Archive for November, 2008

Nov 27 2008

Happy Thanksgiving

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Happy Thanksgiving to all my American readers out there.

I am away this week at my in-laws. This means if I want internet access I actually have to go to the public library with my laptop. At least they have wireless, which is an improvement over past years. The library, however, is closed Thursday and Friday.

This is just a quick post to wish everyone well, and to let you know my next post will be on Monday. I will still put a post up at the Rogues Gallery for Sunday, and my usual two posts on Monday – here and at SkepticBlog.

Enjoy the turkey.

7 responses so far

Nov 26 2008

Water Magic

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Water has always been a common focus of snake-oil health cons and belief systems. There is certainly something appealing and wholesome about fresh, pure water. It is easy to feel, on a gut level, that water can be more than just healthy and necessary – that it may contain magical healing properties. Our near reverence for pure water also makes sense from an evolutionary point of view – access to potable water has likely been a limiting factor on survival and human population for most of history (and still is in much of the world today).

Health spas in centuries past featured mineral water, and then carbonated water. These follow the theme I will call “water plus” -wholesome water plus a little something extra for added healing.

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21 responses so far

Nov 24 2008

No Benefit from Gingko

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Gingko biloba is widely used as a supplement (even though it is really an herbal drug) to improve memory to help treat or prevent dementia. However, there are no quality trials showing that it is effective. This month in JAMA is published the results of a study that has been going on for the past 8 years looking at ginkgo in elderly patients. I have actually been waiting for these results for a while – a large and fairly definitive trial to end the debates about the significance of the preliminary data we have had so far.

The results did not surprise me – after following 3069 subjects for an average of 6.1 years, the study concluded:

In this study, G biloba at 120 mg twice a day was not effective in reducing either the overall incidence rate of dementia or AD incidence in elderly individuals with normal cognition or those with MCI. (MCI = minimal cognitive impairment)

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7 responses so far

Nov 21 2008

Uncommon IDiocy at Uncommon Descent

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I occasionally take down nonsense from the Evolution News & Views propaganda blog of the Discovery Institute, but I have been neglecting Uncommon Descent, a blog “serving the Intelligent Design community.” – i.e another propaganda blog for ID.

But recently, in two blog posts by Denyse O’Leary, they have taken on methodological naturalism and commented specifically on my blog, so a response is in order.  O’Leary is a Toronto-based journalist, and her style reflects both a lack of a scientific background and the worst aspects of polemic journalism.

In the first post you get a good sense of O’Leary’s tone right from the first paragraph:

Over at Neurologica blog, Steve Novella speculates about non-materialist neuroscience, about which he seems to have learned from New Scientist and the Discovery Institute’s News and Views blog. (I would have read books myself, but hey.)

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22 responses so far

Nov 20 2008

Random Reader Comments – Evolution, CAM, and Brain Death

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I am on a tighter than usual schedule this week because I have to produce two SGU podcasts, as I will be away next week for the Thanksgiving holiday. Further, there were some interesting reader comments I wanted to respond to at length, so I will need to make that into my post for today. (Fear not, I should be able to keep my usual posting schedule through the holiday.)

Back from the Dead

DrDirk wrote this comment on my post about Zak Dunlap, the boy who was pronounced brain dead but ultimately recovered, in my opinion because a serious mistake was made in reading a brain scan. DrDirk relates his personal and recent experience with a brain death issue at the same hospital and with the same doctor.

First, I do want to express my sincere sympathies for DrDirk, who is relating a personal recent tragedy – the death of his son and his son’s friend (both 20) last week after a 4 wheeler accident. Both boys were treated at Witchita General Hospital, where they were treated for severe brain injuries, without other significant injuries.

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13 responses so far

Nov 19 2008

Somali Autism Cluster

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Recently there has come to attention a potential cluster of autism cases among Somali immigrant in Minnesota and Sweden. If true, this could potentially be an important clue as to the pathophysiology of some types of autism.

Autism is unknown in Somalia, but the children of Somali immigrants in two communities in Minnesota and Sweden have reported higher numbers of cases than the general population. This suggests that there is an environment trigger – something they are getting or not getting in their new communities that is different than Somalia. This report indicates:

In Minneapolis, Somalis account for 6 percent of the city’s public school population, but make up 17 percent of early childhood special education students who have been labeled autistic, according to data aggregated by the Minneapolis Public Schools.

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25 responses so far

Nov 18 2008

Vitamin E and C Do Not Prevent Cancer

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A new long term study of vitamin E and C supplementation in a group of physicians showed no protective effect for either prostate cancer specifically or cancer in general. This is a disappointing result – it would be nice if a low risk intervention like vitamin supplementation would significantly reduce cancer risk, but it does not appear to be the case.

The results of the study were presented at the American Association for Cancer Research’s Seventh Annual International Conference on Frontiers in Cancer Prevention Research, and the press release states:

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16 responses so far

Nov 17 2008

Through the Looking Glass of Acupuncture Research

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Clinical research tends to follow a certain arc: first smaller and preliminary studies are done to see if there is a potential for a new treatment or approach, then larger and more tightly designed studies are done exploring the relevant research questions, and finally large, double-blind, placebo-controlled consensus trials are completed and the basic question of efficacy is settled.

In scientific jargon we often talk about the null hypothesis, the hypothesis that a new claim is not true, or in the context of medicine that a new treatment does not work. The question for a study is framed as follows: does the data support the rejection of the null hypothesis. This is not a subtle or unimportant distinction, it puts the burden of proof on demonstrating the positive new claim – that a treatment works. Unless the data compels us to reject the null hypothesis, it is retained as the default conclusion. Therefore, in these large and well-controlled trials, if the treatment does not work consistently and both clinically and statistically significantly better than placebo, we do not reject the null hypothesis. In practice we conclude that the treatment does not work and it is appropriately discarded in favor of better treatments or new ideas.

Unless of course you live in the alternate universe of acupuncture research (or more generally that of complementary and alternative medicine – CAM).

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6 responses so far

Nov 14 2008

Reflexology in UK Schools

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Reflexology is pure, unadulterated, grade-A nonsense. That isn’t stopping some UK schools from spending £90,000 to provide reflexology treatments for aggressive and anti-social behavior in students under 13. As reported by the Guardian, Lambeth council in south London is planning on spending taxpayer money on charlatans to address problem students.


Reflexology is based upon the belief that the body is divided into zones, and these zones are mapped on the hands and feet. The reflexology research website explains:

Reflexology is the physical act of applying pressure to the feet and hand with specific thumb, finger and hand techniques without the use of oil or lotion. it is based on a system of zones and reflex areas that reflect an image of the body on the feet and hands with a premise that such work effects a physical change to the body.

This is an archaic homonculus or mapping-based system – the idea that one part of the body maps to the entire body. Iridology is another example – proponents believe that the flecks in the iris relate directly to specific organs or parts of the body.

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34 responses so far

Nov 13 2008

The Rise of Paranoia

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We are a paranoid species. It is simply part of the human program, fixed in our hardwiring, it’s in our nature (choose your metaphor). Of course that depends upon how you define paranoia. Like most human traits, it occurs along a spectrum. Almost everyone is at least a little paranoid, and some people are consumed by overwhelming paranoia.

Paranoia is the belief that others are out to get you, that there are people or forces conspiring against your interests. It is easy to see how having a modicum of such concerns would be adaptive. Sometimes there are people (our competitors or enemies) who are conspiring against us. Keeping an eye out for such threats is healthy, it enables us to foresee  potential problems in the future and work to prevent them.  Someone unable to consider the possibility that others are working against them are considered naive. They are likely to screwed over by peers and colleagues and taken advantage of at every turn.

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18 responses so far

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