Archive for May, 2009

May 29 2009

The NICE Fiasco

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The National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE) is an independent UK organization that provides advice on which treatments and medical practices are likely to promote health. In other words, they comment on what they think is or should be the standard of care. This is a very important function, and the NICE is generally taken seriously.

That is why it was very disturbing to find that in their latest guidelines for low back pain they include recommendations for both spinal manipulation (wihout explicity naming chiropractic) and acupuncture.

The spinal manipulation recommendation is at least semi-reasonable, in that there is some evidence for modest benefit for spinal manipulation for acute uncomplicated low back pain. However there are still problems that derive from the bait and switch tactic employed by many practitioners of spinal manipulation.

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May 28 2009

Are We All Synesthetes?

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Synesthesia is a rare and interesting neurological phenomenon in which one sensory modality crosses over into another. Synesthetes therefore may see sounds, or taste colors. Abstract concepts may also evoke sensory experiences. In color-graphemic synesthesia letters or numbers evoke the perception of a specific color (for each individual the same number will always evoke the same color). In ordinal linguistic personifcation, days of the week or months of the year convey a specific personality. Other forms of synesthesia involve spacial relationships and size. Over 60 forms of synesthesia have been reported.

What is happening inside the brain in synesthetes is currently under study, but early evidence suggests that their brains are hardwired for the experience – literally there is a cross-wiring where one type of sensation or information processing leaks over into another.

A recently identified form a synesthesia is visual motion to sound synesthesia – people can hear visual motion or flickering images. While the overall prevalence of synesthesia is estimated at less than 1%, visual sound synasthesia may be more common. On a personal note, I have experienced this myself on several occasions when I was profoundly sleep deprived. Every time I blinked my eyes or scanned my eyes across different levels of lighting I would hear a distinct “whooshing” sound.

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May 27 2009

3 Quarks Daily Contest

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Just a quick post today, as I already wrote a post over at Science-Based Medicine, and I have to prep for the SGU podcast tonight.

3 Quarks Daily recently announced a contest for the best single science blog entry from May 24th 2008 to May 24th 2009.  The authors will select the finalists, and then Steven Pinker will judge and pick the top three. You can nominate entries by adding the URL in the comments to the announcement post.

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May 26 2009

Ida Fizzle

Published by under Evolution

By now most people with the slightest interest in science and not dwelling in the proverbial cave have heard of Ida – the stunningly complete primate fossil unveiled recently in New York. The media hype surrounding this fossil was overwhelming, leading to more sober scientists criticizing the hype, to creationists criticizing scientists, and to the public wondering what all the hubbub was about.

The media was all over the map on this one, essentially revealing the quality of their science journalism. Did they swallow the hype, and maybe even add to it, or did they do their homework to find out what was really going on? On the horrible end of the spectrum was this report by Sky News. This quote should give you an idea of the quality of this reporting:

Researchers say proof of this transitional species finally confirms Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution, and the then radical, outlandish ideas he came up with during his time aboard the Beagle.

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May 25 2009

RNA World

Published by under Evolution

The origins of life on earth remains a daunting scientific challenge. The difficulty is in trying to find evidence to infer what chemical reactions took place billions of years ago. There may ultimately be no way to settle the issue, but that does not mean the question cannot be addressed scientifically.

Of course, the enemies of science (creationists and their ilk) exploit this fact to argue that science cannot understand life origins, and therefore we must invoke supernatural explanations. They often further confuse the question of life origins with evolution – the subsequent change in life over time.

Despite the claims of creationists, there actually is a rigorous scientific discipline exploring questions surrounding the first stirrings of life on earth. Recently researchers took an important, if incremental, step in understanding how non-life became life.

Powner, Gerland, and Sutherland published a paper in which they explore how RNA (ribonucleic acid) could have arisen on the early Earth.

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May 22 2009

License for Homeopathic Pill in UK

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Regulations for health products are increasingly becoming absurd in the US, UK and other countries. More and more there are double standards – one scientific standard for regular medicine, and then a separate fantasy-land standard for so-called alternative medicines.

Recently the Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) has granted an arnica homeopathic product a licence for the relief of sprains or bruising. This means that the product can now state on its label:

“A homeopathic medicinal product used within the homeopathic tradition for symptomatic relief of sprains, muscular aches and bruising or swelling after contusions.”

What does that mean – within the homeopathic tradition? Does this qualifier admit, in a way, that these claims are not legitimate within the scientific tradition? And, by extension, that homeopathy is not scientific? I think it does. But of course the goal is for the consumer to see the specific claims and to feel that they must be legitimate if the MHRA has allowed it.

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May 21 2009

Chemical Castration for Autism – The Latest Atrocity

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Mark and David Geier are a father and son team that have been pushing the claim that autism results from mercury poisoning from vaccines. They have produced a string of junk science, denounced by mainstream scientists for terrible methodology, reasoning, and statistics. They portray themselves as mavericks, but in my opinion they are just terrible and dangerous scientists.

Their latest atrocity raises their medical mischief to new levels.  For several years now they have been pushing their testosterone hypothesis of autism. They claim, in short, that autism is caused by mercury poisoning, primarily from vaccines. Children with autism, especially boys, have high testosterone, which is partly the cause of their symptoms. But also the testosterone binds to mercury, preventing it from being removed from the body by chelating agents.

They have therefore conducted a study with the drug Lupron in addition to chelation. Lupron is a powerful drug that lowers testosterone levels. It is used for rare disorders associated with premature or high testosterone, or to treat prostate cancer in some men. It is also used as a form of chemical castration for sex offenders.

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May 19 2009

Giraffe Necks

Published by under Evolution

The story of the giraffe’s neck is a classic of high school biology textbooks. For this reason everyone “knows” that giraffes evolved longer necks in order to reach the leaves at the top of trees. However, this has never been clearly established and the real story is much more complex. There is, in fact, an enduring controversy over exactly what factors led to the elongation of the giraffe neck, highlighted by a recent study examining one hypothesis – sexual selection.

But before we get to that study, some background on giraffe necks.

The most obvious feature of the giraffe is its long neck. For some reason the evolution of the giraffe neck became the standard example in textbooks. Stephen J. Gould did a survey of biology textbooks and found that 100% used giraffe evolution as the example to distinguish Lamarckian evolution from Darwinian evolution (which itself is based upon a misconception of Lamarck’s career, but that’s another story). Meanwhile, Darwin did not use the giraffe’s neck as an example of natural selection, and regarded it as a speculative “just so” story.

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May 18 2009

Medical Neglect

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Daniel Hauser is a 13 year old boy suffering from a form of blood cancer called Hodgkins lymphoma. His oncologist is recommending a standard course of chemotherapy. I do not know the clinical details of this case, but overall, with current treatments, the 5 year survival for childhood Hodgkins lymphoma is 78%.  Without treatment, Daniel’s chance of survival drops to 5%.

Despite this Daniel is refusing chemotherapy, and his family is supporting his decision. If Daniel were an adult that would be the end of the story – competent adults have the right to refuse any intervention for whatever reason they choose. But Daniel is a minor, so the state has a duty to protect him, even from his own parents and himself.

Daniel’s family are members of the Nemenhah religion, a Native American religious tradition that preaches that the journey from sick to healthy is a spiritual journey. They only use “natural” remedies and refuse modern medical intervention.  Dan Zwakman, a member of the Nemenhah religious group, is arguing that this is a case of religious freedom, saying that “our religion is our medicine.”

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May 14 2009

Teacher Sued for Creationism Comment

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I’m a little behind on the news cycle on this one, but thought it was worth a discussion. James Corbett, a teacher at Capistrano Valley High School, referred to Creationism as “religious, superstitious nonsense” during a 2007 classroom lecture. The student at which this comment was aimed, Chad Farman, sued Corbett for violating the establishment clause of the first amendment and promoting “irreligion over religion.”

After a 16 month legal fight Corbett has recently lost this case. U.S. District Court Judge James Selna said in a 37-page ruling, “The court cannot discern a legitimate secular purpose in this statement, even when considered in context.”

I have to say, based upon what I know of this case from the media, I agree with the ruling. If it is the scientific position that creationism is a religious belief and not science, and that it therefore has no place in the public school because of the establishment clause, then this cuts both ways. To be consistent we must agree that teaching in the public classroom that any religious belief is superstitious nonsense is a religious statement.

Also, the quote from the judge is telling – he could not find any secular purpose to the statement, even when trying to find a favorable context.

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