Archive for June, 2007

Jun 29 2007

Why Havent We Cured Cancer?

Below is a recent e-mail I received. It reflects a widespread belief, and is frequently invoked by the CAM community to promote bogus therapies. The relevant section of the e-mail is as follows:

“To the question: while I don’t believe in conspiracies, we have been treating cancer using the same 3 methods (chemotherapy, radiation, and surgery) for at least the past 30 years, despite the billions of dollars which have been spent on research. I feel that there isn’t an incentive to find a cure. There is too much money at stake, and jobs depend upon the research and treatment. Your thoughts, and keep up the good work.”

There are a number of common misconceptions in this question:

A Cure for Cancer

Cancer is often referred to by non-experts as if it were a single entity – one disease. In fact it is a category of diseases, also referred to as neoplastic diseases. Neoplasms result when a single cell mutates so that one or more of the normal mechanisms that restrict cell growth are disabled. The cell then reproduces without restriction, forming either a solid tumor or a blood cancer like leukemia.

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Jun 28 2007

Barry L. Beyerstein 1947-2007

Published by under General

Barry Beyerstein, a psychologist, skeptic, teacher, promoter of science and reason – and without hyperbole the single nicest guy in the skeptical movement, passed away two days ago. He was only 60 and his death was unexpected, it certainly came as a shock to me. The premature death of such a wonderful person is always a tragedy, it is a terrible loss for his family, and I feel as if the skeptical family has also suffered a great loss.

I had the good fortune of knowing Barry, although our paths crossed only occasionally. We worked together on the Scientific Review of Alternative Medicine, and I always enjoyed seeing him at skeptical meetings. I am glad we had the opportunity to interview him recently for the Skeptics Guide. Take a listen to the interview – his good humor comes through no matter what topic we were discussing.

The inner circle of the skeptical movement is actually quite small. Although we are geographically spread out, I feel as if we are tied closely together by our common cause, by a shared worldview and purpose, and by the virtual bonds of blogs, podcasts, magazines, and e-mail. It’s an intellectual community and every member is extremely valued. I hate to be reminded of that in this way.

Barry was a CSI fellow – you can read their tribute to him which includes a summary of his many skeptical accomplishments. His daughter, Lindsay, also has a touching tribute to her father here.

So long, Barry.


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Jun 27 2007

Synesthesia – I Feel Your Pain

Published by under Neuroscience

I recently received the following e-mail:

Dear DR. Novella,

I often listen to the skeptics guide and I have really enjoyed the work you have done in educating people about how to see through logical fallacies. So today I was cruising the web and I found an article that may be of interest to the panel. The article is on synesthesia ( now this just sounds too far out there for me but the article has many references however many of the journals listed have the term “nature” in the title so I am a little skeptical but it still sounds truly scientific and I was wondering if you might have any insight into this interesting phenomenon.

Part of functional skepticism is recognizing red-flags for possible pseudoscience – but spotting red flags is not enough. That is only the beginning of skeptical analysis, not the end. It justified caution, but sometimes these red flags can be deceiving and you have to look deeper to see if a claim is science or pseudoscience.

In this case synesthesia, in its various forms, is a real and very cool set of neurological phenomena.

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Jun 25 2007

Postmodernism – Sophisticated Nonsense

Published by under Logic/Philosophy

Sometimes really smart people say or write incredibly dumb things, as I was recently reminded while reading Stanley Fish’s June 17th NYT commentary, Atheism and Evidence. I’m sure this applies to me as well, although for obvious reasons we have a hard time recognizing our own ignorance. The reasons for this apparent paradox are several. First, intelligence itself is a multifarious thing, and people can be smart in some ways while being intellectually mediocre in others. Also, no one can know everything, so we all have lacunes in our model of reality. We all also have subjective perspectives, biases, and idiosyncratic patterns of thought.

This is precisely why intellectual authority cannot reside in an individual. All scholarly and creative endeavors are enhanced by the community effort – the collaboration of many individuals brings to bear varying perspectives, fills in holes in knowledge, roots out quirky thinking, and smashes discordant biases against each other.
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Jun 20 2007

RFK Jr.s Autism Conspiracy Theory

As the Autism Omnibus hearing is underway, the public debate about whether there is a link between mercury and thimerosal in vaccines and autism spectrum disorder is raging. Robert F. Kennedy Jr., who has been an outspoken proponent not only of the notion that mercury does cause autism but that there is a vast conspiracy to hide this truth from the public, yesterday published a ranting emotional and conspiracy mongering tirade in the Huffington Post. I am cautious about using hyperbole, but really there is no other way to characterize this shameful piece of dangerous nonsense.

The title of the piece, “Attack on Mothers” sets the theme and tone of the article. RFK Jr. writes:

“Mothers of autistics are routinely dismissed as irrational, hysterical, or as a newspaper editor told me last week, ‘desperate to find the reason for their children’s illnesses,’ and therefore, overwrought and disconnected.”

If you don’t have the science on your side I guess you have to exploit the emotions of a situation, which he does throughout the article. RFK Jr. paints a picture of intelligent, educated, “skeptical,” “dispassionate,” and “diligent,” mothers who are just following the evidence in a sincere hope to help their afflicted children. Arrayed against them are critics who are “lazy,” dismissive, and engaged in a campaign of fraud and deception. Reading this article I am reminded of other conspiracy fantasies that also paint in such stark good vs evil terms.
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Jun 19 2007

A Turing Test for a Cell Phone and Dividing the Brain

Published by under Creationism/ID

Michael Egnor is slowly working his way through all the bogus and discredited arguments for dualism – the notion that the mind is separate from the physical brain. He just won’t stop. I think it’s a good skeptical exercise to go through these arguments and expose their fallacious logic. So as long as Egnor keeps setting them up, I’ll keep knocking them down.

His latest entries are thought experiments (and I use the term lightly). In the first he imagines scientists on an island finding a cell phone and whether or not they could discover if the voices coming from the phone were created by the phone for were merely being received by the phone. Get it – the phone is the human brain. He is recycling the argument that the brain is a receiver for the mind, not the generator of the mind. This is a way to explain all of the evidence that links the brain to the mind by saying that the brain is necessary, just as a phone is necessary to have a phone conversation. But the brain does not create the mind just as a phone does not create the voices that come out of it.

Orac has done a nice job of destroying this bit of nonsense from Egnor.  I will just summarize the main points, which Orac hit nicely, and extend them a bit.

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Jun 18 2007

A Challenge from a Homeopath

The following letter was forwarded to an informal advisory group on medical topics for the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry (CSI, formerly CSICOP).

Dear sirs,

I am a homeopathic medical doctor, living and practicing homeopathic medicine in Cyprus.

The question if homeopathy works, I think it has been answered from the millions of people who have been cured from this medical system for more than 180 years. Except if you consider them all crazy. The only answer remaining to be answered is how the homeopathic medicines work, although some answers have been discovered in the field of quantic physics.

Now if you have any doubts about the effectivenes of homeopathy we invite you in a puplic clinical research, on an disease which we will agree together, and make a double blind trial to check out the results of homeopathy versus placebo.

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Jun 15 2007

More Dualism Nonsense from Michael Egnor

Michael Egnor is a neurosurgeon who has been shilling for the Discovery Institute – an intelligent design (ID) propaganda organization that smilingly sells itself as a “think tank” or research organization. I have had some fun picking apart his ridiculous mental shenanigans in his attempts to defend ID. Most recently he has taken to defending dualism – the notion that the mind and the brain are separate things – and attacking strict neuroscience materialism. His arguments are reassuringly childish, even silly. He has lowered the intellectual bar further with his latest entry – this time replying to critics of his previous piece.

The core of the article is a response to PZ Meyers’ analysis of Egnor’s prior argument that altruism has no location. Meyers responded that altruism does have a location – in the brain. Egnor quotes Meyers thusly:

“His altruism does have a location. It’s the product of activity in his brain. Where else would it be, floating in the air, in his left foot, or nonexistent?”

Egnor grossly misinterprets this quote from Meyers. Whether the misinterpretation was deliberate or just intellectually sloppy I will leave up to the reader to decide, but not far down Meyers made another statement that clearly shows what he meant:

“We also know that a sense of altruism is generated by patterns of electrical and chemical activity in a material brain; modify the patterns, change the feeling or action.”

But Egnor distorts Meyer’s quote into a straw man that he then props up to represent the materialist position. Egnor now write:

“If altruism is located in the brain, then some changes in location of the brain must, to use a mathematical term, ‘map’ to changes in altruism. That is, if you move your brain, you move your altruism in some discernable way. And ‘moving’ altruism means changing its properties. It won’t do to say that moving altruism changes its property of ‘location,’ because ‘location’ of altruism is the issue.”

Egnor expands on this theme that altruism has no physical location, while the brain does. Therefore the brain cannot be or cause altruism, by which he means the mind. Therefore the mind is not the product of the material brain, therefore it is spiritual – and you have dualism.

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Jun 13 2007

Colquhoun Update

That was fast. Actually it seems the issue was already being processed, but I like to think the support from fellow academics played a favorable role in the outcome.

Here is a joint statement I was directed to in response to my letter to the Provost:

Joint statement by Professor Colquhoun and UCL