26 June 2009

Serendipity

Sri Lanka astrologer is arrested (BBC.com, June 26, 2009)
The authorities in Sri Lanka have arrested a popular astrologer who predicted that the president will be ejected from office, police say.

Chandrasiri Bandara announced last week that the government would flounder in September and October because of political and economic problems.

The opposition have condemned the arrest and warned that the country is heading towards a dictatorship.

Astrology is taken seriously by numerous Sri Lankan politicians.
We've been having a desultory conversation over at Think of England about why, personally and as a society, we tolerate charlatans. I tried to suggest, perhaps too obliquely, that Brit was more bothered than Peter and I because Brit thinks that his particular belief system, rational empiricism, is True and Right and Better than the belief systems of women who purchase silver bracelets to improve their chances of getting pregnant and of the charlatans who sell them. Rational empiricism, especially as practiced by the Brits of the world, has its advantages, G-d knows, but it has its disadvantages, too.

In any event, as Mr. Banadara is discovering, in cultures that believe in the power of astrology, astrologers have power.

26 comments:

Harry Eagar said...

Even the most obscurantist regimes have typically killed soothsayers who say sooths about the leader.

If this guy gets off just being arrested, he can thank his lucky stars.

Gaw said...

Why didn't he foresee his arrest and take evasive action? Eh?

From this far-flung corner of the former Sri Lankan empire, I'm sure you're right on horoscopes vs rational empiricism. In any event, relativism is always and everywhere the right approach.

Peter Burnet said...

Perhaps if Brit had had his horoscope read before putting up a perfectly innocuous post on how some slimy greaseball ripped off a desperate woman, it would have foretold that the entire post-Judd Alliance would awaken to debate the Enlightenment and he could have done one on music or soccer instead.

It's the anger that the rationalists feel about such stuff that gets me. Talk about a slippery slope. They start off reasonably enough by trying to steer the suffering and exploited away from superstition and hocus-pocus towards something that might actually help them, but pretty soon they want to lynch the novelty store owner who sells some kid a rabbit's foot by telling him it will bring good luck. Leaving aside the questions of what constitutes deceit and whether medicine/science actually knows as much as it claims, there is no tolerance for the benign here, and no appreciation for how sad and sterile a life led completely "rationally" can be.

As to astrology, at least some of it is, like homeopathy and chiropractic, more rationally-based than many champions of scientism admit. The foretelling of the future is bunkum, of course, but is the opening assumption (statement of faith?)that our characters are influenced by the time of year we were born any more "irrational" than the default suggestion we hear ad nauseaum that we are this way or that because we evolved to be hunters and gatherers? Anyway, my wife thinks horoscopes are ridiculous and never reads them, but she is quite convinced that zodiac signs have an influence on character and she reads them into all her analyses of other people. Not only is it loads of fun, the accuracy of it all is ambiguous enough that I'm not prepared to dismiss it out of hand. Of course, domestic self-preservation may be playing a role here.

Harry Eagar said...

Rationally based if you accept the underlying assertions (that subluxations exist, that the absence of molecules is no different from the presence of molecules).

Science isn't based on rationalism. You're thinking of Thomist Catholicism, perhaps. Science is based on evidence.

I wouldn't go after the novelty shops first, myself. I'd go after the chiropractic clihics that murder little kids first.

Eric Guinn said...

Peter:

Leaving aside the questions of what constitutes deceit and whether medicine/science actually knows as much as it claims, there is no tolerance for the benign here, and no appreciation for how sad and sterile a life led completely "rationally" can be.

You want to leave aside the whole point: deceit.

What I can't suss is why it takes a rationalist to get angry over someone taking obvious advantage of a situation.

Let's say the same woman took her car in because her car pulls to the left. He sells her a brake job which she doesn't need, and inflates the left front tire to its proper pressure along the way.

Is there any reason, whether one is a rationalist or not, to be furious about that?

Clearly Brit's entering argument was the shopkeeper clearly knew in a very rationalist sense that he was pushing a load of snake oil on someone very vulnerable to the pitch. How is he any different from the guy selling unnecessary brake jobs?

What is particularly confusing to me, though, is your and David's insistence that rational empiricism, or the woman's presumed belief system, has anything whatsoever to do with this.

It does not. Rather, it is the shopkeepers belief system that is in question here. I would be willing to bet dinner and drinks that he was very much the rational empiricist, and knew bloody darn well what he was selling was utter tosh.

One would think you possessors of objective morality would be more attuned to the distinction.

Peter Burnet said...

Mr. Guinn:

Your rigorous rationalism appears to be on holiday. Did you leave it behind in the UK?

A) I am unware of any alternative theories of automobile maintenance and repair that suggest faulty brakes can be fixed by higher octane fuel or a good wash and wax, or that a plastic Jesus will keep the differential humming smoothly. Your garage mechanic didn't just disbelieve--he outright lied about the condition of the car. Your analogy would only work if Brit's slimebag sold her the stuff when he knew she was already pregnant or that it might actually interfere with her chances of so becoming;

B) Not being pregnant may be sad, but it is hardly an affliction or conclusive evidence of treatable bodily dysfunction. Brit's slimebag presumably didn't give her a check-up or conduct tests or try to keep her from seeing professionals that could. If he did, that is of course different.

C) You and Brit may "wager" he didn't believe in his stuff, and you may well be right, but most people who establish such businesses are almost messianic in their beliefs, at least initially. Time and middle-age cause many people to become more cynical, but so what exactly? Do you not think there are many pharmacists who harbour doubts about whether much of their stock does any good? Doctors who come to doubt whether medicine really has any idea what it is talking about respecting certain afflictions? In what way can that fact alone taint their transactions with patients and customers. Conversely, do you think we should be more tolerant of those who sell or counsel truly dangerous stuff because they believe in it?

D) Of course what the woman believed or wanted to believe is important. It's a free country, isn't it? Unless she was mentally deficient or just arrived from the jungle or arguably was part of a target class of immigrants who are culturally vulnerable, she made a choice, presumably despite all those years of modern education. What is it about you and Brit that makes you so certain she was deluded or defrauded and that folks who want to purchase herbs and amulets, etc. should be forced into an illegal black market? A good answer would be that the two of you once tried to get pregnant and found that stuff to be harmful or at least completely useless, but otherwise I await your response with anticipation.

It is interesting, though, that when tackling this issue of human health and hope, your first impulse is to analogize the woman to a machine.

David said...

I would be willing to bet dinner and drinks that he was very much the rational empiricist, and knew bloody darn well what he was selling was utter tosh.

This happens to me, too, when I've just been to Blighty.

Peter Burnet said...

LOL, eh?

Harry Eagar said...

'she made a choice'

A dangerous line of argument. So did all those customers of Madoff's, who at least had some rational expectation they would get paid, since previous customers had been paid; which is more rational than any expectation of a customer of a root-doctor.

This is as good an example as I've seen recently of how libertarianism breaks down in practice.

Brit said...

What is it about you and Brit that makes you so certain...

And what is it about you, Peter, that means you have to keep asking what it is about the person making the argument that makes them argue it, instead of just addressing the argument that they are arguing regardless of what it is about them that makes them argue it?

This is a funny one. In a reverse of the normal way of things, Peter is taken by his reasoning to absurdity, and Skipper is defending pragmatic common sense.

I can accept that banning all alternative medicine on the grounds of empirical rationalism is no go, for the reasons you state. But surely, Peter, you can see that an entirely laissez-faire attitude has its own problems, such as leaving the door open for exploitation.

You seem to have got to the point where you're claiming that there is no such thing as exploitation if the victim believes the exploiter, and no such thing as a falsehood if the utterer really really believes what he's saying.

Hey Skipper said...

Ooops. Didn't notice my son had logged into blogger.

Your analogy would only work if Brit's slimebag sold her the stuff when he knew she was already pregnant or that it might actually interfere with her chances of so becoming.

Actually, my analogy, as well as other comments in ToE was directed at eliciting a lawyerly response for what constitutes fraud.

That analogies goal was to present a set of facts where the fraud was obvious, then compare them to the facts in Brit's case. If they are indeed analogous (obviously, I think they are), then the question is why one scenario appears to qualify as fraud, where the other did not.

Not being a lawyer, the distinction seems to be the alleged defrauder's state of mind. IF Brit's slimebag's state of mind was such that he presumed silver bracelets had nothing at all to do with fertility, then he was just as guilty of fraud as the hypothetical car mechanic, even if the mechanisms of fertility are far less amenable to rigorous analysis.

To extend the analogy. A mechanic recently, in attempting to fix an anti-skid system problem on one of my cars, replaced the ABS pump unit. As it turned out, what was supposed to be a repair wasn't. Turned out the skid control unit was at fault, which I also had to pay to replace.

Was I a fraud victim? Well, no, not if the mechanic's state of mind was such that he believed he was fixing the problem. Clearly, I was a victim of the mechanic's incompetence, not moral turpitude. (How do I know this? I was the mechanic ...)

Of course I cannot prove that Brit's shopkeeper was fraudulent as opposed to incompetent or deluded. (Unless we are to lose all respect for evidence, that really is the dichotomy.)

But let's take Brit's description as given: the shopkeeper was consciously preying upon the customer's desperation, ignorance and credulity.

How is the shopkeeper not a fraud, yet the mechanic is?


Unless she was mentally deficient or just arrived from the jungle or arguably was part of a target class of immigrants who are culturally vulnerable, she made a choice ...

This sort of gives the game away, doesn't it? The shopkeeper can only be morally culpable based upon an affirmative action argument. (World ends, etc ...)

Harry:

This is as good an example as I've seen recently of how libertarianism breaks down in practice.

Huh?

People were free to make investment decisions. People were free to believe that there is such a thing as 10% returns year in and year out. People were free to pile all their assets into Madoff's fund.

They were also free not to, and had lots of evidence available to them to, if nothing else, at least diversify.

They were also free not to.

Libertarianism does not promise perfect outcomes, only that, on net, greater freedom for individuals and companies will produce better outcomes than less.

Contrast with the CRA and meddling with the FFMs.

David:

In any event, as Mr. Banadara is discovering, in cultures that believe in the power of astrology, astrologers have power.

In any area where it is possible to realize expectations, expectations have power.

Is there some reason to suspect that increasing the expectation of pregnancy due to amulets will increase the likelihood of pregnancy?

joe shropshire said...

One irony here is that chiropractors almost certainly save lives on net, simply by diverting people away from the clutches of the orthopedic surgeons.

David said...

Fraud is an intentional or reckless misstatement of material fact, intended to be relied upon, which is in fact relied upon and causes damages.

A fact is material if it would actually be considered by the other party to the transaction in considering whether to go forward with the transaction.

There is, at least in US law, no general duty of disclosure by a seller to a buyer.

Generally, transactions falling into the categories we've been discussing are thought not to be fraudulent because the statement is opinion, not fact; is factual; or is sales talk that no reasonable buyer of average intelligence would consider to be a reliable assertion of fact (e.g., this is the best knife in the world; this car is perfect for you; if you're wearing this bracelet, you don't even need a man to get pregnant).

In the States, we also have the added issue that, if the statement is religious, the courts are forbidden to rule on its truth.

Harry Eagar said...

See Restating the Obvious for a link to an excellent CRA roundup, Skipper.

The problem with libertarianism is that it assumes -- rather like the most extreme kind of leftist -- that we are all exactly equal, which I recall your saying, correctly, we aren't.

In practice, it is difficult to tell libertarianism from Hobbesianism, as in either case the psychopaths have (at least) a short-term advantage.

Gaw said...

David, I don't think the legality of this situation is the nub of it. It's not axiomatic that if something is legal, it's ethical. After all, if we all operated at the extreme of what's legal, life would be pretty unbearable.

Besides, the legal definition of fraud is not the only one; indeed legal definitions differ across jurisdictions.

Wikipedia offers an everyday definition which is congruent with Skipper's (and, I'm sure, most people's):

'In the broadest sense, a fraud is an intentional deception made for personal gain or to damage another individual.'

joe shropshire said...

Psychopaths seem to do pretty well in the world as we know it. That's not exactly a world run by libertarians.

Peter Burnet said...

Brit, I am not arguing one grandiose comprehensive theory of medicinal/biological reality over another. I'm the subtle Anglospheric empiricist here, you're the uncompromising French rationalist. It would never occur to me to patronize this guy's shop for anything. If my daughter were desperately trying to get pregnant, I would caution her against putting her faith and money into this stuff and try to divert her to more promising places, like a fertility clinic or church. :-) But it would never occur to me to vent my rage at this guy unless he was counselling something dangerous as opposed to useless. What I am saying is that many perfectly normal, educated people always have and will want to "believe in" and want to try non-rational treatments for what ails them and that we should not be turning over their right to do so to the AMA. Also, there are myriad ambiguities here about what is or can be benefical or not. There are a lot of lines this guy could cross that would make me call 911, but selling bracelets to aid pregnancy isn't one.

Skipper, Gaw, you really don't get fraud. In the first place, touting the putative benefical effects of a product without some validating, exhaustive study based on cutting edged methodology is called puffery, and it is perfectly legal. Intelligent people expect it. If there is actual known danger or an intentional mis-diagnosis of the need, that changes everything, but uselessness doesn't really come into it, whatever the guy is thinking. Think of all those TV ads for drugs with their endless disclaimers about side-effects. Do you recall ever seeing one that just warns the product might be useless? Perhaps they should. Just the other day I bought a big supply of Viagra and...oh well, never mind.

Secondly and more importantly, the commerical lives and freedoms we enjoy are not subject to the fiat of the National Academy of Sciences and its supporters. It's writ doesn't extend that far. May it never.

Harry Eagar said...

As far as I know, Eliot Spitzer is still a semi-unemployed lawyer.

joe shropshire said...

As far as I know, Bernie Madoff is still a semi-unemployed law school dropout.

Harry Eagar said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Harry Eagar said...

And then there is this

joe shropshire said...

And raise you this. I give up: why do we tolerate charlatans.

Harry Eagar said...

I've been asking that question frequently at Thought Mesh.

This is business as usual. Newspaper business offices are no different from any others.

The business side is always trying to pressure the newsroom, and we always blow 'em off, just like Brauchli did.

Which is the one feature in which newspaper businesses are different from the rest.

Your point?

joe shropshire said...

My point is that the only sin the Post's business office was guilty of here, is clarity. They were being forthright about what the paper has that is of value. An heroic newsroom is not that thing.

Hey Skipper said...

Harry:

I just read the link. It has been awhile since I have read something so relentlessly selective, or as dismissive of cause and effect. What is even more astonishing is that it somehow managed to chew up several thousand words without even once mentioning the FFMs.

Instead, I will go with Investor's Business Daily take. Caution: contains detailed facts.

The problem with libertarianism is that it assumes -- rather like the most extreme kind of leftist -- that we are all exactly equal, which I recall your saying, correctly, we aren't.

Well, that would be a problem with libertarianism if it, in fact, made that assumption. It does not. Pure libertarianism does have other problems, but that doesn't mean we would not be well served by moving in a more libertarian direction.

Peter:

Skipper, Gaw, you really don't get fraud. In the first place, touting the putative benefical effects of a product without some validating, exhaustive study based on cutting edged methodology is called puffery, and it is perfectly legal.

I freely admit I probably don't get fraud in the legal sense, although my notional sense and what David describes are not too far apart.

IIRC, the tobacco companies are paying huge amounts for fraudulent claims that amounted to, in your view, nothing more than puffery. Also, in the US, sellers of several herbal supplements have been taken to task over the last several years for knowingly making baseless claims.

If a mechanic makes a bogus claim, that is fraud. Why isn't the same true for the shopkeeper?

Harry Eagar said...

Well, that's my point. What the market values is not always what an ethical person would like to have.

Newsrooms are the only place I know in this country where people are routinely discharged for unethical behavior.