Archive for January, 2014

Jan 31 2014

Death Rate for Home Births

A new study publishes data from The Midwives Alliance of North America Statistics Project, 2004 to 2009. It is being presented as evidence for the safety of homebirths. The authors conclude:

“For this large cohort of women who planned midwife-led home births in the United States, outcomes are congruent with the best available data from population-based, observational studies that evaluated outcomes by intended place of birth and perinatal risk factors. Low-risk women in this cohort experienced high rates of physiologic birth and low rates of intervention without an increase in adverse outcomes.”

Unless, of course, you consider death an adverse outcome.

Their data show that the death rate for birth and up to six weeks following birth was 2.06 per 1000 overall (excluding fatal congenital anomalies), and 1.61 for low risk births. Amy Tuteur (the Skeptical OB) calculates from the CDC database that the same statistics for planned hospital births are 0.38 per 1000 for low risk births. That’s 4.2 x higher.

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14 responses so far

Jan 30 2014

Nutritional Content of Produce

Published by under General Science

This is a frequent question I receive that I have yet to address – is the nutritional content of our produce diminishing over time? The claim that our produce is less nutritious is often used as a reason to justify routine vitamin supplementation, and various other dubious health claims, or recommendations to eat locally or eat organic.

The answer is a clear, “it depends” followed by, “it’s complicated.”

There are three levels to this question I want to address: is the nutritional content of produce decreasing over time; if so, what’s the cause; and what should we do about it?

The most often study I see cited is this 2004 study by Davis et al – they examined the nutrient content of 43 crops from 1950 to 1999. They found:

As a group, the 43 foods show apparent, statistically reliable declines (R < 1) for 6 nutrients (protein, Ca, P, Fe, riboflavin and ascorbic acid), but no statistically reliable changes for 7 other nutrients. Declines in the medians range from 6% for protein to 38% for riboflavin. When evaluated for individual foods and nutrients, R-values are usually not distinguishable from 1 with current data. Depending on whether we use low or high estimates of the 1950 SEs, respectively 33% or 20% of the apparent R-values differ reliably from 1. Significantly, about 28% of these R-values exceed 1.

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23 responses so far

Jan 28 2014

Occam’s Razor vs Hickam’s Dictum

Every year since 1998 Edge magazine asks a large group of public intellectuals a provocative question and then publishes their answers. This year the question is: What Scientific Idea is Ready for Retirement?

Gerald Smallberg (Practicing Neurologist, New York City; Playwright, Off-Off Broadway Productions, Charter Members; The Gold Ring) gave as his answer, “The clinician’s law of parsimony.” He writes:

“As an absolute, the Law of Parsimony is floundering. Not because it is aging poorly, but rather because it is being challenged more and more by the complexity of the real world and its need for a valid counterweight. From my vantage point as a physician in the practice of clinical neurology, its usefulness, which has always been a guiding principle for me, can easily lead to blind spots and errors in judgment when rigidly followed.”

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56 responses so far

Jan 27 2014

Sucralose Fearmongering

It is easier to scare than reassure. We seem to be programmed for fear – fear of the unknown, of the “unnatural,” of things over which we have little control. Humans are what psychologists call “risk averse.” While the precautionary principle is fine, as far as it goes, risk averse decision-making can often lead to irrational decisions that are not in our best interest.

Food is a particular fear trigger because we also have the evolved emotion of disgust – a negative emotional reaction to the idea of exposure to or ingestion of contaminated or foul substances. The protective effects of this emotion are obvious, but it is a crude indicator rather than a precise toxicological detector.

Artificial sweeteners are a popular topic for stoking fears about what we eat. Aspartame has been a common target over the years, based on misinformation and distortion of the evidence.  More recently sucralose has been the target. Perhaps it’s because they have the word “artificial” right in the name. The industry uses the term “non-nutritive sweeteners” but this has not caught on in popular use.

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24 responses so far

Jan 24 2014

Debating Faith Healing

Published by under Logic/Philosophy

In Idaho since 2009 four children were allowed to die of treatable illnesses because their parents relied upon faith healing alone. Their families were members of the Followers of Christ.

These cases have sparked a renewed debate in Idaho about allowing parents to deny their children basic medical care based upon their religious beliefs. Idaho law currently contains this exemption:

 “Treatment by prayer or spiritual means alone shall not for that reason alone be construed to have violated the duty of care to such child.”

Lawmakers are discussing changing the law so that parents would be required to provide medical care, even if it conflicts with their religious beliefs. State Rep. Christy Perry, R-Nampa had this to say:

“This is about religious beliefs, the belief God is in charge of whether they live, and God is in charge of whether they die. This is about where they go for eternity.”

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187 responses so far

Jan 23 2014

Bigfoot Hoax – How Far Will It Go?

Published by under Pseudoscience

I admit I am curious to see how this will ultimately play out. Rick Dyer is at it again. In 2008 Dyer claimed to have found a dead bigfoot. He claimed that scientific analysis was coming, he had the body for investigation, he held a press conference promising evidence.

It was soon discovered that the bigfoot body was simply a rubber suit – the whole thing was a crude hoax, surprising only the most gullible bigfoot believers.

Amazingly, Dyer is now at it again. He claims to have shot and killed a bigfoot, that he has the body, that the BBC has footage of the whole thing, and that a team of scientists have thoroughly examined the body.

If his claims are true, then Dyer has the smoking gun evidence that bigfoot is real. Of course, at this point no nerd can resist quoting that Klingon saying, “Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.”

Does Dyer honestly expect anyone to believe that a proven bigfoot hoaxer really caught bigfoot this time? Where so many have failed before, a hoaxer alone has struck gold.

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22 responses so far

Jan 21 2014

A New Wrinkle on Change Blindness

I have discussed previously the phenomenon of change blindness – look at a picture which then winks off and then back on again. In between something may have changed. Would you detect it? Psychologist have found generally that people are pretty bad at detecting such changes.

Here is a nice demonstration of this phenomenon  by my colleague, Richard Wiseman. Just search for “change blindness” on Google and you will find many more.

Interestingly, if the change occurs without the picture winking off, in other words it occurs before our eyes, we are pretty good at detecting the change. Our attention is drawn to the change. But when the change occurs outside of our vision, we are bad at detecting that a change has occurred.

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23 responses so far

Jan 17 2014

Mithras and Jesus

Published by under Religion/Miracles

The phrase, “I think you’ll find it’s a bit more complicated than that,” is a good starting point for many skeptical discussions. I am not sure of the origins of the phrase, but I have heard it used frequently by my colleague, Ben Goldacre. I have used some form of it myself, and as it expresses a fairly basic skeptical concept, it has likely been independently used by many.

It is therefore difficult to say who “originated” use of that specific phrase as a rhetorical device. Most works are derivative to some degree, and the law recognizes that similar works can emerge from the culture without one being plagiarism.

When very specific details overlap, however, then some sort of direct copying (rather than just a common source of inspiration) is more likely.

I have encountered from many skeptical and atheist sources the claim that the Jesus mythology is heavily borrowed from pagan mythologies that predate Christianity; the Roman Mithras cult, for example. If true, this would be a sobering fact for any Christian.

Unfortunately, on close inspection it seems that the Mithras-Jesus claim has evolved into its own mythology. The error seems to be motivated by the desire to claim that the Jesus mythology was directly copied from earlier pagan mythologies. Therefore the claim is made that the mythologies overlap in specific details.

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37 responses so far

Jan 16 2014

Blood Type Diet – Disproved

Skeptics often confront various challenging situations. One is sophisticated spurious knowledge (or SSK – OK, I just made that up). These are elaborate systems that purport to describe some body of knowledge but which are ultimately based on nothing – they are completely disconnected from reality.

Astrology is a great example of this. There are several astrological systems that are very complex, include charts and diagrams, and follow a certain internal paradigm or logic and underlying philosophy. None of this prevents astrology from being 100% fantasy. There is no relationship between the positions of the planets and stars and the personalities or fates of humans, and no mechanism by which such a relationship might exist.

The problems with systems of SSK is that they can give the powerful illusion of real knowledge. Further, people can become highly invested (in many ways) in such systems making it difficult to abandon them. They can even become institutionalized.

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27 responses so far

Jan 14 2014

Inertial Propulsion and Other Delusions

Published by under Skepticism

Some ideas are so compelling and seductive it seems there will always be those who succumb to their siren song. We easily understand how transformative these technologies will be and can’t help feeling that if we work hard enough, we can achieve them – the panacea, free energy, anti-gravity, and regeneration to name a few.

Free energy and anti-gravity machines attract engineers and tinkerers who cannot help but think that if they can figure out the proper arrangement of moving parts, they can bypass the laws of physics. Over the decades they have produced often complex and sometimes elegant machines that seem like they might work, but always always they miss something subtle.

The pattern by now is very clear, and depressingly repetitive. The inventor spends years developing a machine to exploit some physical property, such as the interaction of magnets, or the seemingly funny physics of rapidly rotating systems. Their scale models seem to do what they are supposed to – usually they spin. At some point the inventor believes they are ready to show their incipient invention to the world, perhaps now they are ready to attract major investors to help build the full scale operating versions of their technology.

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22 responses so far

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