Archive for January, 2011

Jan 31 2011

Homeopathy Pseudoscience at the HuffPo

Dana Ullman, a notorious homeopathy apologist, actually has a regular blog over at HuffPo. For those of use who follow such things, the start of his blog there marked the point of no return for the Huffington Post – clearly the editors had decided to go the path of Saruman and “abandon reason for madness.” They gave up any pretense of caring about scientific integrity and became a rag of pseudoscience.

Ullman’s recent blog post is typical of his style – it is the braggadocio of homeopathy. I am sure others will skeptically dissect his piece so I won’t go into every point here. I want to focus on Ullman’s claim that the clinical and basic science research supports homeopathy. Here is the paragraph on which I want to focus:

Most clinical research conducted on homeopathic medicines that has been published in peer-review journals have shown positive clinical results,(3, 4) especially in the treatment of respiratory allergies (5, 6), influenza, (7) fibromyalgia, (8, 9) rheumatoid arthritis, (10) childhood diarrhea, (11) post-surgical abdominal surgery recovery, (12) attention deficit disorder, (13) and reduction in the side effects of conventional cancer treatments. (14) In addition to clinical trials, several hundred basic science studies have confirmed the biological activity of homeopathic medicines. One type of basic science trials, called in vitro studies, found 67 experiments (1/3 of them replications) and nearly 3/4 of all replications were positive. (15, 16)

Those numbers are references that allegedly support his claims – 14 papers (they are not all studies, some are reviews) that allegedly make the case that homeopathy works. Most reader do not independently check references to see if they say what the author claims. Some may foolishly assume that the editors at the HuffPo have done that already.

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Jan 28 2011

Polypharmacy

Published by under Skepticism

To quote a very popular science blogger, “I get e-mail.” I wish I could respond to every one, but there is just not enough time in the day. I do read every e-mail – it is a great source of feedback and ideas. I especially enjoy responding to e-mails that are criticizing my position on something or that defend a position I do not agree with. Responding to specific arguments is a good way to organize an essay.

I also look for patterns in the e-mails (and in other venues) – arguments that tend to occur over and over again. Clearly there is something compelling about such arguments, or their “meme” is in the popular culture or at least within a certain subculture. I give high priority to responding to those questions that I see frequently, that are representative of a common belief. Here is one such e-mail about doctors prescribing drugs (unedited):

could you please comment on why MD,s now proscribe reams of “take another pill” and never say “let us fix this” when you visit your MD you always leave with another drug, as a former MD of mine said it is better to drive under a 18 wheeler, than to stop taking these pills. an 18 wheeler will only hurt you ,stop taking these pills and will DIE.  UNLESS i am the only dead person with an email address i am NOT dead. we need more MD,s who will accept the fact that natural is many times as good as, if not better than a bunch of money grubing DOCTORS who see $ signs not patient welfare
david

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Jan 27 2011

Some Nonsense from J.B. Handley

Published by under autism

The intellectual dishonesty, or such blinkered stupidity that it is indistinguishable from this, of the anti-vaccine crowd is always a spectacle. J.B. Handley is a prime example. He has made himself into an intellectual bully, and internet thug for the Age of Autism.

In a recent piece for this wretched hive of anti-vaccine propaganda, Handley write:

“It’s been asked and answered, vaccines don’t cause autism.”

This lie, it really drives me nuts. More, and I can say this and mean it, anyone who repeats this lie is immediately my enemy. I mean that, I really do, because there are just too many kids in the mix and this is just too important and if you are either intellectually too lazy or too dishonest to understand the science around vaccines and autism, then, well, you are my enemy. Sorry, it’s a hard knock life.

That captures his “Goodfellas” approach quite nicely. If you disagree with him – you are his enemy, the gloves are off, and anything is justified. To add irony to his thuggery, Handley himself is just too intellectually lazy, or (in my opinion) scientifically illiterate to “understand the science around vaccines and autism.” Yet he presumes to lecture those who have dedicated their lives to studying science, and in fact is willing to make them his enemy because they have the audacity to point out that his understanding of science is hopelessly flawed.

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Jan 25 2011

Tetrachromacy In Humans

Are you a tetrachromat? Probably not, but it is possible that the rare person is, with the super mutant power of enhanced color vision. OK – I would rather have Wolverine’s regeneration, but enhanced color vision would be cool.

Color vision in vertebrates is a result of the cones in the retina. Vertebrate retinas have two types of light-sensing neurons: rods see in black and white but have good light sensitivity, and so are specialized for low-light (night) vision. Cones are less sensitive than rods, but they respond to a specific range of wavelengths of light – i.e. color. By combining the color information from different cones with different wavelength sensitivities the brain is able to perceive a wide range of colors.

Different groups of vertebrates have different numbers of cones, and therefore a different range and ability to discriminate colors. Birds, for example, are tetrachromats – they have four different cones and can see farther into the ultraviolet than humans. In fact the common ancestor of tetrapod vertebrates was likely a tetrachromat. Most mammals are dichromats with only two cones. It is thought this reduction occurred during the early years of mammal evolution when our mammal ancestors were nocturnal and burrowing animals, and so needed night vision more than color vision.

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Jan 24 2011

Is the Moon Too Close?

Published by under Creationism/ID

I was recently asked about the creationist “proof” of a young earth that the moon is too close to the earth. Specifically I was asked to comment on the arguments of Dr. Richard Kent, a UK creationist. On his evolution- debunking site he claims:

Observation demonstrates that the Moon is getting farther from the Earth by two inches every year. This indicates that the Moon used to be closer.

This causes very serious problems to the Evolutionists, because the proximity of the Moon to planet Earth controls the height of the tides.

Kent’s arguments are bad, even for a creationist. It made me wonder if UK creationists are not as experienced or sophisticated as their American counterparts. Kent argues that 4 billion years ago the tides would have been so large that life would not have been possible. However, life was restricted to the ocean until about 500 million years ago – it is not clear by large tides would have been a problem for bacteria living in the ocean. In fact, the high tides were perhaps a boon to ocean life as they scoured the land and deposited minerals into the oceans.

Kent also has this gem:

- The magnetic forces of attraction between the Moon and the Earth become very slightly weaker every year, so that, in general, tides become slightly lower on average.

I love it when cranks get basic scientific facts wrong, because it so clearly exposes their intellectual laziness and scientific illiteracy. The tides are caused by the gravitational forces between the earth and moon, not magnetic forces.

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Jan 21 2011

More Cold Fusion

Published by under Pseudoscience

Yet another cold fusion claim has surfaced, this one from two Italian scientists – Andrea Rossi and Sergio Focardi. You may wonder why this story is not all over the mainstream media, as (if their claims turn out to be true) the world’s energy problems have just been solved, not to mention global warming. It might have something to do with the fact that cold fusion claims are nothing new, and every previous claim has fizzled under close examination.

So there is definitely a “boy who cried wolf” syndrome going on here. Of course, in the story the wolf did eventually come. It is unclear if cold fusion will ever be a reality (it looks highly implausible), but I always read over new claims to see if there is anything remotely interesting. So far, nothing has peaked up above the noise.

The big problem with cold fusion is that it is a field ripe for premature or false claims. Often claims are based upon excess energy being measured in some kind of setup. All of the energy inputs are measured and they are compared to all of the energy output, and if there is excess output that is often taken as evidence that cold fusion is going on and is producing the excess energy.

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Jan 20 2011

Electrovestibulography

Published by under Neuroscience

I recently received this question in my Topics Suggestions page:

Dear Dr. Novella,

An interesting and rather weird neurological diagnostic technique…

http://www.abc.net.au/tv/newinventors/txt/s2909625.htm

I would be interested in hearing your thoughts.

dave, Melbourne Australia

Thanks for bringing this to my attention, Dave. Electrovestibulography, or EVestG, is a technique that measures and digitally analyzes the electrical signals produced by the vestibular system during certain manipulations, such as changes in head position. The vestibular system is that part of the brain and inner ear that senses the orientation of the head with respect to gravity, and also acceleration. The primary sensory organ is three semicircular canals, each oriented along a different three-dimensional axis. These canals are filled with fluid (endolymph) and are lined with neurons that project tiny hairs into the canals. When the fluid moves in response to head rotation they flow past the hairs, bending them and triggering neuronal activation. Separate structures, the otolithic organs, respond to gravity or linear acceleration. This information is processed by the brain to give us the subjective sense of our own position with respect to gravity and acceleration.

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Jan 18 2011

Astrology in Crisis

Perhaps you have heard that the world of astrology is “in a crisis.” Some are calling it the “Zodiac crisis” – because “Zodiac” is a cool-sounding word that starts with “z”. This is all really a manufactured non-event by Minnesota astronomer Parke Kunkle, who decided to send out a press release informing astrologers and the public that their signs are all wrong.

This is all, of course, old news. Sun-sign astrology is supposed to be based on the constellation that the sun is in at the time of birth. The Babylonians made the 12 signs 2000 years ago. They left out a 13th constellation, Ophiucus, because they wanted there to be only 12. But worse, astrologers at the time did not know about precession.

The earth rotates like a spinning top – the earth spins and has an axis tilted to its rotation about the sun and for the same reason a top will rotate its axis, so does the earth. The earth goes through one precession cycle every 26,000 years. That means in the 2,000 years since the Babylonians locked in their dates for the astrological signs, the dates that the sun is actually in those signs have shifted by 1/13 – or one sign.

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Jan 17 2011

CBC Marketplace on Homeopathy

Yes, I know I have been writing about homeopathy a lot recently. I am consciously making this one of my main topics of interest for 2011. Homeopathy is one phenomenon where the disconnect between public and official acceptance and the level of pseudoscience is greatest. It is also an area where acceptance is often based upon simply not understanding what homeopathy really is. If scientists keep beating the drum about how unscientific homeopathy is, perhaps we can have some effect on public belief and policy. Perhaps this is just wishful thinking, but then so is all activism.

Today I have some good news to report. The Canadian program, Marketplace, did an excellent piece on homeopathy. (You view it on YouTube in two parts: part I and part II.) Usually such mainstream media attention to homeopathy and similar topics falls into the trap of false balance – telling both sides and letting the audience decide. This is a reasonable journalistic default for political and social topics, but not for science. In science there is a level of objectivity and the logic and evidence is not always balanced on two sides of an issue. We don’t need to “balance” the opinions of an astronomer with the illogical ravings of an astrologer.

Fortunately, the Marketplace program did not default to the false balance mode.  Rather they took the far more appropriate consumer protection angle – which is the format of this particular show. I was especially happy about this because I have been saying for years that consumer protection advocates need to realize that fake medicine (so-called complementary and alternative medicine or CAM) is a huge consumer protection issue. Regulations meant to protect consumers from fraud and harm are being systematically weakened in the favor of product manufacturers and distributors and practitioners. It is a scandal worse than anything Ralph Nader has taken on in the past, and yet he seems to be nowhere on this topic.

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Jan 14 2011

Predicting Performance from Brain Imaging

Published by under Neuroscience

A new study, published in PLOS One, predicts performance on a complex video game by looking at MRI scans of subjects prior to attempting the task. University of Illinois Beckman Institute director Art Kramer and his colleagues used standard MRI scanning (T2 images) of the basal ganglia (the putamen, caudate, and nucleus acumbens) and then correlated the findings with later performance on a video game in which players have to attack a fortress with a spaceship. They found that certain patterns of white matter connections in the putamen and caudate (but not gray matter, and not the nucleus acumbens) predicted 55-68% of the variance among the players. They then confirmed their results with a new group of subjects.

This type of research raises many interesting questions and possibilities. First, if it pans out it can be a useful method for determining aptitude. If the results of this study can be replicated and turn out to be typical, it seems that this type of analysis may be superior to actual performance testing in predicting later performance on a complex task. The author of the study is quoted as saying:

“There are many, many studies, hundreds perhaps, in which psychometricians, people who do the quantitative analysis of learning, try to predict from SATs, GREs, MCATS or other tests how well you’re going to succeed at something, but never to this degree in a task that is so complex.”

I suppose this would highly depend on how close the predictive test is to the later task. But using standardized cognitive or academic tests is a reasonable comparison.

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