Archive for February, 2010

Feb 26 2010

Homeopaths On The Run

It’s been a bad year for homeopathy, and it’s still February. The 10^23 campaign has been making a proper mockery of the magical medicine that is homeopathy, capped off with their mass homeopathic “overdose.” In Australia skeptics have been taking homeopathic websites to task for making unsupported health claims. And in the UK there has been increasing pressure to question NHS support for homeopathy – most recently the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee concluded that homeopathy is nothing more than an elaborate placebo and the NHS should completely defund and remove any support for homeopathy. This could be a death blow to homeopathy in the UK, and provide support for similar efforts elsewhere.

Last year was no better. Most memorable was this comedy sketch by Mitchell and Webb, who nicely skewered homeopaths and other cranks. When comedians are not ridiculing them, homeopaths were doing a fine job of lampooning themselves – the best is this video where Dr. Werner tries to explain how homeopathy works – pure comedy gold. Of course the best real explanation for how homeopathy works is here.

Even before the House Committee presented its final report, the embarrassing moments were being immortalized on YouTube, for example the head of a major UK pharmaceutical chain admitting that they market homeopathic products with full knowledge that they don’t work.

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Feb 25 2010

Scientific Consensus, Climate Change, and Vaccines

One of the strengths of the skeptical movement, as an intellectual community, is that we wrangle with important issues regarding the relationship between science and what people do and should accept as probably true. We deal with not only specific issues, but the bigger question of process. For example – how much weight should an individual give to any specific scientific consensus, and is this just an argument from authority?

This question has recently become central to the debate over climate change – one of those few scientific debates that fractures the skeptical community. We are fairly united when it comes to the question of ghosts, Bigfoot, and UFOs. But when certain topics come up, like climate change, there is disagreement over the meaning of consensus, what the consensus is, and the very definition of “skeptic”.

Consensus vs Authority

Deferring to the scientific consensus on a given topic is not the same thing as making an argument from authority – a logical fallacy to be avoided. The argument from authority essentially follows the pattern of concluding that a claim is true because it is being made by a person of some authority (scientific or otherwise). Most of us spend our childhood committing this logical fallacy – the right answer is whatever an adult says it is, or the teacher, or whatever the news reports “scientists” are saying.

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Feb 24 2010

Simon Singh Update

I have been following the story of the crazy libel laws in England, brought to public attention by the British Chiropractic Association (BCA) suing journalist Simon Singh because he dared to (correctly) state that many of their treatments are “bogus.”

In England (if I understand correctly, these laws apply only to England and not to all of the UK) when someone is sued for libel they bear the burden of proof that what they said was true. Further, the process is so expensive that it is easy for deep pockets to intimidate those with fewer resources into silence merely by the threat of suit.

Simon has bravely stuck with his suit, at great personal expense, largely to use it as a platform to lobby for rational libel reform.

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Feb 23 2010

The Bloom Box

I received numerous e-mails asking me to discuss the Bloom Box after it was featured on 60 Minutes this week. Energy production is a hot topic, which I think explains why this was such a big story. In reality, this is an interesting technology that will likely have useful applications – but it is not the green revolution.

The Bloom Box is essentially a generator – a type of fuel cell that is constructed of a stack of ceramic plates with different (secret) substances painted on either side. You feed fuel and oxygen in one end, and you get electricity out the other end.

I found it amusing how 60 Minutes tried to spin this into something more than it is – it’s a generator. The most likely fuel for the Bloom Box is natural gas, a fossil fuel. Natural gas is still somewhat abundant and cost effective, and there is already a distribution system for it. So in the end this is just another way to burn fossil fuels to generate electricity.

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Feb 22 2010

The Economics of Snake Oil

One of the common questions (sometimes framed as a claim or justification) about unscientific and implausible treatments that frequently comes up is – if they don’t work, why are they so popular? The assumption (also made by some who oppose regulation of medical products) is that the consumer will perceive the medical value of products and adjust demand accordingly.

I and others who favor more scientific and effective regulation of health products and claims have argued that there are a host of factors distorting the market in favor of health products with appealing claims, even if they lack substance. I am not an economist, however. So it was heartening to read the very same arguments I have been making expressed from an economist’s point of view.

This paper by Werner Troesken, an economist from the University of Pittsburgh, explores the flourishing of the patent medicine industry from 1810 to 1939 in the US (when FDA regulation essentially shut it down).

Troesken explores many factors leading to this success, but what I found most interesting is that when you strip away all the complexity, Troesken shows how ineffective treatments will still flourish in the marketplace.

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Feb 19 2010

Autism Onset and the Vaccine Schedule – Revisited

Published by under Skepticism

This week on Science-Based Medicine I wrote an article about a new study looking at the onset of autism symptoms, showing that most children who will later be diagnosed with autism will show clear signs of autism at 12 months of age, but not 6 months. This is an interesting study that sheds light on the natural course of autism. I also discussed the implications of this study for the claim that autism is caused by vaccines.

Unfortunately, I made a statement that is simply wrong. I wrote:

Many children are diagnosed between the age of 2 and 3, during the height of the childhood vaccine schedule.

First, this was a vague statement – not quantitative, and was sloppily written, giving a different impression from the one I intended. I make these kinds of errors from time to time – that is one of the perils of daily blogging about technical topics, and posting blogs without editorial or peer-review. Most blog readers understand this, and typically I will simply clarify my prose or correct mistakes when they are pointed out.

However, since I often write about topics that interest dedicated ideologues who seek to sow anti-science and confusion, sometimes these errors open the door for the flame warriors. That is what happened in this case.

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Feb 18 2010

Naturopaths Can Silence Critics Too

In a pattern that is becoming all too familiar – naturopath Christopher Maloney has allegedly forced the shutdown of a blog that was critical of his medical advice. Student Michael Hawkins wrote in the Kennebec Journal:

Naturopathic medicine is pure bull.

Let’s not beat around the bush on this one. Those who practice naturopathy are quacks. They may be sincere quacks, but sincerity does not translate to evidence — or your health.

He expressed similar views on his blog, which was hosted by WordPress. Maloney allegedly responded with the British Chiropractic Association (BCA) maneuver, not by defending his claims, but by complaining about the content of Hawkins’ blog to WordPress, who responded by demanding that Hawkins censor his criticism. Hawkins apparently made changes, but not sufficient to please the WordPress censors, and so they shut him down. (Note – Maloney claims he never complained to WordPress and had nothing to do with the shutdown.)

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Feb 17 2010

Rom Houben Case on NPR

Published by under General

Just a heads up – I was interviewed today for NPR’s All Things Considered about the Rom Houben case. They were also able to interview Dr. Steven Laureys. For those interested in this case it should be a good listen. They tell it will be on tonight, but you can also listen to the podcast post broadcast.

I was also interviewed about this same story by Trine Tsouderos, an  excellent journalist for the Chicago Tribune (she wrote the outstanding articles exposing dubious “alternative” treatments for autism). This story will run tomorrow.

Also – for those who like to keep up with my exploits, I do keep track of all these media appearance, with links when able, on my bio page.

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Feb 17 2010

Choosing Your Evidence

The current process of districting in this country has many critics. Essentially their point is that congressmen carve up districts in odd ways so as to create an artificial majority for their party in their district. Of course, this leaves a majority for the other party in other districts, so everyone’s happy. This leads to the excessively high re-election rate in the House of Representatives of about 98%.

The best summary of this distorted practice in my opinion is by George Will, who says (and I paraphrase) – this is the practice of having politicians choose their voters rather than voters choosing their representatives.

There is a very similar phenomenon happening in the bizarro world of complementary and alternative medicine (CAM). CAM advocates seem intent on being able to choose their evidence, rather than have the scientific evidence choose which treatments are safe and effective.

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Feb 16 2010

Making Gasoline from Carbon

This week on the SGU I discussed a company, Carbon Sciences, Inc., who plans to make gasoline from atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2). I focused on the particular application discussed in the news report, but the story raised many more questions than I answered, and so I would like to delve into this potential new technology in more depth.

These kinds of applications always fascinate me – it’s the game of follow the energy, the rules of which are the laws of thermodynamics. For quick review, essentially the first law of thermodynamics is that energy cannot be created or destroyed, it can only change forms. In other words, in any isolated system, the total energy will remain constant.

The second law of thermodynamics states that in any process of converting energy from one form to another, entropy must increase. Therefore, heat will flow from a relatively warmer system to a connected cooler system, not the other way around. Your coffee tends to cool down to room temperature – it does not spontaneously heat up, taking energy from the cooler surrounding air. The second law also means that any time you convert energy from one form to another, some of that energy is lost to entropy – it’s still there, it has just dissipated as heat or some other form and is no longer in a stored usable form.

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