Archive for December, 2007

Dec 14 2007

Science Debate 2008

On the current episode of the SGU (Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe), our guest, Lawrence Krauss, mentioned that he is involved with an effort to have the presidential candidates for 2008 (in the general election, not the primaries) engage in a debate focusing on the many scientific issues that face Americans and with which our next president will have to contend. The effort is called Science Debate 2008.

This is a wonderful idea. We have mentioned this casually on our podcast in the past so I am glad that prominent scientists have banded together to spearhead this effort. You too can join the effort by signing up on the website. When each of the major parties has picked their nominee we will also need huge public pressure to make a science debate happen.

In fact, it’s such a good idea that we should have pushed for such a debate during the primary elections. During this earlier phase of the presidential run there are many more debates, and therefore it would have been easier to slip in another debate on science issues. During the general election typically there are 2-3 debates that are highly crafted and negotiated by both sides. It will be more difficult to add an extra debate on scientific issues, as important as that would be. This is why it is going to take a huge effort to make this happen.

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Dec 13 2007

Another Gap Filled – More Evidence for Eye Evolution

Published by under Creationism/ID

“If it could be demonstrated that any complex organ existed which could not possibly have been formed by numerous, successive, slight modifications, my theory would absolutely break down.”
– Charles Darwin, On The Origin of Species

The champions of Intelligent Design (ID) and its core argument, that of irreducible complexity, love quoting this line from the seminal work that launched the modern theory of evolution. One of their favorite targets for this line of argument is the modern vertebrate eye – a highly complex and sophisticated organ.

The classical creationist argument is the logical fallacy known as the argument from personal incredulity – they say, how could something so complex have evolved. ID (or neocreationism, as some call it) makes essentially the same argument but phrased in new lingo, calling the eye “irreducibly complex” – meaning it is too complex to have evolved, but more specifically that the eye could not work if it were any simpler, if any of its parts were missing.

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Dec 12 2007

Homeopathy Apologetics from Dana Ullman

In this stunningly absurd article Dana Ullman summarizes his new book: The Homeopathic Revolution. He begins with a bit of revisionist history by which he accuses the medical profession of revisionist history-making. He writes:

Historians commonly remark that whichever country wins a war or whichever worldview dominates another, the history is told through that country’s perspective or that dominant point of view. This is certainly true in the history of medicine.

The notion that what is accepted in modern medicine as scientific is the result of spoils having gone to the victors is positively post-modern. Ullman argues that mainstream medicine won a culture war against homeopathy and now uses its dominance to suppress homeopathy. The argument defies the history of science itself.

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Dec 11 2007

FDA Action – Better Late Than Never

I wrote last month about the PAPIMI machine, a fraudulent “energy healing” device being widely distributed despite the fact that the FDA had already determined that the marketing and use of the device constituted medical fraud. The story was written by staff writers for The Seattle Times who were doing real investigative journalism into health fraud. The piece was very refreshing – they felt no need for false balance or politically correct subservience to the latest fad pseudoscience. Instead they said – Hey, look at this. This is dangerous fraud. Why isn’t the FDA stopping this and warning the public?

Well, the FDA – in response to The Seattle Times article – has stepped up. They have revoked the registration of the device (I don’t understand why they didn’t do this before) which means that it is illegal to sell or distribute it. This, in turn, means they can shut down the American component of the distribution network of the PAPIMI, which is 4/5 of the network.

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Dec 10 2007

Acupuncture and Misdirection

Yet another study has been published allegedly showing that “acupuncture works.” The study is published in the journal Anesthesiology and looks at post operative nausea and vomiting. There are many problems, however, with the conclusions drawn from the study an it does not support the claims of acupuncture.

The study also represents a big problem with the complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) literature and movement – that it uses ultimately fictional categories of types of treatment and then blurs those lines in an attempt to promote the category. In fact the entire category of CAM itself is a political fiction (there are no underlying principles that define CAM as a category) and CAM proponents deliberately try to include within the CAM category things like nutrition and physical therapy (which are evidence-based and definitely not CAM) as a way of legitimizing the category. Typically proponents will extrapolate wildly from – nutritional therapy A works for disease B, therefore nutrition works, and therefore CAM works, since nutrition is part of CAM.

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Dec 07 2007

Applied Kinesiology and Self Deception

Take a look at this video. (Thanks to Jake Hall for sending me the link.) It is a sincere demonstration of an “alternative” modality known as applied kinesiology (AK), dreamed up by Chiropractor Dr. George J. Goodheart, Jr. . According to an AK website:

Applied kinesiology (AK) is a form of diagnosis using muscle testing as a primary feedback mechanism to examine how a person’s body is functioning. When properly applied, the outcome of an AK diagnosis will determine the best form of therapy for the patient. Since AK draws together the core elements of many complementary therapies, it provides an interdisciplinary approach to health care.

Without putting to fine a point on it, AK is utter nonsense – as close as we get in CAM to pure magical thinking. It is based upon no legitimate biological, physiological, or medical principles or evidence. The basic concept is that the muscles of the body will become weak when challenged in some way. As the video shows, the challenge can be from being in contact with a physical substance or from just thinking about a person, thing, or statement. If the substance it healthful or the person is good or the statement is true, then the muscles will remain strong. If they are toxic, bad, false, then the muscles will display weakness. How does this work, you ask? Well it all has to do with balance and energy. In other words – the same vague pseudoscientific mumbo jumbo that is common to so many CAM modalities. The legitimate science behind it is nonexistent.

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Dec 05 2007

Kirby Moves the Goalpost Again on Vaccines and Autism

We predicted it, and it has come to pass. Now that the evidence has laid to rest the dubious claims that thimerosal in vaccines causes autism, the antivaccine crowd is already planning the next phase of their pseudoscientific attack on vaccines. In a recent Huffington Post article, David Kirby writes:

But if thimerosal is vindicated, or shown to be a very minor player, then what about other vaccine ingredients? And what about the rather crowded vaccine schedule we now impose upon families of young children? And what about reports of unvaccinated children in Illinois, California and Oregon who appear to have significantly lower rates of autism? Shouldn’t we throw some research dollars into studying them?

At least now Kirby is admitting defeat on the thimerosal issue. He writes:

Finally, to all those who are going to post comments about the autism rates in California not coming down, following the removal of thimerosal from most vaccines: You are right. The most likely explanation is that thimerosal was not responsible for the autism epidemic. But that does not mean that it never harmed a single child.

Considering how shrill Kirby was in insisting that thimerosal was the cause of autism, including all the cries of conspiracy and malfeasance, this is quite an admission. It also should make a reasonable person wonder why Kirby should be taken seriously at all. But Kirby is not quite ready to give up on thimerosal completely. He is still holding out that future data will show thimerosal played some role, and he claims that we won’t really know the effects of removing thimerosal until 2011 (even though previously he was citing 2007 as the date).

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Dec 04 2007

“Trust Me, I’m Not a Doctor”

Mark, who writes the denialism blog, sent me this story that he blogged about the other day. It is the tale of an HIV+ mother who has bought into the HIV denial community’s paranoid rantings. In turn the HIV deniers have taken it upon themselves to give her some medical advice, including not treating her HIV, not testing her infant, and breastfeeding her infant. Mark correctly points out that the available data shows that breastfeeding carries a 12-15% risk of passing HIV from the mother to the child. Their advice, therefore, if taken, is likely to result in the untimely death of both the mother and her child.

As an aside, the story itself has not been verified and is based upon the anonymous postings of the alleged mother on an HIV denial forum. Whether or not the mother turns out to be real (perhaps it is someone baiting the HIV deniers, for example) is actually irrelevant, the advice given by the HIV deniers is real – meaning that it is the sincere advice they give to HIV+ mothers.

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Dec 03 2007

More on Dualism and Denial

Last week I wrote about dualism – the philosophical position that the mind is somehow more than or separate from the biological activity of the brain. I argued that dualists commit the same error in thinking as creationists when they doubt the causal relationship between brain an mind because we cannot fully explain how the brain causes mind, not recognizing that this is a separate question from does the brain cause the mind. In the same way creationists confuse scientific knowledge concerning how evolution works with the evidence for the fact of evolution. We can know that life evolved without knowing all the details of how, just as we can know that the mind is a manifestation of brain function without knowing all the details of how brain function creates the experience of mind.

In response to this post The Agnostic Blogger wrote this response. In it he writes:

Simply put, he does not understand the dualist’s position. The dualist usually begins with an assumption- the mind exists. Now, this mind displays properties that are unlike physical entities- rationality, volition, awareness. Furthermore, science has not found a neural correlate for consciousness, and it is very possible that they never will. And it is the dualists that are being unskeptical?

It is true that I have never separated out the various forms of philosophical dualism. I am not a philosopher and when I discuss philosophy it is only to the extent that it intersects science, as the question of dualism certainly does. Further, I am interested in how critics of science use philosophy, which often reveals how philosophy has trickled down to the popular culture. Interestingly, while taking me to task for not distinguishing various types of dualism the Agnostic Blogger carelessly uses the phrase “the dualist’s position” – let us, rather, agree that there is a spectrum of dualist positions.

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