NTS LogoSkeptical News for 2 April 2004

Archive of previous NTS Skeptical News listings

Friday, April 02, 2004


The American Institute of Physics Bulletin of Physics News
Number 679 April 1, 2004 by Phillip F. Schewe, Ben Stein

THE CORE-MANTLE BOUNDARY, halfway down to the center of the Earth, has become a bit more understandable because of new laboratory studies of the behavior of rock under pressure and because of new computer simulations predicting the existence of another polymorph of the mineral MgSiO3 that is more stable than the other phase previously known. Previous seismic assessment of the so called D" layer just above the core-mantle boundary has been puzzling geoscientists. The most prevalent mineral at great depths is MgSiO3, a mineral generally configured as a perovskite, a class of ceramic crystal in which three chemical elements in the ratio 1:1:3 form a distorted cubic structural unit. But some scientists believe that the perovskite cannot avoid dissociation amid the hard conditions at the core-mantle boundary. One lab study of perovskites subjected to the conditions of high pressures and temperatures that approximate the D" layer, indicated that the mineral had survived in a new form. In other words, the great pressures and temperatures bring about a phase transition in the mineral. The scientists, at the Tokyo Institute of Technology, scattered x rays from their sample in its squeezed form. The x-ray data has now been analyzed by collaborators at the University of Minnesota and the results, along with first principles calculations, were reported at last week's APS March Meeting in Montreal. Minnesota scientists Jun Tsuchiya, Taku Tsuchiya, Koichiro Umemoto, and Renata Wentzcovitch (papers L28.9 and L28.11) said that the new form of MgSiO3, called "post perovskite," should be stable at the D" layer. Its anisotropic structure, apparently unknown so far, could account for some of the seismic irregularities (changes in the speed of seismic waves) at those depths.

MIGRAINE SUFFERERS EXHIBIT "HYPERSYNCHRONIZED" BRAIN ACTIVITY compared to those without migraines, reported researchers at last week's APS March Meeting. Sebino Stramaglia of the University of Bari (Sebastiano.Stramaglia@ba.infn.it) and his colleagues in Italy and at Boston University in the US have found that the brains of people with migraines respond differently than those without migraines. The researchers flashed a series of repeating visual patterns to 15 healthy subjects and 15 migraine sufferers. In each of these human subjects, the visual patterns stimulated electrical signals in different regions of the brain. The brain responds with its own rhythms: as neurons fire simultaneously, the electrical responses add together. The resulting EEG signal is then broken down into various components, such as alpha rhythms (8-12.5 Hz) which are associated with quiet wakefulness with eyes closed. In patients with migraines, different areas of the cerebral cortex synchronized their alpha-wave signals much more closely with one another than those in healthy patients. Such synchronization patterns speak to the possibility of an over-active, "hyper-synchronized" regulatory mechanism in the brains of people who suffer from migraines. This finding might provide clues on what causes the severe headaches--and how to prevent them. (Paper W9.001)

DATING WATER AND TRACING BONES to high precision will be more widely available for geological and biomedical applications thanks to state-of-the-art atom counting techniques. In a pair of new papers, Zheng-Tian Lu of Argonne National Laboratory (lu@anl.gov) and his colleagues have demonstrated two new applications of Atom Trap Trace Analysis (ATTA; see Update 416), in which researchers trap desired isotopes with lasers and magnetic fields and then count them with laser techniques. ATTA has now been used to count krypton-81 atoms in groundwater samples in the ancient waters of the Sahara. Kr-81 (half life=229,000 years) is a rare isotope produced by the cosmic rays in the atmosphere, and accompanies more common forms of atmospheric krypton. Trapped in water underneath the Sahara, the abundance of Kr-81 relative to other Kr isotopes provides information on how long the water has been there. Extracting krypton from the Nubian aquifer in the western Sahara, and using the ATTA technique, the researchers found that the water's age ranges from 200,000 to a million years old, depending upon the sample location. In another application, researchers used ATTA to count individual calcium-41 atoms released from the bones of a human subject. This isotope is injected into osteoporosis patients and subsequent measurements of its abundance can be used to monitor bone loss and retention rates. Until now, medical researchers had to rely upon particle accelerators to perform this task. But the smaller and potentially cheaper ATTA is now precise enough to do the job, with the ability to detect one Ca-41 atom per 10^8-10^10 calcium atoms. With further increases in precision (in which one Ca-41 atom can be detected amidst 10^15 other calcium atoms) the technique could be ideal for archaeological dating (half-life of Ca-41 = 103,000 year) of ancient bones ranging from 50,000 to 500,000 years old. (Sturchio et al., Geophysical Research. Letters, 12 March 2004; and Moore et al., Physical Review. Letters., upcoming article)

PHYSICS NEWS UPDATE is a digest of physics news items arising from physics meetings, physics journals, newspapers and magazines, and other news sources. It is provided free of charge as a way of broadly disseminating information about physics and physicists. For that reason, you are free to post it, if you like, where others can read it, providing only that you credit AIP. Physics News Update appears approximately once a week.

'Spirits' move psychic to challenge skeptics


Sentinel Correspondent

Rebecca Rosen has a long waiting list of mere mortals and "pushy spirits."

The self-proclaimed psychic claims that a large number of souls, deceased and otherwise, are clamoring to speak with her.

"The spirits are pushy," said Rosen. "With an audience of 100 people there are hundreds of spirits in the room all trying get into one channel, which is me."

Rosen, who will hold a reading Saturday at the Pacific Cultural Center, claims she can communicate with deceased loved ones and bridge the gap between this world and the next. She doesn't "see dead people," but the spirits "impress" her with numbers or letters that she then translates for a willing crowd.

The process is called a "cold reading" and has gotten a cold reaction from many skeptics who say "mediums" provide vague information and rely on audience members to fill in the key details.

Rosen said this isn't the case, that she is picking up on the spirit's energy and helping people move forward with their grief.

Rosen, 27, said she became aware of her "gift" while mired in a deep depression in her early 20s. Still in college, and suffering from eating issues, she began looking for answers by writing in her journal. She says her grandmother, who committed suicide when Rosen was 11, began communicating with her.

Rosen believes the messages helped her move out of her depression.

"She said, 'I want you to find love within, once you find that you will find your soul mate,' " said Rosen.

Rosen said her grandmother gave her very specific ideas about the man she would marry. His name would be "Ryan," he would give her a rose and his birthday was Sept. 24. She later was introduced to Brian Rosen, whose birthday is Sept. 24, and the two were engaged seven months later.

Rosen now has a following, a long waiting list of clients who are hoping to reconnect with relatives who have died. She's also working to develop a TV show, and recently moved with her husband from Detroit to Santa Monica.

Psychics have seen an increase in popularity in the past decade.

According to a Gallup poll, the number of people who say they believe in psychics increased from 18 to 28 percent from 1996 to 2001.

Kevin Christopher, a spokesman for the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal, said the rise in popularity is due to "celebrity psychics" such as John Edward and Sylvia Browne, who are getting widespread media attention.

"It taps into major sources of regret, unresolved family feuds or discussions," Christopher said. "From a skeptic's take it's unfortunate. It may make somebody feel better, but it's a forced feeling of fulfillment."

Christopher said even if a medium believes they are helping someone, it raises an ethical dilemma. "Ultimately it boils down to can you really do what you say you do?" he said.

Rosen said she understands skeptics; she used to be one herself.

"I'm going to stop being aggravated by skeptics," Rosen said. "I'm going to focus on people I can help."

Lisa Lifrak of Aptos visited Rosen in Santa Monica for a private reading in October and said the experience was "very transformational and life-changing."

Lifrak's mother died when she was 18. Within the first minute of the session with Rosen, Lifrak said her mother "came through."

"I felt the presence of my mother," she said. "It made me feel like I had her back in my life."

Lifrak, a marriage and family therapist, says she would recommend sessions with Rosen to some of her clients. Private readings, which last 45 minutes, cost $225.

Ellen Coren, who is promoting Rosen's Santa Cruz visit, brought her 20-year-old daughter with her to a private reading in September and went back for another reading one month later.

"I have always been open to the other side," said Coren.

Coren said Rosen's readings affirmed that she was on the right track in her life.

"It was a confirmation that my spirit guides are here and they're working with me and through me," Coren said.

Rebecca Rosen will hold private readings in Santa Cruz on Friday and an audience reading from 1-3 p.m. Saturday at the Pacific Cultural Center, 1307 Seabright Ave. Tickets to the audience reading cost $25 in advance; $35 at the door. To purchase advance tickets or for more information call 425-1004. To find out more about Rebecca Rosen visit www.rebeccarosenmessengeroflight.com

Contact Amy Ettinger at a_ettinger@yahoo.com.

Copyright © 1999-2004 Santa Cruz Sentinel.

Penn and Teller are back on Showtime, taking aim


Posted on Thu, Apr. 01, 2004

There's plenty to criticize, and that is no aardvark

By R.D. Heldenfels

We are surrounded by aardvark.

Now, I'm not exactly talking about aardvark. I am referring to a two-syllable word that begins with bull. You can hear it often enough on 10 p.m. TV dramas. Penn & Teller have a Showtime series with the word in the title. But you're not going to read it here.

So, for our purposes, the second season of Penn & Teller: Aardvark! begins at 10 tonight on Showtime.

The title, as P&T's Penn Jillette once explained, is a legal nicety. If he and Teller (who goes by the one name) called someone a con artist, they could be sued. If they say that person's game is, well, aardvark, they make the same point without legal conflict.

And we all know there is plenty of aardvark out there.

When Condoleezza Rice went on the major news shows while declining to testify under oath to the 9/11 commission, people cried ``Aardvark!'' A deal was then made for her testimony.

Political ads for George W. Bush are saying John Kerry is full of aardvark, while Kerry's ads are claiming the aardvark is piled high around Bush.

When Ryan Seacrest declared a week ago that 30 million people were watching American Idol, he knew he was slinging aardvark. The actual number, though high, is millions less than that.

And WOIO (Channel 19) has at times looked like an aardvark farm, especially when it talks about TV ratings. As I mentioned a few weeks ago, the station claimed a second-place finish in late-evening local news -- but it was a claim that involved so much massaging of the numbers that other stations rightly considered it aardvark.

There's even more aardvark in recent promos pronouncing it ``Cleveland's choice'' for late news. And after rushing out an announcement of its supposed success in the ratings, the station has been noticeably silent about its demographics -- the analysis of the audience by age and gender which is used to sell advertising. Supposedly, Channel 19 is still working on its demo analysis. I smell aardvark.

(Possible aardvark advisory: Channel 19 competes with WEWS [Channel 5], which is a news partner with the Akron Beacon Journal.)

But Penn & Teller are going after bigger piles of aardvark than you see in local news.

Their latest episodes will include nasty portraits of the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals and of relationship experts, as well as debunking of public fears of such matters as dirty toilet seats.

In sum, Penn & Teller have a lot in common with ABC's John Stossel, only they use more profanity and are much funnier.

``We believe that we're trying to tell the truth as best we can and in as entertaining a way as we can,'' Jillette said at a press conference for the show a while back.

Sometimes their subjects even cooperate with them. Relationship guru John Gray consented to a three-hour interview. ``He won't be too pleased,'' said Aardvark! executive producer Star Price. ``I think he had a lot of arrogance that he could kind of outwit us, maybe, and we just let him talk.... He gave us unbelievable ammunition.''

And the show aims to shock. The PETA episode -- which airs tonight -- accuses the animal-rights group of blatant hypocrisy, supporting an extremist, violent rhetoric and opposing important medical research.

Penn & Teller are not shy about expressing points of view during their shows. On Showtime's Web site, Jillette says they are ``sober, libertarian, atheist, skeptics.''

But does that mean they'll ignore aardvark in favorite causes?

``We attack everybody equally,'' Price said. ``In the last year, I think two of our strongest shows were a show on creationism, which you could argue was an attack on the right, and a show on the environmental movement, which you could argue was an attack on the left.''

The show may even attack itself.

``We do hope that some time toward the end of our run with (Aardvark!), we can do a... show about all the stuff we got wrong,'' Teller said.

R.D. Heldenfels writes about television for the Beacon Journal. Contact him at 330-996-3582 or rheldenfels@thebeaconjournal.com.

Gene 'increases risk of autism' Scientists say they have identified a gene which may increase the risk of developing autism.


The gene is involved in the production of ATP, a molecule that provides the energy cells need to function.

Researchers in the United States said the risk only applied to people with a certain genetic make-up.

Writing in the American Journal of Psychiatry, they said as many as 10 different genes might be involved in the development of autism.

Autism affects about one in every 1,000 people. It is a developmental disability that affects the way a person communicates and interacts with other people.

People with autism can have problems relating to other people and to the world at large. They can have problems understanding people's feelings or making friends.

There is growing evidence that the condition may be inherited. Studies suggest parents with one child with autism are 100 times more likely to have another child with the condition compared with other families.

However, scientists agree that the condition is complex and that more than one gene is involved.

Gene tests

Dr Joseph Buxbaum and colleagues at Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York carried out genetic tests on 411 families, who have members with autism.

They found that they all had variations in the SLC25A12 gene, which is involved in the production of ATP.

The researchers suggested this flaw could disrupt the production of the fuel needed by cells. They said even minor disruptions could affect the ability of cells to function properly.

However, the researchers said the genetic variations they identified in this study appeared to be quite common.

By themselves, they do not cause autism. They said people with autism probably had this and other genetic mutations.

"Having one of these variants appears to approximately double an individuals risk for the disorder, but it is an accumulation of genetic factors that cause the disease," Dr Buxbaum said. "Our current challenge is to identify more of these genes."

He added: "Identifying all or most of the genes involved will lead to new diagnostic tools and new approaches to treatment."

The National Autistic Society in the UK welcomed the study.

"Scientists over the world are engaged in looking for the genetic roots of autism," a spokeswoman said.

"Some are looking at other chromosomes as loci for possible genes. The NAS welcomes any research which furthers our understanding of the cause and possible treatment of autism."

Autism Theory on Brains Sparks Debate


Associated Press Writer

April 1, 2004, 7:29 AM EST

PHILADELPHIA -- Cambridge University professor Simon Baron-Cohen thinks he knows why autism strikes four times as many boys as girls, but his theory of general differences between male and female brains has generated quite a bit of debate.

Baron-Cohen theorizes that the female brain is predominantly hard-wired for empathy, and that the male brain is predominantly hard-wired for understanding and building systems -- although he is quick to note that the rule doesn't always hold true.

According to his "empathizing-systemizing" theory, autism -- a neurological disorder that affects social interaction and communication -- and the possibly related Asperger syndrome are extreme male versions of the brain.

"What seems to be core (to autism) is an empathy problem alongside a very strong drive to systemize," he told an audience of about 150 people Wednesday at an autism conference by the Bancroft Neuroscience Institute.

Baron-Cohen cites evidence from questionnaires, psychological tests and observations of very young children showing early sex differences. Even day-old baby boys, for example, are more likely to look longer at a mechanical mobile, while girls look longer at a person's face.

Autistic-type disorders, he said, appear to be an extreme version of the male brain. What causes such a shift is unclear, he said, but possible candidates include genetic differences and prenatal testosterone. High levels of fetal testosterone mean less eye contact on the part of infants, and Canadian researchers have found that such levels mean better scores on systemizing tests, he said.

Baron-Cohen said his ideas and his new book "The Essential Difference: The Truth About the Male and Female Brain," had been greeted with interest rather than the hostility he feared after "decades of political correctness" in which the idea of any biological sex differences was anathema.

"Some individuals have contacted me to say that this kind of work is politically dangerous, so that reaction is still there," he said. "Typically the individuals who are worried by this approach haven't actually looked at the details of the science."

He emphasized that the male and female brains exist only on average.

"It would be a great shame if people took home the idea that all males think one way and all females think the other way," he said. Instead, educators should assess each individual child to see if, for example, they are good at math but may have trouble on the playground, he said.

Researchers have come up with educational software to try to help raise the emotional abilities of autistic children, and a study of the approach should be finished in the next few months, he said.

Martha R. Herbert, an assistant professor in neurology at Harvard Medical School, said Baron-Cohen's observations were interesting, but still had not identified a biological process responsible for autism.

"As to whether there's some core thing about male or femaleness that's related to autism, I doubt it," she said. "I think that it just distracts attention from getting at some of the more core issues of how the disorder works both psychologically and biologically."

A British researcher, for example, has found that the sex ratio was equal in autistic blind children, and that there is a different sex ratio in high IQ versus low IQ people with autism. "So it's not just a male thing; there's something else going on," she said.

Work focusing on high levels of testosterone may be more revealing, but is still not the end of the story, Herbert said.

"The testosterone may be facilitating something rather than causing it," she said.

On the Net:

Cambridge autism research: http://www.autismresearchcentre.com
Copyright © 2004, The Associated Press

Ballot drive puts stem-cell funding in voters' hands



Wednesday, March 31, 2004

(03-31) 05:29 PST (AP) --

The Wall Street Journal

ROLLING HILLS ESTATES, Calif. -- Dick Seaberg, a 70-year-old antiabortion Republican, lives near Los Angeles in one of California's most conservative districts. Yet on a recent Saturday morning he was at Starbucks at the Avenue of the Peninsula mall wearing a homemade sandwich board that read, "Please sign petition for stem cell research."

His goal: get signatures for a statewide ballot measure that seeks to raise $3 billion for research on stem cells taken from human embryos. "I have a grandson with juvenile diabetes, we'd like to find a cure," Mr. Seaberg explained to a passerby.

The initiative -- which would appear on California's November ballot -- represents a major new intersection of science and politics. For the first time, advocates are bypassing government officials and asking voters directly to approve public funding for controversial, cutting-edge scientific research. If successful, the initiative could change the U.S. scientific landscape and send a message that the White House faces significant dissent over its decision not to provide federal funds for some stem-cell research.

The measure would supply universities and the biotechnology industry with as much as $295 million a year for 10 years, raised through the sale of state bonds. And it would position the region as a mecca for biologists and investors pursuing stem-cell research. If it fails, however, it would be a setback for efforts to change federal policy and could embolden stem-cell opponents, such as Christian groups.

The ballot effort highlights the growing influence of disease activists, particularly families such as Mr. Seaberg's that are affected by type 1 diabetes. Not since AIDS activists stormed scientific meetings in the 1980s has a patient group done more to set the agenda of medical research.

Diabetes activists believe that stem cells grown in a laboratory can offer a novel treatment by replacing the insulin-making cells that type 1 diabetes kills off. Without those cells, daily shots are needed to maintain blood-sugar levels. Later in life, those with the disease face possible blindness or amputations.

Behind the ballot drive are wealthy Californians whose children have juvenile diabetes, or who suffer from it themselves. Backers include such well-known Hollywood figures as Douglas Wick, a producer of "Gladiator," and Jerry Zucker, director of "Ghost," and his wife, Janet, a producer. The effort -- dubbed the California Stem Cell Research and Cures Initiative -- also is gathering endorsements from big scientific names, including David Baltimore, Nobel-prize winner and president of the California Institute of Technology.

The group's executive committee also includes families coping with a range of debilitating conditions, including Lou Gehrig's disease and spinal injuries. And its success depends on mobilizing a wide swath of patient-advocacy organizations.

But the effort represents just one part of a wider stem-cell push by diabetes activists, led by their national organization, the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation International. Many backers of the California measure are members of the JDRF, and the group is providing critical cash and lobbying help to the effort.

Overall, the JDRF has poured millions of dollars into private stem-cell research, and has become adept at unleashing an army of hard-to-resist lobbyists -- made up of determined parents and their afflicted children -- on researchers, politicians and potential donors. The group's local volunteers played a critical role in getting New Jersey in January to pass a law to "promote" stem-cell research, and other local chapters are pushing similar legislation in Illinois and New York. The group is amassing from donors a $20 million stem-cell research war chest, an effort spearheaded by actress Mary Tyler Moore, a longtime JDRF activist who has type 1 diabetes.

The foundation's cash has yielded scientific results. Earlier this month, Harvard researchers supported by the JDRF created 17 new batches of stem cells derived from embryos, and said they would provide them free to other researchers outside the government's limits.

Critics and supporters alike say the JDRF has become a prominent force by wielding significant financial resources and exploiting celebrity connections. Television host Larry King is on the JDRF board, and Edsel B. Ford II, a director of Ford Motor Co., leads the company in an annual fund-raising walk that raised $3 million in 2003.

The California ballot drive is the most ambitious plan yet by advocates to chart a course independent of federal policy. The initiative's backers believe California is the only state that can pull off a scientific secession of this magnitude. The state's economy is among the world's six largest, and it is home to 40 percent of all U.S. biotechnology companies.

California's fiscal crisis and opposition from religious groups could derail the effort. The state faces a $12 billion shortfall in its 2004-2005 budget, on spending of $75 billion, according to Brad Williams, the senior economist in California's Legislative Analyst's Office. The office calculates the stem-cell bonds would cost $6 billion to pay off over 30 years.

Initiative planners have tried to postpone the pain to taxpayers, designing the bonds so that they don't draw on the state's general fund until 2010. By that time, they hope, research will have paid off and public support will be high.

Robert Klein, the Palo Alto real-estate developer leading the ballot drive, says extensive polling indicates the initiative can win the simple majority needed to pass. A key factor: Nearly 85 percent of Californians have a family member or close acquaintance with one of five conditions -- Alzheimer's, diabetes, heart disease, Parkinson's or spinal-cord injury -- that potentially could be treated with stem cells.

For most of these ills, cures from stem cells are still a distant dream. Not so for type 1 diabetes. In 1999, physicians funded by the JDRF began transplanting insulin-making cells from the pancreases of cadavers into adults with type 1 diabetes. Dubbed the Edmonton Protocol after the Canadian city in which it was developed, 300 patients have been treated with it, about 100 in the U.S. According to the International Islet Transplant Registry, as of June 2003, about 50 percent of the patients have gone without insulin injections for up to a year after receiving a transplant.

But the transplants have limitations. Children can't tolerate the antirejection drugs transplant recipients must take. And the procedure requires as many as three cadavers to yield enough cells to treat a single adult. There aren't nearly enough cadaver donors to treat the 20,000 to 30,000 children in the U.S. and tens of thousands more elsewhere who develop type 1 diabetes each year.

JDRF scientists believe that the solution may be embryonic stem cells, which are believed to be capable of generating any other form of human tissue. The JDRF now funds extensive work to transform the cells into functioning islets -- clusters of pancreas cells that make insulin. (A supply of islets wouldn't overcome the need for antirejection drugs.)

In 2001, stem cells landed the JDRF in the middle of a heated national policy debate -- one that led to the creation of the California ballot initiative. That year, President Bush halted a National Institutes of Health plan to fund research on embryonic stem cells. Key supporters of the administration believed that the research immorally destroys early human life. The cells are extracted from days-old embryos created in fertility laboratories, consisting of about 150 cells.

This closed a loophole from the Clinton administration. Back then, federal law already prohibited the government from using public funds to destroy embryos. But the Clinton administration interpreted the rule to mean that public research grants could still be used to study stem cells -- as long as the cells had been extracted using private funds.

In early 2001, the JDRF, along with other groups, launched a vigorous lobbying effort to keep the loophole open. The JDRF deployed its most potent weapon, children with type 1 diabetes, who descended on the capital in early summer. When advocates heard a rumor Mr. Bush was close to ruling, JDRF families flooded the White House switchboard.

The president announced a compromise on Aug. 9, 2001. The NIH would be allowed to fund research on about 60 supplies of stem cells already extracted from embryos and being grown in laboratories -- but it wouldn't be allowed to study any new supplies. The JDRF expressed concern, but JDRF President and Chief Executive Peter Van Etten says he felt it was a significant victory.

Some influential members of the organization were less impressed. That night, Hollywood producers Janet and Jerry Zucker called Mr. Van Etten and questioned the JDRF's stance. Also on the call was Mr. Wick, the producer, and his wife, filmmaker Lucy Fisher. Both families have young daughters with type 1 diabetes. Mr. Zucker says he dreamed of meeting the president and asking, "What is the responsibility of someone who stops science if there could be cures?"

Mr. Van Etten felt it was important to give the government time "to see if the promise of the cells and the research played out." But the families were eager to act, and Stanford University stem-cell expert Irving Weissman and Nobel Laureate Paul Berg, who shared their anger over political limits on research, pointed them to a related issue.

In 2001, the House of Representatives had passed a bill that criminalized reproductive cloning, or making cloned babies. But it also targeted creating cloned human embryos in the laboratory. Many scientists believe such methods are potentially important in stem-cell research, for instance as a way to create customized stem cells bearing the DNA of living individuals. The scientists told the Zuckers that such matched cells could overcome immune-rejection barriers -- such as those that have limited the Edmonton protocol. They were concerned the Senate might endorse the ban.

Together with the Wick family, the Zuckers founded a "guerrilla effort" called CuresNow. They hired a lobbyist, met with 15 senators and ultimately took the campaign to the airwaves with television commercials. The JDRF leadership kept its distance from CuresNow, says Mr. Van Etten. They viewed the group as unpredictable. And producing embryos through cloning remains highly controversial. The JDRF has never directly endorsed the technique and has never funded scientists to pursue it.

But cloning had clearly become the new battleground. With the Senate legislation in a holding pattern, states began writing their own laws. Iowa and Michigan passed measures outlawing the procedure. In California, State Senator Deborah Ortiz introduced legislation to explicitly allow it. A scientific team including Drs. Berg and Weissman advised on policy and helped rally support.

When the bill passed in August 2002 it signaled that California was a safe haven for research. Major government funding remained the missing link. When Sen. Ortiz suggested a ballot proposition as a way to bypass the legislature, her scientific contacts steered her toward the Zuckers. By March 2003, the group had a major planning meeting in the Zuckers' home in Hollywood.

By then, JDRF's leadership in New York had decided that the Bush stem-cell policy wasn't working. Only about 15 of the 60 stem-cell supplies had become widely available, and the political cloud over the field was discouraging scientists. The JDRF's scientific-review committee was having difficulty finding high-quality research in the U.S. to fund.

Sensing an opportunity in California, the JDRF began to give the ballot organizers crucial assistance. Mr. Van Etten introduced the Zuckers to Mr. Klein, a wealthy developer and major Democratic campaign donor who had lobbied in Washington for another JDRF success -- a $1.5 billion special-funding bill for diabetes that passed in 2002.

Until then, the ballot idea "was kind of limping along," says Lawrence Goldstein, a biologist at the University of California, San Diego who helped draft the initiative. But Mr. Klein, whose son has type 1 diabetes, soon took on the lead role. He contacted lawyers and oversaw the complex process of designing the bond structure. He has also put in $1.4 million of his own money, the lion's share of the $3 million raised so far.

Under Mr. Klein's leadership, the initiative has become a highly credible effort and an "institutional priority" for the JDRF, according to Mr. Van Etten. In March, the JDRF gave the initiative $500,000 it needed to pay the professional firms that are gathering most of the 700,000 signatures needed to qualify for the ballot by April 16.

One key factor behind JDRF's decision: the risk that a loss at the polls could encourage President Bush to stick with his current stem-cell policy. "We need them to succeed. Because if it fails, it will be hard to get the president to move," Mr. Van Etten says.

Some observers see trouble ahead. State voters are reluctant to approve costly bond issues. And the measure's strong support for more controversial research on cloning could turn into a serious liability. One wild card is Arnold Schwarzenegger. A person who attended a dinner last year at the Zuckers' home along with Gov. Schwarzenegger says the governor expressed enthusiastic support for embryonic stem-cell research. An endorsement would greatly improve the measure's chances, but the governor could also remain silent on the initiative or even oppose it on fiscal grounds. A spokesperson said the governor had no official position on the research.

The campaign may cost as much as $20 million. California ballot initiatives are typically influenced by heavy TV advertising in the weeks leading up to the vote, and advertising costs are expected to be particularly high this year due in part to the national election.

Under the Microscope

1998: Researchers first extract stem cells from human embryos

1999: First successful human transplant of insulin-making cells from cadavers

2001: President Bush restricts federal funding for embryonic stem-cell research

2002: Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation International creates $20 million fund-raising effort to support stem-cell research

2004: Harvard researcher grows stem cells from embryos using private funding

(1st April 2004)

A UFO was captured on film flying over Red Square early this morning (1st April). There have been numerous sightings in Russia over the last few years, but very few have actually been recorded.

An official at the Ministry of Transport (who did not wish to be named) denied any reports of a UFO sighting and stated "It's impossible, nothing can fly over Russia without our permission". When asked what he thought the object in the picture was, he replied"It seems to me that we are looking at a weather ballon, but I'm afraid you will have to make an official request in writing and forward copies of this documentation to the security forces before I can discuss this with you further".

Shortly after the sighting a number of people called the police to report seeing "strange" people in the Metro. One woman, Olga, stated "They looked like normal people, but acted strangely. None of them were reading books or sleeping in the wagon and one of them actually offered their seat to me!". A spokesman for the police commented "Providing their documents are in order, there is very little we can do".

A group of people standing in Red Square, who said they had seen the UFO earlier, believed that the visitors had come here because of the rovers the Americans had sent to Mars. One of the group, Boris, informed us that he had been abducted by aliens on New Years Day "I was a little afraid at first" he said "But I managed to escape by getting them drunk with the vodka I had on me. I also told them I had friends in the KGB and this seemed to help".

Many Russian's have shown some concern over Russia's ability to protect themselves from an Alien attack, following some failed missile launches and reports about the current state of the Navy's ships. However, 87.3% of the peoples votes (in a recent government poll), who were asked if Russia could beat off an alien attack, answered "Yes of course" and the remaining 40% of the votes counted indicated that the people believe Russia could fight off an attack if the government say they can.


Thursday, April 01, 2004

The Dick Staub Interview: William Dembski's Revolution


The author of Intelligent Design set out to answer the toughest questions about the movement he helped promote.
posted 03/30/2004

William A. Dembski has been one of the leading voices of the Intelligent Design movement. He is an associate research professor at Baylor University and a senior fellow with Discovery Institute's Center for Science and Culture in Seattle. He is also the executive director of the International Society for Complexity, Information, and Design. Dr. Dembski has taught at Northwestern University, the University of Notre Dame, and the University of Dallas. He has done postdoctoral work in mathematics at MIT, in physics at the University of Chicago, and in computer science at Princeton University. Dembski earned a B.A. in psychology from the University of Illinois at Chicago, an M.S. in statistics, and a Ph.D. in philosophy, he also received a doctorate in mathematics from the University of Chicago in 1988 and a master of divinity degree from Princeton Theological Seminary in 1996.

Dembski's books include The Design Inference, No Free Lunch, Intelligent Design, and most recently The Design Revolution: Answering the Toughest Questions about Intelligent Design.

What is intelligent design, and how did you become a believer and an advocate for the idea?

What intelligent design does is it looks for signs of intelligence. Where it gets controversial is when it starts looking for signs of intelligence in biological systems. What makes it controversial is that if there is actual intelligence or design behind biology, it means that the intelligence is not an evolved intelligence. It's not an intelligence that's the result of blind purposeless material processes, as the Darwinists tell us. That's really what's at stake there.

I'm a mathematician, not a biologist. But in the late '80s, at the height of the chaos theory craze, I attended a conference on randomness at Ohio State University. The point of the conference was to try to understand the nature of randomness. But the conference concluded that we don't know what randomness is, or the way we get at randomness is by knowing what randomness is not. What would happen repeatedly was you'd find something with a pure random but then you'd find the pattern in it. Randomness was always a provisional designation until we found the pattern or design in it. I became something of an expert in the study of randomness, wrote on this, and from there got into the whole question of what are the patterns that we use to defeat randomness and infer design? And that set me on a trajectory I've been on for about 15 years now.

You talk about this being an old idea, what is new that gives it some kind of new impetus?

What it's got are precise criteria for identifying the effects of intelligence. The last time it had real currency was before Darwin. What intelligent design can do is we can get to some sort of generic intelligence and also these sort of intuitive criteria. We can get some precise, logical, mathematical and biological criteria. For instance, Michael Behe has his notion of irreducible complexity. I have a notion of specified complexity. We can start seeing how these ideas apply to actual biological systems.

Once you have identified the effects of intelligence, once you can be confident that you're dealing with a real intelligence in biology, then a host of new questions arise. We're not going to say, biological systems are designed, end of story, now we've proven our point and gone home. Intelligent design is an ambitious scientific program. We want to do more than just identify the effects of intelligence, we want to then work with that and see if we can get biological insights that we couldn't get otherwise.

Where do you see yourself right now as a movement in those stages?

I like to characterize this in terms of an alliteration that begins with P, the letter P, for preposterous, pernicious, possible, and plausible. I think that maybe about ten years ago we were at the preposterous stage.

Now we're at the pernicious stage. There are lots of people saying this is really dangerous, this threatens to overthrow science, these people have to be stopped. The real challenge is to move it from this to getting a fair hearing.

What are you trying to do in The Design Revolution?

I speak in a lot of different venues, mainly colleges and universities, and I find that often the most productive time there is not during my actual talk but afterwards when people ask questions. I thought it would be helpful in trying to move intelligent design from the pernicious to the possible stage, to write a book where I'd address these questions. And so what I did was I collected these questions together and then tried in some short, snappy chapters to answer them.

What is one of the most common questions that needs clarification?

One of the biggest is the difference between intelligent design and creation. Creation is always a doctrine of being, where did the world come from? Intelligent design is not concerned with ultimate origins, it's concerned with how do you explain the arrangement of certain material substances? How do you do that without saying where that stuff came from in the first place?

In what sense are the critics of intelligent design correct in saying that the ultimate conclusion and driving force behind intelligent design is a theistic drive?

Motivations are things held by people, not by theories. Intelligent design, as a scientific project, is trying to come to grips with effective intelligence, if such there be, in biological systems. The practitioners of intelligent design, the creationists, the fundamentalists, or the evangelicals, are they religious people? It seems to me that the question is irrelevant, and if you're going to pose it then I think you also need to pose it for the Darwinists, many of whom are militant atheists.

If you're going to put people on the couch and analyze their motivations, you look at Stephen Jay Gould, at Richard Dawkins, look at these people. Their evolution is serving their ideological end every bit as much as intelligent design may be serving someone else. I'm not sure I see it as a red herring.

Is it hurting the intelligent design movement within the scientific community that it is being embraced and promoted by leading evangelicals and by fundamentalists who want to see changes in school curriculum?

I don't think you've really nailed it down accurately. I'm finding that intelligent design is being accepted well outside any sort of evangelical or Christian mold. I was recently speaking at Oxford University. My sponsors were the Oxford Center for Hindu Studies. They were very much impressed with intelligent design. I'm finding that just about anybody with religious sensibilities who holds to, has some sort of spiritual longing, thinks that there's some sort of meaning or purposiveness behind the world, they're going to be favorably impressed with intelligent design. And they are going to be put off by this materialist bullying which says there's nothing behind the world.

Is intelligent design testable right now within science?

I would say intelligent design is testable, and Darwinian evolution is not testable. Darwin said that for a complex organ to form it would have to form according to a series by a numerous successive slight modifications. And then he said I can't think of anything that couldn't have formed that way. Well of course, if you don't specify a process any more specifically than numerous successive slight modification, then anything might be the result of such a process. The Darwinists assume no burden of evidence of proof as a consequence. And that holds to this day.

Now, with intelligent design, you can look at certain biological structures. We're arguing that they are intelligently caused. The most popular one that's been investigated is the bacterial flagellum. It's a little bi-directional motor-driven propeller on the backs of certain bacteria, marvel of nano-engineering, and so we've started to analyze systems like that and argue for their intelligent design.

It would be an easy enough thing for the Darwinists to come along and say, "this is how sub-systems could have formed." They would have to get a detailed testable step-by-step scenario of how these systems could have formed, according to some Darwinian trajectory or pathway, and if they did that for a number of such systems, I think intelligent design would crumble.

But the fact is that none of these systems has been amenable to Darwinian explanation. The thing is, this is from a theory without which nothing in biology is supposed to make sense.

What are the questions that are being driven into the intelligent design movement that are specifically designed to derail the movement?

There are many. Probably the main one is the argument from ignorance objection. The idea there is you really haven't proven design, what you've done is you've shown that current scientific theory still hasn't explained certain systems. But just give us enough time and research funding, and we'll show you how those material mechanisms, these Darwinian prosthesis could do the job. It's a big promissory note.

From their vantage we're guilty of incredulity. We're not seeing the brilliance of Darwin and the immense wonder-working power of natural selection. And from our vantage it's a problem of credulity. They're willing to believe anything. They're willing to believe anything about natural selection and not give intelligent design a shake, not being willing to consider it fairly.

The issue is to look fairly at both sides of the question and try to form a reasonable conclusion, and not just one that fulfills your pre-existing views.

What will it take for that to happen in large enough numbers for this to be a sustainable movement that changes things, versus a smaller subset who are dismissed as on the periphery of science?

We have the better argument, so I think increasingly people are going to realize that. But I think another thing which is going to work for usβ€"and I think this is why I have a sense of inevitability even that we will succeed with thisβ€"is you found a younger generation who is looking and seeing, what do the Darwinists, materialists have to offer? What do the intelligent design people have to offer? And people's intuitions start with intelligent design, they don't start out as Darwinists. You have to be educated out of design. Someone like Richard Dawkins will write, "Biology is the study of complicated things that give the appearance of having been designed for a purpose." Now, that's page one of The Blind Watchmaker, and I don't think he needs 300 pages to explain why it's only an appearance.

If we can show that it's not merely an appearance but there is actual design there that's really appealing. So we've got a younger generation that is now going through the educational process, Darwinism is totally status quo, youth thrives on rebellion. I think it's only a matter of time. I think there will be a Berlin Wall collapse. It could happen fast if we see some major conversions.

Copyright © 2004 Christianity Today

Lack of research stymies efforts to standardize herbal supplement industry



Wednesday, March 31, 2004

(03-31) 00:02 PST ANAHEIM, Calif. (AP) --

Verifying the quality of the thousands of different botanical extracts sold to U.S. consumers remains difficult because of a lack of basic research into what active ingredients are contained in the herbal supplements and what they do, experts said.

The $4 billion herbal supplement industry peddles extracts from an estimated 3,000 plants, contained in upward of 50,000 products.

Federal law controls how those products are labeled to indicate what ingredients they contain and in what quantities, but the claims don't always withstand scientific scrutiny, said Joseph Betz, of the National Institutes of Health's office of dietary supplements.

"Some of these numbers are wildly inaccurate and some are spot on, right on the money," Betz told reporters Tuesday at the annual meeting of the American Chemical Society.

The problem, Betz said, lies in the nonstandardized analytic methods used to measure the chemical compounds found in the products.

"We don't know whether the tests being done are accurate," Betz said.

In many cases, the active ingredients in supplements remain unknown, making it difficult to ensure the consistency -- or legitimacy -- of a product.

The raw materials, too, vary in origin, harvest method and how they're mixed with other ingredients.

Testing conducted by scientists at Rutgers University revealed that a variety of store-bought herbal supplements didn't match the claims their labels made when subjected to laboratory tests, the university's Mingfu Wang said.

The tests found products that contained: the wrong part of a plant, swapping leaf extracts for those taken from the root; a different species of plant altogether than that listed on the label; detectable levels of drugs, including caffeine, used to spike the supplements, Wang said.

"We found a lot of products didn't match the labels' claims," Wang said.

Analysis of botanical products frequently relies on a single chemical marker to detect a botanical ingredient and assess in what quantities it is present, said Navindra Seeram, of the University of California, Los Angeles.

His laboratory is one of many working to develop a library of chemical "fingerprints" that would allow manufacturers and regulators alike to reliably and accurately analyze herbal products.

Already, there are dozens of analytical methods in place for some plant species. For others, there are none, experts said.

Government efforts to develop new analytical methods is prioritized, with safety concerns about a product vaulting it to the top of the list, Betz said. But the work can be slow, especially in a market where products fall in and out of favor relatively quickly -- especially when backed by regulatory action or headline-grabbing deaths, as happened with ephedra.

For instance, two novel methods of testing the herbal stimulant are now being published, just as a federal ban on its sale enters effect, Betz said.

The supplement was enormously popular for weight loss and body building, but drew regulatory scrutiny after it was linked to more than 150 deaths and dozens of heart attacks and strokes.

©2004 Associated Press

Romanian villagers decry police investigation into vampire slaying


Knight Ridder Newspapers
Wed, Mar. 24, 2004

MAROTINU DE SUS, Romania -- Before Toma Petre's relatives pulled his body from the grave, ripped out his heart, burned it to ashes, mixed it with water and drank it, he hadn't been in the news much.

That's often the way here with vampires. Quiet lives, active deaths.

Villagers here aren't up in arms about the undead -- they're pretty common -- but they are outraged that the police are involved in a simple vampire slaying. After all, vampire slaying is an accepted, though hidden, bit of national heritage, even if illegal.

"What did we do?" pleaded Flora Marinescu, Petre's sister and the wife of the man accused of re-killing him. "If they're right, he was already dead. If we're right, we killed a vampire and saved three lives. ... Is that so wrong?"

Yes, according to the Romanian State Police. Its view, expressed by Constantin Ghindeano, the chief agent for the region, is that vampires aren't real, and dead bodies in graves aren't to be dug out and killed again, even by relatives.

He doesn't really have much more to say on this case, other than noting that Petre had been removed from his grave, his heart had been cut out and it was presumed to have been consumed by his relatives. Ghindeano added that police were expanding the investigation, which began in mid-January, to include the after-deaths of others in area.

"The investigation is ongoing, and we expect to file charges later," he said, referring to possible charges of disturbing the peace of the dead, which could carry a three-year jail term. "We are determining whether this was an isolated case or whether there is a pattern in the village."

Romania has been filled with news of the vampire-slaying investigation, and villagers admit there's a pattern, but they argue that that's the reason these matters shouldn't make it to court. There's too much of it going on, and too few complain about the practice.

Vampire slaying is a custom that's been passed down from mother to daughter, father to son, for generations beyond memory, not just in this tiny village of 300 huts astride a dirt cart path about 100 miles southwest of Bucharest, but in scores of villages throughout southern Romania.

Little has changed since the days that Turkish invaders rolled through 500 years ago, seeking the mineral riches of Transylvania just to the north. By day, the people are Roman Catholics. At night, they fear the strigoi, or vampires.

On a recent afternoon, the village's single store, which also serves as its lone bar, was filled with men drinking hard, as they explained the vampire facts to a stranger. Most had at least one vampire in their family histories, and many were related to vampire victims. Most had learned to kill a vampire while still children.

Theirs is not a Hollywood tale, and they laugh at Hollywood conventions: that vampires can be warded off by crosses or cloves of garlic, or that they can't be seen in mirrors. Utter nonsense. Vampires were once Catholics, were they not? And if a vampire can be seen, the mirror can see him. And why would you wear garlic around your neck? Are you adding taste?

No, vampires are humans who have died, commonly babies before baptism or people unfortunate enough to have black cats jump over their coffins. Vampires occur everywhere, but in busy cities no one notices, the men said.

Vampires are obvious when dug up because while they will have been laid to rest on their backs, arms folded neatly across their chests, they will be found on their sides or even their stomachs. They will not have decomposed. Beards will have continued to grow. Their arms will be at their sides, as if they are clawing out of their coffins. And they will have blood -- sometimes dried, sometimes fresh -- around their mouths.

But the biggest tip-off that a vampire is near is his or her family, for vampires always prey on their families. If family members fall ill after a death, odds are a vampire is draining their blood at night, looking for company.

"That's the problem with vampires," said Doru Morinescu, a 30-year-old shepherd who, like many in the village, has a family connection to the current case. "They'd be all right if you could set them after your enemies. But they only kill loved ones. I can understand why, but they have to be stopped."

Ion Balasa, 64, explained that there are two ways to stop a vampire, but only one after he or she has risen to feed.

"Before the burial, you can insert a long sewing needle, just into the bellybutton," he said. "That will stop them from becoming a vampire."

But once they've become vampires, all that's left is to dig them up, use a curved haying sickle to remove the heart, burn the heart to ashes on an iron plate, then have the ill relatives drink the ashes mixed with water.

"The heart of a vampire, while you burn it, will squeak like a mouse and try to escape," Balasa said. "It's best to take a wooden stake and pin it to the pan, so it won't get away."

Which is exactly what happened with Petre, according to Gheorghe Marinescu, a cheery, aging vampire slayer who was Petre's brother-in-law.

Marinescu's story goes like this: After Petre died, Marinescu's son, daughter-in-law and granddaughter fell ill. Marinescu knew the cause was his dead brother-in-law. So he had to go out to the cemetery.

The first time, he was frightened, so he had a little graveside drink, for courage. He ended up with a little too much courage and couldn't use the shovel. So the next night he returned, and with a proper amount of courage, was successful.

Marinescu said he found Petre on his side, his mouth bloody. His heart squeaked and jumped as it was burned. When it was mixed with water and taken to those who were sick, it worked.

His wife, Petre's sister, interrupted his story with a broom, swinging it at him and a stranger. She was worried that he would incur the wrath of the police, who would jail him.

But then his son Costel called what happened next a miracle. After weeks in bed, Costel got up to walk. His head wasn't pounding. His chest wasn't aching. His stomach felt fine.

"We were all saved," he said. "We had been saved from a vampire."

But how could he be sure his illness came from a vampire?

"What other explanation is possible?" he asked.

Wednesday, March 31, 2004

DVD review



March 30, 2004

PENN & TELLER " - !" Released today by Showtime Entertainment, 13 episodes on 3 discs, $40 list price.

Penn Jillette doesn't mince words. And never more so (less so?) than in this epithet-titled Showtime series, where the imposingly bombastic comic magician and his small silent partner "debunk" what they consider modern frauds: faith healers, psychics, environmental "hysteria," alien abductions, creationism. Standing up for fact and science, they stomp on those who fall short of objective proof. "Get a load of these wack jobs," Penn declares in a ouija board takedown.

It's a stacked deck, but they also know how to entertain. Encounters with wack jobs "out for a buck" are intercut with the duo's stand-ups in a white-on-white studio, wildly employing props or people to hammer home "the truth." The DVD adds an unaired "ghost" story, bloopers and deleted footage (including a "naked promo" that's just that), plus an extended interview with veteran debunker James Randi. Their advice to do your homework, asking basic questions whenever a wild story comes your way, is well taken. So you won't be.

Science, religion not at odds, MVC professor says


Tuesday, March 30, 2004
By Jenny Bryers/Staff Writer

In the 1600s, Galileo Galilei was found guilty of heresy for publishing the idea that the Earth was not the center of the universe. Charles Darwin's "On the Origin of Species," published in 1859, was considered by many to contradict Christian beliefs.

But does science have to be at odds with Christianity? That was the subject of a lecture given Monday evening by Mark Mills, associate professor of biology at Missouri Valley College.

"I have struggled with the apparent conflict for most of my life," said Mills, who was raised as a Methodist and now attends a Nazarene church. He said the late evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould helped him assuage his concerns by suggesting the areas of science and religion are independent in his article "Nonoverlapping Magisteria," published in "Natural History" in March 1997.

Mills said science oversees the laws of nature using the scientific method. Science examines measurable, detectable processes by first observing, then forming a hypothesis, testing that hypothesis and drawing conclusions. After the hypothesis has been tested and upheld repeatedly, it becomes a theory.

But what many non-scientists have trouble understanding is that science has no absolute truths, Mills said. The law of gravity and the principles of motion are well-held beliefs, but are not concrete facts. One day, they could be found to be inaccurate, in need of tweaking or bending.

Religion, on the other hand, oversees the laws of God. It includes morals and ethics and offers guidelines for living and absolute truths to believers. Mills said Christians believe the Bible is the inspired word of God, Jesus is the son of God and the Ten Commandments are the laws of God.

"Science is always re-evaluating and changing," he said. "God is constant and never ending."

Mills said the reason for the perceived conflicts in the two separate realms can be summed up in one word: evolution.

But Mills said Pope John Paul II accepted evolution as a theory, and believed man's soul separates him from nature. Man was separated from his primate ancestor when God put his soul in, Mills said.

He warned MVC students and staff and community members crowded into the formal lounge of the Ferguson Center to be wary of pseudoscience such as the intelligent design theory and scientific creationism.

Mills said the intelligent design theory claims that because humans are complicated they must have been made by an intelligent designer. But he said, although the argument sounds like science, it cannot be tested. "And that's why it's pseudoscience," Mills said. "It's not testable." But just because it's not testable, doesn't mean it's not true, he added.

Among those who attended the lecture was Valley sophomore Saundra Vereyken. "I agree with what he is saying, that science and religion should remain separate," she said. But Vereyken, an elementary education major who received extra credit for attending, added that scientists still have ethics.

MVC biology professor Michele Reinke said she has struggled with the question of whether science and religion conflict.

Retired biology professor Reed Kepner, who taught at MVC for over 30 years, said he has explained to students the difference between what they know and what they believe. He has told students they don't need to believe evolution, but they do have to understand it in order to pass his class.

Mills' presentation was the second in a three-part series on religion and science. MVC physics professor John Gault will give the final lecture at 7 p.m. Monday, April 12, in the same location.

Contact Jenny Bryers at

Georgia Holds Science Teachers Conference


Tue Mar 30, 4:10 PM ET

By HARRY R. WEBER, Associated Press Writer

ATLANTA - The date and site were chosen seven years ago, long before Georgia considered removing the word "evolution" from the state curriculum. But the recent debate has made Atlanta an interesting setting for a meeting of the nation's science teachers.

The role of evolution in state science standards will be part of several panel discussions for the 15,000 science teachers attending the four-day conference that begins Thursday at the Georgia World Congress Center.

Gerry Wheeler, executive director of the National Science Teachers Association, the event sponsor, said there are at least 10 U.S. cities wrestling with the evolution issue, so those at the conference will be anxious to hear what's going on in Georgia.

"The challenge is to know what good science is," Wheeler said.

Over the last year, officials in Minnesota, Oklahoma, Montana and Ohio have all grappled with the issue of how to teach evolution in the classroom.

In those states, proposals have included allowing high school students to challenge accepted theories like evolution and adding a disclaimer to textbooks saying that any statement about life's origins should be considered theory, not fact. Some have charged that such efforts are tantamount to allowing the teaching of creationism.

Georgia took the debate a step further, when earlier this year a proposed new science curriculum, overseen by Superintendent Kathy Cox, replaced the word "evolution" with "biological changes over time." After a storm criticism, Cox later backed down.

Georgia's state science program specialist Stephen Pruitt is among the panelists invited to the conference. Cox is out of town and will not be speaking at the gathering, said spokesman Kirk Englehardt.

"We've moved on to other issues and we believe the public has, too," Englehardt said.

The controversy in Georgia is sure to add interest to the conference and raise awareness about the issue of teaching evolution, said Eugenie Scott, executive director of the National Center for Science Education in Oakland, Calif.

"It is ironic that the largest science teacher conference in the country is going to be held in a state in which science education has recently been very controversial," Scott said.

Studies fail to find link between acrylamide and some cancers


Tuesday, March 30, 2004

(03-30) 00:03 PST ANAHEIM, Calif. (AP) --

Two preliminary studies suggest that eating foods containing acrylamide, recently discovered to be common in fried foods rich in carbohydrates, does not increase the risk for several types of cancer.

The findings should calm fears brought on two years ago when Swedish scientists announced that many foods contained elevated levels of the chemical. Acrylamide, used in making grout and treating wastewater, was previously unknown to be present in the things we eat.

The initial results from two new Swedish studies showed no association between intake of acrylamide, which is listed as a probable carcinogen, and higher rates of cancer of the colon, rectum and breast. The results were presented Monday at the annual meeting of the American Chemical Society

Though unpublished, the results are consistent with two previously published studies, also conducted in Sweden, that looked at cancers of the bladder, kidney, colon and rectum, a co-author of the studies said.

"The amount of acrylamide generally consumed in the Swedish diet doesn't appear to be associated with a higher cancer risk," said Lorelei Mucci, of Harvard University's School of Public Health.

Mucci cautioned that the results were preliminary and further research was needed, including studies that examine other populations, as well as other types of cancer.

Exposure to high doses of acrylamide is known to cause cancer in laboratory animals. But Richard LoPachin of the Albert Einstein College of Medicine said further animal studies that look at long-term exposure to lower levels of the chemical are needed before extrapolating those results to humans.

Although acrylamide is a known human neurotoxin at high doses, whether it can cause cancer in humans who ingest far lower doses remains unclear.

"Does acrylamide pose a real risk to human health? We just don't know that today," said James Coughlin, a California food toxicologist and consultant whose clients include processed food and fast food companies.

The chemical is naturally found in many foods. Those high in starch, especially potatoes, form elevated levels when fried, baked or roasted at high temperatures. A pilot study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention suggested that eating a 3-ounce portion of potato chips every day for a week increased one's exposure to acrylamide in ways that could be directly detected in blood samples, agency scientist Hubert Vesper said.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration last week published data on acrylamide levels in 750 foods, including prunes and olives. Infant formula contains none of the chemical, FDA testing showed.

Acrylamide is present in cigarette smoke.

Scientists stressed that other health risks associated with eating fried foods outweighed any additional cancer risk that acrylamide might confer.

"The risk is so much greater of eating fried, fatty foods because of the obesity and heart disease problem," said Donald Mottram, a food chemist at the University of Reading.

On Madagascar, a Treasury of Fauna and Flora



Published: March 30, 2004

For the last 80 million years, the island of Madagascar has floated along in splendid isolation, separated from the rest of the world by miles of ocean, with only the rarest of storm-tossed creatures and plants able to reach its shores alive.

Those that made it, though, were winners of the evolutionary lottery as the castaways spun off phenomenal numbers of new species, filling the once lonely island and turning it into one of the most biologically significant places on earth.

Now in a new book, "The Natural History of Madagascar," researchers have captured the recent explosion of scientific knowledge about the unique organisms of this rugged island. But most of its secrets have yet to be revealed.

In 1,700 pages, the book moves from the broad brush strokes of the island's geological history to detailed accounts of its organisms, including its famous aye-aye lemurs, its fantastical baobab trees and its 12-foot-tall elephant bird (now extinct as so many other island species soon will be, experts fear). The elephant bird is said to have inspired the mythical rokh bird of Sinbad's voyage.

Though more than 200 researchers summarized their own studies and previous work for the volume, the two scientists who edited the book said they had made sure to keep the language accessible to nonscientists as well.

"We hope it might entice people into eco-tourism," said Dr. Steve Goodman, an ornithologist and mammalogist who lives in Madagascar and works for the Field Museum in Chicago. He was co-editor of the book with Dr. Jonathan P. Benstead, an ecologist at the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole. By helping to spur the growth of a still tiny eco-tourism industry (as a similar book did in Costa Rica early in its conservation efforts), the authors hope to help protect Madagascar's remaining forests from slash-and-burn farming and the pressures put on wild areas by the country's overwhelming poverty.

Scientists are already praising the book as a landmark account of a disappearing biological treasure.

"Nowhere has evolution been more richly and uniquely illustrated than on Madagascar," wrote Dr. Peter H. Raven, director of the Missouri Botanical Garden, calling the book "an indispensable, encyclopedic account of the world's No. 1 conservation priority."

Madagascar is rife with biological superlatives, as scientists say it is home to the greatest diversity of native, unique species to be found on any island, with every canyon and cliffside and wetland harboring different forms of life.

"It's remarkable," Dr. Goodman said. "You just go across a river and everything changes. It's basically like they're things from another world."

Evolution on this island, about the size of California, has worked particular wonders with the mammals. Starting with the arrival of four water-logged creatures — what apparently were some sort of lemur, a rodent, a little beast called a tenrec and a mongoose-like animal — the island has given rise to 101 unique species, a catalog of mammals that covers a remarkable range of body shapes and ways of making a living. It is a blossoming of diversity that researchers say is without parallel.

Of these mammals, the best known is the bug-eyed aye-aye, a rare and bizarre lemur that looks like a cross between a miniature monkey and a rodent with an overactive thyroid. Adding to its odd appearance, the aye-aye sports on each hand a spindly and rudely extended middle-digit that can rotate a full 360 degrees and is used for digging worms and other treats out of the holes it gnaws in trees.

But the aye-aye, which the book reports is happily not as rare as had been feared, both benefits and suffers from its otherworldly looks. Outside Madagascar, it is beloved as one of the most popular flagship species of the worldwide conservation movement. On its home territory, the aye-aye also inspires strong feelings, but not always to its benefit. Upon spotting the beast, local people — many seeing it as a bad omen — will sometimes burn down their village and move or kill the animal.

Madagascar is also home to a great diversity of plant life — so great that scientists say that even after two centuries of study and exploration, the flora still cannot be characterized as well known.

For instance, Madagascar is home to the bulk of the global diversity of what might be the strangest looking trees on the planet, the baobab. Seven of the world's nine species are found on the island. Fat and stout at the bottom but becoming thinner and scrawnier and less substantial until disappearing completely, as they head skyward, the baobabs look like trees in reverse. An important source of food and building material, the trees are also revered by the local people, probably because of their unusual appearance, and are often identified as sites of magical or religious importance.

From 1,700 information-packed pages, Madagascar may now seem fully known, but much remains to be discovered. Fifteen years ago, Dr. Goodman said some 250 species of reptiles and amphibians were known; today that number has nearly doubled with probably another 200 to 300 yet to be identified. And it is not just mega-fauna and flora that scientists are uncovering. Researchers say the same evolutionary principle has been at play across the living world, with the island's isolation producing suites of unique species.

In fact, some of Madagscar's most fascinating inhabitants are diminutive and six-legged, including the nightmarish hissing cockroach and the even stranger so-called dracula ants. In a colony of dracula ants, researchers report in the book, the queen performs a kind of gentle, nondeadly cannibalism, living off the bloodlike fluids she drinks from small holes she cuts into the living bodies of her own young.

Scientists note though, that while the island is rife with species, their continued discovery is not a simple matter. For what underlies these discoveries is not just clean laboratory work, but first and foremost a sweaty, muddy, exhausting dedication to finding the organisms where they live. In Madagascar, where terrain can be severe, there are few passable roads and there is so little in the way of infrastructure, the logistics of just living while at work can be as challenging as the research itself.

Even for Dr. Goodman — a 15-year veteran of field work in Madagascar, who is married to a local woman, lives on the island permanently and spends much of the year in the field — expeditions on Madagascar are not always a simple matter. He has walked many roadless miles, caught more than his share of debilitating tropical diseases, and says he comes down with a fever every few months.

"I've never thought of myself as being a masochist," said the 46-year-old Dr. Goodman, who is admired even by other, muddy colleagues for his physical stamina and dedication to field studies. He says he is simply continuing the work, which these days involves seeking out the last small mammals and bats. "We still have to explore a bunch of regions. That's a major thrust of our efforts now."

At the Center of the Storm Over Bush And Science




March 30, 2004

The average scientific dispute is a joust in obscurity, a clash over technical matters that few but the immediate combatants grasp or are even aware of.

Dr. John H. Marburger III, President Bush's science adviser, might relish a dose of that obscurity right now. Instead, he has become the first line of defense against accusations that the Bush administration has systematically distorted scientific fact and stacked technical advisory committees to advance favored policies on the environment, on biomedical research and on other areas like the search for unconventional weapons in Iraq.

Dr. Marburger says that pattern is illusory, a product of stringing together a few unrelated incidents within the vast canvas of government science, most of which is working just fine.

"From all the evidence I can find," he said, "it's certainly not true that science is being manipulated by this administration to suit its policy. It's simply not the case."

But to a degree not seen in previous administrations, a wide range of influential scientists even many who say they like Dr. Marburger personally and respect him professionally express dismay at White House science policy.

"I think this is as bad as it's ever been," said Wolfgang H. K. Panofsky, a retired Stanford physicist who has advised the government on science and national security since the Eisenhower administration. "This is an extremely serious issue. I believe it is true that there is such a thing as objective scientific reality, and if you ignore that or try to misrepresent it in formulating policy, you do so at peril to the country."

Other experts have been blunter. In a recent interview on National Public Radio, Dr. Howard Gardner, a cognitive psychologist at Harvard, said, "I actually feel very sorry for Marburger, because I think he probably is enough of a scientist to realize that he basically has become a prostitute."

Later, in an interview with The New York Times, Dr. Gardner said he had made the reference but added, "I wish I'd used it as a verb rather than as a noun."

An intent graying physicist and woodworking enthusiast who once built an entire harpsichord from scratch, Dr. Marburger, 63, is so unassuming that he routinely melted into the backdrop at announcements of scientific discoveries while working at the Brookhaven National Laboratory in Upton on Long Island. He was director of the laboratory before moving to Washington in October 2001.

But just as in the now-you-see-it, now-you-don't world of quantum phenomena that Dr. Marburger, who is also director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy at the White House, has spent much of his life studying, appearances may be beside the point. Widely believed to be excluded from the president's inner circle he surprised many people by declaring soon after his nomination that he was a lifelong Democrat Dr. Marburger is said by White House officials to have Mr. Bush's ear on all important technical matters. The president who is supposedly so antagonistic to science enjoys Dr. Marburger's explanatory style, the officials say.

In fact, Dr. Marburger, who has recently endured speculation that he might resign, may be just what fellow scientists have always longed for in the White House, an expert with deep knowledge of the technical issues, a bureaucrat's ease in palace politics, a ready turn of phrase and even a modest dose of mystique.

"He is closer to the pulse in the White House than any of his predecessors, to my knowledge," said Andrew H. Card Jr., the White House chief of staff who also worked for Mr. Bush's father and Ronald Reagan. Not only does Dr. Marburger typically attend each morning meeting for the senior staff in the Roosevelt Room, Mr. Card said, but also "the president enjoys Jack Marburger."

"He's a little bit of a character, which is fun," Mr. Card said.

Joshua B. Bolten, director of the Office of Management and Budget, said that Dr. Marburger was "either at or near the top of the list of those who participate most actively in the budget process, in my experience."

To colleagues and friends who suggest that Dr. Marburger could not possibly agree with many of the administration's science policies for example, limits on embryonic stem cell research that many scientists have said hamper potentially therapeutic applications he has a simple answer. "No one will know my personal positions on issues as long as I am in this job," Dr. Marburger said in an interview. "I am here to make sure that the science input to policy making is sound, and that the executive branch functions properly with respect to its science and technology missions."

Stem cells, for instance, "offer great promise for addressing previously incurable diseases and afflictions," Dr. Marburger said. "But I can't tell when a fertilized egg becomes sacred. That's not my job. That's not a science issue. And so whatever I think about reproductive technology or choice or whatever is irrelevant for my job as a science adviser."

That is the approach he took as chairman of Gov. Mario M. Cuomo's fact-finding commission on the Shoreham nuclear power plant on Long Island in 1983. Dr. Marburger later made it clear that he did not agree with everything in the consensus report on the reactor, which found that the plant probably should never have been built and would bring few if any benefits if it opened. The reactor never went into full operation.

"The governor didn't want my opinion," Dr. Marburger said. "He told me that. The governor wanted to know what the situation was. And I delivered that."

That was not the only contentious issue that he handled smoothly before going to Washington. When he took over as director of Brookhaven in 1998, there was widespread outrage over disclosures of a leak of radioactive tritium from a research reactor. Dr. Marburger was credited with creating policies and a dialogue that quelled the outrage. He finally presided over the shutdown of the reactor, a move that the Energy Department ordered. Dr. Marburger said he did not support that decision.

"I regret it," he said. "I thought it was a good reactor, and it still had years of life left in it."

Those episodes may afford a clue to the mind of the elusive Dr. Marburger, who was also president of the State University of New York at Stony Brook from 1980 to 1994 and before that was dean at the California Institute of Technology. He was born on Staten Island and grew up in Maryland near Washington before studying at Princeton and Stanford, where he received his Ph.D. in 1967.

However adroitly Dr. Marburger's credibility and communications skills helped him handle those crises, he is discovering that the forces of discontent focused on Washington are far less easily tamed. Many influential scientists remain convinced that Dr. Marburger has simply disappeared at the White House, after arriving 10 months into the administration, because of Mr. Bush's delay in appointing him. Even then, Dr. Marburger did not receive the prestigious title "assistant to the president" that some of his predecessors had, but instead reports directly to Mr. Card.

In the view of some scientists with decades of experience in advising the government, all those factors have helped open the way to widespread political interference in the technical advisory process across numerous agencies.

"I don't believe there's any precedent for it, I really don't, at least since World War II," said Dr. Lewis M. Branscomb, a physicist who is an emeritus professor of public policy and corporate management at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard. Dr. Branscomb was director of the National Bureau of Standards under President Richard M. Nixon and was also on high-level advisory panels for four other presidents, dating from John F. Kennedy.

Speaking directly about Dr. Marburger, Dr. Branscomb added, "I have a great deal of sympathy for his position, because I don't believe he has the authority, the power, to go back into all the agencies and unearth all the facts about all these cases."

Discontent among scientists has recently verged on insurrection. In late February, more than 60 influential scientists, including more than 20 Nobel laureates, signed a statement saying the administration had disbanded scientific advisory committees, placed unqualified people on other panels and censored reports by others when their scientific conclusions conflicted with administration policies.

"Other administrations have, on occasion, engaged in such practices, but not so systematically nor on so wide a front," the letter said.

That letter and a highly critical, detailed report by the Union of Concerned Scientists that was released at the same time pointed to, among other problems, what it called tampering in June 2003 with a draft report by the Environmental Protection Agency on climate change. Dr. Marburger voiced respect for the letter's signers, and he has asked them to discuss their concerns with him. But uncharacteristically, he also flashed rhetorical steel in responding to the criticisms in the two documents. He said that although a few isolated incidents might have "ruffled feathers," the effort to argue that they constituted a pattern had produced a "conspiracy theory report."

Even some scientists who are strongly sympathetic to his position suggest that this counterattack might have been hasty.

"I think it would have been better to say, `Well, it raises some serious allegations; I will look into them,' " Dr. Bruce Alberts, president of the National Academy of Sciences, said. "That would have been a more appropriate response and probably would not have hurt him at all with anybody, including the administration."

Some scientists, though, said Dr. Marburger's quick reaction was understandable, given what they say are flaws in the report by the Union of Concerned Scientists.

"It was really a generalization of a lot of individual things that might have happened or might not have happened," said Erich Bloch, a principal at the Washington Advisory Group, which does for-profit consulting on technical issues. "I'm not so sure that one should interpret that as being the majority opinion of the scientific community," said Mr. Bloch, who directed the National Science Foundation from 1984 to 1990 and is on the President's Council of Advisers on Science and Technology.

Still, Dr. Richard L. Garwin, a physicist who has advised the government since the mid-1950's and who signed the letter, said he was satisfied that the report showed "political influence in order to make the science come out right for preconceived notions."

A recent day spent following Dr. Marburger on his rounds in Washington provided some insights into his schedule but little into his own views on science policy. He gave an early-morning speech to a conference on the future of aging, presided over a staff meeting in his sixth-floor office on Pennsylvania Avenue, lunched at the Bombay Club with an official from the National Institutes of Health and gave another speech, this time before young scientists whom the government is courting for military research.

Along the way he offered a few conjectures about the reasons for the attacks by some scientists. "I know that we are in the early stages of a very bitter political campaign," he said. "I don't think it is appropriate for people who are concerned about their country to act with such bitterness. But it's a fact."

In response to a report in the journal Nature on the speculation that he might resign, he said he was not considering it. But when asked whether he would accept a second four-year term as science adviser if Mr. Bush is re-elected, he demurred. "I'm focused on this term," Dr. Marburger said. "I haven't, honestly, given a thought to what I would do next."

Dr. Charles M. Vest, president of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said, "If I were seeking science advice, I would be very glad to receive it from Jack."

But even Dr. Vest, who said he did not believe that the Bush administration was much different from others in its use of science, cautioned against "a very long-term trend toward selective use of scientific information driven by a political and ideological motivations."

He added, "I think it's been going on for far too long."

Copyright 2004 The New York Times Company

A New Era in Treating Imaginary Ills

By MARY DUENWALD March 30, 2004


Every doctor recognizes them.

The man who discovers a bruise on his thigh and becomes convinced that it is leukemia. The woman who examines her breasts so frequently that she makes them tender, then decides that the soreness means she has cancer. The man who has suffered from heartburn all his life but after reading about esophageal cancer has no question that he has it.

They make frequent doctors' appointments, demand unnecessary tests and can drive their friends and relatives — not to mention their physicians — to distraction with a seemingly endless search for reassurance. By some estimates, they may be responsible for 10 to 20 percent of the nation's staggering annual health care costs.

Yet how to deal with hypochondria, a disorder that afflicts one of every 20 Americans who visit doctors, has been one of the most stubborn puzzles in medicine. Where the patient sees physical illness, the doctor sees a psychological problem, and frustration rules on both sides of the examining room.

Recently, however, there has been a break in the impasse. New treatment strategies are offering the first hope since the ancient Greeks recognized hypochondria 24 centuries ago. Cognitive therapy, researchers reported last week, helps hypochondriacal patients evaluate and change their distorted thoughts about illness. After six 90-minute therapy sessions, the study found, 55 percent of the 102 participants were better able to do errands, drive and engage in social activities. Antidepressant medications, other studies indicate, are also proving effective.

"The hope is that with effective treatments, a diagnosis of hypochondriasis will become a more acceptable diagnosis and less a laughing matter or a cause for embarrassment," said Dr. Arthur J. Barsky, director of psychiatric research at Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston and the lead author of the study on cognitive therapy, which appeared in the March 24 issue of The Journal of the American Medical Association.

Almost everyone has inexplicable physical symptoms from time to time, and many people experience a moment of worry that their odd rashes, bumps or pains are signs of real trouble. But an official diagnosis of hypochondria, according to the American Psychiatric Association, is reserved for patients whose fears that they have a serious disease persist for at least six months and continue even after doctors have reassured them that they are healthy.

In patients with hypochondria, experts say, ordinary discomforts appear to register more intensely than they do for other people.

"The person's nervous system is like a radio whose volume has been turned up so high, the background static becomes intolerable," Dr. Barsky said.

Researchers have found that hypochondria, which affects men and women equally, seems more likely to develop in people who have certain personality traits. The neurotic, the self-critical, the introverted and the narcissistic appear particularly prone to hypochondriacal fears, said Dr. Michael Hollifield, an associate professor of psychiatry at the University of New Mexico. As many as two-thirds of hypochondriacs also have other psychiatric disorders. Studies suggest that 40 percent suffer from major depression, 10 to 20 percent have panic disorder, 5 to 10 percent have obsessive-compulsive disorder, and some have generalized anxiety disorder.

The fear of illness comes in varying degrees of intensity. Hypochondria may be mild, a faint background noise, or so intense it drowns out all other thoughts.

"It can be hard to sleep or think of anything else other than your hypochondriacal fears," said Dr. Brian Fallon, an associate professor of clinical psychiatry at Columbia.

In some cases, patients become so fearful about their imagined illness that they make the symptoms worse.

"A headache that you believe is due to a brain tumor is a lot worse than a headache you believe is due to eyestrain," Dr. Barsky said.

For the hypochondriac, a nagging worry often becomes panic, which then leads to further symptoms.

"Because patients are anxious, their heart starts to race and they become dizzy," said Dr. Jonathan S. Abramowitz, a clinical psychologist at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., who treats patients with hypochondria.

The new symptoms cause further anxiety, and the cycle continues.

In the most extreme cases, patients can worry to the point that they develop delusions or become almost entirely disabled by fear.

"They become so afraid of what is going on with their body, they become shut-ins," said Dr. Hollifield of the University of New Mexico. "They think that anything they do is going to rile their body."

Yet hypochondria does not typically lead to suicidal thoughts, said Dr. Don R. Lipsitt, a professor of psychiatry at Harvard, if only because people who fear illness also fear death. "These people have a tendency to live out a pretty healthy life," he said. "They nurse themselves. They mother themselves in a sense."

Hypochondria has a long and colorful history. In the 18th century, Boswell wrote a weekly magazine column, "The Hypochondriack," describing his obsession with personal health. In the 19th century, Darwin worried over unexplained palpitations, fatigue and trembling in his fingers, which flared up when he had to discuss his new theory of evolution. Proust was so protective of his health that he kept himself wrapped in layers of overcoats and mufflers.

The ancient Greeks used the word hypochondria to describe symptoms of digestive discomfort, combined with melancholy, that they thought arose from the spleen and other organs in the hypochondrium, the region under the rib cage. The disorder was thought to occur only in men. In women, unexplained symptoms were attributed to hysteria, a dislocation of the uterus.

This view prevailed for 2,000 years, until physicians in the 17th century realized that hypochondriacal fears probably originated in the brain, not the body.

Yet doctors could offer little in the way of treatment beyond the traditional strategies of bleeding, sweating and inducing vomiting.

In the 20th century, Freud recognized that hypochondria had both psychological and physical properties. But because the disorder was not relevant to his theories, he had little interest in it. Other doctors held that the suffering of hypochondriacs must be "all in their heads."

But many experts now say that discounting patients' symptoms only makes matters worse.

"When you think about it, it's the ultimate hubris for a physician to proclaim that a patient's symptoms are not real," Dr. Fallon of Columbia said. "If a person is experiencing something, it is real, whether or not you can explain it physiologically."

Still, it is psychiatry that offers patients the best hope of getting control of their anxiety. That often leads general practice doctors into a delicate dance, as they try to find ways to refer patients to psychiatrists without offending them.

Just mentioning the word hypochondria to a patient, Dr. Barsky said, can cause trouble.

"That comes across as, you're telling me I'm a faker, the malingerer, that it's all in my head," he said. "It's tremendously pejorative."

As a result, some experts have suggested that doctors drop the word altogether, substituting the term health anxiety, which has fewer negative connotations.

If a name change can allow more patients to accept their problem, the logic goes, perhaps more patients will seek treatment. Cognitive therapy, as demonstrated by Dr. Barsky's study, has proved surprisingly effective in helping patients who read into every ache and pain a portent of disaster.

In the study, the patients, whose fixation on illness had greatly interfered with their daily lives, did not see their symptoms disappear. But they did learn to pay much less attention to them.

The therapy taught the patients to re-examine their assumptions about the symptoms.

"We talk with patients about other possible explanations for their headaches, their tension or their lack of sleep," Dr. Barsky said.

The therapists, who included psychologists, social workers and nurses, also coaxed patients to temporarily suspend some of the usual ways they reassured themselves, like checking the Internet for health information, taking their pulse or blood pressure and scheduling appointments with doctors.

The researchers also sent letters to the patients' primary doctors, advising them about ways to help. The doctors were told to see the patients for regularly scheduled appointments only, not for emergency visits when their symptoms flared up; to be conservative about providing treatment or ordering tests; and to aim to help patients cope with symptoms rather than eliminate them.

"You have to work with the primary care doctors," Dr. Barsky said, "because hypochondria affects the doctor, too."

The patients who received cognitive therapy continued to improve for as long as 12 months after treatment, the study showed. Of the 80 patients in the control group who saw their regular doctors as usual, 29 percent also improved during the year, Dr. Barsky said. He added that because the subjects were screened over a short period, some in both groups might have had only temporary hypochondria.

Other experts said the study's findings were an encouraging sign that hypochondria was not as intractable as people had thought.

"The study highlights the cognitive distortions that the patients engage in," Dr. Fallon said. "And it gives them a practical tool with which to confront their fears and their physical sensations."

Early research into medication as a form of treatment is also promising. Dr. Fallon, for example, has found that two antidepressants, Prozac and Luvox, can ease hypochondriacal fears and fixations in as many as 70 to 80 percent of patients.

The drugs appear to be most effective in patients who believe they are afflicted with a specific illness, Dr. Fallon said, and less effective in those troubled by symptoms like headaches, joint pain or vision problems but do not know what may be causing them.

Dr. Russell Noyes, an emeritus professor of psychiatry at the University of Iowa, is exploring whether interpersonal therapy, which encourages patients to examine their social and family relationships for clues to their problems, is effective.

Inevitably, some patients will stand by their hypochondriacal convictions in the face of any effort to dislodge them.

"There will always be someone who says, `What I really need is for somebody to biopsy my liver,' " Dr. Barsky said.

Copyright 2004 The New York Times Company

Contacting the North Texas Skeptics
The North Texas Skeptics
P. O. Box 111794
Carrollton, TX 75011-1794
214-335-9248 Skeptics Hotline (current information)

Current News  News Back Issues

What's New | Search | Newsletter | Fact Sheets
NTS Home Page
Copyright (C) 1987 - 2008 by the North Texas Skeptics.