Archive for November, 2007

Nov 30 2007

Intelligent Design Fight Brewing in Texas

Published by under Creationism/ID

A few months ago I reported on the appointing of creationist Don McLeroy to head the Texas State Board of Education, and predicted we would be seeing trouble in the lone star state. Well, here comes trouble. The Texas Education Agency (TEA) has forced to resign Chris Comer, the head of the state science curriculum. What was her offense? Quoting the article:

“Ms. Comer’s e-mail implies endorsement of the speaker and implies that TEA endorses the speaker’s position on a subject on which the agency must remain neutral,” the officials said.

The speaker referred to Barbara Forrest, author of “Inside Creationism’s Trojan Horse.” The book is about the politics of Intelligent Design (ID) and takes the position that the purpose of ID is to instill religious creationism into public schools. Comer sent an e-mail announcing the upcoming speaker which “implied” she had a favorable disposition toward the author and her book. Egads!

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Nov 29 2007

The Denialism Dodge

Deniers – those who, for whatever reason, deny the conclusions of well-established science, employ a number of strategies in their denial. Like a good illusionist, deniers are primarily involved in misdirection. I was recently reminded of one tactic of deception when the following quote was used to suggest that the materialist explanation of mind is not adequate.

J. Fodor stated in a paper published in 2001 that “So far what our cognitive science has found out about the mind is mostly that we don’t understand how it works.”

Dualists, those who believe that consciousness and the mind are something more than the material biological functioning of the brain, are, in my estimation, neuroscience deniers. They deny the current model of biological neuroscience in order to manufacture a gap, and then try to slip their dualism – their “ghost in the machine” – into that gap.

Now at this point most readers are probably thinking that we don’t fully understand how the brain works and creates the phenomenon of mind, and you are correct. But that is the misdirection – confusing the question “does A cause B” with “how does A cause B.” Let me first illustrate this denial tactic with a more established example, creationism (or evolution-denial).

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Nov 27 2007

The Battle Continues Over Vaccines and Autism

I and some other medical science bloggers have spent much time addressing the claims of antivaccinationists and those who attempt to link vaccines and autism. This is because they are engaged in nothing less than an all out campaign to eliminate vaccines. They seem to be driven by ideology and fear, their tools are misinformation, lies, and logical fallacies, and they have been tireless in waging war against vaccines. On their side are dubious and discredited scientists, misguided celebrities, naive or scaremongering politicians, and families who range from sincere but misinformed to ideological true believers. This antivaccination movement overlaps considerably with those who are anti-science or anti-scientific medicine (promoting instead some form of “alternative” medicine). They also enjoy much support from anti-government conspiracy theorists.

Standing against these forces are those few scientists who take the time to confront their claims and set the record straight – mainly through blogs and the occasional article. Government agencies, like the CDC, try but have been fairly ineffective (and sometimes counterproductive) in the PR department. Mainstream scientists and scientific organizations have been doing good research and promoting good science and medicine, but have shied away from confronting the antivaccine cranks directly (sometimes because of direct intimidation).

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Nov 26 2007

Science and Faith

Paul Davies, a physicist and writer in the fields of cosmology, quantum field theory, and astrobiology, wrote an editorial in this Saturday’s New York Times (may require login) titled: Taking Science on Faith. In he writes:

The problem with this neat separation into “non-overlapping magisteria,” as Stephen Jay Gould described science and religion, is that science has its own faith-based belief system. All science proceeds on the assumption that nature is ordered in a rational and intelligible way. You couldn’t be a scientist if you thought the universe was a meaningless jumble of odds and ends haphazardly juxtaposed. When physicists probe to a deeper level of subatomic structure, or astronomers extend the reach of their instruments, they expect to encounter additional elegant mathematical order. And so far this faith has been justified.

I disagree with Davies’s formulation of this issue. He is saying that scientists must have faith in an ordered universe, but this is not true. Science does not make any claims about, nor is it premised on, any particular ultimate nature of reality. Science depends only upon methodological naturalism. That means that science proceeds as if the universe operates in an orderly way, because it has no choice. That is the nature of scientific methodology. It does not require that the universe actually is naturalistic.

Further, Davies is assuming that science has faith in its own assumptions. Rather, science is agnostic toward anything that it cannot test empirically, including its own assumptions. This may seem paradoxical, but it isn’t once you understand that science is only about method, not truth.

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Nov 23 2007

Wireless Technology and Autism

A recent press release reporting on an alleged association between the electromagnetic radiation (EMR) from wireless devices and autism has sparked a round of credulous news reporting, mainly in computer and technology magazines and websites. This article from ComputerWeekly.com is typical. The article begins:

Autism is a disabling neuro-developmental disorder. Its cause is not completely understood, but it is linked to heavy-metal toxicity.

This is a very misleading statement, and reveals both the biased nature of the study authors and the lack of basic journalism on the part of John-Paul Kamath, who wrote the article for Computer Weekly. He would have done well to speak for a few minutes to an actual autism expert. Autism has, in fact, not been linked to heavy-metal toxicity. That is a fiction perpectuated by the anti-vaccination cranks and the mercury militia – groups still clinging to the thoroughly discredited notion that mercury in vaccines is causing autism. Also, while saying that the cause of autism is “not completely understood” is technically accurate (this statement would be accurate about most things in biology and medicine) it omits the fact that autism is most strongly linked to a variety of genetic causes.

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Nov 22 2007

Thanksgiving Day Myths

Published by under Skepticism

Happy Thanksgiving to all my American readers. I am off to see my family and eat turkey.

In skeptical fashion, I will leave you with some Thanksgiving day myths, courtesy of the History Channel.

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Nov 21 2007

Why Are Dreams So Weird?

Published by under Neuroscience

Recently I had a dream in which I was called upon to perform emergency surgery on someone outside of the hospital setting. (I am not a surgeon, and this is a bit of a recurring anxiety dream – as a doctor I may be called upon to do something I am not qualified to do, but as the most qualified person present may need to take responsibility for it.) In the dream I was told by a surgeon (and in the dream I did not question why they were not doing the surgery) that the person needed an emergency appendectomy. It did not strike me (my dreaming self) as at all odd that the person’s chest was exposed for surgery, rather than their abdomen, or that the patient was wide awake. My awake self, of course, laughs at the absurdity of the situation with the realization that I would have responded completely differently to the situation than my dreaming self.

Most people have noticed that dreams often have a surreal feel to them, or that your dream-self accepts as perfectly natural absurd occurrences and situations. I was recently asked about this on the SGU forums. Evil Eye asked:

Why when something …ESPECIALLY only one thing… is absurd… in a dream… do we still accept it as normal until we wake up and think about it?

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Nov 20 2007

History Repeats Itself – The PAPIMI Scam

In 1916 a physician name Albert Abrams published a paper introducing the world to the Electronic Reactions of Abrams (ERA). According the Dr. Abrams every disease has its own unique vibrational signature, and Abrams was soon marketing devices to both diagnose (the dynamizer) and treat (the oscilloclast) pretty much anything. Abrams made millions selling and licensing devices to doctors, chiropractors, and other practitioners and clinics began cropping up all over America. This cottage industry of quackery continued for years, convincing millions of clients that the ERA was a miracle breakthrough of modern medicine. The ride didn’t end until Abrams died and it was discovered that his machines contained useless parts (a scam within a scam), and it became clear that he was the perpetrator of one of the greatest medical hoaxes in history.

Sounds crazy, right? Nothing so outrageous could happen today. (OK, so regular readers of this blog will see what’s coming next a mile away.)

Recently the Seattle Times recently ran a story exposing a con-artist and his device that would make Abrams proud – Panos Pappas and his PAPIMI device. Pappas claims that his device is based upon “frequencies spectrum,” that physicists should “forget E=MC2,” that his machine treats inflammation and improves oxygen. His claims are essentially a mishmash of typical quack mumbo jumbo, but he has an impressive looking machine that uses “energy.” Wow.

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Nov 19 2007

How Much Modern Medicine is Evidence-Based

In response to my Homeopathy entry last week, reader Jasonb left the following comment:

I think debunking homeopathy is important and worthwhile. There is, however, a more pressing matter at hand.

Following on the heels of recent news that many drugs prescribed by doctors (and sold by pharmacies) lack an FDA approval, how many people are aware that LESS THAN FIFTY PERCENT (50%) of western medical practice is based on valid scientific evidence and some experts estimate that number is low as FIFTEEN PERCENT (15%).

source-
http://www.washingtonmonthly.com/features/2007/0710.brownlee.html

At 15%, I have to imagine the whole of Alternative Medicine has more valid science behind it than that.

It would be a tremendous service if you could identify the top dozen or so western practices that would utterly astonish people to know have as much scientific validity as homeopathy. There has to be some real doozies at the top of the list.

Thanks for the comment, Jason, but I am afraid that the less than 50%, and as low as 15%, figures are myths, propagated by the critics of scientific medicine and advocates of “alternatives.” Like so many ideologically useful myths, the figures are now embedded in the culture, and it seems we will be hearing them over and over again.

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Nov 15 2007

Sloppy Thinking about Homeopathy from The Guardian

Jeanette Winterson recently wrote a piece for The Guardian titled In Defense of Homeopathy. It’s always fascinating to read or hear people defending nonsense – in doing so they have no choice but to use bad evidence and bad logic. Homeopathy has no scientific plausibility and the clinical evidence shows that homeopathy does not work for any specific indication. So homeopathy’s defenders have a real task on their hands – thankfully they are armed with numerous logical fallacies and every manner of sloppy thinking, so they are up to the task.

Homeopathy has been under the gun recently, especially in the UK where physicians and scientists guided by reason and evidence are trying to remove it from the national health service. The defenders of homeopathy, in response, have really been turning up the heat, desperately trying to find cover wherever they can. Winterson’s article is one such attempt, and she pulls out all the techniques of bad science and bad thinking that are the homeopath’s bread and butter.

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