Archive for May, 2007

May 30 2007

Is Language in the Genes?

The neurological development of language is an excellent example of overall brain development and function. Specifically, the language centers in the brain learn the language(s) they are exposed to in the first four years of life. So far, the evidence has suggested that language is completely learned. From the linguistic point of view, it also seems that language is purely a cultural construct. Now, however, a new study, for the first time, suggests that there is a genetic component at least to one type of language ability.

Dan Dediu and Robert Ladd at the University of Edinburgh in the United Kingdom have published a study in which they look at 49 different populations worldwide and compared the use of vowels and consonants as well as the use of tonal language with the frequency of specific variants of two genes known to be involved in brain development – ASPM-D and microcephalin-D. They found no correlation with consonant and vowel use, but did find a highly significant correlation between these variants and the lack of a tonal component to language.

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May 29 2007

Homeopath Fisher Fires Back

Last week I applauded the courage of Dr. Born for fighting against pseudoscience and quackery in the UK National Health Service by urging them to drop coverage for the utter nonsense that is homeopathy. Peter Fisher, director of the Royal London Homeopathic Hospital, has now answered Dr. Born with an open letter of his own. It is a droll patchwork of unsupported assertions, straw men, propaganda, and assorted other logical fallacies.

The fallacies started right in the title of the piece: “Open letter, closed minds.” What is truly closed minded is to assert that homeopathy and other alternative methods work despite a lack of theoretical or empirical support. The dismissal of appropriate scientific criticism as “closed minded” is a standard favorite in the world of pseudoscience, so it is no surprise. It is so common and abused it warranted an article just on this topic.
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May 23 2007

UK Scientists Take On Homeopathy

I have written a great deal recently about so-called complementary and alternative medicine (CAM), how it basically is composed of a hodge-podge of beliefs and therapies that have only in common that they fall below the standard of scientific, evidence-based, and ethical medicine. Monday I described how CAM thrives by carving out a double standard for itself – one in which the usual standards of common sense, let alone science, do not apply. I have also called upon scientists and scientific healthcare practitioners to not sit idly by while the CAM barbarians storm the halls of academic and scientific medicine – to boldly and proudly defend the scientific traditions that have made modern medicine as safe and effective as it is today.

Well, scientists in the UK have heard my call. (OK – so maybe they had the idea on their own.) The group, led by Professor Gustav Born, of Kings College London, have written an open letter to the administrators of the National Health Service (NHS – Britain’s nationalized healthcare system) to stop paying for homeopathy.
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May 21 2007

The CAM Double Standard

The biggest problem with so-called complementary and alternative medicine – CAM (a misleading name for it is neither complementary nor a legitimate alternative) is that its proponents overtly seek to create a double standard in medicine. In an editorial published in the New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM Sept. 17, 1998 pg 839-841), then current editor in chief Marcia Angell and former editor in chief Jerome P. Kassirer wrote: “There cannot be two kinds of medicine – conventional and alternative. There is only medicine that has been adequately tested and medicine that has not, medicine that works, and medicine that may or may not work.” They got it exactly right.

The Standard of Care

Most people take for granted the notion that there are mechanisms of quality control in medicine. Doctors have to go through a rather long and expensive period of intensive training. They need to pass a series of exams to test their medical knowledge. Practicing medicine requires a license (in the US physicians are licensed by the state), and getting a license in turn requires that certain criteria are met. After licensure states hold physicians accountable to ethical and practice guidelines, and many now require proof of ongoing education. States can take action against a physician’s license for being unethical, or for practicing below the standard of care.

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May 18 2007

More CAM Propaganda

In response to my blog entry about CAM propaganda, “Jim” wrote the following comment, giving me still more grist for my blog mill.

We are a nation of overweight gluttons. Obesity and subsequent diabetes are epidemic. Neurological dicorders in children are increasing. The honeybees are disapeering because their immune systems are depressed. Our waterways are polluted with mercury to the point that most all fish consumption is not advised. Childrens toys are laiden with chemicals that have been banned in other countries. Our nation is rated 22nd amoung industrailized nations in infant mortality. We are rated 20th in overall health although we spend the most money for health care.

Get real Doc! Corporate interests run this counrty. It’s the reason the Drug companies lobbied hard to continue direct to consumer advertising. Why do they need to advertise to the general population? Shouldn’t their doctor be able to diagnose and prescribe the appropriate medcations. You really need to do some soul searching and open your eyes to the medical tyranny in this county. All those cancer walks and billions of dollars and tell me what really have we cured? This is all about money and feeding off the sick people with federal tax money to foot the bill. Out of all the medical propeganda I’ve seen about cancer, I never hear anything about prevention. Natural sunlight has been scientifically proven to reduce cancer but you’ll never hear that from your doctor. The chemical laiden sunscreen lobbysists won’t be having it.

I don’t want to even get into the crap that is put into our food that is directly marketed to our kids. Scientists knew 30 years ago that hydrgogenated fats were poisonous to human health. Unfortunately it took that long for grass movemnet politics to raise the awareness to the people.

Get you head out of the sand Doc and breath the polluted air!

All this doesn’t really matter because one day soon our mother earth will have the last laugh on the human race.

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May 17 2007

Still No Association Between Autism and Mercury in Vaccines

Published by under Neuroscience

Despite a critical lack of supporting epidemiological evidence, there are those who cling to the belief that mercury found in the vaccine preservative thimerosal is an important cause of autism and is responsible for the recent epidemic increase in this diagnosis. Never mind that this epidemic is probably mostly or even entirely an artifact of increased efforts at diagnosis while simultaneously broadening the definition (reflected in the new terminology of “autism spectrum disorder” or ASD).

The argument was based on the assumption of causation from correlation: primarily in the 1990’s the number of routine childhood vaccines was significantly increased. During this same time the number of ASD diagnoses increased dramatically as well (from 1-3 to about 15 cases per 10,000, although the true incidence is probably between 30-60 per 10,000). It would be reasonable to draw from this the hypothesis that maybe there is a causal link between the two – but there are those who drew the conclusion that there must be a link – and that was their folly.
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May 16 2007

More on ALS and Stem Cells

In last night’s Republican debate the issue of embryonic stem (ES) cell research came up. Candidate Tommy Thompson defended his anti-embryonic stem cell research position partly by reassuring us that scientific research will do just fine using existing lines and also using adult stem cells and the recent technology developed to harvest amniotic fluid stem cells. Politicians talking about science always perks up my skeptical sensors – politicians are generally not scientists and they just can’t help distorting the science to suit their political agenda. This is no exception. While non ES cell research is promising, and ES cells may eventually be eclipsed by better technology (almost every technology eventually is), it is far too early to write off ES cell technology as redundant, and I was reminded of this by some cool new ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis or Lou Gherig’s disease) research.

Two recent papers published in Nature Neuroscience use ES cells to investigate the effects of a mutation known to cause ALS. ALS is a progressive neurodegenerative disorder in which motor neurons (cells in the brain and spinal cord that control muscles) die, resulting in progressive weakness and muscle wasting. About 10% of patients with ALS have a familial or inherited form of the disease, and about 25% of them have a mutation is a gene called SOD1 (superoxide dismutase). It has been previously shown that the mutation causes the SOD1 protein to be neurotoxic, contributing to the death of motor neurons.

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May 15 2007

Skeptics, Paranormal Researchers, and the Shyness Effect

This past Saturday, May 12th, I was interviewed on the Beyond Reality radio show on the topic of demonic possession. The show is broadcast live from Rhode Island (WPRO 630 AM), streamed over the internet, and you can listen to the recording here. Jason and Grant, from SciFi Channel’s Ghost Hunters, host the show.

I must say, it was an enjoyable interview. Heir to the Warren’s ghost hunting legacy, John Zaffis, was also on the show, although we were interviewed separately and I never had an opportunity to debate him. Jason and Grant were very personable and respectful throughout the interview, although we disagreed on some key issues.
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May 14 2007

The Standard CAM Response

In response to my chiropractic and carpal tunnel syndrome blog of Friday, Ardell wrote the following comment:

It is truly sad that so many are mislead. There are agencies with agendas that make specious claims like being “scientific” – in reality nothing could be further from the truth. The medical community is run by the pharmaceutical industry in our times. Natural products are not used – not because they don’t work but because they can’t be patented. Money rules the world and the pharmaceutical industry has the majority of it when it comes to healthcare. It isn’t even healthcare in this country – it’s disease care. The media is also paid by these agencies so if you watch it how could one expect you to think differently then you are being programmed to think. True natural healing looks at the body and asks what is the cause of disease? Natural health practitioners assist the body to heal itself. There are many disiplines and it is up to us to educate ourselves on our own health. You can educate yourself on your own body or let someone else take care of you. If you’d like more information go to my website

The above response is such a wonderfully concise and typical piece of CAM (complementary and alternative medicine) propaganda I thought it would be instructive to address it.

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May 11 2007

Chiropractic Nonsense and Carpal Tunnel Syndrome

Mainstream medicine and so-called complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) exist in two different intellectual worlds. While mainstream medicine is conscientiously scientific, open minded, transparent, and fair, CAM (by its own machinations) ranges from anti-scientific to pseudoscientific, closed-minded, and decidedly unfair. CAM proponents often accuse mainstream doctors and scientists of treating them poorly and being biased against them, when the reality is that science, by its very methodology, is a meritocracy. Further, if anything CAM has been given a free-ride because of a well-meaning but completely inappropriate “political correctness” within academia that treats CAM far more gently and uncritically than mainstream medical practices and claims.

Ironically, while crying about being treated unfairly (by which they mean not being allowed to make outrageous claims and perform unethical and absurd treatments without any criticism or being held to the slightest scientific standard), many CAM proponents engage freely in what can only be called a “bashing” of scientific or mainstream medicine. Such bashing is rife with distortions, half-truths, self-serving propaganda, and outright lies.

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