Archive for June, 2010

Jun 29 2010

UK – Ban Homeopathy

Homeopathy is on the ropes in the UK. Earlier in the year The House of Commons Science and Technology Committee (STC) released a report, Evidence Check 2: Homeopathy, essentially saying that homeopathy is bunk and should no longer be supported. Recently representatives of the British Medical Association (BMA) condemned homeopathy as “witchcraft.”

Now the BMA is going one step further – calling for a ban on homeopathy in the UK. They do not want homeopathy to be illegal, but they want a ban on any National Health Service (NHS) support for homeopathy. The NHS currently spends about 20 million pounds a year on homeopathic remedies (about 0.01% of the NHS budget) and maintains four homeopathic hospitals. This is a small amount overall – but anything spent on homeopathy is a waste. More importantly, as the BMA notes, homeopathy has “‘no place in the modern health service.’

The BMA specifically recommends that the NHS stop paying for homeopathic treatments, and that doctors in training can no longer receive any of that training at any of the four homeopathic hospitals, as they are not compatible with modern “evidence-based” medicine. They also suggest that homeopathic remedies should not be sold in pharmacies unless they are clearly labeled as placebos, rather than medicine.

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Jun 28 2010

Concern Trolls and Free Speech Nazis

Published by under Skepticism

One of the things that I love about the skeptical community is that it is a vibrant intellectual community that is not afraid to turn its critical eye inward. There is also sufficient diversity of background and perspective, superimposed upon a generally skeptical outlook, to provide some genuine conflict. While you won’t find many bigfoot believers in our ranks, we do run the spectrum from liberal to libertarian, militant atheist to Christian, scientist to artist, and politically correct to Penn Jillette.

The wringing of hands may at times seem tedious – but it’s all good. As long as we remember that at the end of the day we are all skeptics, a cultural minority looking to change the world.

Occasionally our diversity of approach does erupt into outright conflict, with the preferred medium usually being blogs. This happened recently in response to the appearance of Pamela Gay, an astronomer and co-host of the Astronomy Cast podcast with Fraser Cain, on my own podcast, the Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe. Pamela is a Christian, and on the SGU we have a tendency to be less than respectful of unscientific beliefs, including religious beliefs that wander into the arena of science.

This post is not going to be about the epistemological conflict over the limits of empiricism  – whether or not science can address issue of pure faith, and how faith is distinct from “religion” – the latter being a cultural construct that involves many things, including using faith to invade science. If you are interested in that discussion, you can read here.

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Jun 25 2010

Marketing Drugs as Food to Kids with Autism

Published by under Neuroscience

It has been a slow blogging week for me. I have been far busier than I thought completing my project – which I will be happy to tell you all about once I have the green light to promote it.

Meanwhile, here is an excellent article by Trine Tsouderos regarding OSR#1, which is an oral chelator being used by some to treat their kids with autism. The marketing of OSR#1 represents many of the problems that I and others have been blogging about for years.

OSR#1 was originally developed as a chelating agent to be used in industry – not for medical use. It binds to heavy metals, like mercury, and therefore those in the anti-vaccine community who still cling to the discredited notion that autism is a form of mercury toxicity believe it can be used to treat autism.

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Jun 21 2010

Age of Autism Witch Hunt

I am out of town this week on a special project – more details will follow when I have the green light to start promoting it. So my posting will be a bit erratic this week.

Just a quick post for today. I want to point out that Age of Autism, the anti-vaccine propaganda blog of Generation Rescue, has really gone over the top in their witch hunt against anyone who dares try to educate the public about vaccines and correct the constant flow of misinformation that comes from the anti-vaccine ideologues. Their chosen method of attack is alleged conflicts of interest – and it is truly a witch hunt.

The core features of a witch hunt are that the accusation of guilt is treated as being equal to guilt, and that the rules of evidence of so fluid and vague that even “spectral” evidence is accepted – anything that creates even the impression of guilt.

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Jun 18 2010

Change Blindness

Published by under Neuroscience

It should come as no surprise that we don’t notice everything that we see. We all experience this on a regular basis – there is a great deal of visual information in our field of view but we only pay attention to a small fraction of it. Yet at the same time something within our vision can capture our attention if it flashes, moves, or otherwise changes dramatically enough. Interestingly, despite our common and frequent experience with the limitations of our own visual attention, people tend to have overconfidence in their ability to notice details and are often surprised when an important detail goes unnoticed.

Here are some fun examples of a what neuroscientists call change blindness. First from Richard Wiseman – the color changing card trick. And here is a great one from Derren Brown. Failure to notice one person being swapped for another may even have implications for eye-witness testimony.

Change blindness is the failure to notice a visual change in our field of view. It is closely related to but distinct from inattentional blindness, which is a failure to notice an element of a scene at all (not specifically a change).

Scientists have been exploring the nature of change blindness. As an aside, I am always amazed at the depth of detail I can find in any narrow scientific question. It seems that there is almost always a small group of researchers who have delved to an incredible depth on even the smallest question. And that is what I found with the change blindness literature. But I think I have wrapped my head around the major themes of this research – spurred by a recent study using computer technology to aid in more accurate testing for change blindness.

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Jun 17 2010

Half a Brain

Published by under Neuroscience

This morning I found the following e-mail in my inbox:

I would be very interested in your opinion about the following case.  I have a friend who recently found out that her 25 year old son does not have a right hemisphere.  The two neurologists that have studied his case have different explanations for the missing part of his cortex.  The young man has slightly lower than average intelligence although he has difficulty in some areas as would be expected.  However, he was able to graduate from high school and then later attended the California Art Institute where he studied graphic design.  What I cannot believe is that he lived with this for so many years undetected.  His parents are both professionals and he has a brother who is of above average or gifted intelligence.  How has he been able to function this way?  I have studied the idea of plasticity but I have never heard anything like this.  Is this unusual?  My friend is researching to find out more about this and she is considering contacting someone at UCLA since it is about four hours from where we live.  Your thoughts and suggestions would be highly appreciated.

This is a great question. When I first heard of cases of people found to be missing an entire hemisphere of their brain I too was stunned, but it does make sense. First a little background neuroanatomy.

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Jun 15 2010

Growing New Livers

A team as Mass General has published the results of their preliminary research into growing new livers from hepatocyte stem cells. The work is encouraging – but to put it into perspective, it is still a long way away from growing fully functional transplantable organs.

What the team did was take rat livers and wash away all of the liver cells leaving behind just the connective tissue. They used this connective tissue as a scaffold on which to grow a new liver with hepatocytes. They then transplanted the new liver into rats. They report that the artificial livers survived for a few hours.

This is obviously a long way away from an artificial liver. First, the new livers had only hepatocytes, but not the other kinds of cells that make up a normal liver. So even if this technique worked completely, it would only create a partially functioning liver.

Another obstacle to overcome is creating a liver that has something approaching a normal infrastructure, including blood vessels and bile ducts. It’s not enough to have a mass of cells, they have to have the proper structure to function. This is not a trivial obstacle.

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Jun 14 2010

Magnetic Healing Through the Ages

The notion that magnets can be used for healing is as old as knowledge of magnets themselves. Several ancient cultures, Egyptian, Greek, Chinese, and others, discovered natural magnetic rocks – lodestones. They had a hard time explaining the unusual properties of these rocks given the scientific knowledge at the time, and came up with fanciful explanations like minerals have souls too. This was compatible with the general belief that everything has an “essence”.

It then seemed natural that since living things have an energy and essence, and certain rocks contain an energy and essence, that such rocks could be used to heal illness – to transfer their energy to a living being. Even today this idea has an emotional and even rational appeal. Who wouldn’t want to be healed by the equivalent of McCoy’s medical scanner – invisible and painless energy fields work noninvasively to return our tissues to health at the cellular level. When we fantasize about future medicine, that is what we imagine.

It is no surprise then that through the centuries magnetic healing has been very popular – and its popularity has only increased with advancing scientific understanding of magnetism, and eventually electromagnetism

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Jun 11 2010

More Trouble for Brain Training

Published by under Neuroscience

Brain training is the idea that training in a specific task will improve brain function for a type of skill that will then transfer more broadly to other tasks. For example, a memory task with improve your overall memory and therefore improve your performance on a different memory task. There is now a multi-million dollar industry based upon this concept.

But as is typical, for-profit commercial claims tend to race ahead of the science. The evidence for this generalizability effect is weak at best. Those who play video games have some performance advantages over those who do not. There may be benefits to engaging in novel cognitive activities. But brain training products either do not work or have a minimal effect below the resolution of research to detect.

Now a recent study published in Nature add further evidence for lack of efficacy to brain-training  products. They report:

Here we report the results of a six-week online study in which 11,430 participants trained several times each week on cognitive tasks designed to improve reasoning, memory, planning, visuospatial skills and attention. Although improvements were observed in every one of the cognitive tasks that were trained, no evidence was found for transfer effects to untrained tasks, even when those tasks were cognitively closely related.

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Jun 10 2010

Death by Homeopathy

No, I am not talking about homeopathic suicide, which is entirely benign (except to the reputation of homeopathy). Rather, every now and then a prominent case pops up in which someone dies of a treatable condition because they chose (or their caregivers chose) to rely exclusively on homeopathy or some other alternative treatment. Since most homeopathic preparations are literally nothing but water and wishful thinking, they typically do not cause direct toxicity (hence the “homeopathic suicide” stunts of skeptics). Most of the harm from homeopathy comes from something far more insidious – confusing people with appealing medical fairy tales.

These cases also occur on a backdrop of inadequate regulation. Essentially those who wish to make money by practicing medicine without proper training have managed to soften the laws so that they are able to practice medicine without proper training. The usual defenders of consumers against rapacious industry are so beguiled by the touchy-feely rhetoric of promoters, that they have been entirely asleep at the switch. The results are predictable.

The latest case to come to media attention comes from down under – Penelope Dingle from Perth Australia, according to local news reports, was diagnosed with colon cancer in 2003. Her doctors gave her a good chance of survival with standard therapy – surgery to remove the cancer, and chemotherapy to mop up any loose cells and reduce the risk of recurrence. It is not a pleasant prospect, but with modern care it’s not too bad, and it buys in many cases a greatly improved quality and duration of life. Penelope Dingle, however, chose to refuse all science-based treatment and opted instead for a regimen of diet and homeopathic treatment.

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