Archive for October, 2012

Oct 29 2012

Integrative Medicine Propaganda

While I am at home preparing for the “perfect storm” – an Autumn hurricane that is barreling down on the northeast –  I found the following letter in my e-mail:

I am appalled at what I am reading. How is integrative medicine quackery? Have you ever visited a Naturopathic Doctor, or an integrative Doctor or practitioner? I bet you know not one thing concerning not only their practice or about what they do to treat diseases. They understand that sometimes pharmaceutical drugs and surgery are necessary, but understand that sometimes they can cause more harm than good.

For some people, not having their nutrients at optimal levels can cause a series of symptoms to exhibit their “deficiency”. For some people toxins do cause problems and therefore need to detoxify. For instance, a cancer patient went to see a naturopathic doctor and found that she was being exposed to large amounts of copper which not only lead to her cancer but also to its persistence. Some people do have food sensitivities that can cause to lymph related cancers.

You may say that nothing that they do is scientific but how can you prove that?

Naturopathic Doctors have always treated people with “Adrenal Fatigue”. You may say that this is not a disease, and that the Adrenals can deal with bountiful amounts of stress. But if Adrenal Fatigue is not a scientifically sound nor is it a disease, then please tell me why has The Journal of Psychosomatic Medicine found that patients with CFS, have an altered Cortisol and DHEA diurnal rhythm? And why has McGill University, a prestigious academic institution, found the same results, as people who suffer from fatigue have altered or varied Cortisol and DHEA diurnal rhythm.

These studies are new studies, but Naturopathic Doctors have been treating them for thirty years or more?

If a Medical Doctor says in their Hippocratic oath that they are to first do no harm, why do they sometimes prescribe medications which at the end causes more harm.

A statin drug was recently taken of the market because although it was approved, they found that it now causes bladder cancer.

Hippocrates said, “Let thy food be thy medicine, and thy medicine be thy food”

If an apple a day keeps the Doctor away, then why don’t we suggest nutrition.

Naturopathic Doctors are unscientific. If the statement be then they would not use blood test and other means to measure biochemical substances and use what they can to treat it.

There is a lot of Journals and Papers published on Orthomolecular Medicine, and CAM. Are these journals not scientific.

The Tripedia Vaccine for Pertussis has been taken off the market. It was noted to the FDA that multiple adverse effects included autism, and SIDS.

If certain drugs can cause carcinogenicities, liver failure, and other nasty side affects why should we take them when there are safer alternatives which can perform the task?

Before you open your traps on making statements that CAM and IM as being  pseudoscientific, go see someone who has treated the ROOT cause of ailments and pathologies.

If you want scientific research I can give them to you!

Sincerely,

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Oct 23 2012

Guilty Verdict for Italian Earthquake Scientists

Published by under General Science

This news is plastered over every general and science news outlet I can find – Italian scientists have been found guilty of manslaughter for failure to properly warn about the 2009 L’Aquila earthquake. They have been sentenced to 6 years in prison and ordered to pay $12 million in damages.  They have two appeals left, and can remain out of prison until they exhaust their appeals.

It is easy to be outraged at a decision that seems so ridiculous on its face. I always try to find the most charitable interpretation of each side of an argument, and so I searched through the news reports for a cogent explanation of this decision. First, it seems the scientists were not convicted for failure to predict the quake, but for how they communicated to the public about the risk of the quake occurring. I could not find a full exact quote of what they did say. The two partial quotes I could find indicate that they said the small tremors that preceded the 6.3 magnitude quake that killed 309 people were “unlikely” to be followed by a large quake. Further, they indicated that small tremors may actually decrease the risk of a larger quake by dissipating energy.

The guilty decision seems to hinge on the fact that many residents were afraid that a large quake was coming and would have evacuated, but were reassured by the risk commission’s statements and decided to stay, leading to their death.

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Oct 22 2012

In Memory of Paul Kurtz and Leon Jaroff

Published by under Skepticism

We lost two towering figures in the world of rationalism over the weekend. On Saturday October 20, Leon Jaroff died at the age of 85. Then on Sunday October 21 we learned that Paul Kurtz had died at the age of 86. Both men hit their peak prior to the explosion of blogs, podcasts, social media, and as a result, the skeptical community. They therefore might not be that well known to many of the younger skeptics in the community. Their legacy, however, is worth knowing.

Paul Kurtz was a philosopher who dedicated the better part of his life and career to promoting science, reason, and humanist values. He was one of the founders of the modern skeptical movement – someone who was there at the beginning. Kurtz had something that the others did not – the ability to organize a movement. Other giants, like James Randi, Ray Hyman, and Martin Gardner, got together and knew that the world needed a dose of reason. Kurtz had the  skills, however, to make it happen.

He founded two “sister” organizations, the Council for Secular Humanism and the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal (CSICOP, now CSI – the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry). Regarding Secular Humanism, he took the existing humanist philosophy and essentially purged it of supernatural fluff to craft it into Secular Humanism. This he presented as a philosophical alternative to supernatural-based religions. He made a powerful philosophical argument that one could lead a moral life without any appeal to a supernatural belief system.

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Oct 18 2012

Multivitamins and Cancer

Existing evidence does not support a health benefit from taking a routine daily multivitamin. That has been the bottom line conclusion of medical research over the last couple of decades. A recent study published in JAMA, however, is making headlines because it found a small but statistically significant decrease in total cancer incidence in men taking a multivitamin vs placebo. The study raises the question again about the total health effects of a daily vitamin.

First let’s take a look at the study:

A large-scale, randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled trial (Physicians’ Health Study II) of 14 641 male US physicians initially aged 50 years or older (mean [SD] age, 64.3 [9.2] years), including 1312 men with a history of cancer at randomization, enrolled in a common multivitamin study that began in 1997 with treatment and follow-up through June 1, 2011.

The study found that the total incidence of cancer was 17.0 per 1000 person years in the multivitamin group, and 18.3 per 1000 person years in the placebo group. This difference was statistically significant. The study, however, found no statistically significant difference in any specific cancer (it was only the cumulative incidence that reached significance) and no difference in cancer mortality. Taken at face value this indicates a small but real decrease in total risk of cancer for older men taking a daily multivitamin.

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Oct 16 2012

Analyzing Harmless Nonsense

Published by under Skepticism

My recent discussion of neurosurgeon, Eben Alexander’s near death experience sparked a discussion about whether such topics are fruitful targets of skeptical analysis. For example, commenter smillsishere wrote:

This blog post in itself (as with many analyses) raises questions about the extent to which skepticism can be of use in society. I completely understand the well constructed and logical opposition to the anti-vaccine movement. I understand in generic terms the critique and possible dismissal of poor research and unsubstantiated claims that can have a negative impact on our progression as a species (one topic comes to mind immediately, the use of ‘interpretors’ to help parents communicate with their autistic children, an abuse of common decency and trust). However, sometimes I wonder if skepticism often targets topics or elements of human culture that are neither harmful or unhealthy?

This criticism of scientific skepticism, that we spend too much time and effort on claims that don’t matter, or beliefs that are harmless, has been around as long as there has been skeptical activism. It is an almost ubiquitous question when being interviewed about skepticism by the media. Who cares if people believe in life after death, or if this neurosurgeon visited heaven while he was in a coma?

The major unstated premise of this criticism is that a claim or belief must have direct demonstrable harm in order to be harmful. A further unstated premise is that the belief itself is the only subject of concern.

In fact, for “harmless” beliefs I don’t care, necessarily, about the beliefs themselves. This is mostly why I do not find it fruitful to address matters of pure faith, and in a way I don’t care what people believe about unanswerable questions with no immediate consequences.

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Oct 12 2012

Confronting Friends and Family

Published by under Skepticism

At the risk of turning my blog into a “Dear Skeptic” column, I would like to discuss an e-mail I received recently. I frequently receive some version of the following question:

So my question is; how far do you go to defend the science behind a theory – such as the theory of evolution- when you know full well that no amount of evidence is ever sufficient to ‘convince’ non-believers to change their outlook?! Sure, we must continue to profess the truth and what is fast becoming scientific fact, but when your relationships with those around you are at stake, where do you draw the line in such arguments?!  Afterall, you could end up alienating half the people you know, right??

I’m completely torn between keeping the peace with those around me, and calling them all freaking morons for believing something with no evidential underpinning.

Your thoughts on this would be much appreciated, I’m sure it’s something you’ve considered before and maybe it would make an interesting talking point for the show.

Love what you do, stumbling across you guys on iTunes 3 years ago has completely changed the way I think about science.

Kind regards

Nick

Nick detailed his confrontations with a friend who is a creationist and was spouting standard creationist misinformation and poor logic. It certainly is difficult to let such statements go without challenge, but the confrontation can also consume a relationship or a casual social event. There is no one answer for how to deal with such situations, because there are many relevant variables that can affect your decision. What is the nature of your relationship? What are your goals for that relationship and the current social situation? What is your reputation within that social group and your general personality? How much experience do you have confronting the topic at hand?

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Oct 11 2012

Proof of Heaven?

Published by under Neuroscience

In an article for Newsweek, neurosurgeon Eben Alexander recounts his near death experience during a coma from bacterial meningitis. This is sure to become a staple of the NDE/afterlife community, as Alexander recounts in articulate and breathless terms his profound experience. His book is called, Proof of Heaven – a bold claim for someone who insists he is and remains a scientist.

Alexander claims:

There is no scientific explanation for the fact that while my body lay in coma, my mind—my conscious, inner self—was alive and well. While the neurons of my cortex were stunned to complete inactivity by the bacteria that had attacked them, my brain-free consciousness journeyed to another, larger dimension of the universe: a dimension I’d never dreamed existed and which the old, pre-coma me would have been more than happy to explain was a simple impossibility.

While his experience is certainly interesting, his entire premise is flimsily based on a single word in the above paragraph – “while.” He assumes that the experiences he remembers after waking from the coma occurred while his cortex was completely inactive. He does not even seem aware of the fact that he is making that assumption or that it is the central premise of his claim, as he does not address it in his article.

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Oct 09 2012

2012 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine

This year’s Nobel Prize in Medicine goes to two researchers whose work was separated by 44 years – both involving the discovery that mature cells could be reprogrammed to become pluripotent cells capable of differentiating into every type of cell in the body.

In 1962 John B. Gurdon replaced the nucleus from a frog embryo with one from a mature intestinal cell. The resulting embryo developed into a normal tadpole. This was a critical proof of concept – it showed that the DNA of a mature specialized cell still contained all the DNA necessary to form every type of cell, and further that this DNA was capable of de-differentiating. This means that whatever process turns a pluripotent stem cell into a mature cell can be reversed. Those genes that are turned off can be turned back on.

Shinya Yamanaka, 44 years later, published a study that showed that this process is far simpler than we previously imagined. By tweaking only four genes he was able to take mature mouse cells and turn them into pluripotent stem cells. His research changed the entire stem cell research debate. Prior to that it was believed that embryonic stem cells were necessary to have fully potent stem cells that could be used in medical research to potentially cure numerous degenerative and other diseases. This controversy led to President Bush’s infamous ban on creating new embryonic stem cell lines.

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Oct 08 2012

The Organic False Dichotomy

Published by under General Science

I don’t have any a-priori or ideological issue with any of the specific practices that fall under the “organic” rubric. I do have a problem with the fact that there is an organic rubric. In fact I think the USDA made a mistake in giving into pressure and creating their organic certification. At the time they tried to make it clear that “certified organic” said absolutely nothing about the product itself, only that certain rules and restrictions were followed in production. It was not an endorsement of organic farming, just a way to regulate the use of the term in labeling food. Unfortunately, it further solidified the organic false dichotomy.

I recently wrote about the Stanford study – a systematic review of studies of organic produce. They concluded:

The published literature lacks strong evidence that organic foods are significantly more nutritious than conventional foods. Consumption of organic foods may reduce exposure to pesticide residues and antibiotic-resistant bacteria.

Some of the reaction to the Stanford study, and my discussion of it, illustrates the problem with the false dichotomy – it encourages muddy thinking. There is a range of practices that are allowed and not allowed in organic farming to meet USDA certification. Excluded practices include genetically modified (GM) ingredients, ionizing radiation, and use of sewer sludge. There is also a long list of allowed and excluded substances (such as organic vs non-organic pesticides).

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Oct 02 2012

More Inattentional Blindness

Published by under Neuroscience

If you have never seen the basketball video – take a look at it now.

This is a demonstration of inattentional blindness (or attentional blindness) – when we are focused on one task this interferes with our processing of other information. This is exactly why you should not text while driving, or even talk on the phone while driving.

The cause of this is conceptually simple: our brains have limited processing power, more limited than we would like to think. When we use some of that processing power for one task it is not available for other tasks, even basic tasks like seeing obvious things right in front of our eyes. This concept is called load theory, and researchers have documented numerous ways in which it manifests. A related concept is that of interference – when we perform one task it reduces our performance on other tasks. In fact, the act of multitasking itself causes interference because multitasking requires processing power (it takes brain power to switch among more than one task)  which is taken away from each task.

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