Archive for October, 2007

Oct 30 2007

It’s Ghost Hunting Time Again

Published by under Paranormal

It’s that time of year again, the time for every newspaper and news outlet to do their obligatory Halloween story about ghosts and ghost hunting. It’s an opportunity for every amateur paranormal investigator to misrepresent science to the public, for the amateur skeptic to regurgitate a few token lines of reason, and for the grunt journalist to get their holiday fluff.

OK, I’ll admit it. I’ve been that token skeptic (and this year is no different). We skeptics collectively wring our hands, filled with angst over whether or not such token skepticism does more harm than good. The truth is, nobody knows. On the one hand, we provide at least some balance to the nonsense – perhaps we plant a seed of doubt in the occasional reader. On the other hand, we lend credibility to the bunk just by giving it our time and attention.

To my mind the real culprit here are the lazy journalists who follow the tired formula of the fluff paranormal piece. But occasionally we get lucky, we encounter a critical thinking “ringer” among the drones. Recently, I was contacted by Michael Hartwell to provide the skeptical point of view on yet another ghost hunting story. Michael is a regular listener of the SGU, so I had reason to hope the results would be better than usual, and they were. Rather than the token skepticism we are often content to accept, the article was closer to a 50/50 point-counterpoint.

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Oct 29 2007

My Day with the Homeopaths – Part II

As I discussed on Friday, last week I was part of a panel discussion on homeopathy hosted by UCONN. It was an interesting experience, as I knew it would be. In part I of my report from the conference I talked about the plausibility arguments against homeopathy and Dr. Rustom Roy’s unconvincing response. Today I will complete my report, discussing the clinical evidence.

Donald Marcus from Baylor did an excellent job of presenting a review of the clinical evidence for homeopathy, accurately conveying that the evidence is largely negative. Iris Bell, a protege of Andrew Weil from the University of Arizona, had the job of distorting and cherry picking the clinical evidence to make is seem as if it supports homeopathy. Her strategy was typical, standard fare for CAM proponents.

First, she argued that we should accept clinical observations as reliable evidence. These are open-label or uncontrolled case reports, essentially the clinical experience of homeopaths. This is all a fancy way of saying anecdotal evidence, which over a century of scientific medicine has taught us is completely unreliable. I think anecdotes are worse than unreliable – they tend to lead us to conclusions we wish to be true rather than those that are true, and they can cause a false sense of confidence in the unwary.

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Oct 26 2007

My Day with the Homeopaths – Part I

Yesterday I took part in a panel discussion titled, A Debate: Homeopathy – Quackery Or A Key To The Future of Medicine? hosted by the University of Connecticut Medical Center. You might think that the title is a bit of a false dichotomy, but in this case it is accurate, for the two sides of this debate occupied far ends of the belief spectrum with a wide gulf between us. Although I did not hear anything new from the homeopathy side, it was a very useful experience to hear both how they are formulating their claims and rationalizations these days, and the response and questions from the audience (which, by show of hands, was comprised at least half by practicing homeopaths).

The first two hours of the debate was really a serial lecture, and unfortunately I went first so I could only anticipate, and not respond to, what the homeopathy advocates had so say. This part of the panel discussion was webcast (and archived so you can still view it here), but the best part of the day was the hour of questions and answers after the serial lectures, and it is a shame that this part was not webcast. But I will reports the highlights here (and discuss it on next week’s episode of the SGU).

After my presentation on the extreme scientific implausibility of homeopathy, materials scientist Rustum Roy presented his completely unconvincing case for its plausibility. His strategy was to argue that the only significant scientific objection to homeopathy (other than the blind bias, prejudice, “homeophobia” – his term, and materialistic assumptions of scientists) is that homeopathic water does not contain any molecules of active ingredient. However, he argues, the key to material function is not composition but structure, so we should be looking at the structure of water and not what is in it.

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Oct 25 2007

Zero Effect Smoke

Published by under Skepticism

There are countless quack devices and snake oil remedies out there. They are proliferating on the internet like a virulent virus, feeding off of desperation and scientific illiteracy, and largely unhindered by ineffective regulations. In fact (to continue my infectious metaphor) they have evolved effective resistance to the weak regulatory antibiotics that have been prescribed. There are far too many specific products for me to write about them all, but occasionally I decide to pick on one.

A new product recently caught my attention – Zerosmoke, a device that claims it can help smokers quit their addiction. In fact their advertising claims an 80% success rate. They give no references to any published evidence (or even in-house evidence, as worthless as that is) for their claims. The device is simply two magnets to be placed on either side of the ear, so that they stick together and provide pressure to the ear. How does this work? Their advertising states:

Zerosmoke® is a revolutionary treatment that uses two Auricular Therapy 24K gold coated magnets. When positioned opposite one another on a designated point of the ear, they exert prolonged, programmed, stimulating pressure that activates the neurotransmitters that eradicates the desire to smoke.

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Oct 24 2007

Mood, Cancer, and the Placebo Effect

It is now a common belief that a positive mood leads to better health outcomes, even (or especially) when dealing with a serious illness like cancer. Like many common beliefs, this is probably not true. (The selection process of beliefs tends to favor things we would like to be true, and not necessarily things that actually are true.) Many people have championed the efficacy of a positive mood in healing, notably Dr. Bernie Seigel, who wrote the books Love, Medicine & Miracles and Peace, Love & Healing, in which he claims:

A vigorous immune system can overcome cancer if it is not interfered with, and emotional growth toward greater self-acceptance and fulfillment helps keep the immune system strong.

But such claims are the product mostly of sloppy thinking and are not backed by the evidence. In a new large well controlled study, researchers found no benefit of positive mood in cancer survival. Study author James Coyne said of his study:

We anticipated finding that emotional well-being would predict the outcome of cancer. We exhaustively looked for it, and we concluded there is no effect for emotional well-being on cancer outcome. I think [cancer survival] is basically biological. Cancer patients shouldn’t blame themselves — too often we think if cancer were beatable, you should beat it. You can’t control your cancer. For some, this news may lead to some level of acceptance.

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Oct 23 2007

Vaccines and Autism

Published by under Skepticism

The latest issue of the Skeptical Inquirer features a cover article on vaccines and autism by yours truly. I have written quite a bit about this issue over the last year on this blog, and the article is a good compilation of everything I have written, and brings the reader up to date on this issue.

But of course the world of print media grinds much more slowly that the blogosphere. I wrote the article about three months ago and already there have been developments in the vaccines and autism story. As I wrote about in September, a large study conducted by the CDC was published and showed that use of thimerosal does not correlate with any adverse neurological outcome. The study did not look at autism specifically, but at a long list of neurological symptoms. A similar study looking at thimerosal and autism is under way and should be published next year. The mercury militia, true to form, completely misrepresented this negative study, claiming against the evidence that it showed a correlation.

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Oct 22 2007

Tap Your Way to Happiness

No, this article is not about tap dancing. It is about another dubious psychological treatment – tapping various parts of the body to simply and quickly solve complex emotional problems.

When my computer starts to act funny, gets extremely slow, or freezes up entirely, the simple cure-all is to reboot the system. This is easy to do and usually works. There may be another solution, but the quickie reboot saves me the time and trouble of going through a troubleshooting procedure. Troubleshooting can be difficult and frustrating, so why bother if a reboot will do the trick?

If only we had a simple reboot procedure, or some equivalent, for the human brain. Wishing does not make it so – but it does create a market for the easy-answer peddlers. Psychological problems are especially vulnerable to the easy-answer sales pitch. The reasons for this are complex, but stem from various identifiable features of emotional problems. They are highly subjective, and therefore amenable to the placebo effect. The expectation of improvement, or the very fact of taking action to improve one’s psychological condition, can have a therapeutic effect. The introduction of anything novel can produce the expectation of benefit. The relationship with a therapist or a support group can have non-specific benefits, regardless of the specifics of any techniques used. The employment of ritual can give one a sense of control and empowerment, which again can have therapeutic value.

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Oct 18 2007

Hypnotic Trance or Mass Delusion

Published by under Neuroscience

Students at Logan High School were recently treated to a fund raising event that features a stage hypnotist. This seemingly benign event resulted in one student ending up in the hospital and many others frightened, leading the school to ban further such events. One student described the event thusly:

“I couldn’t really tell what was going on because people were just crying and it seemed like they were totally normal and awake but I guess they were in a trance or something, it was weird.”

The hypnotist was as surprised as anyone by these events, claiming that he had never experienced such a reaction before. What really happened here?

Hypnotism is a strange phenomenon and it is difficult to tell exactly what is going on because it is not possible to read someone’s mind. Is the subject actually in a “trance” – meaning an altered state of awareness, or are they just roleplaying being in a trance. Nothing actually happens during a hypnotism that is incompatible with the subject simply acting, but that does not mean that acting is necessarily all that is going on.

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Oct 17 2007

Neurofeedback and the Need for Science-Based Medicine

I am frequently asked to give my opinion as a neurologist about neurofeedback techniques – these are therapies based upon using real-time recording of brain waves (EEG) to help train the brain to have a more normal brain wave pattern. These techniques are still not generally accepted, and with good reason, but are none-the-less growing in popularity.

This recent news article is a good indication of why the popularity of this treatment is outstripping the evidence. The article itself is a great example of the standard template journalists use for reporting controversial science stories. Here is the template:

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Oct 16 2007

Blood Sugar Chi Magik

Recently on the SGU podcast we have discussed the martial arts masters who claim they can use chi, the mysterious undetectable life force of Eastern mysticism, to make themselves invulnerable to blows or to knock out opponents without even touching them. It’s all very impressive – in that it is an amazing demonstration of the power of suggestion and self-deception.

Belief in chi is also telling us something about human psychology. That there is a psychological motivation to believe in the magic of chi does not mean that chi is a fiction, but since we can say scientifically from independent lines of evidence that there is no credible evidence for the existence of anything like chi or any life energy, that does lead to the question of why people believe in it.

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