Archive for April, 2010

Apr 16 2010

Evolution Denial – In Connecticut?

Mark Tangarone is a veteran teacher in the Talented and Gifted (TAG) program in Weston CT. He recently created some content for his class involving Darwin and Lincoln (both born on the same day), including Darwin’s early adventures where he started to piece together the evidence for evolution. The content was not approved by the administration on the grounds that “evolution was an inappropriate subject to be taught to intermediate school-aged students.”

I had to read through this article carefully to see what was gong on – anti-evolutionary sentiment in CT, my home state? I have lived here most of my life and, being an ardent critic of creationism and defender of science teaching in general and evolution in particular I have had an eye out for any hint of creationism in CT, and I have never seen it. The northeast is a hotbed of ghost hunters, but not creationists. Yes, they are around, but not in sufficient numbers to be a real nuisance.

It seems that the issue here is not teaching evolution per se, but at what age is it appropriate to teach evolution. I will acknowledge one basic premise of the administration – different ages and grade levels require different approaches to educational material. More controversial content should be reserved for the higher grade levels, while the lower grade levels should focus on widely accepted basic information. I would not try to tackle the history of the abortion debate in first grade social studies.

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Apr 15 2010

Simon Singh Has Won

I have been following the libel case by the British Chiropractic Association against Simon Singh on this blog, so it is a pleasure to report that the BCA has dropped their case – Simon Singh has won. The Guardian reports that the BCA filed a discontinuation with the court yesterday.

Congratulations to Simon – this is a huge victory. It comes on the heals of him winning his appeal regarding the defintion of “bogus” and whether or not his statements were commentary or fact. Simon won the ability to defend his statements as opinion, which doomed BCAs case, so it is no surprise they are now dropping the case.

What remains to be seen is how much money Simon can recoup from the BCA for legal costs. Even in a best case scenario, he stands to lose a lot of money and two years of his life fighting this case.

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Apr 13 2010

Quietus and Homeopathy Awareness Week

This is homeopathy awareness week – and like some other science bloggers I want the public to be as aware of homeopathy as possible. I want the public to be aware of the fact that homeopathy is based upon the “law of similars” – which is nothing more than the ancient superstition of sympathetic magic. I want the public to be aware of the fact that most homeopathic solutions are diluted far past the point where there is likely to be a single molecule of active ingredient left – and therefore claims for the homeopathic “law of infinitesimals” violates the law of mass action and the laws of thermodynamics.

I also do not want to silence homeopaths, as some have suggested. I want them to speak for themselves – every time a homeopath opens their mouth they make my job easier. Right now Dana Ullman, the ultimate online homeopathy apologist, is spewing incoherent nonsense in the comments at Science-Based Medicine. You also have to see Dr. Warner’s brilliant explanation for how homeopathy works (every time someone watches this video Einstein’s corpse cries.)

And now John Benneth is becoming the energizer bunny of hilarious YouTube videos. Seriously, this is beyond parody. Nothing’s better than homeopathy explained by a raving…well, take a look for yourself. I am slightly embarrassed to have Benneth as my new nemesis. I preferred Egnor – at least he was coherent at times and didn’t come off as a drunk who just rolled out of bed. With Egnor you could play “Spot the Logical Fallacy” and it would be challenging at times. Benneth makes it too easy.

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Apr 12 2010

The Anti-Vaccine Environmentalist

The anti-vaccine movement, as is probably typical for ideological movements, has natural enemies and allies. Once the notion that mercury in the form of thimerosal in vaccines might be responsible for neurodevelopmental disorders (it’s not) became popular in the anti-vaccine crowd, this made them natural allies with the “mercury-militia” – those who blame environmental mercury for a host of ills. The fact that some anti-vaccinationists seek to provide their children on the autism spectrum with unconventional biological treatments, based on their disproved “toxin” hypothesis, made them natural allies with the alternative medicine community. Both seek freedom from pesky regulation, and rail against the perceived deficiencies of science-based medicine.

Another ideological alliance is brewing – that between the anti-vaccine movement and extreme environmentalists. This post is not a commentary on environmentalism, and please do not take it as such – the purposes and claims of the two movements are quite distinct. But they share a common thread: distrust of scientific experts and government regulators who reassure the public that environmental exposures are safe.

Robert F. Kennedy Jr. has been the most prominent environmentalist to take up the anti-vaccine cause, in several articles and speeches. While he appears to be only a part-time anti-vaccinationist, his celebrity and street cred among environmentalists lend a great deal of weight to his paranoid musings about scientific fraud and government cover ups. It seems he wants to recapitulate the moral clarity that his uncles displayed in the 1960s, defending the little guy against abuses by the powerful and privileged. He is ready to see a conspiracy, and he wants to be the crusader for environmental justice – and if kids are the alleged victims, all the better. His article in the Huffington Post – “Attack on Mothers,” says it all.

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Apr 09 2010

Science Education and Literacy in the US

Published by under Education,Evolution

The National Science Board, which oversees the National Science Foundation, is tasked with assessing periodically scientific literacy in the US, which manifests as their biennial Science and Engineering Indicators. In the 2010 edition the NSB made the odd and controversial decision to omit the data regarding belief by Americans in evolution and the Big Bang. Hiding data is never a good idea. Science thrives on transparency – better to publish the data with an explanation than just sweep it under the rug. As usually happens, the data is now going to get far more attention than it otherwise would have.

Perhaps the NSB did this on purpose, to draw attention to the problem. They would have been exceptionally clever, but I doubt that’s what happened. It is much more likely to have been a bone-headed political move.

The stated reason for the omission is that the results reflect religious attitudes more than scientific knowledge. This is a reasonable inference from the data, but it is not clear how strong each factor is. Further, the NSB should have just released the data with that discussion – which they actually did quite nicely in that section of the report that was deleted. Here are parts of the deleted section. Continue Reading »

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Apr 08 2010

Springtime for Charlatans

Imagine a ring of car thieves lobbying the government to soften the laws against stealing cars. Don’t blame the thieves – people should be more responsible for their own cars, and that is just the chance you take when you own a car. Under the radar, without any comment by the media, in state after state they successfully lobby the legislatures to pass laws that make it more difficult to prosecute and punish car thieves.

Of course this is outrageous, but not just because it’s silly to consider that something like stealing a car should not be a serious crime. It is also outrageous for someone who is violating regulations to lobby for those very regulations to be weakened so that they can continue to break the regulations without fear of action being taken against them. At the very least such action should garner significant attention and debate, and lawmakers should consider carefully if the public’s best interest is being met, or simply the person who doesn’t want to be regulated.

This is exactly what is happening in many states with so-called “health care freedom laws” – practitioners of dubious treatments are lobbying state legislatures to weaken regulations against practicing dubious treatments. There are even specific cases in which an individual practitioner was found to be practicing below the acceptable standard of care, but was able to escape regulation because of laws specifically passed to protect substandard care. This is exactly what happened with Dr. William Hammesfahr – he was found to be practicing substandard care by the State of Florida, but was able to appeal and win on the grounds that his treatment was “alternative” and therefore magically exempt from the standard of care under Florida’s new health care freedom law.

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Apr 07 2010

Magic Man – Deepak Chopra

Published by under Pseudoscience

Deepak Chopra believes that he is magic. He thinks he can affect reality with his thoughts alone, and that is as good a definition of “magic” as any.

On Sunday there was a magnitude 7.2 earthquake in Baja CA. This is a serious quake, and on the Mexico side of the border where construction quality is not as good, there was substantial devastation and some loss of life.

Following the quake Deepak tweeted:

“Had a powerful meditation just now — caused an earthquake in Southern California,”

and then:

“Was meditating on Shiva mantra & earth began to shake. Sorry about that.”

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Apr 06 2010

Bad Reporting about Stem Cell Treatments for Stroke

Michele Mandel, writing for CNews (a Canadian outlet) is responsible for one of the worst examples of science and health news reporting I have ever seen. Certainly she is at the top of my list so far for the worst reporting of the year.

She tells the story of Alda Byers, a 52 year old woman who suffered a brainstem stroke and is now locked-in – a syndrome in which she is conscious but mostly paralyzed and can only blink her eyes. This is a devastating neurological condition, and I fully understand the desperation of her family in seeking a cure. Unfortunately, currently there isn’t one.

But we are living in the golden age of quackery, where a global market of false hope is peddled over the internet. And so Byers’ family found a stem cell clinic in Mexico willing to treat her stroke with a stem cell transplantation. Mandel does not name this mystery clinic in Mexico, or the doctor who runs it or who treated Byers. We learn no details about the treatment except that it was “stem cells.”

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Apr 05 2010

Skepticism and Religion – Again

The topic of skepticism and religion comes up on a regular basis within skeptical circles, and I find I have to define my position on a regular basis. Because I host a skeptical podcast and contribute to several skeptical blogs, it cannot be avoided. This week’s episode of the SGU featured Eugenie Scott as a guest rogue, and the question of skepticism and religion came up. And, as predictably as the dawn follows the night, the old debate sparked up again.

Genie takes a position very similar to my own – that science is agnostic toward untestable claims. Science follows methodological naturalism, and anything outside this realm is by necessity outside the realm of science. It’s not a choice so much as a philosophical/logical position. (I will call this the “agnostic” position for simplicity.)

However, I think many people are confused when we discuss this topic, especially since we often refer to “religion,” which can create the false impression that we think science cannot address any claims that fall under “religion” – it may, depending on what those claims are.

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Apr 01 2010

Good News for Simon Singh

We have been following the libel case of science journalist Simon Singh, and I am happy to report that there is a bit of good news on the case. But first, to recap: Simon was sued by the British Chiropractic Association (BCA) over an article called Beware the Spinal Trap – which I and other bloggers have since reproduced.

The particular line of interest was Simon writing that the BCA “happily promotes bogus therapies.” The BCA contends that this implies they dishonestly promote therapies that they know do not work. This has become the first point of contention for the libel suit. Simon maintains, and this is backed up elsewhere in the article, that he never implied that and in fact BCA chiropractors are likely self-deluded.

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