Archive for March, 2009

Mar 17 2009

Scientific Literacy in the US

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Yet another poll shows how distressingly illiterate the average American is when it comes to science. Harris Interactive conducted a telephone survey for the California Academy of Sciences. The full results are not yet available (at least I could not find them anywhere), but here are some highlights in the press release:

Only 53% of adults know how long it takes for the Earth to revolve around the Sun.
Only 59% of adults know that the earliest humans and dinosaurs did not live at the same time.
Only 47% of adults can roughly approximate the percent of the Earth’s surface that is covered with water.
Only 21% of adults answered all three questions correctly.

That is pretty horrific, but in line with prior surveys.

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Mar 16 2009

Hyperbaric Oxygen for Autism

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A new study looks at the effectiveness of hyperbaric oxygen therapy in autism. The study is the first double-blind placebo controlled study of such therapy in autism and found a significant improvement in those children in the treatment group.

However, the treatment is very controversial and remains so, even after this study.

Hyperbaric oxygen therapy involves placing patients in a chamber with pressure increased above atmospheric pressure with an enriched oxygen content.  It has many legitimate medical applications, such as treating certain kinds of infection, but also has become popular among some as an unscientific treatment. It is offered by practitioners and chambers are even sometimes purchased by private individuals for their own family’s use.

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Mar 12 2009

Another Case of Scientific Fraud

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Today Bernie Madoff pleaded guilty to the largest case of financial fraud in history. He was taken to jail in handcuffs and will likely spend the rest of his life in prison for pulling off a $65 billion Ponzi scheme. The tendrils of his deception have touched numerous people and organizations – wiping out personal fortunes, bankrupting charities, and probably leading to two suicides. Madoff is guilty of monumental sociopathic fraud.

But there is perhaps a bigger fraud story in the news this week also – not bigger in dollars but in the betrayal of trust. Anesthesiologist Scott S. Reuben, MD, of Baystate Medical Center in Springfield, MA is being accused of fabricating data on 21 published studies.

The Fraud

Reuben has been a leading researcher into what is called multimodal analgesia, specifically for post-operative pain management. Essentially, rather than simply sedating patients with narcotics, Reuben advocated using non-steroidal antiinflammatory analgesics (NSAIDS, or aspirin-like drugs) and neuropathic pain agents, like pregabalin. His published research showed the efficacy of this multimodal approach, which has been widely embraced.

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Mar 11 2009

Duchy Originals Detox Tincture

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If I tried to invent a product name that evoked the sense of patent-medicine snake oil from the 19th century I don’t think I could have done a better job. Duchy Originals detox tincture is just one more of thousands of snake oil products being marketed to the public with dubious health claims. Except this one is backed by the Prince of Wales.

The con is an old one – virtually random ingredients are put into a pill, elixir, tincture, or salve and sold with incredible hype but no science. So-called snake oil marketers have a long tradition of knowing their marks and the market. Claims are designed to appeal to the broadest market, to have maximal allure, and to be just vague enough to evade any pesky regulations that may be in effect. Claims also tend to follow recent fads, using the buzz-words that are hot, and often try to wrap cutting-edge sciency terms in the cloak of ancient wisdom.

Oh, and celebrity or pseudoauthoritarian endorsements help, too.

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Mar 10 2009

Obama on Science

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Obama signed an executive order yesterday lifting the ban on embryonic stem cell (ESC) research. No surprise there – it was highly anticipated that he would remove Bush’s ban on federal funding for such research.

Obama, however, decided to sweeten the deal by adding a memorandum regarding science in general. He wants to shield the scientific process from ideological intrusion. This is a very good thing – a principle with which I heartily agree.

Harold Varmus, who co-chairs Obama’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology, is quoted as saying:

“We view what happened with stem cell research in the last administration as one manifestation of failure to think carefully about how federal support of science and the use of scientific advice occurs,” Varmus said. “This is consistent with the president’s determination to use sound scientific practice, responsible practice of science and evidence, instead of dogma in developing federal policy.”

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Mar 09 2009

Neurometaphysics – BS In A Cheap Suit

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Dr. Joe Vitale is not a real doctor, in any sense of the word. He went to Kent State but failed to graduate. Then he received a “doctorate” in metaphysics from the unaccredited University of Metaphysics in Sedona, Arizona (America’s epicenter of woo). He also has an honorary doctorate from (also unaccredited) Belford University, an online diploma mill.

This guy wants to bring you the secret of neurometaphysics. Neurometaphysics is nothing more than a fancy name for “The Secret” – the magical belief that wishing for something makes it come true.

To any thinking person that’s probably all that needs to be said about it, but the window dressing is interesting. Promoters of The Secret claim they have discovered the “Law of Attraction” (LOA) – which is the power of positive thinking. Not in the ordinary sense that if you are a positive person you are more likely to be motivated and create opportunities for yourself, but in the overtly magical sense that the universe will respond to your positive energy and make this happen – by magic.

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Mar 06 2009

Science-Based Medicine Conference

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My colleagues and I will be holding a Science-Based Medicine conference on Thursday, July 9th. This is an all-day conference covering topics of science and medicine. The conference is designed for both a professional and general audience.

The conference will be at the Southpoint Casino and Hotel in Las Vegas, Nevada. It is also part of The Amazing Meeting 7 (TAM7) which is run by the James Randi Educational Foundation (JREF). You can register for the conference either separately or packaged with TAM7.  You can register for both here.

Physicians can earn 6 hours of category 1 CME credits for attending the conference.

Below is the list of speakers and the titles of their talks, and below that is the bio for each speaker.

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Mar 05 2009

Depth or Breadth in Science Education

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A new study by Robert Tai of the University of Virginia compares students who studied broad science topics to those who studied fewer subjects but to greater depth. He found that those who studies few topics to depth performed better in college science classes. This raises some interesting questions for science education.

One thing there seems to be broad agreement on is that we need better science education. Not everyone agrees how to accomplish that goal – whether through better textbooks, better teachers, more multimedia approaches, or more hands-on learning. There is a surfeit of opinions but a scarcity of outcome data. There is some but not enough to squelch the diversity of opinions based largely on ideology and experience.

I have a personal and professional interest in this question. I am a science teacher at the post-graduate (i.e. medical school) and professional level. I also popularize science through my podcasts, blogs, and lectures. And I am also the father of two daughters (currently aged 9 and 6) and am actively involved in their science education, as well as monitoring their public school science education.  What this means is that I have strong opinions about science education, but also wish them to be better informed by actual evidence. So I always take an interest when these types of studies come out.

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Mar 04 2009

Tom Harkin Tips His Hand

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My primary blog post today (as every Wednesday) is over at Science-Based Medicine. But I wanted to reinforce a very important point we have been discussing over there regarding Senator Tom Harkin.

Harkin, along with Orrin Hatch, was the force behind DSHEA – the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act of 1994 that removed herbs and supplements, essentially, out from under FDA regulation. This resulted in the explosion of the supplement industry, happily jumping through this giant loop hole manufactured for them.

DSHEA is bad law and has significantly weakened health protection for Americans. Harkin is clearly a true-believer when it comes to supplements and cultish medical practices. However, the top contributor to his campaign in 2007-2008 was from employees of Herbalife, a multi-level marketing company selling supplements and herbs with dubious health claims. Hatch’s home state is Utah, which is considered to be the epicenter of the supplement industry.

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Mar 03 2009

Designer Babies

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About a year and a half ago I wrote a post about techniques to select the sex of your child. The gist is this – it is possible to select with almost 100% accuracy the sex of your child if you are conceiving through IVF (in-vitro fertilization). However, there are no home-kits or other techniques on the market that work. There are sperm-sorting technologies (the sex of a child is determined by the sperm from the dad, not the egg from the mom) being developed and in clinical trials, but nothing yet on the market that I have seen.

At the time I speculated that such technology is likely to progress to disease prevention and then to selecting desirable traits not directly related to health. And then further to genetic engineering.

Well, an IVF clinic in the US has made a significant step in that direction, and the predictable controversy has ensued. The Fertility Institutes are now offering their clients the ability to select certain traits, like hair and eye color, of the eggs they implant.

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