Archive for July, 2009

Jul 30 2009

Salon vs HuffPo

I have been critical of the Huffington Post’s anti-scientific editorial stance. Since the beginning of this online news source it has been a home to the anti-vaccination movement, featuring articles and blogs by David Kirby, Jenny McCarthy, Jim Carey, and RFK Jr. The health section of the the HuffPo is largely composed of credulous promotion of unscientific health claims and gross misinformation. In fact, this has led me to criticize the HuffPo’s de facto¬† “war on science.

Recently Dr. Rahul K. Parikh has written an excellent criticism of the Huffington Post for Salon.com. The full article is worth a read, but here are his main points.

He convincingly demonstrates that the anti-scientific editorial stance of the HuffPo comes directly from its founder, Arianna Huffington. She is hostile toward scientific medicine and enamored of so-called “alternative medicine.” Further, she has recruited health bloggers and editors in a scattered fashion, mostly on her personal whim, and has not taken care to provide even a balanced approach to health reporting, let alone a scientific or responsible one.

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Jul 29 2009

Beware the Spinal Trap

Last year Simon Singh wrote a piece for the Guardian that was critical of the modern practice of chiropractic. The core of his complaint was that chiropractors provide services and make claims that are not adequately backed by evidence – they are not evidence-based practitioners. In response to his criticism the British Chiropractic Association (BCA) sued Simon personally for libel. They refused offers to publish a rebuttal to his criticism, or to provide the evidence Simon said was lacking. After they were further criticized for this, the BCA eventually produced an anemic list of studies purported to support the questionable treatments, but really just demonstrating the truth of Simon’s criticism (as I discuss at length here).

In England suing for libel is an effective strategy for silencing critics. The burden of proof is on the one accused (guilty until proven innnocent) and the costs are ruinous. Simon has persisted, however, at great personal expense.

This is an issue of vital importance to science-based medicine. A very necessary feature of science is public debate and criticism – absolute transparency.This is also not an isolated incident. Some in the alternative medicine community are attempting to assert that criticism is unprofessional, and they have used accusations of both unprofessionalism and libel as a method of silencing criticism of their claims and practices. This has happened to David Colquhoun and Ben Goldacre, and others less prominent but who have communicated to me directly attempts at silencing their criticism.

This behavior is intolerable and is itself unprofessional, an assault on academic freedom and free speech, and anathema to science as science is dependent upon open and vigorous critical debate.

What those who will attempt to silence their critics through this type of bullying must understand is that such attempts will only result in the magnification of the criticism by several orders of magnitude. That is why we are reproducing Simon Singh’s original article (with a couple of minor alterations) on this site and many others. Enjoy.

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Jul 28 2009

Common CAM Media Myths

Published by under Skepticism

So-called complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) – or what I think is best characterized as non-science-based medicine, is a common subject for the lay press. It’s counter-cultural, controversial, and can easily incorporate elements of fear and self-empowerment – all themes the media loves.

Articles on CAM often contain the same “facts”, whether quoted from some perceived expert or just asserted by the author, that in fact are wrong or grossly misleading. In an interview with the SGU, Christopher Hitchens commented that lazy journalists simply tell the story that is being told and then they build the “facts” around that story – rather than investigating to determine what the story actually is. This is very true in the world of CAM reporting.

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Jul 27 2009

Evolving Useful Bacteria

Published by under Creationism/ID

Genetically modified bacteria are already a common and useful component of chemical production. Many drugs, food additives, and industrial chemicals are churned out by engineered bacteria in large vats. Bacteria are little protein and chemical factories and we put them to good use.

But engineering a strain of bacteria to do exactly what we want is laborious and expensive. Traditionally engineers have tweaked one or two genes at a time and then looked for the results. But the production of many substances by bacteria may be controlled by 20 or more genes, and so the permutations of various mutations are enormous – too many to test individually.

But now genetic engineers have developed a new technique known as MAGE – multiplex automated genome engineering. What they do is to essentially evolve bacteria with optimized or at least greatly improved production of the substance of interest. The technique causes bacteria to rapidly mutate – causing thousands of mutations and billions of different strains.

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Jul 24 2009

Calories Revisited

I am a proponent of the notion that the dominant factor in determining weight gain or loss is the formula – calories in vs calorie out. In fact, this formula is inescapable – change in weight must be equal to the total calories consumed minus the total calories burned.

Whenever I write about this topic, however, angry critics (food is always highly emotional) charge that this formula is not true because it is too simplistic. But I think they misunderstand the formula. For example, some argue that this formula does not necessarily explain the differences among people. This is partly correct, but irrelevant. It does largely explain the difference – overweight and obesity does in fact correlate with higher caloric intake, and all weight loss diets work by reducing calories.

But, people are different – they have different digestive systems and different metabolisms. They have different amounts of brown fat – the kind of fat that burns calories to generate heat. Therefore, some people burn more calories while sitting and watching tv than other people, and they are more likely to be thin.

However, at present there is no safe and effective way to change people’s metabolisms. Without going into detail, I do not think that stimulants are a safe way to achieve this. And drugs to block food absorption have been pulled from the market due to side effects.

Therefore, while metabolism may explain why person A is thin and person B is overweight, if person B wants to become thin they need to either decrease their caloric intake and/or increase their caloric expenditure.

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Jul 23 2009

Artificial Brain in 10 Years?

Published by under Neuroscience

I have written previously about the various attempts to reverse engineer the brain and to develop artificial intelligence (AI). This is an exciting area of research. On the one hand researchers are trying to model the working of a mammalian brain, eventually a human brain, down to the tiniest detail. On the other, researchers are also trying to build an AI – either in hardware or virtually in software.

In the middle are attempts at interfacing brains and computer chips. Remember the monkeys who can move robot arms with their minds?

All these efforts are synergistic – modeling the mammalian brain will help AI researchers build their AI, and building AI computers and applications can teach us about brain function. The more we learn about both, the easier it will be to interface them.

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Jul 22 2009

Girl With Half a Brain

Published by under Neuroscience

The PNAS this month reports a case of a 10 year old girl who was born with half her cortex – the right hemisphere – missing. Before the 7th week of gestation her right hemisphere stopped developing. This fact was not discovered, however, until she was about three year old, because she is remarkably neurologically intact.

This story is being reported by the media as surprising, but it is strikingly not so. It is certainly interesting, and the details of the rewiring of her brain are of interest, but I am decidedly not surprised.

Similar cases have been reported previously and we have a pretty good understanding of how and why this happens. If one part, even half, of the brain is damaged or fails to develop at an early embryological stage the brain still retains the ability to wire itself around the missing or damaged cortex.

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Jul 21 2009

Marketing Psychology

Skepticism is, among other things, a useful shield against manipulative sales techniques. Consumer protection is certainly part of our mission statement, and not just by exposing pseudoscientific products but also mechanisms of deception.

I remember taking a social psychology course in college that covered the psychology of salesmanship, and soon after getting a first hand experience. The family of a friend, knowing I was interested in science and education, asked for my help in evaluating a product. The traveling salesman was in their living room and they wanted me to pop over and help them assess what he was selling.

The 20-something man was indeed sitting in their living, one leg in a removable cast. Apparently he had just suffered some injury, and had to hobble around on crutches to make his living. He was selling an all-in-one textbook designed to help students through highschool. He sat on one side of the room with the family across from him. As he showed the features of the large tome he would also follow up with a question, such as, “Do you think that would be helpful?” He also made a point of telling us all the people in the neighborhood who had purchased the book.

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Jul 17 2009

Whatever Happened to Hydrogen Fuel Cells?

Published by under Skepticism

I wonder if in 20 years comedians will joke about the coming of the hydrogen economy the way they now joke (in the US) about the coming of the metric system. For about the last decade I have been reading about hydrogen fuel cell cars as if they were just around the corner. General Motors fatefully decided to pursue hydrogen fuel cell cars rather than developing hybrid or battery technology. In 2003 G.W. Bush announced a 1.2 billion dollar initiative to develop the technology. In California Governor Schwarzenegger decided to build a hydrogen infrastructure in anticipation of the coming fuel cell car.

I was reminded of all this by yet another breathless article, this time on BBC news, talking up the hydrogen fuel cell car.  This one links development of hydrogen technology to the Apollo missions Рa timely connection, given the upcoming 40th anniversary of Apollo 11. This article could have been written 10 years ago (minus a couple of anachronisms).

To be clear, I am not down on the hydrogen fuel cell. It is a nice technology with many advantages. The technology itself is about 150 years old – combine hydrogen and oxygen and you get energy + water. Water is a better byproduct than carbon dioxide. Hydrogen is a reasonably energy dense material. There are already hydrogen fuel cell cars on the road – the technology can work.

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Jul 16 2009

Mental States

Published by under Uncategorized

Dr. Joanna Moncrieff is a psychiatrist and author of the book, “The Myth of the Chemical Cure.” She summarizes her position in a recent BBC article by the same name. Dr. Moncrieff takes a stand against drug therapy for psychiatric conditions. While there are certainly legitimate points to be made about the misuse or overuse of psychotropic drugs, I did not find Moncrieff article compelling or well reasoned. She creates a bit of a straw man regarding what she perceives to be a bias toward pharmacotherapy for depression and other mental disorders, and then attempts to replace it not with a more neutral or scientific view, but with her own biases against pharmacotherapy.

She writes:

People with schizophrenia and other conditions are frequently told that they need to take psychiatric medication for the rest of their lives to stabilise their brain chemicals, just like a diabetic needs to take insulin. The trouble is there is little justification for this view of psychiatric drugs.

and

Views about psychiatric drugs changed over the course of the 1950s and 1960s. They gradually came to be seen as being specific treatments for specific diseases, or “magic bullets”, and their psychoactive effects were forgotten.

Moncrieff makes two main points about the current attitudes toward mental illness – that they are conceived as imbalances in brain chemicals, and as specific diseases that can be cured with a specific treatment. In my opinion, both of these contentions are exaggerated to the point of being wrong – they are straw men. Continue Reading »

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