Archive for May, 2014

May 30 2014

Measles Coming Back

There are some topics I just have to revisit from time to time. I consider this a public service announcement. So far this year there have been 288 confirmed cases of measles. This is the largest number of cases since endemic measles was declared eliminated from the US. The previous worse year was 2011, which saw 220 cases total. 

There is no question that this is tied to vaccine non-compliance. The anti-vaccine movement is scaring people with misinformation and pseudoscience into not vaccinating their children, and as a result we are seeing the return of vaccine-preventable diseases.

When a disease is endemic that means there is a self-sustaining infection – there is always someone infected somewhere and it keeps getting passed around. The MMR vaccine (especially after the second dose was added) resulted in herd immunity, which is a high enough immunity rate so that the infectious disease cannot be passed around indefinitely. High vaccination rates in the US resulted in eliminated measles as an endemic disease by 2000.

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May 29 2014

Medical Information on Wikipedia

Published by under Education

Wikipedia is now the most common general reference on the internet, and the 7th most popular site overall. It is, in a way, our collective online store of human knowledge.

Wikipedia is also a wiki, which means that anyone can theoretically write and edit articles. Wikipedia has editors, however, and they manage this process, evaluating the authoritativeness and apparent motives of editors. It is not the wild west like it used to be. (We discussed this recently on the SGU – look for the interview with Tim Farley and Susan Gerbic here.)

The question remains, however – how accurate and reliable is the information on Wikipedia? There have been several comparisons of Wikipedia to traditional references, such as the Encyclopedia Brittanica, and Wikipedia compares fairly well to such sources.

How does Wikipedia do when it comes to more technical, and specifically health care, information? This is a critical question as many people use the internet and Wikipedia specifically as a source of medical information, often to guide medical decisions or self-treatment. A recent study set out to test that very question.

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May 27 2014

The Brain Is Not a Receiver

Whenever the discussion of a dualist vs materialist model of the mind comes up, one common point made to support the dualist position (that the mind is something other than or more than just the functioning of the brain) is that the brain may not be the origin of the mind, but rather is just the receiver. Often an explicit comparison is made to radios or televisions.

The brain as receiver hypothesis, however, is wholly inadequate to explain the relationship between the brain and the mind, as I will explain below.

As an example of the brain-receiver argument, David Eagleman writes in his book Incognito:

As an example, I’ll mention what I’ll call the “radio theory” of brains. Imagine that you are a Kalahari Bushman and that you stumble upon a transistor radio in the sand. You might pick it up, twiddle the knobs, and suddenly, to your surprise, hear voices streaming out of this strange little box. If you’re curious and scientifically minded, you might try to understand what is going on. You might pry off the back cover to discover a little nest of wires. Now let’s say you begin a careful, scientific study of what causes the voices. You notice that each time you pull out the green wire, the voices stop. When you put the wire back on its contact, the voices begin again. The same goes for the red wire. Yanking out the black wire causes the voices to get garbled, and removing the yellow wire reduces the volume to a whisper. You step carefully through all the combinations, and you come to a clear conclusion: the voices depend entirely on the integrity of the circuitry. Change the circuitry and you damage the voices.

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May 23 2014

Solar Freakin’ Roadways

Published by under Technology

A YouTube video and Indiegogo campaign promise a new solution to our energy woes – “solar freakin’ roadways.”

The concept is to build roads out of hexagonal plates of transparent hard material (tempered glass) with built in solar panels. You can also incorporate heating elements and LED lights. Buried alongside such roads could be a new energy grid, for transporting all that solar generated electricity.

Here is the vision as presented: With such solar freakin’ roadways we could generate much, if not all, of our needed electricity. We could replace telephone poles and hanging wires with buried lines, and upgrade our energy (and even information) grid while we’re at it.

The heating elements could melt ice and snow, removing the need for plowing or salting roads. Potholes or other damage could be easily repaired by simply replacing the hexagonal units, one at a time, as needed.

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May 22 2014

CIA Ends Vaccine Cover

The White House has announced that in August of 2013 CIA policy banned the use of vaccination programs as cover for CIA ops. Thus, hopefully, ends a blatantly unethical policy.

Back in 2011, the CIA suspected that they had located Osama Bin Laden in a compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan. They needed to confirm his presence, however. So they created a fake vaccine drive. They enlisted the help of a local physician and health official, Shakil Afridi, who set up a program to give free hepatitis B vaccines (all funded by the CIA). The goal of the vaccine program was to procure DNA from children in the compound to see if they were related to Bin Laden, thus confirming his presence.

The ploy worked, and as you probably know, Bin Laden’s compound was raided and he was summarily executed.

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May 20 2014

New Study Shows Fluoride Safe

Public controversy over the safety of fluoridation programs continues, in some towns leading to successful resistance to water fluoridation. As a public health issue, the scientific evidence for risks vs benefits should be at the core of this debate. A new study sheds significant light on this question.

Some anti-fluoridation activists will latch onto any claim they feel supports their opposition (common behavior in any context), and this leads to a great deal of nonsensical conspiracy-mongering. My favorite is the claim that public water fluoridation is all a plot to allow companies to cheaply dump industrial waste into the public water supply.

These sorts of claims distract from the real issues, and in my opinion does a disservice to the anti-fluoridation movement. I don’t mind the existence of opposition movements, even if I disagree with their position. They can serve a useful function in driving public debate and keeping the powers that be honest and transparent.

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May 19 2014

Drinkable Sunscreen

Recently the Daily Mail (some like to call it the “Daily Fail”) ran an article reporting, without any critical analysis, that a company is now offering drinkable sunscreen.

At first the claim seems extraordinary, but it is not impossible. It is theoretically possible to drink a substance that becomes deposited in the skin and absorbs or reflects UV radiation providing protection. However, upon reading the details it becomes immediately apparent that the product in question is pure snake oil.

The product is Harmonized Water by Osmosis Skin Care. In fact, UV protection is just one claim among many for the harmonized water line of products. The website claims:

  • Remarkable technology that imprints frequencies (as standing waves) onto water molecules.
  • Advances in the ability to “stack” thousands of frequencies onto one molecule.
  • Revolutionary formula allows us to reverse engineer the frequencies of substances found in nature and/or the human body.
  • Newly identified frequencies that have beneficial effects on the body.

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May 16 2014

Preaching Against Skepticism

Published by under Religion/Miracles

I strive to have a fairly nuanced approach to religion in this blog and my other skeptical outreach. In brief, I think that faith is a personal choice that needs to be kept outside the realm of science and is not a legitimate basis for public policy in a free and pluralistic society. Further, I think that the real issue is ideology, of which faith and religion are just one type. Political and social ideology are just as pernicious to critical thinking as is religious ideology.

But I see no reason to gratuitously attack faith or religious belief itself, as long as it stays in its corner and doesn’t bother with science or other people’s freedom. At the same time, I am happy to identify as an agnostic atheist, and will strongly defend that choice on both empirical and philosophical grounds.

Not exactly a rallying cry, but that’s the price you pay for having a nuanced position.

I do also think it is important to point out when advocates of faith take an anti-critical thinking position. This is why I personally think that faith is a net negative – very few people can keep a personal choice of faith sufficiently walled off from science and reason that it does not erode the latter. Faith is inherently irrational, and while I respect the freedom of every individual to decide for themselves whether or not to have any particular faith, I think it’s important to point out the inherent intellectual risks in believing anything without evidence or logic.

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May 15 2014

Non-Celiac Gluten Sensitivity

About a third of Americans report that they are trying to reduce or avoid gluten in their diet. If Jimmy Kimmel’s funny stunt is any indication, most probably don’t know what gluten even is. The gluten-free diet has officially become a fad, and “gluten” has been tagged as something vaguely bad that should be avoided.

About 1% of people have a disease called Celiac, which is an autoimmune reaction to gluten. This is a serious disease that can make people very ill if they consume even the smallest amount of gluten. A diagnosis of Celiac can be confirmed with an antibody test (anti-gliadin antibodies), or, if necessary, a stomach biopsy.

Gluten is a composite protein composed of two parts, gliadin and glutenin. It is found in wheat, rye, barley, spelt, and related grains. It is a springy protein that gives bread its elasticity. Celiac disease is an immune reaction to the gliadin part of the protein.

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May 13 2014

Resveratrol – Reason for Skepticism

Dr. Oz recommends resveratrol as a supplement to reduce inflammation and protect the heart. On his website you will find:

While resveratrol has been recommended for fighting the physical effects of aging, a brand new study shows it reduced inflammation of the heart in the study’s participants by 26%. Taking one 500 mg capsule of resveratrol daily with food will help you maintain a strong, healthy heart.

How evidence-based is this recommendation? At present we have preliminary in vitro and in vivo studies showing that resveratrol has interesting biological effects that are potentially beneficial, particularly in heart disease. There are some short term human studies as well.

The question is – how predictive are such early promising research results to later long-term clinical studies? I have written many times arguing that the answer is – not very much. There is researcher bias, exploiting degrees of freedom, and publication bias to contend with, all favoring false positive results in the literature.

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