Archive for November, 2007

Nov 14 2007

The Judgement of Tiktaalik

Published by under Creationism/ID

Yesterday the NOVA special: Judgment Day, Intelligent Design on Trial, aired on PBS. It was an excellent documentary of the Kitzmiller vs Dover intelligent design trial of 2005. The producers did not attempt false balance, but they did allow the ID proponents to defend themselves in their own words. I think this was very effective, actually. The ID proponents condemned themselves much more than the commentary of others could have. They mostly whined about how they are being treated unfairly, and about the dominance of “Darwinism” in public education.

In the documentary, as in the trial, and as in science itself, the defenders of evolution were able to marshal actual science and evidence. The documentary focussed briefly on one piece of evidence that was not presented in the trial because it was discovered during the trial – making the point that even as the trial was ongoing further evidence was coming in to support the fact of biological evolution. This new evidence was the amazing transitional fossil called Tiktaalik.

Creationists often charge that there are no transitional fossils, and evolution predicts that the fossil record should be chock full of them. The claim is patently false, and stems mostly from a straw man concept of what a transitional fossil would be. (The most ridiculous example of this is Ray Comfort’s crocoduck.) A transitional form is not some incredible monster. In fact all species are transitional, in that they occupy a morphological position between related species. Fossil transitional species may occupy a position between an ancestral species or group and their descendants.

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Nov 13 2007

Alternative Medicine and the Evolution Analogy

Martin Rundkvist at Aardvarchaeology wrote an interesting blog entry looking at the cultural phenomenon of CAM (complementary and alternative medicine) from the point of view of Darwinian selective pressures. He argues that CAM modalities are under two types of negative selective pressures – to minimize harm and to avoid being co-opted by mainstream medicine, and that these two selective pressures produce CAM modalities that are optimized for zero-effect.

The notion of CAM as a cultural meme that evolves is very apt – an evolutionary analogy I have used myself. Culture and ideas certainly evolve, and it is a very useful exercise to think about the selective pressures that drive this evolution. The marketplace is also a system that evolves, and CAM very much exists within the market system.

I think Rundkvist has hit upon two real pressures, but we can take this evolutionary analysis much further. Orac has also blogged about Rundkvist’s original entry, arguing that these two negative selective pressures are not very important because CAM modalities never go extinct – they persist even if they are harmful or versions of them become scientific.

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Nov 09 2007

Judgment Day – Intelligent Design on Trial

Published by under Creationism/ID

On November 13th at 8pm NOVA will be airing a program called Judgment Day, a documentary about the Kitzmiller vs Dover intelligent design trial of 2005. By all accounts it sounds like it is going to be an excellent program, so I recommend watching it (don’t forget to set the TIVO).

I am glad to see that PBS is taking a strong pro-science stance with this program. Their website also provides important resources – such as a discussion of what science is and why ID is not science, and it links to evidence for transitional forms in the fossil record.

Good for the producers of NOVA for not falling into the trap of a misguided attempt at “balance.” In science not all sides are equal – they are not just differences of opinion or values. In science some answers are better than others. In the case of evolution vs all forms of evolution denial (such as creationism/ID), there is an enormous asymmetry. Evolution is a robust rigorous science, and creationism/ID is a pack of distortions of fact, cherry picking of data, logical fallacies, and very sloppy thinking.

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Nov 08 2007

Placebo Myths Exposed

In a recent Slate article, Darshak Sanghavi exposes the mythology surrounding the placebo. He correctly points out that the common belief that the “placebo effect” is primarily a mind-over-matter real physical healing is nothing more than a myth. Reviews of the medical literature show that for subjective symptoms, especially pain, there is a decrease in the the reporting of such symptoms by about 30% with placebo, or inactive, treatment. However, for biological or objective outcomes, like survival from cancer, there is no significant or measurable placebo effect – sugar pills do not increase your chance of surviving cancer.

Rather than a placebo effect, there is, rather, a trial effect – namely the fact that a patient is enrolled in a clinical trial will improve their outcome. This is due to a host of factors – being in a trial means getting more medical care and attention, and it inspires patients to think more about their care and thereby to take better care of themselves, for example by being more compliant with their treatments. In those trials where a placebo group was further compared to a group without a real treatment or placebo treatment – an observation group – there is no difference in outcome between placebo and observation groups.  So getting the placebo had no advantage – the belief that one was being treated was not enough to cause a real biological healing.

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Nov 06 2007

Homeopathy, Anecdotal Evidence, and Plausibility

Reader “Pragmatic” left the following comment on my recent homeopathy entry and I wanted to respond to it because it is very typical of what I hear from homeopaths to defend their “craft”. A decent response would be long enough for a blog entry in itself, so that’s what I did.

Steve (and all), I very well understand your feeling that “homeopathic theory makes no sense and is not even internally consistent.” I remember those feelings well from my early days (and years) as a homeopathic patient, and then as a homeopathy student. (I am now a friends-and-family practitioner.) But I persisted because over and over I saw it work, in some cases for conditions for which “everything else” had already failed. (Hay fever and other allergy; mental imbalance; behavior disorders; ADD; and a raft of more trivial complaints.)

As to the (apparent) lack of internal consistency, that is similar to the (apparent) lack of internal consistency in the field of physics, where different rules, observations, outcomes and etc. apply under different circumstances, and to different purposes (e.g. Newtonian versus quantum laws). In other words, what first appears to be “lack of internal consistency” turns out instead to be complexity, and the difficulty of learning enough of “the whole picture” to give useful context. In both cases, tho the connections are not immediately apparent, they are learnable.

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Nov 05 2007

Aluminum and Alzheimer’s

I have been hearing a lot of people talking about aluminum in deodorants (I think it’s aluminum sulfate that is the active ingredient? ), and that it results in a higher chance of developing Alzheimer’s disease. I doubt this claim, but don’t know of any scientific inquiry that either supports or disproves it. It just seems that with deodorant use being so widespread, a serious side-effect like this would have been detected, if by no other means, by the fact that we would have seen a huge surge in Alzheimer’s rates a little while after deodorants hit the market (whenever that was). Is there any truth to this rumor?Also, when I tell people my doubts on this, they often give the following response: “Whether or not it causes Alzheimer’s, it can’t be healthy to rub aluminum into your pores, so you are better off buying deodorants that do not include it (such as “natural” products)”. Isn’t this some kind of logical fallacy?Thanks so much for taking the time to read the email, and keep up the phenomenal work – I’ll be listening!
All the best,
Zach M.

The Aluminum hypothesis of Alzheimer’s disease has been around for 42 years, and the current bottom line is that at present there does not appear to be a causal relationship between aluminum and Alzheimer’s disease (AD) but aluminum may still be playing a role in the severity of the disease. But there is still no definitive scientific answer – the story of aluminum and AD reveals the complexity of such questions, and exposes the quality and integrity of news sources that report on it.

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Nov 01 2007

Aspartame Safety and Internet Urban Legends

A chemical found in thousands of products is causing an epidemic of severe neurological and systemic diseases, like multiple sclerosis and lupus. The FDA, the companies that make the product, and the “medical industrial complex” all know about the dangers of this chemical but are hiding the truth from the public in order to protect corporate profits and avoid the pesky paper work that would accompany the truth being revealed. The only glimmer of hope is a dedicated band of bloggers and anonymous e-mail chain letter authors who aren’t afraid to speak the truth. Armed with the latest anecdotal evidence, unverified speculation, and scientifically implausible claims, they have been tirelessly ranting about the evils of this chemical for years. Undeterred by the countless published studies manufactured by the food cartel that show this chemical is safe, they continue to protect the public by spreading baseless fear and hysteria.

I could be talking (albeit sarcastically) about any of countless urban legends and false fears being foist on the public, abetted by the rapid communication afforded by the internet. But in this case I am talking about aspartame, an artificial sweetener in use since the early 1980’s. The notion that aspartame is unsafe has been circulating almost since it first appeared, and like rumors and misinformation have a tendency to do, fears surrounding aspartame have taken on a life of their own.

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