Archive for July, 2009

Jul 15 2009

Texas Update

Published by under Evolution

We have been following the saga is Texas for a few years now – Texas is one of the major battlegrounds between science and ideology in education. The Texas board of education has been roughly evenly split between those dedicated to science and those dedicated to promoting their religious views through public education, specifically by attacking the teaching of evolution and cosmology and trying to sneak in creationist arguments.

Recently we heard the good news that the Chairman of the Texas BOE, Don (“someone has to stand up to those experts”) McLeroy, was removed as Chairman.  This was nice, but I did not get too excited – governor Rick Perry, who appointed McLeroy in the first place, is still in office.

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Jul 14 2009

Calorie Restriction for Life Extension – in Primates

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I have been following the research in this area – using calorie restriction to extend the life span by slowing the aging process. This has been demonstrated for decades now in several species: mice, yeast, and roundworms. The big question has always been – does this research apply to humans. There are those who are banking on the answer being yes, but the data is just not in.

Previous research suggests we may not be able to extrapolate this research to humans. One of the correlates of life extension in mice with calorie restriction is reduced levels of the hormone IGF-1.  However, humans on a restricted calorie diet did not have reduced levels of IGF-1. We do not yet understand enough about the effects of calorie restriction and their relationship to life extension to know exactly what this means.

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Jul 13 2009

Skeptical Volunteerism

Published by under Uncategorized

Like many others, I am just returning from The Amazing Meeting 7 – TAM has evolved over the last few years into the premiere meeting of the skeptical movement. I know there are many people who wanted to attend but could not, so for you I will point out that this year the JREF experimented with Ustreaming part of the conference. So you can get a dose of TAM skeptical goodness from the comfort of your computer screen.

But, I must say, for me the best part of these meetings is just being in a room with a thousand skeptics, some of whom are friends that I only get to see once or twice a year, including my fellow Skeptologists. There is also an energy to live meetings that, in my opinion, cannot be matched online.

It also struck me this year that many attendees approached me to ask what they can do to contribute to our efforts and the skeptical movement as a whole. They feel the energy of this growing movement and want to be part of it.

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Jul 09 2009

Growing Sperm from Stem Cells

Published by under Uncategorized

British scientists have recently published their work claiming to have grown human sperm cells from an embryonic stem cell (ESC).

They took an embryo donated from an in vitro fertlization (IVF) clinic and they incubated the embryo, allowing it to grow and divide. They were able to tag the germline cells, those destined to become sperm, and separate those. They were able to coax them into meiosis, forming mature adult sperm cells.

This same group accomplished the same feat with mice in 2006. Now for the first time they have applied their technique to a human embryo.

This is an interesting advance in ESC technology. The obvious application of this specific technology would be in treating male infertility. However, using ESC would not be useful for this application. The donated embryo would be the father of any children resulting from sperm grown with this method. And of course if a man has a fertility problem, they could not have donated the sperm to make the embryo in the first place, and if they could they wouldn’t need this process.

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Jul 07 2009

Everything Old Is New Again

Published by under Uncategorized

The Welcome Collection in central London is holding an exhibit and show of “Quacks and Cures” – exploring quaint quack remedies of the past. You can watch a slideshow presentation here.

I find discussions of curious cures from the past particularly interesting these days as it always strikes me how little has changed. This show is another example of how people can marvel at the naivete of the public a century or more ago in the face of obvious patent medicine scams or bizarre medical treatments – and yet they are really no different than many alternative medicine and supplement industry claims of today.

The only thing that has changed, slightly, is the particulars of the marketing – the slogans and catch-phrases that were common. The advertisement for Parker’s Tonic asks, “Are you weary in brain and body?” and claims to work by “rejuvenating the blood.” This is actually less bizarre than therapeutic touch practitioners claiming to strengthen your human energy field.

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Jul 06 2009

The New Journalism

Published by under Uncategorized

A recent spat between journalist Steve Conner and science blogger Ben Goldacre brings into focus the rapid changes journalism is facing. Conner, a science journalist, heard about a Skeptics in the Pub meeting that Ben was holding to discuss why the  “mainstream media’s science coverage is broken, misleading, dangerous, lazy, venal and silly.” Conner, apparently, took exception to that discussion.

Ben gives full details here, including a nice response to Conner, but here is Conner’s best rant:

But their arrogance is not new. Medical doctors in particular have always had a lofty attitude to the media’s coverage of their profession, stemming no doubt from the God-like stance they take towards their patients. Although I wouldn’t go as far as to say their profession is broken, dangerous, lazy, venal and silly – not yet anyway.

Ben took great pleasure in pointing out that while Conner was being defensive about criticism aimed at lazy journalists – he got the date of the meeting wrong and falsely assumed that the three speakers were all doctors when only one was. It is also interesting that Conner appears to have nothing but contempt for a profession that he covers as a journalist.
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Jul 03 2009

The Skeptics’ Daily Affirmation

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Avoid daily affirmations.

One of my favorite SNL skits was Daily Affirmation with Stuart Smalley, played by Minnesota’s new junior senator.  The humor of the skit, as is often the case, was in the fact that it was just a slight exaggeration of reality.

Smalley was a self-help guru whose schtick was the daily affirmation – psychotherapy through simple-minded positive self statements. His catch phrase was, “Because I’m good enough, I’m smart enough, and, doggonit, people like me!”He was a caricature of every insipid simple-minded pop psychologist peddling easy answers to people with problems for the entertainment of others.

Smalley was also an indictment of the self-help industry, which is all about substituting easy gimicks for real problem solving.  For a good overview, listen to our interview with Steve Salerno, author of SHAM – How the self-help movement made America helpless.

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Jul 02 2009

Your Baby Can Read – Not!

Published by under Skepticism

I have received numerous questions recently regarding the latest infomercial craze called Your Baby Can Read. This is a program that promises to teach infants and toddlers how to read, giving them a jump start on their education. Their website claims:

A baby’s brain thrives on stimulation and develops at a phenomenal pace…nearly 90% during the first five years of life! The best and easiest time to learn a language is during the infant and toddler years, when the brain is creating thousands of synapses every second – allowing a child to learn both the written word and spoken word simultaneously, and with much more ease.

This is mostly true – in fact the first four years of life is not only the best time to learn a language, it is the only time that language itself can be acquired. If a child is completely deprived of exposure to language during this time the neuro-developmental window will close.  People can still, of course, learn second languages after the age of four, but it is more difficult and their brains will never be as hard-wired for those second languages as they are for a primary language learned before age four.

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Jul 01 2009

High Fructose Corn Syrup – The Latest Nutritional Boogeyman

Published by under Uncategorized

Much of the public’s attention regarding the rising incidence of obesity and issues related to weight control in general has been focused on good foods vs bad foods. Most popular diets are based upon the premise that the kinds of foods one eats is a dominant factor in determining weight – low carb vs low fat, for example.

Meanwhile, there is a growing body of scientific evidence, approaching consensus, that by far the dominant factor in weight control is the amount of calories one consumes, not the form in which those calories come. The best science-based nutritional advice for weight control seems to be – exercise regularly and practice portion control. For other health concerns, like heart health and avoiding diabetes – eat a well-balanced diet and get more of your calories from plants than animals.

That’s it in a nutshell, but it is hard to sustain a multi-billion dollar weight loss and self-help industry with such simple advice.

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