Archive for August, 2013

Aug 29 2013

Logic vs Ray Comfort

Published by under Creationism/ID

Ray “The Bananaman” Comfort has a reputation for having a casual relationship with logic. Perhaps it’s better to say that they are complete strangers. His latest assault on reason is a an ambush video called “Evolution vs God.” The entire video, right from the title, is an exercise in asking loaded questions.

In the video Comfort is behind the microphone asking apparently random people on a college campus, plus a couple of professors (including PZ Myers), ambush questions about life, the universe, and everything. The video is then edited into brief clips (short attention span theater style) to make it look like Comfort stumped the person being interviewed or that he caught them in a logical trap. The strategy is maximally unfair to those being interviewed, and intellectually disingenuous or just lazy.

Warning – if you have any ability to think critically, or any intellectual self-respect, the video may induce a feeling of extreme disgust, and in some cases heavy vomiting.

Comfort employs two main strategies in his questioning. The first is to ask very nuanced and complicated questions in a simplistic manner. For example, he asks, “Is morality absolute?” followed up by questions like, “Is rape morally wrong?” The philosophical basis of morality is a complex issue, not a fitting subject for a quick one-line answer.

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Aug 27 2013

Death by Iridology

It’s always troubling to hear tragic stories such as this one – a New Zealand woman, Yvonne Maine, died of a tumor on her head because she refused to be treated by mainstream doctors. The lesion started as a small cyst, and if treated early, according to testimony, could have been cured. However Maine delayed treatment until the cyst had grown into a large cancer eating through her skull. By the time her daughters were finally able to drag her to a doctor only palliative treatment was possible and she died in 2010.

People are complex, and I’m sure there were multiple factors leading to Maine’s avoidance of treatment until it was too late. However, she was seeking treatment for her lesion by an iridologist, Ruth Nelson, and this appears to have been a major factor in Maine’s decision not to seek care.

The case is now before the Human Rights Review Tribunal. According to testimony by Maine’s daughters, she was afraid to go to the hospital because of the possible treatments they would recommend for her lesion – surgery, radiation, and chemotherapy. Instead she sought the services of a “natural” healer, Nelson, who practices iridology.

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Aug 26 2013

Probiotics for Mental Health?

I frequently criticize science journalism for falling into one or more common traps – false balance, hyperbole, misleading framing, failure to put one study into the proper context, inappropriate extrapolation, and others. Here is one article discussing the relationship between gut bacteria and mental health that can be used as a textbook example of how not to write a science news story.

The article begins, as is unfortunately often the case, with an emotional anecdote. Journalists are taught to find a human angle to draw the reader in, and I get this. But this style is better suited to fluff pieces than serious science journalism.

There are multiple problems with this style as applied to a science topic. The first is, of course, that the story is anecdotal. We cannot know what the implications of this story are. It is likely highly selected – chosen out of many possible examples to be the most dramatic and emotionally appealing example of whatever story the journalist wants to tell.

In this case we are told the story of Mary who has severe refractory obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD). All the emotional hooks are there – her parents are desperate, all previous treatments have failed, and the doctor they are seeing (the focus of the piece) is their last hope.

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Aug 22 2013

T-rex a Vegetarian?

Published by under Creationism/ID

Creationists often have a flagrant disregard for the truth, at times to humorous effect. They often make claims that assault basic logic and common sense, let alone the scientific evidence. One such claim is the focus of a recent video uploaded to YouTube by Paul Taylor from Creation Today, in which he claims that Tyrannosaurus rex was a vegetarian.

Let’s see if we can follow his tortuous logic.

He does acknowledge that T. rex looks like a creature that is supposed to have “et people.” Of course T. rex went extinct about 65 million years before people existed, but that’s a detail that seems to have escaped Taylor. As you will see, attention to detail is not something at which creationists excel.

Taylor further acknowledges that there is “circumstantial” evidence that T. rex may have eaten meat He refers to a triceratops fossil with a T. rex tooth mark, but is clearly minimizing the significance of this evidence as what he calls circumstantial.

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Aug 20 2013

Creationism is Not Science

“In fact, we have solid proof in our hands that evolution’s a lie: the Bible. You see, we can’t depend solely on our reasoning ability to convince skeptics. We present the evidence and do the best we can to convince people the truth of God by always pointing them to the Bible.”

The above quote is from Ken Ham, president of Answers in Genesis, from a radio commercial to promote his creation museum. Ham also says:

“You know, many of us would love to have the final proof that evolution’s a lie; the right scientific proof will silence those opposed to biblical creation forever, right? Well, no. You see, Romans Chapter one tells us that God has revealed himself to man in nature, so there’s no excuse for denying the witness of creation.”

These quotes are very revealing in multiple ways. First they show that creationists and creationism are not monolithic – there is a range of beliefs and strategies under the “big tent” of creationism. They are all united by their opposition to evolution, and essentially agree to disagree until the great evil of evolution is vanquished. Meanwhile they are stomping on each-other’s toes.

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Aug 19 2013

Area 51 Revealed

Published by under UFO's / Aliens

Area 51 is more than just a subject of UFO conspiracy mongering, it has graduated to a fixture in pop culture. Everyone knows what Area 51 is, or at least what it’s supposed to be. Mention crops up in movies, such as Independence Day.

According to the CIA this facility’s official name is the much less alluring, Nevada Test and Training Range at Groom Lake, a remote detachment of Edwards Air Force Base. It is part of a 23 x 25 mile area of restricted air space. For decades there have rumors that Area 51 is a secret base where the US government has recovered alien spacecraft and conducts research on those craft.

The government denies these claims, but has never said what Area 51 is really for. It has never been mentioned in any public document, and documents obtained through any freedom of information act (FOI) request have never mentioned Area 51 (any possible mention being redacted).

George Washington University’s National Security Archive senior fellow Jeffrey Richelson made a FOI request in 2005 for information on the U-2 spy plane program. He received a 400 page reports entitled, “”Central Intelligence Agency and Overhead Reconnaissance: The U-2 and Oxcart Programs, 1954-1974.” In this document the name Area 51 is no longer redacted – it is mentioned as the base at which the U2 was developed and tested.

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Aug 15 2013

Spontaneous Baby Combustion

Published by under Pseudoscience

News reports are coming out of India of a “rare medical case” involving a newborn infant who apparently spontaneously bursts into flames. This has occurred four times so far. The baby is now in the hospital being treated for these burns.

The International Business Times, with a headline declaring a “mystery baby,” reports:

Rahul, a native of Tindivanam, Tamil Nadu was admitted to Kilpauk Medical College and Hospital on Thursday for burns reportedly caused by a rare medical phenomenon known as Spontaneous Human Combustion (SHC) wherein a person catches fire due to emission of inflammable substances through the body.

They do contain some token skepticism, but then go on to discuss the “controversy” over SHC and the various theories about how it might occur.  The earliest reports of this case did not even contain the token skepticism, which seems to have crept into the later reports.

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Aug 13 2013

Mefloquine and Psychiatric Side Effects

On a recent episode of The Newsroom one reporter was headed to Africa and was advised by a more senior producer not to take mefloquine for malaria prophylaxis because of the potentially severe psychiatric side effects. I had never heard that before, never having traveled to a malaria area, and malaria prophylaxis being outside my area of medical expertise.

Then I was sent a link to a recent New York Times article called Crazy Pills, which tells an interesting story about David Stuart MacLean’s severe bad reaction to mefloquine – three days delirious in the hospital followed by years of symptoms of anxiety and depression.

Mefloquine was approved by the FDA in 1989 for the prevention of malaria. It was developed by the US military and for a time was the drug of choice for soldiers in malaria-prone areas. It has also been used extensively for civilian travelers.

Initial studies reveals the potential for neuropsychiatric side effects, but suggested that the risk for serious side effects was low, about 1/1000. New evidence presented to the FDA, however, suggests the risk is much higher, leading the FDA to put a black box warning label on the drug. The FDA site on mefloquine (brand name Lariam) states:

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Aug 12 2013

Brain Cells in the Heart?

Published by under Neuroscience

There is a certain flavor of misconception that occurs when a cultural belief intersects a scientific factoid that superficially seems to support the belief. A powerful meme emerges to the effect of – science now proves what we have known/believed all along. Gurus latch onto this idea to provide apparent credibility to their mysticism. The media eats it up.

One such meme that has been around for a while is that the heart contains brain cells, and therefore has a mind of its own, or at least is part of the human mind. There is a related meme that the GI system (the gut) also has a mind of its own.

The notion of “brain cells” in the heart has been co-opted to support various beliefs. One artist writes:

But for me it was exciting further evidence that thinking and mind is a deep connection between brain and mind and that we need to trigger all of our senses for effective creativity and learning.

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Aug 08 2013

Ozone Sauna

I literally get multiple questions a day about one pseudoscience or another. I will never get through them all, because new ones are being created faster than they can be examined. It is a game of whack-a-mole where the number of holes that the moles pop out of keeps increasing.

For that reason my primary goal is not just to inform my readers about one particular form of pseudoscience, but to improve critical thinking skills and working knowledge of science so that they can examine the next dubious claim on their own (the whole – give someone a fish you feed them for a day, teach them how to fish you feed them for life).  The actual topics I cover are often of secondary concern (unless they are particularly widespread and pernicious).

So, the somewhat arbitrary topic I have chosen for today, based on an e-mail question I received, is ozone sauna. The e-mailer reports about his friend:

He was given treatment using an Ozone sauna together with a much healthier diet of mainly raw vegetables. During the two weeks he lost 16lb and generally feels great. He puts this all down to the Ozone sauna! Could you please advise me if there is any proof that these are effective as he was told at the health club that they detox the body and kill all viruses, cure aids and cancer and are generally a miracle cure! All I can find on the net is adverts and woo regarding them. What are the facts.

It is unfortunate that Google searches on most snake-oil topics are overwhelmed with commercial sites selling the snake oil.  Often I am asked a question that essentially amounts to – will you do a Google search for me? That’s fine, as searching is a skill that needs to be developed.

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