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Saturday, June 16, 2007

Sixty Demand Justice for Transwoman

That was my estimate of the attendance at a rally Thursday to demand an investigation into the death of Erika Keels. According to organizers, witnesses saw an intentional and malicious homicide, but police have described it as an accident. I could only attend for a few minutes since I was on the job, but it was clearly well-organized.

I had an experience last weekend that epitomized the "True Believer" mentality. Before the paranormal research meetup that I've been attending recently, someone made a remark impugning psychotropic drugs in a broad-brush manner. I told him I didn't think the evidence supported such a sweeping position, and he responded that it did because his mother had died after taking one.

I answered this non sequitur by saying he was free to draw his conclusion on such an unscientific basis if he wanted to, to which he reacted with outrage, "You have no right [!] to call it unscientific!" I was about to respond by saying yes I did, and reminding him of something called the First Amendment, but he continued with some remark about "heartless science" and then lectured me that "science without human values is worthless."

So I had to try and explain to him that science can't serve human values unless it uses rigorous standards of evidence, and elaborated by suggesting placebo-controlled, double-blind trials as such a standard. He claimed he'd seen "too many examples" of studies by drug companies' being biased, and I pointed out that many studies are carried out by universities too, such as the one in which I started getting paroxetine, and that I'd gotten considerable benefits from it. He said that could be the placebo effect, but I reminded him that experiments control for this effect.

So he retrenched by saying we shouldn't be "playing Russian roulette like that." When I answered, "That's why they do experiments first," he answered that he doesn't condone such experiments. "Fine, you don't have to condone them. They are voluntary," I said, to which he answered that people just do them for the money. So I pointed out that many, like myself, aren't paid to be subjects but do it in hope of getting help.

So he tried to convince me that paroxetine is dangerous, saying a woman he knew who'd done a lot of paid subject-ing knew another one who'd committed suicide after going off it. I said this sounded as if not the drug, but going off the drug had killed her. He parried that this was true of heroin too, and I had to point out the distinction that people aren't addicted to heroin before they start taking it, whereas they do have serious mental problems before going on an SSRI.

Although my interlocutor claimed repeatedly to have seen "lots" of research to support his position, he never described any -- just anecdotes. And notice his philosophical inconsistency here: he rushed to blame a drug for the woman's death instead of the depression for which it had been initially prescribed, yet invoked the placebo effect rather than acknowledge it might have benefited me. Note also that, when faced with the unanswerable fact that independent research supported the drug's benefits, he changed the subject by condemning the research on moral grounds. (Or perhaps one should say moralistic, since he would deny individual choice in the matter.) Such "skepticism of convenience" is not real skepticism at all.

Eric Hamell

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