Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Sorry, this wasn't the real battle with big money

Loath am I to harsh the well-earned mellow this fine shining morning, but before too much of the adrenaline wears off, a warning.  Dark money gets more bang for its buck in the mid-term elections where turnout tends to be low (i.e when the voters suppress themselves).  The GOP knows the demographic tides they swim against and they already have plans in place to re-stock the war chests and push ahead for 2014.  Even now they hope to achieve again what they accomplished in 2010, floating bizarre reactionaries into office on a tide of money while the bulk of the electorate stays home.

So while it was critical for all of us to work and turn out for yesterday's outcome, our harder fight is coming.  They are waiting for us to stop punching, to stop guarding our heads.  Ruling classes never quit--ever.

If yesterday's gains from our investment is to become a growing portfolio we have to keep working, because as encouraging as the results were, they are not all that big.

If you are serious about not having yesterday's results cut out from under us in the short term, treat the next two years like you treated the last two, maybe even more so.  The tactics are the same.

Write many letters.  Handwritten if possible.  Send them to officeholders on both sides.
Raise money.
Communicate regularly with allies.
Fact-check relentlessly and publish and share all things necessary to drag the opposition into the light.
Be true.  The reality-based community swims against a strong tide, but it successfully forced blatant falsehood have a pretty bad day yesterday.  We need to sustain that. Hammer reality home at every chance.

Above all, DON'T. GET. COCKY.

They have a lot of money to play with.

Saturday, October 27, 2012

Myriad Problems with Pascal's Wager.

For those of you who don't know, Pascal was a 17th century French philosopher, mathematician, and physicist.    For most of his early life he was ambivalent about religion, taking it up only to drop it again.  Then at the age of 31 he had an intense religious experience late one night in bed, after which he became devoutly Catholic.  Still, as a philosopher he realized there was a problem.  In the absence of such an experience  what compelling reason would there be to believe. Rigorous skepticism, with which Pascal was intimately familiar as a scientist, would suggest not believing.  One must expect therefore a considerable number of people "so made as they cannot believe" on perfectly reasonable grounds.  What of them?  As a probability theorist, Pascal attempted to solve the problem mathematically as a wager in the following terms.
  1. "God is, or He is not"
  2. A Game is being played... where heads or tails will turn up.
  3. According to reason, you can defend either of the propositions.
  4. You must wager. (It's not optional.)
  5. Let us weigh the gain and the loss in wagering that God is. Let us estimate these two chances. If you gain, you gain all; if you lose, you lose nothing.
  6. Wager, then, without hesitation that He is. (...) There is here an infinity of an infinitely happy life to gain, a chance of gain against a finite number of chances of loss, and what you stake is finite. And so our proposition is of infinite force, when there is the finite to stake in a game where there are equal risks of gain and of loss, and the infinite to gain.

In short,
If you bet on the truth of atheism and are wrong, you suffer an infinite infinity of misery in hell.
If you bet on the truth of atheism and are right, it has little to no effect on your outcomes.

If you bet on the truth of Christian doctrine and are wrong, it has little to no effect on your outcomes.

If you bet on the truth of Christian doctrine and are right, you enjoy an infinity of infinite happiness in heaven.

Therefore, Pascal argues, even if the truth of the Christian Doctrine is extremely unlikely, one should still choose to believe in it to maximize your expected outcomes. Why? Because of the math.
The expected outcome of any binary wager is the sum of the two outcomes weighted by their respective probabilities.  Say the probability that Christian doctrine is true is ten million to one, or 0.0000001.  That sets  the probability that atheism is true at 0.9999999.  What happens if you bet on atheism.  If atheism turns out to be right as the odds suggest, you have simply ended up with some fixed quantity of benefit from your one-and-only life.  If you were fortunate it was pretty good even if it seemed a little too short.  On the other hand it may have sucked but at least its over now, que sera.  In either case its a finite quantity, lets call it X.  If atheism turns out to be wrong though, you get an eternity of infinite suffering tacked on after death, which we express as the quantity minus infinity (-inf).  The expected return E of a bet on atheism is then  negative infinity.

E=0.0000001*(-inf) + 0.9999999*X = -inf

Because even 1 tenmillionth of negative infinity is a negative infinity, and it remains so even if you add 9,999,999 ten millionths of a finite quantity to it.  The presence of an infinite quantity overwhelms the finite probabilities and the finite outcome X.

Flip it around and for exactly the same reasons, a bet in favor of the Christian doctrine where the reward for being right is an eternity of infinite happiness, or plus infinity (+inf), gives an expectation value of

E=0.0000001*(+inf) + 0.9999999*X = +inf

Therefore, says Pascal, using the same logic you would apply to any game of chance, or an investment portfolio, bet on the Christian Doctrine.

That all seems straightforward, right? .  Obviously one should believe in the Christian Doctrine.

Well, no.

Notice first how Pascal drastically and artificially limits the possibilities.  Only Atheism or the Christian doctrine are permitted.  Then the associated outcomes after death limited to three possibilities: oblivion, infinite eternal torment, or infinite eternal happiness.  These are added on to whatever one's worldly life amounts to, which only counts, in Pascal's scheme if Atheism is correct, because then your one and only worldly life is all you get.

Pascal gets away with only two options because most of us spend our lives embedded in a society with one dominant religion. Having one option to unbelief seems natural.  But there and have been thousands of religions based on myriad gods, with incompatible dogma and doctrines. This means that at least most of them have to be wrong.  Pascal just excludes these out of hand, but we have to take all comers.  I would argue that as the minimum number of candidate religions that must be wrong grows, the odds that all of them are probably wrong goes up too.  Even if we can be sure that there is a correct choice, we should expect to get it wrong given the sheer number of options.

We also must ask what constitutes an acceptable wager on Christian Doctrine under Pascal's conditions. When Pascal tells us to just go ahead and believe, what does that mean? How does that go?  Starting from a point of unbelief, a lot depends on what holds is necessary and sufficient for Christian salvation.  If you have to genuinely believe, then Pascal is assuming that for the right reward (instead of a convincing case) we can, of our own volition, create true belief; spinning it fully formed out of a sliver of doubt in our atheism.  On the other hand, if true belief is not required, Pascal would appear to be telling us that we should simply act as if we believe. This runs right up against the debate about whether Christian salvation is a matter of what you really believe, or what you say or appear to believe, or dependent on act commensurate with the doctrine.

Neither seems very plausible. Belief isn't a matter of volition. I cannot arbitrarily decide that I believe the the Earth is a flat disc; I KNOW it's a sphere. Is it plausible that merely for some reward (say $2,000,000), I could actually stop thinking that? No! That is not how true belief and knowledge work. On the other hand it's even less plausible that feigned belief would pass as a hedge bet by a true unbeliever. It implies a God that accepts phony Bad Faith, which seems a bit sleazy.

It's also no accident that Pascal needs the stakes to be so exaggerated, otherwise there would be nothing to offset the utter lack of evidence on which to base a decision. This is simple game theory. Who would buy a $1 Lotto ticket at 47 million:1 odds if the max payout was $15? No one. The stakes HAVE to be outrageous.  This is the heart of Pascal's argument.: Given the unlimited size of the purported "Jackpot" isn't even a remote chance worth the gamble?

Well, No. Exagerating the stakes in cases where the odds against are astronomically high is merely an exploitation ploy against human psychology.  This is how people are duped into buying Lotto tickets, or penny stocks.  Most of us lack the intuition to grasp really large and really small values. When outrageous claims are in play, it becomes almost certain that someone is being played for a sap on that basis.

The last thing wrong with the wager is it's faulty assessment of the cost of belief.  Pascal asserted that the cost was essentially nil. If there is no god, no heaven, the true believer simply dies and ceases to be regardless of his belief. In this case, since he is not even alive to be disappointed, Pascal sees this as a wash.

But is this true? True Belief spawns large and small changes in one's behavior. A sizable portion of these changes serve to benefit the faith as an institution much more than the believer  as an individual. True Believers invest significant portions of their money and time, and cede a lot of their autonomy to the church and its observances.  For the private unbeliever, who is merely trying to hedge his bet per Pascal's recommendation the situation is worse.   He is still compelled by his strategy to act out as if he were a true believer.  To cover remote chance that salvation will be needed, he must make the best show of belief he can muster.  If what he really thinks doesn't matter, the quality of his pretense is all that's left.  This is the most insidious hidden cost ignored by Pascal.  It is physically and emotionally painful to break the integrity between how we truly think and feel and how we speak and act.  It feels good to be honest with and about ourselves, both privately and publicly, whereas we suffer when we are false.  There are certainly exceptions, and our ability to tolerate a certain amount of ambiguity is one of our better traits.  Still, the evidence is that we are more miserable, perhaps most miserable, when we deny true selves.

This is not to deny value of the community, solidarity and moral teamwork one finds in church involvement. This can offset some of the real cost of belief, but that's the point. Such things have to be counted because Pascal is wrong in his basic assumption. Belief, true or pretended, comes with a real bill which is often high.

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Thank you for smoking: Olympic Edition

A recent trend on twitter was #RejectedOlympicEvents. Most of them were pretty lame--Quidditch and Twerking came up constantly, but after a little thought I think I have a good one.

Winter Speed Smoking!

This event would be based on what those few remaining nicotine fiends at work have to do in December on  break now that most public spaces forbid smoking.   They would start from a sitting position at a desk.  At the gun they would dash to the elevator (or stairs), race-walk outside past the No Smoking Perimeter, light up in the wind and snow, and smoke as many ciggies as possible while still getting back to their desk in 15 minutes. You’d get points for the number of cigarettes you smoked but penalized if you were late getting back to your desk, or for stepping into a No Smoking area with a lit cigarette.  You could have separate events for pipe and cigar, or rolling your own.

Can you imagine the kind of withered, green-faced tar-fingered, brown-toothed specimens who would excel at this?   The winners would have to be helped up on to the podium with their little O2 tanks and nasal canulas.  The winners anthem would start and you wouldn’t know whether they were just putting their hand over their heart or clutching at their angina.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

There really is no such thing as Supernatural.

Advocates for the real existence of spirit entities (whether they be ghosts or gods or the immaterial soul or what have you) or of magic or psychic phenomena, often claim that atheists and skeptics "by ruling out the possibility of the supernatural, are merely being dogmatic in the same fashion that they so love to criticize".
I would like to put this foolish old shibboleth to rest once and for all.  I know this is probably a vain hope.  Old dogs may not learn new tricks, but they never forget their old ones.  Still, with a sigh, I will try to make clear that the concept of supernatural itself is meaningless.

We start with the word. What does it mean?  As an adjective it simply means above or beyond the natural. From the Oxford Dictionaries more specifically:

  • (of a manifestation or event) attributed to some force beyond scientific understanding or the laws of nature: a supernatural being.
We must then ask what it means to be beyond scientific understanding.  It could mean indistinguishable from non-existent. As McKown memorably quipped "The invisible and non-existent look very much alike".  However, to those who make affirmative claims regarding the supernatural, it means definitely understandable, but just not via science.  If they are of a more agnostic or diplomatic frame of mind, they might soften this to, we shouldn't rule out the possibility, we must take it seriously.  Each view is rooted in the  idea that we can somehow bypass the requirements of physical evidence, reason and rigorous epistemology, i.e science, and validate claims about what is actually the case in some other way.  We must accept the possibility of Other Ways of Knowing.   There are difficulties with this, which I will get to.

Before that we must next ask what it means to be beyond the laws of nature.  Nature as a word has many meanings, and this can obscure rather than clarify.

I submit that for this discussion it does not mean
  • the phenomena of the physical world collectively, including plants, animals, the landscape, and other features and products of the earth, as opposed to humans or human creations
but instead means
  • the basic or inherent features, character, or qualities of something: (informal) the inherent and unchangeable character of something.
So when we say laws of nature, we are expressing a fundamental idea--that reality is comprised of things constrained by their inherent character.  In Wittgenstein's terms, when we state that something is the case, we are making a declaration about its nature. This is the entire theme of Lucretius' poem De rerum natura, (On the nature of things).  It is why the original term for physical science was Natural Philosophy, the investigation into the true nature of things.

Therin lies the problem.  Whenever somebody talks affirmatively about souls, or ghosts, or gods, or spirits, or anything else that gets lumped under the term supernatural, they always end up ascribing an actual nature to them.  They have to.  This is what it means to describe things that way.  So when they claim that someone they know is a real fortune teller, they are saying that it is in that person's nature to transcend the arrow of time to have experiences of the future in advance.  When they talk about a god, they might start by claiming it is essentially unknowable.  They will strongly suggest that it is impossible for the deity to be constrained in any way.  Yet saying this god is unconstrained by nature, is the same thing as saying that it doesn't have a nature of its own.  There's no way around this.  To have a nature is by definition to be constrained.   At heart believers know this to be the case.  In any conversation with someone who believes in a god they will eventually make explicit claims about what that god's nature is and isn't, what that god does and does not do..  Make an assertion counter to their account, and they will correct you instantly.  They will say, sure, god can be anything, except that.  The same is true for believers in ghosts and psychics, immaterial souls. For the believer, these things can be expected and eventually observed to behave in particular ways and not in others according to the nature of what they are.  In the end to be knowable is to have a nature,  Supernatural is a useless term.

Which returns us to the idea of something "beyond scientific understanding".  As long as your goal is to determine what is the case, you are inquiring after the nature of things.  Once you expect to observe something behaving in a particular way, you have exited the realm of "other ways of knowing", and fully entered the realm of science.  That is the problem with the doctrine of knowledge by faith which asserts that there are two spheres,  one where things can only be known through reason, evidence and sound epistemology--science, and a second where you can know things in some other way without those requirements.  This assumes we have the capacity to tell the difference. It would not work otherwise. Without being able to tell which approach to use in a particular case, we end up just guessing and hoping.  I can report that have found no evidence for such a capacity within myself.  I don't think it exists in others.   However, even that might not be important in the end.  If science is what we use to vet claims about the nature of those things expected to have observable effects, the only thing we have left to vet by "other ways of knowing" like faith are things without a nature of their own which are not expected to have observable effects.  I can't imagine what such things would be.  How would we attempt a conversation about them?  For all practical purposes this sounds like a null set.

So this insistence that true critical thinkers must admit to the possibility of the supernatural is at heart bogus, because the term is empty.  Supernatural is an abstract point of departure that one has to retreat from the minute any meaningful conversation starts.

Friday, March 9, 2012

On beating up a cub scout. Rush Limbaugh's Mike Tyson moment.

Let's be clear.

I don't want to silence Rush Limbaugh, no matter how dangerous I find his maniacal rantings, or the crazed voice of extreme right-wing radio pundits.  I think its better to know how bad, how ugly, how crazy the ideas are that are being injected into our intellectual currency.   Racial bigots, for example, have proven to require some watching,  so knowing who they are is actually a good thing.

However, I don't begrudge what's happened to him over his attacks on Sandra Fluke.

A lot of hay is made over the lack of civility in public discourse these days, and rightly so.  Contempt, so it seems, is the new national pastime.    Still, the history of our public conversation reveals a consistent distinct and somewhat separate arena of ugly confrontation, an inevitable consequence of our rights to free expression.   Those who have made some study of this often point to the scurrilous broadsides Thomas Jefferson had published against John Adams, which didn't so much question his fitness for the office of President, but whether it was safe to allow him to roam at liberty in society at all.   The broadsides were, by any reasonable definition of the term, gross public libel.

The reason they were not treated as libel was the public acceptance of that same accepted sphere of ugly confrontation. 
The rules governing what happens in the arena seem very different than those without, and we find this acceptable.  In a sense its a lot like boxing or any other violent sport.  If I slam my fist into your face in a legally sanctioned bout its just a part of a contest.  If I do it to you on the street its a felony without some extreme extenuating circumstances (e.g. you would have to be an unavoidable threat to life and limb).  Even if its preceded by our mutually agreeing to have a such fight in the street, its still a felony, because in the absence of a grant of exception by law,  fighting is illegal.
The thing about these arenas, whether of ugly confrontation, or physical violence, is that nowadays they're populated with people who walked in with both eyes open looking for, or at least being open to that kind of fighting.  The Roman Coliseum where prisoners or slaves were dragged in along with the seasoned professional gladiators is no longer an acceptable model for this kind of thing.  This makes the question of who's in and who's out, who's playing and who's not, important.  In highly public discourse there might be some ambiguity about who's in the ring and who's out, but that doesn't mean there are no reasonable answers when the issue comes up.
There's a final important distinction to be made.  Even in the arena there are definite fouls (a boxer after all can't just knee his opponent in the groin). Still there's a difference between doing so in the ring and outside of it.  In the ring you get penalized in the context of the game, possibly even to the point of loss, or qualification), but you usually don't get dragged into court later.  (Although a recent NHL case of a player being clubbed in the head from behind with a stick by an opponent did lead to formal criminal charges, of which he was acquitted.).  

What sets Imus' and Rush's gaffes apart is that they fail on both fronts.  The Rutgers girls weren't in that arena of ugly confrontation any more than Ms. Fluke was.  To the contrary, Fluke and the Rutgers team were operating in very distinct, formally ethical managed contests (sworn testimony before congress, and sportsmanship guided athletics). Imus and Limbaugh were doubly wrong in that they committed what would have been a major foul in the arena, to people who weren't even in it. It was like seeing Mike Tyson bite of the ear of a cub scout.

Saturday, February 4, 2012

Musings on Susan G. Komen and Planned Parenthood

By almost any measure the recent Susan G Komen affair is an amazing story.
Here are some of my musings.

To start with, Susan G. Komen for the Cure stands on its own as an exhibition of the primacy, power, and pathology of the branding process in modern culture.  In a near-perfect articulation of the marketer's art, the gaudy pink of the SGK brand infiltrated our daily lives in a manner that has been, if you'll pardon the expression, virtually metastatic.  Within the last few years a few suspicious grumblings about the wisdom, value, or even good intent of this unchecked march have percolated into the public consciousness, and a few instances of their market penetration have smacked of the bizarre (all that pink clashing with NFL team colors anyone?).   The thought nagged that, as with many brands, their relentless presence was becoming its own purpose.  Still, their momentum seemed unstoppable, their aura saintly, their position secure.

Their case also illustrates the how the complementary imperative of protecting the brand works on the institutional psychology of corporations, and often not to the good.  Charlie Pierce spoke wonderfully to the force of this drive in a recent article about Penn State's handling of the child rape case, replying to any who would wonder "How Penn State could have let such evil stay hidden?" with... It happens because institutions lie. And today, our major institutions lie because of a culture in which loyalty to "the company," and protection of "the brand" — that noxious business-school shibboleth that turns employees into brainlocked elements of sales and marketing campaigns — trumps conventional morality, traditional ethics, civil liberties, and even adherence to the rule of law. It is better to protect "the brand" than it is to protect free speech, the right to privacy, or even to protect children.
The point here is not that SGK lied or covered up anything.  In that respect the stories differ. What they have in common is how once a brand gets to be a certain size, the drive of its leadership and its loyal following to protect it can border on manic paranoia.  The larger and more established the branded institution, the more relentlessly protective they become.  It is this fact about institutions, more than any other, that sits at the heart of Komen's Planned Parenthood debacle.

While it is difficult to pull the exact reality out of the storm of reports and editorials, a reasonable summary of the affair goes something like this.  A failed right wing anti-abortion gubernatorial candidate from Georgia, Karen Handel, was hired as a Senior Vice President of Communications at SGK.  Whatever else she did to serve the SGK cause, it appears she also came packaged as a classic Trojan Horse hiding a clandestine plan to get SGK to take a public whack at Planned Parenthood.  The plan was not one of honest persuasion of the SGK leadership, but rather by a disingenuous political maneuver.  A policy was introduced under which SGK would refuse to fund organizations under government investigation.  The masking rationale for the policy was protecting the SGK brand from involvement with controversy (a genuine part of Handel's purview).  The true rationale was to tie SGKs hands later when Senator Cliff Stearns called for a federal audit of Planned Parenthood, forcing SGK to execute the policy, and terminate its funding for PP's cancer screening programs in low income areas.  While the financial impact of the termination was negligible compared with PP's overall budget, the expected political payoff was a different story.  They could clobber Planned Parenthood politically as having been found unworthy by the large publicly sanctified and beloved Komen organization.  It was planned as a hit and run PR coup for the movement, and a feather in the caps of those who pulled it off.

At first, on the surface, this looked like a political black-op of  almost Mephistophelean cunning, especially the playing of SGK's large institutional paranoia for its brand to set up the attack and then set the pieces in motion.  Then almost overnight it all went marvelously, horribly, wrong.   Instead of getting their free-hit on and subsequent public ridicule of Planned Parenthood, they instigated a virtual mob to rise up and overwhelm SGK stripping it of its public sanctity, and wrecking a sizable portion of if its brand image, and in all likelihood diminishing its revenue generating power for the immediate future.  Even worse, the political and financial fallout for Planned Parenthood was all positive, with compensating donations flooding in, including $250,000 dollars in matching funds from Michael Bloomberg.  When your own party's closest approximation to Vladimir Putin pays your actual target a quarter of a million dollars in reparations, your political theater piece has gone from a John LeCarre intrigue to a Peter Sellers' farce in world record time.

There are only three speculations possible about how to view the role of SGK leadership in all this.  Either they were fairly duped by clever people after the manner of Bernie Madoff's victims, or they were not-very-bright rubes that never should have fallen for it,  or they fully understood what was happening and thought they were going to be OK.  In all but the first case, they can probably be held culpable for what they actually brought on themselves.  If you grant the validity of the need to protect your enterprise from the effects of controversy when your enterprise isn't controversial, it seems obvious you have to two basic strategies for deciding who you work with.  One is to be controversy blind and work with anyone willing to work with you toward the common goal.  Disease eradication efforts by NGO's work this strategy all the time.  They take the strict line "We're here about the disease and getting rid of it.  Whatever grievances lie behind your local internecine squabbles, we're only here to make sure that when you resolve them the disease will be gone too.  Whaddya say?"  The second possible strategy is to be controversy avoidant, and limit yourself to only the most vanilla, of non-controversial partners.  Here the line is "Don't call us until you work out your problems.  We don't want any trouble."   The scope of a controversy blind enterprise is potentially larger by virtue of unlimited collaboration than that of a controversy averse enterprise.   However if you adopt the first strategy, you have to stick with it.  You can't be the slightest bit fickle about your commitment to unaligned benevolence.  It will be hard enough to get people to take it seriously when its consistently true.  If you give the slightest hint of preference you're lost.  The natives will bury you.  This I think is what happened to Susan G. Komen this week, and if the leadership was fully aware of what they were doing, then they can be reasonably seen as incompetent rather than innocent.

In the meantime, SGK has recanted its decision, recommitted itself to funding PP's breast cancer programs, but many of the angered have expressed unwillingness to let bygones be bygones.  That may even be the best thing for the overall public good.  An aura of sanctity rarely disposes individuals or institutions to behave at their best,  and SGK may be better off without it.   Also, if there is any merit to the criticism that they were overgrown and had become big simply for the sake of being big, then the backlash will have been a tonic, possibly even curative.  Mostly though, it is reasonable to wonder whether the entire Susan G. Komen for the Cure enterprise is a quixotic venture.  Its important to compare them with the organization from which they drew their cachet--the national effort to eradicate polio or The March of Dimes. There's something essentially misleading about the comparison this invites us to make.  The effort to eradicate polio was vastly different from the ambition to cure breast cancer. At the time of the of the Mother's March there were ... things we knew for certain that made it rational to think the effort would succeed.  First we knew polio was a virus, Second we knew that it was the kind of virus to which humans developed permanent immunity after infection.  Third, since Jenner and Pasteur, we knew the fundamental theory of vaccination.  Infect the subject with enough of something identical to the virus that doesn't give them the disease and let the body do the rest.  This was hard knowledge, not hopeful speculation.  We didn't have to figure out what would eradicate polio, we already knew.  We just didn't know how to make it.  Figuring out how to make it, and then scaling that up to a safe and reliable industrial process, then verifying product safety and efficacy in the population, was the whole purpose of the March of Dimes.  Since the only real question was how soon we would have it and since we wanted it as soon as possible, the law of diminishing return on investment was a moot point.  By contrast there is no such foundation underlying the efforts of Susan G. Komen for the Cure.  The research they support by nature operates on the boundary of diminishing returns, and factoring in the opportunity costs the value of throwing more funding at Breast Cancer research is a serious issue.  Which is all another way of saying that a smaller Susan G. Komen might be a better one.  And if it means those ghastly pink football shoes go away too, no one will be happier than me.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Using the Right Words for Impact

(I originally posted this on the critical thinking website Does This Make Sense , an excellent collection of writers, hosted/edited by the wonderful Nikki Stern.  I repost it here as a backup.)

Certain sports are now being forced into a deep conversation about concussive head injuries, with attendant changes in the terms of the discussion.  To begin, the linking of the words head and injury is itself a change.  Traditionally sport makes a distinction between the terms hurt and injured.   When an athlete is hurt  they are in pain but safely able to play, maybe at a reduced capacity, whereas an injured athlete is damaged to the point of being unfit for play or at risk for even graver damage unless they stop playing.  Until recently in the culture of sport, to have a concussion, at least in all but the most severe cases, was to be hurt, not injured.  Effective lobbying and awareness campaigns by medical advocacy and other groups are largely responsible for changing this culture to where concussion is now being counted as an injury to the brain.  The change was helped along by the fact that the victims of these concussions represent a substantial economic asset to their respective professional enterprises as well as themselves.

Also significant is the growing body of preliminary but ominous evidence for long term physical and psychological damage in retired professionals in violent sports.  Granted, dementia pugilistica, the medical term for punch drunk, which is the neurpsychological deficits seen in aging professional boxers that result from a career spent being punched in the head, has been part of the lexicon for a long time, but it is restricted, at least conceptually, to a particular sport.   Now an increasing number of aging football and hockey players are reporting a similar diffuse spectrum of cognitive and affective mental health problems over their lifespan, to a degree that has become impossible to ignore.  Concern has risen to the point that respective NFL and NHL players associations have started including it in their collective bargaining positions regarding player retirement benefits.

The most dire evidence has come from the involvement of of neuroscientists who have brought new more sensitive tools to the study of the brain and behavior.  Histological analysis, which reveals details at the level of brain cells and their component large molecule protiens, is finding a characteristic neural degeneration in brains of those with history of repeat head trauma.  They have introduced a new term into the lexicon: Chronic Traumatc Encephalopathy or CTE.   The term was born after a set of post mortem case studies of the brains of a handful of NFL players who died at very young ages, all but one by suicide of one form or another, and who's post football life was characterized by a host of severe neuropsychiatric symptoms and/or bizarre behavior.  All their brains showed dramatic evidence of neuronal damage at the fine structural levels now revealed by the neurological assays.  (A perfusion of work and writing on the subject is available.  I refer the reader to  Malcom Gladwell's 2009 essay, Offensive Play: How different are dogfighting and football?,  Christopher Nowinski's 2006 book Head Games: Football's Concussion Crisis, Ken Dryden's current article on Concussions in the NHL: Waiting for Science, and The Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy website, for further reference.)

The NFL and NHL, to their credit, have taken this new evidence and the new way of talking about concussion to heart.  While there is some question in my mind whether their measures are sufficient, concussed players are now being afforded more protection and time to heal.  Yet, by publicly responding to the problem, the NFL and NHL have also exposed what a Pandora's Box it is, and just how normal it is for their players to have concussions.  Cases like NHL star Sidney Crosby who spent 11 months waiting to recover from post-concussion syndrome, only to be re-injured by an incidental blow to the head after less than a month back, serve to underscore the point.  The magnitude of the problem only seems to grow the closer one looks at it.  This  is true of the continuing post-mortem brain research as well, which, if anything, grows more grim.  More brains of athletes from sports involving violent collision will have to be studied to get a definitive answer to how many develop CTE, but the preliminary data point frighteningly in the direction of a high rather than low number.

Which brings me to my closing modest suggestion, that we stop using the term contact sport or violent sport as our general term for these contests and use the term impact sport.  Impact sports would be defined as those that employ impacting blows, especially of unrestricted force, and particularly where increased force of impact confers competitive advantage.  Thus football would be an impact sport but wrestling would not, although both would be violent contact sports.  Hockey would be an impact sport, water polo would not, although both are contact sports.  Boxing would be the prime example of competitive advantage with greater impact, since if you hit someone hard enough to give them a concussion, you win the game.  The point of the term impact sport would be to prevent these distinctions from confusing the conversation, while also avoiding focus on specific sports.  Since there are many impact sports it makes no sense to have one conversation about football, one about hockey, etc.  The term would also exclude those sports that are merely dangerous, where an accidental impact is a significant risk without being a formal element of play.  Soccer players collide at high speed, downhill skiers and cyclists crash, divers hit their heads on springboards, yet these would not constitute impact sports.  Also, excluded from the definition are sports where players are required by rule to avoid impact, such as charging in basketball.  What I am suggesting is that we acknowledge that impact is part of some sports in ways it is not part of others, and that unrestricted impact is the single most important factor in the concussion debate. Not contact, not danger, not risk, not even violence.

In conversation the most valuable result is not just the exchange of ideas, but the negotiation of better ways to talk about an issue.  When the language does not conform to what is the case, the resulting discussion can't make reasonable headway.  Using injured instead of hurt for sports concussion has represented progress in this sphere, and has already helped a great deal.  Having a proper term for the kind of sport we're really talking about can only help further.