Archive for January, 2008

Jan 31 2008

Early Diagnosis of Autism – Implications for the Vaccine Hypothesis

Published by under Neuroscience

Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a neurological disorder that includes a wide range of symptoms including reduced social interactiveness and cognitive impairment. At the mild end of the spectrum it is not clear if it is even appropriate to consider the symptoms a disorder and there are those who prefer to characterize such individuals as part of normal human diversity. But more severe manifestations can be significantly impairing.

In the last decade there has been a public controversy over whether or not vaccines in general, or specifically the mercury-based preservative thimerosal in some vaccines, is a major cause of autism. The scientific evidence is very clear – there is no link between vaccines and autism. In addition, the scientific evidence increasingly points to a host of genetic factors as the primary cause of autism. The vaccine-autism hypothesis is subject to falsification from multiple lines of evidence, but there are two that are dramatic and definitive. The first was the removal of thimerosal from most childhood vaccines by 2002. If thimerosal causes autism and was responsible for an increase in ASD diagnosis, then removing thimerosal from vaccines should reduce ASD diagnosis – it didn’t.

The second line of evidence has to do with the timing of the onset of ASD. If A causes B then A must precede B. If it can be shown that B actually occurs prior to A then that would eliminate A as a cause. This is basic logic, something physicians rely upon routinely to help them evaluate possible causes of symptoms and diseases. One of the pieces of evidence proponents of the vaccine-autism hypothesis point to is the fact that parents often notice the onset of autism symptoms shortly after their children receive their first series of vaccines. The scientific community has regarded this as nothing but a coincidence – a post hoc ergo propter hoc (after this therefore because of this) logical fallacy.

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18 responses so far

Jan 30 2008

Restless Leg Syndrome

Restless Leg Syndrome (RLS) is a neurological disorder in which there is a sensation of restlessness in the legs. This may be perceived as an unpleasant “drawing” sensation or a feeling of crawling on the skin. These sensations are relieved by moving the legs, and therefore the desire to move increases, ultimately becoming irresistible. The symptoms of RLS are most prominent just before falling asleep and therefore they may delay the onset of sleep, and may also interrupt sleep, and therefore RLS is considered a sleep disorder.

In 2005 Requip (ropinirole) became the first drug approved by the FDA for treatment of RLS. In 2006 this was followed by Mirapex (pramipexole). As we live in the age of the internet and anti-“Big Pharma” conspiracy theories are in vogue, there soon appeared claims that RLS is a fake syndrome, made up by Boehringer Ingelheim and GlaxoSmithKline in order to manufacture a market for their drugs.

Here is an e-mail question I recently received which reflects these common conspiracy claims:

Skepticism uber allas, but that would be an oxymoron. Anyway, I would like to ask you Dr. Novella as a neurologist your opinion of “Restless Leg Syndrome.” My brother who is a physician (dermatologist) told me that his professional colleagues tell him that RLS is a made up myth. That two major pharmaceutical companies have turned their failed sleep meds into a new need and market. We have all seen the massive TV and print media advertising. I have heard you on a past podcast talk about the natural paralysis this is necessary for REM sleep to keep us acting out our dreams. Also, these RLS medications are vasodilators. The effect is relieving the tingling feeling in the legs which is I believe is a result from inactivity. A very American thing.

While I think it is critically important to exercise healthy skepticism toward any self-serving claims, and that includes all marketing (especially within health care), it is equally important to separate fact from fiction and not assume that anything that serves the interest of a corporation must be a lie.

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17 responses so far

Jan 29 2008

Freedom of Speech, Censorship, and Media Responsibility

ABC is scheduled to air a new Drama, “Eli Stone” on Thursday Jan. 31st. The first episode features a lawyer suing for a parent who believes her son’s autism was caused by mercury in vaccines. By all accounts the show is an assault on science and reason. The New York Times got it right when they wrote:

But reams of scientific studies by the leading American health authorities have failed to establish a causal link between the preservative and autism. Since the preservative was largely removed from childhood vaccines in 2001, autism rates have not declined.

But the script also takes several liberties that could leave viewers believing that the debate over thimerosal — which in the program’s script is given the fictional name mercuritol — is far from scientifically settled.

The new show has sparked controversy beyond the New York Times. The American Academy of Pediatrics has written an open letter to ABC calling for the cancellation of this episode. They write:

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15 responses so far

Jan 28 2008

Uri Geller’s Confession and Human Fallibility

Uri Geller is a mentalist – a magician who uses trickery in order to simulate psychic or paranormal ability. He is a performer of modest talent – his signature trick that of bending spoons while no one is looking. But he has become an international celebrity by crossing a line most mentalists only flirt with, claiming that he performs his feats with true psychic ability and not trickery. Fellow magician, James Randi (scourge of all charlatans) has made an ongoing effort to expose Geller’s tricks for what they are, largely by reproducing them with slight of hand. As Randi says, “If Geller is using supernatural powers to perform this feat, he’s doing it the hard way.”

In an interview with me (not yet published) and in his online newsletter, Swift, Randi reported that recently, in an interview with German magazine Magische Welt (Magic World), Geller is quoted as saying:

’ll no longer say that I have supernatural powers. I am an entertainer. I want to do a good show. My entire character has changed.

That is quite a revelation. Taken at face value it is a confession that all these years he has been nothing but a garden-variety mentalist and that he lied about having psychic power. I don’t know if this is the last word on the matter from Geller (he may have second thoughts about this reversal) but it confirms what skeptics and magicians have always known – it is not necessary to postulate paranormal powers in order to explain Geller’s feats.

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7 responses so far

Jan 24 2008

New Creation Research Journal

The man who brought us the creation museum in Kentucky, the leader of the Answers in Genesis propaganda ministry, young-earth creationists Ken Ham has started a new peer-reviewed journal, the Answers Research Journal (ARJ). This development, to any scientifically literate thinking person, is a travesty. But let me explain exactly why and what, if anything, can be done about it.

It is critical for science as an institution to be dedicated first and foremost to the principles and methodologies of science. Science is about discovering the nature of reality – what is, what happened in the past, and how stuff works. Scientific conclusions must be based upon evidence and adhere to the demands of logic. This requires that conclusion flow from evidence, that beliefs and claims are slaves to logic and evidence and can be altered as needed to accommodate new or better evidence.

It is simply not possible for legitimate science to reverse this process – to begin with a conclusion and subvert facts and logic to this belief. Institutions dedicated to a belief are not, by definition, scientific.

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Jan 23 2008

Skepticism and Free Speech

Skeptics are in the game of criticism, and often their criticism is sharp, uncompromising, and deep. In fact, that is often the point – to use logic and evidence like a surgical scalpel to cut away nonsense, superstition, and sloppy thinking. This is what scientists do every day, because the culture of science understands this is a necessary process for progress within a system that values truth above all.

The recipients of skeptical criticism, however, often do not value truth as we do. Gurus and charlatans like to set themselves up as authorities and savants beyond criticism. Sometimes they are just too childish to take a dose of reality in the face. This may lead them to fight back against skepticism – which is fine. Argue away, I always enjoy a good verbal tussle.

Other times, however, the targets of skeptical criticism fight back dirty, by using the threat of legal action as an intimidation tactic to silence their critics. Sylvia Browne has done this against Robert Lancaster from Recently the Society for Homeopaths pulled the same trick against Le Canard Noir who writes the Quackometer Blog. Both of these attempts at silencing free speech ultimately failed.

Now, I learn from Orac that Le Canard Noir has again been targeted, this time by a dubious nutritionist named Dr. Joseph Chikelue Obi. Obi (no relation to Kenobi) has threatened Le Canard Noir’s webhost with a lawsuit, demanding a £1 million a day penalty unless pages about him and his highly dubious activities are removed from their server. The ISP instantly caved.

So, as a show of solidarity for skepticism and free speech, and at the kind request of Orac, I will repost the offending blog entries here. Enjoy.

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11 responses so far

Jan 22 2008


Recently, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) decided to launch a detailed study into the nature of Morgellons, also known as unexplained dermopathy. On their website they write:

Considering the complexity of this condition, we believe that a measured and thorough approach offers the best chance for finding useful answers. To learn more about this condition, CDC is conducting an epidemiologic investigation.

Morgellons is certainly a very interesting medical entity, as the many questions I have received about this enigmatic condition indicate. Briefly, those who suffer from Morgellons have a chronic sense of itching and tingling under their skin. This sensation leads to scratching. The dermatological manifestations include open sores, and there have been reports of strange fibers extruding from these sores. Sufferers also often exhibit psychiatric symptoms, such as anxiety.

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20 responses so far

Jan 21 2008

Cloned Beef

Published by under General Science

The FDA has declared that cloned beef and milk are probably safe. This announcement was based upon a review conducted by the National Research Council at the request of the FDA. For the last several years the meat industry has upheld a voluntary moratorium on the sale of products from cloned animals. Some fear that this new announcement by the FDA is premature and will lead to the lifting of the moratorium. Others hail the announcement as a sign of welcome progress. Meanwhile, the majority of Americans are weary about cloned product amid widespread misunderstanding. So what’s the deal with cloned beef?

The basics of cloning is this – the process begins with a newly fertilized embryo, which has the potential to develop into a mature animal. The nuclear DNA, the instructions for making the entire organism (almost), is then removed from the embryo. It is then replaced with the DNA from the cell of an existing mature animal. The result is an almost exact duplicate of the mature animal from whom the donor DNA was taken.

I qualified the above with a couple of “almost’s” because nuclear DNA is not the complete list of instructions for making a grown animal – a small amount of DNA is mitochondrial, found in the small organelles inside cells that are responsible for energy production. Also, clones differ from their “parent’ in that they did not develop in the same womb, and the environment of the womb has an effect on development. In fact, identical twins are more similar to each other than clones.

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6 responses so far

Jan 18 2008

Homer Pareidolius

Published by under Neuroscience

On January 14th the Messenger spacecraft made its closest approach to the planet Mercury. As a reward for our technological prowess and and inclination for discovery we are receiving beautiful images of this small and cratered world. We always expect to be surprised when we turn our instruments in a new direction – in fact we would be disappointed if we were not confronted with something new and unforseen. Even still, I don’t think the NASA astronomers were quite expecting to see the mug of Homer Simpson staring back at them from the surface of Mercury. (see image below the fold)

Then again, maybe they did. Well, at least by now they should expect that the swirls, craters, ridges, and other geological structures they view on the surface of alien worlds may sometimes, quite by random chance, look like something familiar. This is now a well-known phenomenon called pareidolia – seeing a face or a familiar shape in random patterns. Everyone is familiar with seeing a face or animal shape in the clouds or on the bark of a tree or in an oil stain. That is pareidolia.

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20 responses so far

Jan 17 2008

UFO’s Over Texas

When I heard a long segment reporting on the recent UFO sighting over Stephenville, Texas on NPR I knew this was one UFO story that was getting a lot of media play. Such sightings are common, and often make a small splash in local media, but for some reason this story was making the mainstream media rounds.

This ABC article reports:

The residents of Stephenville, Texas, claim to have seen a UFO, described as a mile-wide, silent object with bright lights, flying low and fast. So what was it?

What did the residents really see? Actually, they do not describe seeing a spaceship or any kind of craft or even a solid object. What they saw, by their own accounts, were lights in the sky. Common optical illusions and a dab of imagination did the rest.

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6 responses so far

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