Archive for December, 2009

Dec 17 2009

“Intrepid, Ragged Band of Bloggers” take on CAM

“When someone comes in with a vague sense of unease, or a touch of the nerves, or even just more money than sense,  you’ll be there for them – bottle of basically just water in one hand, and a huge invoice in the other.”

Mitchell & Webb

David Colquhoun published an excellent editorial this week in the British Medical Journal (BMJ) in which he looks back at the last 100 years of “secret remedies.” He points out that a century ago the medical establishment and government regulators tried to protect the public from unscientific patent remedies, but those efforts were anemic, and eventually faded away. Now we are in the midst of a resurgence of unscientific remedies, and those who should be protecting the public health are not even mounting a half-hearted defense.

David refers to an “intrepid, ragged band of bloggers” along with a few journalists who are the only ones pointing out the folly of abandoning the science-based standard of care in medicine. He writes:

One hundred years on from the abortive efforts to crack down on patent remedies, we need to look again at the efficacy of remedies. Indeed the effort is well under way, but this time it takes a different form. The initiative has come largely from an “intrepid, ragged band of bloggers” and several journalists, helped by scientific societies. It hasn’t been helped by the silence of the BMA, the royal colleges, the Department of Health, and a few vice chancellors.. Even the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE) and the Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency (MRHA) could be helping more.

The response of the royal colleges to the resurgence in magic medicine that started in the 1970s looks to me like embarrassment. They avoided the hard questions by setting up committees (often populated with known sympathisers) so as to avoid having to say “baloney.” The Department of Health, equally embarrassed, refers the hard questions to the Prince of Wales’ Foundation for Integrated Health. It was asked to draft “national occupational standards” for make believe subjects like “naturopathy”).

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Dec 16 2009

Steorn Still At It

Published by under Pseudoscience

Steorn is an Irish company that in 2007 promised to demonstrate their “over-unity” technology – called “Orbo”. That’s a fancy way of saying that they made a perpetual motion machine, or free energy, or that they discovered a way to break the pesky laws of thermodynamics. The demonstration failed – not, they argued, because their fundamental concepts were flawed, but because of a bad ball bearing.

In the last two and a half years they have teased the world, and their investors, with a carrot and stick routine – their promised demonstrations were always just down the road, as soon as they fixed some minor technical glitch.

Earlier this year an independent jury of scientists reviewed Steorn’s Orbo technology and concluded that it was bogus (surprise, surprise).

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Dec 15 2009

Biocentrism Pseudoscience

Writing for the Huffington Post, Deepak Chopra and Robert Lanza promote the notion of “biocentrism” – “that an accurate understanding of the world requires putting observers firmly into the equation, and that life may not be the accident of physics and chemistry that evolution suggests.”

This idea is really nothing new – it is a transparent abuse and misunderstanding of modern physics and quantum mechanics in order to insert mysticism into science.

They begin with what is known as the anthropic principle:

Why, for instance, are the laws of nature exactly balanced for life to exist? There are over 200 physical parameters within the solar system and universe so exact that it strains credulity to propose that they are random — even if that is exactly what contemporary physics baldly suggests. These fundamental constants (like the strength of gravity) are not predicted by any theory — all seem to be carefully chosen, often with great precision, to allow for existence of life. Tweak any of them and you never existed.

We currently have no idea why the laws of the universe are the way they are. We also don’t know if they have to be the way they are, or if there are many, perhaps infinite, variations and the universe we know is just one. Is the mass of an electron always the same? Is the gravitational constant different in every universe? Are there even other universes?

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Dec 14 2009

Still On That Low-Carb Diet

I have never been a fan of the low-carb diet craze – Atkins, South Beach, or whatever version you prefer. To me this was always a triumph of marketing over science. It is also an excellent example of how public opinion can be largely swayed by a few proponents and a compliant media, while the science goes off unnoticed in a different direction.

Dieting is also one of those issues that is more emotional than one might at first think. I have had the experience on more than one occasion of giving someone, in a very dry and calm fashion, my assessment of the evidence about low-carb diets, only to be met with righteous anger as if I had just trampled on a core tenet of their faith.  People are often touchy about what they eat and how much they weigh, and for those who have lost weight and credit a low-carb diet, the published evidence seems irrelevant. “Well, it worked for me” is the almost ubiquitous response.

I also think that people have far too much confidence in their ability to estimate their own caloric intake. The suggestion that perhaps they consumed fewer calories on the low-carb diet and that was responsible for their weight loss is met with outright denial.

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Dec 10 2009

The Spiral Lights of Norway

Published by under UFO's / Aliens

As many of my readers/listeners know, I am an amateur birder. What this means is that if I see a bird at my feeder (or anywhere, for that matter)  it immediately captures my interest. If my camera is handy, I will reach for it as fast as I can (having a permanent picture to consult makes later identification much easier). Of course, if I see a bird I cannot identify I don’t assume it is the controversial ivory-billed woodpecker, and I certainly would not claim it is a phoenix or something supernatural.

Likewise, if you look up into the sky and see a light or even an object you cannot identify, that is an interesting experience, and is certainly worth grabbing your camera. But (as skeptics are fond of pointing out) your inability to identify the object does not mean it is an alien spacecraft.

It does mean, apparently, that local news stations will show up to grab some video and interview witnesses so they can write headlines like, “Local witnesses baffled by UFO.” To the media, any strange light in the sky is a UFO.

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Dec 09 2009

Some Craziness from the Disco-Tute

Published by under Creationism/ID

After writing my weekly post for science-based medicine, I decided to check out the rantings over at the Discovery Institute’s blog, the grossly misnamed Evolution News & Views. This anti-science propaganda blog offers a “target-rich environment” for skeptics – so much so that I must resist being drawn into their black hole of pseudoscience and maddening illogic. <obscure Star Trek reference>They could fry Norman in a nanosecond. </obscure Star Trek reference> (btw – if you combine a computer geek and Star Trek geek joke in one sentence, you get double points, sort of like scrabble.)

My problem is that the nonsense is so thick over there that it is a bit overwhelming. So I’m just going to do a quick fly-by of some of their posts.

Egnor is Back

My favorite creationist neurosurgeon, Michael Egnor, is back with a vengeance. He has written 27 blog entries in the last two weeks all about ClimateGate. Wow – I guess he has some time on his hands. These are among the most shrill and ridiculous opinions I have seen expressed on this issue, amid stiff competition. He writes:
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Dec 08 2009

Update on Cell Phones and Brain Cancer

A new study does not show any increase in brain tumors associated with increased cell phone use. This is just the latest bit of evidence of a large literature showing some mixed results, and it is far from definitive – but it is a bit reassuring.

The concern is that radiation from cell phone use, over years, increases the risk of brain tumors. I have summarized this research previously. Essentially, the evidence fails to find any increased risk of brain tumors for cell phone use of less than 10 years. For exposure of more than 10 years the evidence is less clear – an increased risk has not been definitively ruled in or ruled out, and more research is needed.

A recent review of the literature of cell phone use an acoustic neuroma (one type of brain tumor) found that the literature is simply inadequate to answer the question, and made recommendations for the type of studies that should be done. A 2008 meta-analysis of studies (since my last review) of cell phone use and brain tumors found:

We found no overall increased risk of brain tumors among cellular phone users. The potential elevated risk of brain tumors after long-term cellular phone use awaits confirmation by future studies.

So it seems the state of the research has not fundamentally changed in the last two years – for long term exposure (>10 years) we still need more study. But the fact that the data is equivocal probably means that there is no large effect. Smaller effects are harder to rule out.

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Dec 07 2009

The Climategate Fiasco

In March of 2006 a female student and exotic dancer accused three Duke lacrosse players of raping her. In the following weeks media commentators wrote and spoke about the moral implications of this heinous crime. What does this mean about the moral fabric of our society, about the role of privilege, class, and justice? It seemed that everyone had their opinion about the meaning of this crime.

That is, right until it was revealed that the accusations were a hoax – there never was any crime. After the revelation there was barely a “nevermind” (ala Gilda Radner from SNL ) from those so free to moralize based upon the initial accusations. One exception was David Brooks who wrote:

Witch hunts go in stages. First frenzy, when everybody damns the souls of people they don’t know. Then confusion, as the first wave of contradictory facts comes in. Then deafening silence, as everybody studiously ignores the vicious slanders they uttered during the moment of maximum hysteria.

It feels to me, with the Climategate scandal, that we are in the frenzy stage of this witch hunt. But already the “first wave of contradictory facts” are coming in also.

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Dec 04 2009

Teaching How Science Works

Published by under Education

I and other science promoters have long advocated that science education needs to teach not just the current findings of science, but how science works – how we know what we know. Science is an intellectual  journey and a collection of methods, not a set of facts.

But facts are important too. Method without substance is hollow. Science is more of a dance between facts and ideas, and you need to know both, as well as how they interact, in order to do and understand science.

One conventional criticism of science education is that it emphasizes teaching facts and inadequately deals with process and theory. However, this criticism now appears to be outdated. Educators have gotten the word – teach process. In the UK this concept has been called HSW – How Science Works – and is a major part of the science curriculum.

Unfortunately, this has apparently not led to better science education, and perhaps even worse, all because of terrible execution.

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Dec 03 2009

Chopra Attacks Skeptics

Published by under Skepticism

Deepak Chopra, writing for (of course) the Huffington Post, laments about his critics that, “Most of my stinging darts come from skeptics.” So he has decided to attack skeptics and skepticism – a preemptive strike against his critics. Predictably he mangles scientific skepticism, and is content to attack a straw man and then declare victory.

He begins:

Over the years I’ve found that ill-tempered guardians of scientific truth can’t abide speculative thinking. And as the renowned Richard Dawkins has proved, they are also very annoyed by a nuisance named God.

Right of he starts by accusing skeptics of being “ill-tempered” as if we are all cynical curmudgeons. This is an unimaginative ad hominem (Chopra really wracks up the logical fallacies in this post). Many of the skeptics I know are actually quite mild-mannered, even overly nice. Chopra confuses, perhaps, sharp scientific criticism with emotion. This is a common mistake among those who are not adequately familiar with the scientific process – it is a relentless meatgrinder of criticism and does not abide illogic or sloppiness – and that’s a good thing.  Beware of those who confuse scientific analysis and criticism with being mean.

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