesting I'm still sputtering at the answer to the letter. Right.
There were a bunch of things that I that sort of rubbed me the wrong way about some of the ethicist columns that I read. For the most part, they fell into the category of just not being particularly philosophically sound like he would sort of assert something that, I don't know, maybe sounded like a deontological bit of that. It was, you know, granted the ontologically right. But not consequentially. And he just sort of left it self evident that, of course, you had you know, you should be anthologist instead of a consequentialism.
I mean, he wouldn't use those words. It's a it's a very unsettled question whether what I want is to know exactly whether you have any cause, whether than others.
Yeah, there's one thing about that that I do like about the column, and that is the idea that we can have reasoned discussion about about x ray.
So, for instance, even in the case that I just read, where we both disagree with the ethicist advice, however, it does actually go into some detail and explains why he thinks that there is a difference between whether one should get the flu. His answer again is yes or whether one is obligated to get the flu. And his answer is no. Now, we obviously disagree with his second answer. But first of all, it's it's interesting that he does make the distinction which in other contexts is relevant between, you know, should you do something?
It is. Is it a good idea in general or as opposed to being obligated to do something, morally speaking.
But more importantly, I think it gives the reasons. And so you can actually go and read the column and say, no, wait a minute, I disagree with that.
And here's why. And to me, that is the value of ethical reasoning to begin with, regardless of the particular framework in ethics that that you happen to adopt.
I mean, it's important that the point of ethical reasoning is, in fact, that it is the type of reasoning, meaning that you're supposed to be giving reasons for why you do or you do not do or you ought to do what you shouldn't do a certain thing, because once those reasons are out, then they're part of the public discourse and somebody can come in and say, no, wait a minute, that doesn't make any sense because and then you go on and explain why it makes no sense.
Yeah, I mean, I guess you could say that at the very least, the ethicist is providing more things to consider or a framework in which to think about it so that even if you don't think his answer is valid, you've at least got more things to chew on. Right. It's kind of a week. I don't know. I think an ethicist could do better than that.
Well, but should others just do that or ought to do better than that? Oh, my God. I think I think it ought to.
I I actually had one other bit of meta advice, but I wanted to get in here advice on getting advice, which I've been implementing more and more myself. And that is that I, I try harder now to avoid contaminating the advice that I get by inadvertently asking leading questions mean I started paying attention. I noticed that I did this all the time so that thinking about it, I would ask someone, you know, do you think that this title is too silly?
I'm concerned. This is too silly. Do you think it is? You know, so I've already told them what I think the answer is, and I'm just asking if they agree as opposed to what do you think of what do you think of this title? Right. Right. Yeah. Now that's or what else do I do? Sometimes I inadvertently anchor people on one number. So, for example, you might think that asking the question, do you think that I need more or less than three hours time to prep for this meeting?
Might be good because you're not prioritizing more or less the way you're prioritizing silly in the first example. Right. But actually, you're anchoring them on one number. And why not? Yeah.
So maybe they had originally thought that you, you know, barely needed to prepare at all. But since you've asked them the question, using three hours is the anchor now suddenly they're more inclined to say, yeah, maybe you do need longer to prep than I had originally thought. And then the last way in which I noticed myself biasing the advice I got was that when I would describe a disagreement I had with someone like let's say I'm I'm telling my best friend had a disagreement with my coworker and he said this and I said that.
And who do you think was right? I've already told him. Who said what? Right. So exactly if he's biased towards agreeing with me, either because he likes me more or because he just in general thinks I tend to be right more than you know, I'm not getting a clean answer from him about which point of view he thinks is right. So I just anonymize it now. Yeah, that's the same like these two points of these two arguments.
Which do you lean towards?
That's the same principle essentially behind blind peer review that you don't want the reviewer to know who the author is because otherwise that that out may have a either a personal connection, of course, but also simply a matter of reputation. And that connection could affect the outcome. Yep.
Yep. Well, we're almost out of time for this part of the episode. But before we wrap up Masimo, do you have any examples of terrible advice that you came across in your search? Because I've got a couple terrible advice.
You mean other than not taking the flu shots?
Right. And that was bad. I thought that was pretty out of there, that I'll I'll leave it to you to give us an example or two.
Well, I. I saved this one. This is from Brides magazine. Someone wrote in one of my favorite. I'm sorry. Yes. I know you've been dreaming about it since you were a little girl. Exactly. One of my bride. The letter writer wrote is constantly complaining about how much she hates the dress while the others like it. What should I do? And the columnists wrote back. Take her aside and ask what is really bothering her?
Is it the dress? Is it the price? Is it her weight? Is it something about her being single? So basically the advice here was if your friend doesn't like the bridesmaid dress, which you're forcing her to buy for several hundred dollars, take her aside and ask her if maybe the real problem isn't just fat and lonely. The problem is it's definitely going to work.
Wow. All right. And that's strong advice. Note we will wrap up the section of the podcast and move on to the rationally speaking ex. I'd like to take this moment to remind our listeners that if you're a fan of the rationally speaking podcast, you'll definitely enjoy this year's Northeast Conference on Science and Skepticism, which will be held in New York, New York the weekend of April 5th through 7th, 2013. Go to Nexxus dot org now to get your tickets there on sale in addition to Masimo.
And you'll also find a lineup of great speakers, including the CGU, Simon Singh, Michael Shermer and our keynote speaker, physicist Leonard Mladenov, author of The Drunkard's Walk NextG. That's an easy asphaug. Go get your tickets now.
Welcome back. Every episode, Julie and I pick a couple of our favorite books, movies, websites or whatever tickles our irrational fancy, let's start as usual with Julia Spik. Thanks, Massimo.
My pick is actually an antique pick, which I don't do nearly as often as I would have expected myself to, given all of the things that irritate me in the world. So this time I'm actually going to act on that. It's a movie which many of our listeners may have already seen, and I am a little late to the party, but Cloud Atlas came out. Oh, yes, late 2012. Yep. And I had kind of mixed feelings about it as a movie overall.
But the reason in particular that I want to complain about it is my NTPC was this line towards the end of the movie from the niece of the scientist character who worked at the nuclear power plant. She says, My father may have been a scientist, but still he believed love was real. Oh, yeah.
So scientists can actually believe that. And it's it's a contradiction, clearly being a scientist and believe that.
Yeah. So so this line made me think that maybe we should have an award called the Straw Vulcan Award that we give to movies or TV shows or books that so perfectly embody this archetype of the star Vulcan, which sets rationality and logic and science as opposed to things like love and compassion and beauty. Yeah. OK. And this would be my nomination for the show would make it an annual event.
I think Cloud Atlas might win for 2012, actually, but 2013 is still up in the air. So, you know, start your motors. Everyone's good. Well, it's your pick.
Just by coincidence. I also have a.. Pick.
You're kidding. This has never happened before. In fact, I think this is my first aren't epic, but I might get used to it. So maybe we're both just extra curmudgeonly. So that's very possible.
This is an article, a long article, actually, that will we'll link to on the website by Daniel Tut Tuti on atheism.
But in particular, although the title is sort of generic, as in it is, and that's the title, the the article is actually about how continental philosophers think about 80s and Continental Flowserve, we talked about it in the past, is sort of the branch of modern philosophy that is very distinct from what most people think of as philosophy. That is, instead of using sort of rational arguments and, you know, formal deployment of logic and that sort of stuff, it's really more as a as a sort of an essay style thing.
And it's and it deals with typically more political and political or social issues than sort of standard analytic philosophy and that sort of stuff. And there's quite a bit to be said for that approach.
I'm not trying to describe the philosophy in general here, but a subset of continental philosophy is the kind of modernist deconstructionist stuff that was famously attacked by physicist Alan Sokol in what has become known as the so-called hoax a number of years ago when he wrote a paper called entitled Something about the Hermeneutics of Quantum Mechanics or some quantum gravity or something like that, we basically wrote a very, very long paper that was nonsensical on purpose, submitted it to a to social text, which is a post-modern continental philosophy paper journal.
And then they and the editors accepted it for publication and after which so-called exposed them, basically saying, you guys have no idea what you're talking about because clearly you couldn't recognize that this is a hoax. Now, why am I telling you this? Because this article reads like something written by Alan Sokol.
But it's not it's meant seriously and it's about it. It's about eight days. And so just to give you a little a bit of an idea of what I'm talking about here, it is.
Unlike Bajou and Miller, so Nancy's antics is grounded in demand from another with a capital O.
What do you call sledder assume?
This demand serves as the fundamental origin of all ethics in Altegrity. I don't know what else Ferreti means, but it is different than Levinas proto theological absolute austerity.
Ethics in this vein is a behavior that is on the same place as ontology and it starts with a free decision to receive oneself. Ethics is a moment that occurs when one holds oneself as a decision whereby the law recedes, leaving being open by freedom and the subject arrives at singular plural being. Now, if you understood what the hell that means, I'd be happy if you explained it to me. Yeah, I don't understand what's so confusing about this seem pretty clear to me.
And it's not that it's not clear because this is technical jargon.
I mean, to some extent it is because some of the words that the author is using your sort of technical within the tradition of contemporary continental philosophy.
But it's it's it's obscure because it really is obscure. It's not clear at all if it says anything that is, in fact meaningful or or can be impact in any way. So if our listeners want a good idea of what a real as opposed to a hoax or pretending piece of baloney in Continental philosophy looks like, well, by all means, download this article and enjoy it.
Wow. I think we should have Inditex more often. Not. Now, it's surprisingly cathartic. Well, it's been a great episode of rationally speaking. Join us next time for more explorations on the borderlands between reason and nonsense. The rationally speaking podcast is presented by New York City skeptics for program notes, links, and to get involved in an online conversation about this and other episodes, please visit rationally speaking podcast Dog. This podcast is produced by Benny Pollack and recorded in the heart of Greenwich Village, New York.
Our theme, true by Todd Rundgren, is used by permission. Thank you for listening.