Mar 31 2014

Acupuncture – Science as Promotion

Almost weekly I see a new press release about an acupuncture study claiming benefits. While I have written extensively about acupuncture previously, and will continue to cover the topic, I can’t cover every little study that comes out. Most of the studies are utterly useless – they contain no control group, they are effectively pilot studies, they are of “electroacupuncture” (which is really just transdermal electrical nerve stimulation pretending to be acupuncture), or they are looking at some dubious biomarker rather than objective clinical outcomes.

Occasionally, however, an acupuncture study deserves a mention, in this case because it is particularly abusive.

Rachael Dunlop, my skeptical colleague from down under, sent me a report of an acupuncture study performed in Melbourne. News outlets are reporting the study at face value, in typical gushing terms, stating that “acupuncture is just as effective as drugs in treating back pain and migraine.”

It seems to me that this is the actual purpose of such studies – to produce positive news coverage. They are not designed to actually answer the question of efficacy.

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Mar 28 2014

Synthetic Yeast

Synthetic biology is an emerging field with incredible potential. The idea is to build genomes from the ground up. Craig Venter made the first breakthrough in synthetic biology four years ago when his team created the first artificial bacterial genome. Now another team has made similar progress with yeast, which is eukaryotic (meaning the cells keep their DNA in a nucleus).

To be clear, these teams have not made life entirely from scratch, not even the genome. In Venter’s case he started with an existing bacterium, and then recreated its genome with some changes, and inserted it into a bacterium whose DNA had been removed.

In the latest research, the scientists have created one of the yeast’s 16 chromosomes. Again, they did not build it from scratch but started with the wild chromosome and then made significant changes. They therefore have 15 chromosomes to go, but there is no reason they should not get there.

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Mar 27 2014

When Does Autism Begin?

One common feature of unscientific belief systems is that they do not change in the face of new evidence. They tend to evolve like cultural beliefs or marketing campaigns, but do not appear to be affected by scientific evidence in any meaningful way.

One great example of this is the idea the autism is linked to vaccines (to be clear up front, it isn’t) This idea had a few important factors in its origin. The first was simply the existing anti-vaccine movement searching for anything to blame on vaccines. The second, and perhaps decisive, factor was the now discredited and withdrawn study by Andrew Wakefield linking autism to the MMR vaccine.

Even as the MMR claim was dying, the anti-vaccine community was moving onto the next target – mercury (specifically the preservative Thimerosal). This was the target of the book Evidence of Harm by David Kirby. This also created common cause between the anti-vaccine movement, and separate “mercury militia” blaming many modern ills on mercury, and some environmentalists (most prominently Robert Kennedy Jr.) who are keen to blame medical problems on any environmental exposure, including mercury and/or vaccines.

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Mar 25 2014

Standards of Evidence – Wikipedia Edition

There are many public intellectual debates occurring over scientific and skeptical issues – the place of creationism vs evolution in public science classes, the including of alternative medicine in academic curricula, the validity of debate on global warming, etc.

Many of these issues, while important, are proxy issues for a deeper cultural conflict – the role of standards in the intellectual, academic, and scientific spheres.

Scientific skeptics (whether they go by that label or not) generally take the position that there should be fair and reasonable standards by which to evaluate any factual claim or intellectual position. We need a process to ensure that our collective thinking is logically valid, balanced in it judgments, and properly accounts for all available evidence. With regard to empirical claims, we call this process science, but these virtues are generic to any intellectual endeavor.

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Mar 24 2014

Homeopathic Products Recalled for Containing Actual Drugs

Homeopathy is bunk. It is 100% pure unadulterated pseudoscience. That is – unless it is adulterated with actual working medicine.

The FDA recently put out a safety alert warning the public that certain homeopathic products may contain measurable amount of penicillin, enough to cause an allergic reaction in those who are sensitive:

Terra-Medica, Inc. is voluntarily recalling 56 lots of Pleo-FORT, Pleo-QUENT, Pleo-NOT, Pleo-STOLO, Pleo-NOTA-QUENT, and Pleo-EX homeopathic drug products in liquid, tablet, capsule, ointment, and suppository forms to the consumer level. FDA has determined that these products have the potential to contain penicillin or derivatives of penicillin, which may be produced during the fermentation process. In patients who are allergic to beta-lactam antibiotics, even at low levels, exposure to penicillin can result in a range of allergic reactions from mild rashes to severe and life-threatening anaphylactic reactions. See the press release for a complete listing of products affected by this recall.

One has to wonder if the company was aware that their product contained penicillin.  That’s a pretty good scam. In the US homeopathic products do not require testing or any FDA approval process. They are essentially pre-approved by law. While this is a shameful scam, at least homeopathic remedies are completely inactive – nothing but water placed on sugar pills. However, some specific products have been found to have functional levels of active ingredients, so they are not truly homeopathic. For example, some Zicam products were found to contain active levels of zinc, and was linked to anosmia (a loss of smell) in some cases.

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Mar 21 2014

A Scientific Black Hole

I only have time for a quick post today, so I am going to pig pile on what is likely the most scientifically illiterate thing uttered on television this week.

CNN’s Don Lemon asked his panel of experts if it is preposterous to speculate that a black hole might have sucked in Malaysian flight 370. Let that sink in for a moment.

He actually started out OK, saying it is preposterous, but then felt it was necessary to ask his panel for confirmation. Many will point out that this kind of mindless banter is a symptom of 24 hour news shows that have to fill air time with talking heads.

Shockingly, this was not the most scientifically illiterate thing uttered on CNN this week. The response from Mary Schiavo, I think, wins the award. She is a former Inspector General for the U.S. Department of Transportation. Her response was that even a small black hole would suck in the entire universe, so we know it wasn’t that.

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Mar 20 2014

Electrical Nerve Stimulation for Migraine

The recent announcement that the FDA has approved the first medical device for the prevention of migraines has already led to a flood of patient questions about the device. Migraines are a type of primary headache (meaning that headaches are the disorder, not a symptom of another underlying problem), and there are many patients who have severe migraine, frequent even daily migraines, and/or migraines that are refractory to current treatment methods. Such patients are considered an “unmet medical need” and therefore any new options are very welcome.

The device does trigger some warning bells for skeptics, however, so it would be helpful to sort through the evidence and plausibility of the claims. There are so many pseudoscientific medical devices on the market it can be difficult to separate the minority of legitimate treatments from the ocean of worthless nonsense.

The specific device that was recently approved by the FDA is the Cefaly. The device is worn on the forehead, and does have cool science-fictiony look to it. You can definitely see someone wearing this on the bridge of the Enterprise. It is battery operated and delivers small electrical shocks to the middle of the forehead above the eyes. This is meant to stimulate trigeminal nerve endings. The trigeminal nerve is involved in the migraine phenomenon, and there is good reason to think that inhibiting trigeminal activity can make it less likely for a migraine attack to be trigger – raise the threshold at which a migraine headache occurs.

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Mar 18 2014

Australian Anti-Vaccination Group Loses Charity Status

The group previously known as the Australian Vaccination Network (AVN) has been getting a lot of heat recently, in large part thanks to the Australian Skeptics who have been exposing their dangerous misinformation. The AVN is an anti-vaccination group that actively campaigns against vaccination. They are (or at least were until recently) also a registered charity, which means they can take tax-deductible donations.

The Australian Skeptics pointed out that the name of the AVN is misleading, as it might make the public think they are giving fair and balanced information about vaccines. In reality the information they dispense amounts to anti-vaccine propaganda.

Recently the New South Wales Department of Fair Trading ruled that the AVN is a misleading name, and ordered the group to change their name. That’s the good new. The bad news is that they decided to change their name to the Australian Vaccination Skeptics Network.

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Mar 17 2014

Life Imitates Science Fiction

A man is in an extended coma after a traumatic injury. When he finally awakes from his coma he finds that he has brought something back with him from the darkness –  psychic powers. Yes, this is the plot of the 1983 Stephen King movie, The Dead Zone. It is also the alleged story of a 23 year old Southend student named Rob Ball.

Ball was assaulted and hit in the side of the head resulting in a two week coma. He had significant brain injury, and after waking from the coma he suffered from significant memory loss and needed extensive physical therapy in order to walk. Describing his injuries, he said:

 ”It feels like my head is going to blow up and I’m convinced I’m going to die all the time now, because it’s had such an impact on my life. I get deja vu all the time. I don’t know if it’s something to do with the head injury, but I keep thinking ‘I remember this before’, and think something is about to go wrong.”

Memory loss and headaches are typical symptoms of a traumatic brain injury. The deja vu is an interesting symptom – this is the phenomenon of feeling as if a current experience is familiar, as if it has happened before. We do not yet fully understand the neuroanatomical correlates and functional causes of deja vu, but we have some fairly compelling leads.

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Mar 14 2014

GMO and Indian Farmer Suicide

In 2005 PBS aired a Frontline special: Seeds of Suicide, in which they report:

In recent years, as Heeter finds in the fields of Andhra Pradesh, crop failure can often be traced to Bt cotton, a genetically modified breed that contains a pesticide that naturally occurs in soil rather than plants. Bt technology should, in theory, repel bollworm — cotton’s worst enemy — but some farmers who plant more expensive Bt seeds often wind up worse off than those who don’t. One farmer, Pariki, confides that after he fell into debt, his wife killed herself, leaving him to care for their three small children.

In 2008 Prince Charles, who has campaigned against GM crops, directly blamed a rise in suicides among Indian farmers on the failure of GM crops and the predatory practices of big seed companies. It was reported at the time:

“He called cultivating the modified crops ‘a global moral question’ and ‘a wrong turning on the route to feeding the world.’ He associated the technology with ‘commerce without morality’ and ‘science without humanity.’”

And Prince Charles criticized in a speech:

‘the truly appalling and tragic rate of small farmer suicides in India, stemming… from the failure of many GM crop varieties’.

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