Archive of previous NTS Skeptical News listings
Posted By: News-Medical in Miscellaneous News
Published: Monday, 28-Jun-2004
The Prince of Wales has called for more research into the benefits of complementary therapies for cancer patients.
His Royal Highness was speaking at a conference hosted by five major charities, including The Prince of Wales's Foundation for Integrated Health of which he is President.
The conference was hosted by The Prince of Wales's Foundation for Integrated Health, together with four charities of which The Prince is Patron: Marie Curie Cancer Care, Macmillan Cancer Relief, Breakthrough Breast Cancer and Bristol Cancer Help Centre.
Addressing more than 200 healthcare professionals, researchers and government representatives at the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, The Prince encouraged the integration of alternative therapies with more conventional medicine in the treatment of cancer.
The Prince said: "Many cancer patients have turned to an integrated approach to managing their health, finding complementary therapies such as acupuncture, aromatherapy, reflexology and massage therapy extremely therapeutic.
"I know of one patient who turned to Gerson Therapy, having been told that she was suffering from terminal cancer and would not survive another course of chemotherapy.
"Happily, seven years later she is still alive and well. So it is therefore vital that, rather than dismissing such experiences, we should further investigate the beneficial nature of these treatments."
The Prince said a recent survey found that 80% of cancer patients try alternative or complementary therapies at some stage after diagnosis.
His Royal Highness also said that another poll found that three quarters of patients would like to see complementary medicine made available on the NHS.
The Prince said: "It seems to me that we need to devote a bit more time and resources to researching and developing integrated approaches to health care.
"We need to analyse every aspect of cancer: the myriad of causes, symptoms and consequences of the illness.
"We must commission and produce research that looks at the efficacy of complementary medicine while reflecting what patients are using today."
After his speech, The Prince was introduced to a number of healthcare professionals and representatives of the Department of Health, as well as three people who had suffered from cancer.
One of the patients, Frances Carroll, from Manchester, said she had benefited from alternative therapy for the past seven years.
Mrs Carroll was diagnosed with breast cancer eight years ago and turned to the alternative therapy after she did not appear to respond to conventional treatment.
On the therapy, she said: "It is a means of staying alive. I think it has extended my life expectancy.
"One might say I've beaten the odds."
The prince spouts archaic notions because he has no role in modern life
Wednesday June 30, 2004
A culture clash as old as the hills and as deep as the human psyche divides the progressive from the conservative state of mind. It is the fault-line at the heart of politics defining every aspect of life. It colours everything from health and education to the arts, architecture and the environment. Nothing that matters is ever "non-political", and anyone who claims to be outside politics always inhabits the conservative side. Prince Charles is one of these.
In the last week he has made two intensely political interventions: on education he echoed Tory policy, while on cancer he was dangerous. Inveighing against the sorry state of English and history in schools, the "modish fads" and "trendy teaching methods", he warned of a generation "culturally disinherited", ignorant of their place in history. Sailing alongside Tory policy he challenged the government's aim to send 50% to university, calling for a "greater emphasis on practical, vocational skills". As with all on the right, that unwillingness to let the hoi polloi into seats of learning smacks of saloon-bar grumbles about the frightful shortage of plumbers these days. It's not that the prince's views are always wrong, but he has an obtusely tin ear for how they sound coming from him. He seems clueless about how his words jar on his non-conservative subjects.
Yesterday a Mori opinion poll for the anti-monarchist campaign, Republic, asked who should rule after Elizabeth II. Given the choice between Charles or an elected head of state, only 55% want him to be king. That is an astonishing shift since his childhood days of overwhelming monarchism; no wonder he is nostalgic. The longer the Queen lasts, the more these polls may swing against him, since twice as many over-65s are monarchist as under-30s.
Last week, the prince risked doing real harm when he enthusiastically endorsed expensive quack treatments for cancer that are so unproven they are banned in America, where they originated. The Gerson Therapy involves daily coffee enemas and drinking 20lbs of liquidised veg and fruit a day. Speaking, ill-advisedly, to a room full of cancer specialists, he told of a patient who is still living seven years after a terminal prognosis, thanks to Gerson.
Myriad such miracle testimonies adorn the internet where Gerson is just one of thousands of snake-oil treatments on offer. It angers the cancer doctors and nurses who try to dissuade patients from wasting small fortunes, or worse, from taking therapies like Gerson that urge people against the conventional treatments which are now increasing cancer survival rates every year. Gerson costs $4,900 a week, lasts three weeks and requires a special "non-centrifugal" juicer that costs $2,000.
Along with the plethora of nonsense alternative cancer cures, Gerson may be a placebo comforter, but after 60 years it has failed to get mainstream authentication for its wild claims of curing lethal disease. The American Cancer Society warns it may be dangerous.
This pseudo medicine with its language of "rebalancing", "detoxifying" and "cleansing" is one strand in anti-science conservative sentiment. It thinks modern lifestyles dangerous with toxins and poisons all around us, invisible horrors in the air and water unknown to a purer, better era (time unspecified). We are to blame for our diseases because we interfered with nature. The primitive is good, the civilised bad, the past is healthy while the present is sick and the future is terrifying. Old things are always best: oh for the healthy non-obese days of gruelling subsistence farming! Conservative nostalgia is at its dottiest on health, trusting to remedies from days when children died in droves, women were ripped apart in labour and no one lived long.
Whether he knows it or not, whatever Prince Charles touches - and nothing now seems out of bounds - he distills an essence of British conservatism into a blue brew that blends heritage with herbalism and a dash of social hysteria. With his retro-architecture, his anti-science foundation promoting alternative medicine and his summer schools imbuing teachers with British culture, he is the hero of the backward brigade. He falls for every modern panic from Frankenstein food to "grey goo" science fiction nanotechnology.
His face seems to say it all, forever fixed in a rictus of regret, lugubriously lamenting some lost golden age he gleaned from the pages of Our Island Story. He is a Past Times catalogue personified, kitsch nostalgia in a kilt. Worse, he would despise Past Times because it isn't the real thing but vulgar suburban imitation: authenticity is everything, never mind the price. (Let them eat Duchy Originals!)
Where does he find such astonishing confidence to dispense ill-informed admonitions and instructions to the government on any subject that takes his passing fancy? It comes from that certain knowledge that he speaks out for old blue Britain with all the same prejudices and predilections of his parents. He has appointed himself keeper of the land-owning values of the Countryside Alliance and anointed himself guru-bishop of the conservative view of nature.
It is not in the least surprising that the heir to the throne has strong views about a natural order we underlings disturb at our peril. Nor is it surprising he believes in mystical things beyond the ken of science or modern democracy. Sadly, is it not surprising that a Labour government never dares deliver the sharp constitutional rebuke that he would have earned from a Conservative government had he interfered with Mrs Thatcher on behalf of his suffering people?
Imagine he was not a conservative. Instead of lecturing an elected Labour government, he could donate much of his £10m a year income to the Exchequer (not to personal vanity charities) and devote himself usefully to lecturing the rich on their duty to pay living wages and contribute higher taxes towards a fairer society, shaming the greed out of our boardrooms. Wealth and its excess is the one subject on which he has a genuine expertise. Imagine the Tory outrage if he did.
He makes an unconvincing guardian of the past. After all, the past was only better for kings and princes. For the rest of us in western democracies there has never been a better time to be alive, never a time that was safer, richer, healthier or freer. Progressives know this with every fibre of their being, just as they know things must get better still. If modernity brings suburban sprawl - too many cars, too much carbon causing a deadly dangers - then progressive environmentalists want these solved with progressive political solutions. Only conservatives want to go backwards. We might buy the Celtic brooch or Victorian nightgown from the catalogue and join the National Trust, but who would buy Prince Charles's yearning for a better yesterday? There is a glimmer of a chance that we will not buy Prince Charles at all.
Guardian Unlimited © Guardian Newspapers Limited 2004
Friday, July 2, 2004
Thank you for the article on evolution on June 21 of the Living section. I was especially happy to hear about young people today, educated in both modern science and in the things of faith. They seem to be able to put the two together and not be threatened by knowing that our world developed gradually over the millennia, and that God has been the author and creator all the way.
If you look at the Grand Canyon, you can see dozens and hundreds of layers. These show the many kinds of critters which preceded us humans on Earth. Or, go and visit the Grand Canyon, stay a while and praise the God and creator of it all. His mighty hand has done it, as we read in Psalm 8.
Did the Lord do it in six 24-hour "days" or over six million-year "days"? In both creationism and in a faith-filled evolution, our faith is conserved. Notice that in the Genesis account and in modern science, the movement is always upward.
That's not all. Evolution is still going on, is not yet complete. God continues his work of both the material creation and the spiritual creation. We Christians see this done through his beloved son. Redemption and salvation are what complete "evolution." Read Colossians 1:16-18. The risen Christ is the first-born of all creatures. All that science can discover was created through him and for him. His resurrection and entry into glory opens the possibility for us to follow, for "evolution" to come to its final stage.
THE REV. ROBERT E. McCREARY
ST. JOSEPH CATHOLIC CHURCH
Research group tapped to look at anti-drug teachings
Nanette Asimov, Chronicle Staff Writer
Friday, July 2, 2004
State schools chief Jack O'Connell has asked a research group known for its rigorous reviews of health curriculum to spend three months evaluating the Narconon anti-drug program, whose classroom instruction has been linked to the Church of Scientology.
At a press conference today in East Los Angeles, O'Connell will announce that the California Healthy Kids Resource Center, a public agency in Hayward, will look at what Narconon is teaching thousands of students in its hourlong presentations at dozens of schools each year.
"The review will be limited to looking at the curriculum and training materials for their accuracy, medical research and authenticity," O'Connell said Thursday. "The resource center will do a very thorough evaluation from five qualified reviewers, including a physician, education professionals and drug and alcohol prevention coordinators."
The findings of the center will carry no force of law, but unless the reviewers endorse Narconon, O'Connell said, he will issue a strongly worded admonition to districts against using the program.
O'Connell said his call for a review resulted from recent articles in The Chronicle that raised questions about the science being taught by Narconon. The articles also found parallels between Narconon's instruction and language and concepts embraced by the Church of Scientology.
O'Connell said the curriculum review would not go into the church-state issue.
Narconon officials acknowledge that they, their employees and donors tend to be Scientologists and that Narconon's curriculum was conceived by L. Ron Hubbard, founder of the Church of Scientology.
But they are adamant that the Narconon program is nonsectarian and say that the program provides an important public service to schoolchildren.
"We welcome the opportunity to provide the California Department of Education with first-hand information about our drug education program, its science-based curriculum and our results over the last 30 years,'' said Narconon's president, Clark Carr. "With teen alcohol and drug use continuing at epidemic levels, giving the truth about drugs to our children is essential. It is both the California Department of Education's and Narconon's responsibility to ensure that youth learn enough to live drug-free lives.''
Narconon's classroom presentations include ideas about drug addiction that medical experts interviewed by The Chronicle said had no basis in fact. The ideas include: that drugs accumulate indefinitely in body fat, where they cause drug cravings and flashbacks for years; that the mind is made up of "mental image pictures" that get "scrambled" by the drugs in fat; that the vitamin niacin pulls drugs from fat, and saunas sweat them from the body.
Carr and Narconon's medical staff -- including Drs. David Root of Sacramento and G. Megan Shields of Los Angeles -- say the claims are well- grounded in science.
The Narconon program has not been reviewed under the federal government's rigorous guidelines and is therefore not eligible for public drug-prevention money, state officials said.
Both the San Francisco and Los Angeles school districts are conducting their own reviews of Narconon. Administrators in some of the 38 school districts where Narconon has made presentations in recent years said they were unaware that the Narconon program was being presented in their schools because Narconon speakers approach individual teachers. At least three of those districts -- Paramount Unified in Los Angeles County, and Irvine Unified and Santa Ana Unified in Orange County -- plan to bar Narconon from their schools in the future.
The California Healthy Kids Resource Center, which will conduct the state's review, is funded by the state Department of Education and the Department of Health Services. The Resource Center typically evaluates hundreds of full-scale health curricula each year, but it selects only about 25 percent to make available to teachers at public and private schools across California, said its executive director, Deborah Woods.
Woods said the center does not generally evaluate hourlong presentations, which Narconon's is, "because the quality depends on the presenter, and it's difficult to get (the reviewers) to the site. Typically, drug-abuse prevention in schools is more than a one-shot deal -- it's a set of planned sequential learning activities."
However, Woods said, if the evaluators like what they see in Narconon, the program could be acquired by the library and made available to teachers throughout the state.
"This is special review, a little different from our normal review process because we've been asked to do it by the state Department of Education, " Woods said. Typically, her office will hear about a curriculum through scholarly journals or professional conferences, she said.
Until about 1996, the Resource Center was mainly a clearinghouse of health information for educators, with about 4,000 titles available for borrowing or purchase. Since then, Woods said, the center has changed its orientation and reduced its titles to about 1,000 top-quality, research-based materials.
The California Healthy Kids Resource Center, located in the Alameda County Office of Education, can be reached at www.californiahealthykids.org.
E-mail Nanette Asimov at email@example.com.
New York | July 02, 2004 4:29:35 PM IST
Hollywood actor Tom Cruise's efforts to raise money to open a detox center for 9/11 victims have come under fire, after it was reported that the Long Island clinic has links with scientology.
According to The New York Daily News, Cruise raised more than 1.2 million dollars for the clinic, which is providing a detox center for the WTC victims who are suffering from smoke inhalation. A detox center had earlier been opened in Manhattan in 2002.
However, rumors are rife that the center actually doubles up as a recruitment agency for scientiology followers as scientologists run both the centers.
The Long Island clinic follows the teachings of Scientology, which include exercise, sauna sweating and a diet of vitamins, and minerals that help cleanse the body of toxic residues.
The "Top Gun" star however, denies these rumors, saying that his efforts to help are genuine. "Thousands are still suffering. That's unacceptable to me, to these heroes and to their families.
We were asked for a second one closer to the rescue workers' homes," the report quoted Cruise as saying. (ANI)
An Iranian newspaper has reported the controversial story of a woman who claims to have given birth to a frog.
The Iranian daily Etemaad says the creature is believed to have grown from larva to an adult frog inside her body.
While it is unclear how this could have happened, the paper carries quotes from medical experts who say there are human characteristics to the animal.
It has been speculated that the woman, who has not been named, unknowingly picked up the larva while she was swimming in a dirty pool.
The woman, from the south-eastern city of Iranshahr, is a mother of two children.
The "so-called frog", as the newspaper puts it, has yet to undergo precise genetic and anatomic tests.
But it quotes clinical biology expert Dr Aminifard as saying: "The similarities are in appearance, the shape of the fingers and the size and shape of the tongue."
Medical history recounts stories of people who believed they had frogs - or even lizards or snakes - living and growing in their bodies.
One of the most famous was the 17th Century case of Catharina Geisslerin, known as "the toad-vomiting woman" of Germany.
When she died in 1662 doctors are said to have performed an autopsy, but found no evidence animals had ever lived inside her body.
By Tanya Datta
Reporter, Secret Swami
Basava Premanand is India's leading guru-buster.
He believes that the country's biggest spiritual leader, Sri Satya Sai Baba, is a charlatan and must be exposed.
Basava Premanand says Sai Baba's 'miracles' are just magic tricks
Basava Premanand has been burgled... again.
It is the third time in just one month. But he is in no doubt of the thieves' motives.
He suspects they were looking for evidence that he has collected for over 30 years against India's leading spiritual guru, Sri Satya Sai Baba.
Mr Premanand believes this evidence proves the self-proclaimed "God-man", Sai Baba, is not just a fraud, but a dangerous sexual abuser.
"Sai Baba is nothing but a mafia man, conning the people and making himself rich", he says of his bete noire.
Thursday, 17 June, 2004
BBC Two, 2100 BST in the UK
As India's leading guru-buster, Basava Premanand is the scourge of all miracle-makers.
He is the founder of the Federation of Indian Rationalist Associations and the editor of a monthly periodical called The Indian Sceptic.
He believes that it is his duty to dispel the "curse of gullibility blighting his country in the form of myth and superstition", and replace it instead with the "gospel of pure, scientific understanding".
Since 1976, he has waged a bitter war against Sai Baba, a man who commands a following of millions both in India and abroad. His devotees believe him to be an Avatar, or incarnation of God in human form.
But to Mr Premanand, this God is anything but holy.
Rumours about Sai Baba sexually abusing young male devotees have been circulating for years.
In 1976 a former American follower,Tal Brooke, wrote a book called Avatar of the Night: The Hidden Side of Sai Baba. In it, he referred to the guru's sexual exploits.
But Brooke's allegations were dismissed out of hand by the tightly controlled Sai Baba Organisation.
Dr Michael Goldstein, chairman of the international Sai Baba organisation, admitted he had heard rumours, but told us that he did not believe them. He said: "My heart and my conscience tell me that it is not possible."
Former Indian prime minister Atal Behari Vajpayee The attacks on Sai Baba are wild, reckless and concocted Former Indian PM Vajpayee
But in the last four years, and with the growth of the internet, the tide of claims against Sai Baba has become a groundswell.
Former devotees such as Alaya Rahm and Mark Roche, featured in the the BBC film Secret Swami, are coming forward with increasingly graphic stories of the guru's serious sexual exploitation.
Their own experiences bear an uncanny resemblance, yet span a time frame of almost 30 years.
Both had been subjected to Sai Baba rubbing oil on their genitals.
"He took me aside", said Alaya Rahm, "put the oil on his hands, told me to drop my pants and rubbed my genitals with the oil. I was really taken aback."
All the allegations against Sai Baba so far have been made by Westerners.
But Mr Premanand says that there are many Indians who also claim to have been abused but are too afraid to speak out.
It is no surprise that Indian victims are scared of reprisals. Sai Baba's influence among the power elite of India is impressive.
Prime ministers, presidents, judges and generals, have all come to the ashram (religious retreat) in Puttaparthi in southern India, to pay their respects.
Sai Baba in the ashram
Sai Baba often performs 'miracles' for his devotees in the ashram
The previous prime minister of India, Mr Atal Vajpayee, once issued a letter on his official notepaper calling the attacks on Sai Baba "wild, reckless and concocted."
Sai Baba also enjoys a close relationship with the state police. A former head of police once acted as his personal chauffeur.
None of this, however, deters Mr Premanand who has doggedly pursued Sai Baba over the years through the courts, the media and several embarrassing books and exposures.
Little wonder that his campaign has enraged some of the holy man's supporters.
To date, Basava Premanand has survived four murder attempts and bears the scars from several savage beatings.
In 1986, he was arrested by the police for marching to Puttaparthi with 500 volunteers for a well-publicised confrontation with Sai Baba.
Four male devotees broke into Sai Baba's private quarters late at night armed with knives
Later that year, he took Sai Baba to court for violating the Gold Control Act by producing gold necklaces out of thin air without the permission of a Gold Control Administrator.
When his case was dismissed, Mr Premanand appealed on the grounds that spiritual power is not a defence recognised in law.
In June 1993, the peace of the ashram was shattered when a gruesome incident took place.
Four male devotees, who were close to Sai Baba, broke into their guru's private quarters late at night armed with knives.
Their motives are unclear. Some say they were going to warn their guru about corruption among the higher echelons of the ashram. Others say they were going to kidnap or even kill Sai Baba.
They were stopped by Sai Baba's personal attendants and in the violent struggle that ensued, two of the attendants were killed and two left seriously wounded.
Mr Premanand is determined to continue with his lone crusade
Sai Baba managed to escape through a secret flight of stairs and raise the alarm.
Just before the police arrived, the four men escaped to Sai Baba's bedroom. It was there, the police say, they shot the intruders out of self defence.
Mr Premanand claimed a cover up and went to court.
He says: "The central government stopped the investigation, because if the investigation takes place, a lot of things will come out like economic offences and sex offences."
He was outraged that Sai Baba - one of the key witnesses to the events of that night - had not been questioned.
Over the next three years, he took his case all the way to the Supreme Court, before he was eventually defeated.
Today, this sprightly septuagenarian is as busy as ever, collecting and collating more information. Mr Premanand is preparing for another battle.
"This", he says mischievously, "is going to be the greatest fight of my life."
The Ark has long been the atheist's favorite object of ridicule. Instead of responding with factual evidence, many intimidated Christians are left cowering in their pews, wondering.
Is the Biblical account of the flood and Nosh's ark really credible.
Can a truly honest person believe it?
Is there any evidence that such a flood ever happened?
Could all those animals fit in the ark?
Could it have been just a local flood?
What about the possible eye witness accounts claiming the ark still exists on Mt. Ararat? Could it still be there?
Don't miss this truly exciting presentation.
Medical Office Building
2126 Research Row, Dallas, TX
Tuesday, July 6th, 7:30 PM
Thursday, Jul. 01, 2004
A reevaluation of a study threatens to tarnish the reputations of two prestigious institutions
By LEON JAROFF
An apparently fraudulent study threatens to tarnish the reputations of two respected institutions: New York's Columbia University and the Journal of Reproductive Medicine (JRM),. The study, conducted by a trio of Columbia researchers and published in 2001 in the supposedly peer-reviewed JRM, purportedly demonstrated that prayer could help infertile women to conceive.
In their report, the Columbia researchers claimed that women who received in-vitro fertilization at a South Korean hospital were twice a likely as others to conceive if, unknown to them, prayers were uttered in their behalf. And these were no ordinary prayers. They were made by strangers, Christians thousands of miles away in the U.S., Australia and Canada who were shown only unidentified photographs of the Korean women in question. This so-called intercessory prayer supposedly resulted in a pregnancy rate of 50% for those who received it, compared with only 26% for those who did not.
With its validity attested to by the imprimaturs of Columbia and the JRM, the study was heralded in the press, printed in the New York Times, featured on ABCs Good Morning America and widely syndicated.
But some eyebrows were raised, especially those of Dr. Bruce Flamm, a clinical professor of gynecology and obstetrics at the University of California. Reviewing the protocol of the study, he found it bewildering, relying on different groups of prayers addressing their attention to different groups of Korean women, and some actually assigned to pray for some of their fellow prayers.
And, though the Columbia report stated that "we set out with the expectation that we would show no benefit of IP (intercessory prayer)," Flamm discovered that one of the Columbia researchers probably believed otherwise. He was Daniel Wirth, who had previously published many research articles claiming miraculous, supernatural healing. Furthermore, Wirth was not a medical doctor — he has a law degree and a masters degree in, of all things, parapsychology.
Dr. Flamm immediately began dispatching E-mails and critical letters to Dr. George Wied, the editor of the JRM, tried repeatedly to reach him by phone, and now, nearly three years later, has still not received a response. When I contacted the the Journal, I was told that the only comment the JRM would make would be in the text of a "forthcoming" issue. The Journal also ignored my E-mail request to identify the peer reviewers of the study. Turning to Columbia, Flamm found that another author of the report, Dr. Kwang Cha, had left the university, and would not respond to inquiries about the study. The third author, Dr. Rogerio Lobo, until recently chairman of obstetrics and gynecology at Columbia, originally identified by the university as the teams leader, also refused calls for comment.
But Dr. Flamm has been unrelenting. Since 2001, he has published critiques of the study in The Scientific Review of Alternative Medicine, and in the current issue of Skeptic magazine, blew the lid off the scandal. He reported that in the years following publication of the prayer study, Wirth and an accomplice had been indicted on felony charges, including 13 counts of mail fraud and 12 counts of interstate transportation of stolen money. The two men have since pled guilty, and face fines and prison terms; Wirth is refusing to talk to the press.
Embarrassed, both Columbia and the JRM are fending off phone calls by the press and beating a hasty retreat. The university now says that Dr. Lobo had only provided "editorial review and assistance" with publication of the study, and it has removed from its Website the press release announcing the study. The JRM, at long last, has announced that it is investigating the matter, and just removed the discredited study from its site.
Still, questions arise. How could Dr. Lobo, a respected scientist, have permitted the release of a flawed study co-authored by a medically-illiterate con man like Wirth? And why did the JRMs peer-review system fail, before publication, to detect the inconsistencies and unsound methodology in the in-vitro study? Who were the peers who vetted it? And why did both Dr. Lobo and Dr. George Wied consistently stonewall for nearly three years when challenged about the study?
Copyright © 2004 Time Inc
National Center for Science Education, Inc.
420 40th Street, Suite 2
Oakland, CA 94609-2509
by Simon Blackburn
A Devil's Chaplain: Reflections on Hope, Lies, Science, and Love
By Richard Dawkins (Houghton Mifflin, 263 pp., $24)
Richard Dawkins is the Charles Simonyi Professor of the Public Understanding of Science at the University of Oxford, and one of the best-known scientists and writers of our time. His works explaining biology and evolution, including The Selfish Gene, The Extended Phenotype, and The Blind Watchmaker, are deservedly classics. The title of his chair at Oxford fits him perfectly, since he must have done more to increase the public understanding of his own science, and indeed of science in general, than anyone else of his generation. The only writer on similar themes who came close to him was Stephen Jay Gould, to whom several of the papers in this sparkling collection are addressed. But Dawkins is a more reliable evolutionary theorist, I think, than Gould was.
This collection contains many of Dawkins's thoughts about the significance of science, as well as some eulogies, prefaces, and topical contributions such as a piece on he Sokal hoax. Some, particularly the eulogies for two of his heroes, the science-fiction writer Douglas Adams and the great biologist W.D. Hamilton, and also the correspondence with his supposed opponent Stephen Jay Gould, show a remarkably warm and generous side to Dawkins. So does his wonderful encomium to an inspirational teacher, the headmaster Sanderson of the famous school Oundle, a maverick who could no longer exist in a culture dominated by bureaucratic controls and demands.
Other essays show more steel. They concern the interpretation of science, and the relationship between science and culture. They say less about biological science itself, although one essay in particular, "Darwin Triumphant," is a marvelous statement of the methodology and the status of current evolutionary theory. Indeed, it is the best such introduction I know, and it ought to be the first port of call for know- nothings and saloon-bar skeptics about the nature and the power of Darwinian theory. In it Dawkins shows his uncanny ability to combine what might seem light and introductory material with heavyweight contributions to theory. He moves seamlessly from introducing "core Darwinism" to answering a professional question left open by Francis Crick. The clarity of his writing is astonishing. This is his description of core Darwinism: "the minimal theory that evolution is guided in adaptively nonrandom directions by the nonrandom survival of small random hereditary changes." Every word counts; none could be omitted, and for the purposes of definition no more are needed. It is immediately obvious that core Darwinism is compatible with random genetic drift (where no adaptive advantage accrues because of a change) or with external catastrophic interference, as in the destruction of the dinosaurs, yet much ink has been spilled on misunderstandings of these things. Consider also a part of his answer to the question that Crick raised, asking why Lamarckian inheritance, the inheritance of acquired characteristics, could not be as efficient as natural selection: "If acquired characteristics were indiscriminately inherited, organisms would be walking museums of ancestral decrepitude, pock-marked from ancestral plagues, limping relics of ancestral misfortune." Almost any page will show similar gems.
The "Devil's Chaplain" of Dawkins's title comes from Darwin: "What a book a Devil's Chaplain might write on the clumsy, wasteful, blundering low and horridly cruel works of nature." Dawkins does not flinch from the depressing picture of the evolutionary process that so horrified many Victorians. Nature is clumsy and wasteful and blunderingly low and horridly cruel, or at least horridly indifferent. Creatures live on others in sickening ways, and nature erupts in terrible arms races in which predator and prey provoke each other to more complex and more fiendish devices. But the accumulation of tiny accidents and the winnowing process of the evolutionary sieve can result in marvels, whether it is a swallow's flight or the running of a gazelle or the ingenuity of a scientist. For one of the marvels is the human brain, with its capacity for taking control, for planning, for cooperating with others, or for manipulating the environment. The question of how it should do these things takes us to ethics. The question of how it got to be so that it can do these things takes us to evolutionary science.
Dawkins unashamedly and gloriously delights in science. If anything is sacred to him, it is truth and the patient road to it. He loves the methods of science and its self-correcting nature. He loves the amazing world that it reveals--a world far more amazing than any that human beings could invent out of their own heads. A quotation that he provides from Douglas Adams fits him exactly: "I'd take the awe of understanding over the awe of ignorance any day." In the last essay in the book he expresses this love in a moving letter to his ten-year-old daughter, extolling science's reliance on observation, evidence, and the testing of hypotheses, and contrasting them with the ways by which falsehoods come to grip the human mind: by authority, and tradition, and the inner conviction called revelation.
Still, Dawkins can seem surprisingly unperturbed by the forces that unsettle public confidence in science. Writing to Tony Blair about the furor over genetically modified crops, he contrasts the "gut reactions" of the green movement, which he despises, with a "rational plea for rigorously safe testing," which he endorses. But he thereby bypasses the Greens' fear that in a world where universities are beholden to big agriculture, there is no such thing as rigorously safe testing, or at least no way for the rest of us to know if it ever takes place. Dawkins does not write as if distorted observations, bent peer review, the demand for results from industrial sponsors, and the corruption of the medical profession by pharmaceutical companies are much of a problem. He reminds his daughter that even if we take scientific facts on trust, we can in principle go and look for ourselves, repeating whatever experiments are necessary. But he is, perhaps, a little too quiet about the practical impossibility of doing any such thing.
The betrayal of science that does arouse him to fury comes from religion. Dawkins is an atheist, a strenuous and militant and proud one. He thinks religious belief is a dangerous virus, and that it is a crime to infect the mind of a child with it. He believes that "only the willfully blind could fail to implicate the divisive force of religion in most, if not all, of the violent enmities in the world today." He calls religions "dangerous collective delusions," and he thinks that they are sinks of falsehood (most of them have to be, since only one can be true). He especially regrets their public influence. He is made apoplectic by the pontifications of religious "leaders" on such questions as whether human clones would be fully human, made in blissful ignorance of the fact that identical twins are clones of each other.
Religion in England is not terribly demanding. It is not typically to be thought of in terms of, say, the Kansas School Board or the teaching of "creationist science," things about which any educated person should be deeply disturbed. Nor in its native form is English religion a matter of clerics telling you what you can eat or whom you can marry. It is not even a matter of oily frauds on television fleecing the poor and the stupid of their savings. It is seen largely as a set of marginal but aesthetically pleasing rituals: the King's College carol service, a stroll around Salisbury or York, watercress sandwiches and a bit of Elgar. And so it is not really done to dump on English religion too heavily; better to raise your hat to a vicar than raise your fists to him. This puts Dawkins in the somewhat paradoxical position of being an evangelical atheist in a country where evangelicals of any kind are largely mistrusted. At least until recently, his crusading seemed to many people in England a little bit over the top, a touch embarrassing. Surtout, pas de zèle: Talleyrand's excellent motto, goes down well in England, yet Dawkins is zealous.
But he has a good excuse. The religious virus is a cunning enemy, and recent years have actually seen creationist schools creeping into the United Kingdom, while our prime minister, who together with his wife is the beneficiary of a marvelous gene that enables him to believe absolutely whatever he would like to believe, has set up an influential committee for increasing religiosity in the workings of government. (Although nominally a Catholic, Cherie Blair goes in more for New Age nonsense, but as far as I am aware the government has not yet been instructed to consult crystal balls.) Dawkins thinks, and I agree with him, that we cannot afford to be complacent. Even if we have little religious zealotry at home, we do not have to go as far as America or the Middle East to find it. We only need to look across the sea to Northern Ireland to be reminded of what happens once the religious virus takes hold. And Dawkins has a further reason for his zeal: evolution and biology have been and still are frequent targets of those infected by religion. They are areas where what we are--large primates--conflicts most sharply with what such people would like to think of us as being: children of God, little lower than angels, specially anointed. When wishful thinking collides with science, it is generally wishful thinking that wins, and Dawkins is right to be driven wild by it.
Yet I wonder whether religion and science relate to each other in quite the way that Dawkins envisages. He thinks of religious belief as simply true or false, like other beliefs, and then overwhelmingly likely to be false, since they are either inconsistent with or unsupported by our best evidence about the way the world works. Religion is superstition, like astrology, alternative medicine, and the rest. He likes an example of Bertrand Russell's in which we consider the hypothesis that there is a china teapot in its own orbit around the sun. Someone might believe it, but there are many reasons for supposing it false and none at all for supposing it true. Dawkins is right that it would be simply silly to set store by the fact that the belief cannot be disproved. It may depend on your standards of proof, but in any event the hypothesis is as unlikely as can be, and as unlikely as any of the infinite number of equally outlandish possible beliefs that we all ignore all the time.
It might seem not to matter if someone convinces himself that there is such a teapot. But Dawkins might side, as I would, with the Victorian mathematician W.K. Clifford, whose famous essay "The Ethics of Belief" excoriated our "right" to believe pretty much what we like:
In like manner, if I let myself believe anything on insufficient evidence, there may be no great harm done by the mere belief; it may be true after all, or I may never have occasion to exhibit it in outward acts. But I cannot help doing this great wrong towards Man, that I make myself credulous. The danger to society is not merely that it should believe wrong things, though that is great enough; but that it should become credulous, and lose the habit of testing things and inquiring into them; for then it must sink back into savagery.
But the real and present danger lies not so much here but in what the belief in the teapot waits to do. To become anything worth calling a religious belief, a belief needs to connect with our form of life, our way of being in the world. Perhaps out of its spout come instructions on how to behave, whom to shun and whom to persecute, how to eat and what to wear. Now the teapot becomes an object of veneration, and of controversy. It needs interpreting. It needs a dedicated class of people (usually men) to give authoritative renderings of its texts and their meanings. In short, it has become a religious icon, and dangerous.
It has also stopped being a teapot, or merely a teapot (just as Duchamp's urinal stops being merely a urinal: it is the audience's interpretation of it that matters). It will have started to be a sin not to believe in this teapot, although normally it is no sin to doubt the existence of anything. The teapot may have become eternal, although natural teapots are not. In fact, at this point we can forget the teapot qua teapot, and look straight at the institutions that it supports and the instructions and the way of life into which it gets woven. The factual component is not the bit that does the work. The teapot is merely a prop in the game, and an imaginary teapot serves just as well.
The same is true of the great or wise Architect of the eighteenth century, or the Intelligent Designer who is so important to the good people in Kansas. If you use evidence from the wonderful contrivances of nature to ascend to a designer, what then? There is no immediate practical difference between living in a world with such-and-such natural stuff in it and living in a world with the same natural stuff in it that some supernatural being created, or even occasionally tweaks in unpredictable ways. The more extravagant account offers no new scientific predictions, and certainly no inferences as to how to behave, whom to admire, or what to fight for or against. You have to import all that yourself, from your culture or your morality. If you marvel long enough at the adaptation of bees and orchids to start thinking of intelligent design, that is just a barren scientific mistake; but if, as a next step, you begin to think that the designer has given you satisfactory authority to persecute people with bare heads or red beards, you have become religious, but you are no longer in the world of fact at all.
On this way of thinking, religious activity becomes more like dance, song, drama, or ritual. Its essence lies in what religious people do, not what they believe or say that they believe. And the question of whether it is good to go in for these dances and dramas stops being a scientific question. It becomes a political or an ethical or an aesthetic question.
For Dawkins, a sentence such as "I know that my redeemer liveth" expresses a superstitious and false belief that someone who lived two thousand years ago goes on living still, contrary to all the known processes of biology. On the Wittgensteinian view that I have just outlined, it is more like an expression of awe or fear or self-righteousness or humility. It is the saying of someone who is trying to articulate certain emotions, and who has been given this particular repertoire of expressions of them, just as he might have been given a waltz or a minuet. It is not a saying that is contradicted by the scientific truth that people do not live that long.
It is a good question whether the Wittgensteinian account chimes very well with the self-understanding of believers, and whether it matters if it does not chime with it at all. It has consequences for one problem that troubles Dawkins, which is the extent to which even atheists seem drawn to "respect" the attitudes and the beliefs of religious people. Why should anyone "respect" the belief that there is a china teapot orbiting the sun? It is just dotty, and that is the end of it. But if we see a religious tradition as a record of a culture's ongoing attempts to cope with fear and hope, life and death, gain and loss, then it certainly becomes a candidate for respect, just as much as the artistic and literary traditions of our ancestors. I recall reading somewhere that the doughty Enlightenment spirit Edward Gibbon recounted journeying past the cathedral of Chartres with words like these: "Pausing only to dart a look of contempt at the stately pile of superstition, we passed on." It is important that atheists do not have to share this attitude of Gibbon's, and I am sure that Dawkins does not share it. It is religious people, after all, who deface and destroy religious buildings.
Becoming a possible object of respect, a religious tradition also becomes a target for criticism, and Dawkins is quite capable of mounting the true criticism of most current religiosities, including that of all the monotheistic religions of the desert, which is that they are frequently cruel, misogynistic, divisive, intolerant, and life-denying, and that they warp for the worse the emotions and the practices of countless people across the globe. The function of these religions is to regulate how people behave and think, and unfortunately people regulate how they behave in the most
awful ways and think the most awful things. There is no skyhook, so our teapots are no better than we are, and often bring out the worst in us.
On the popular mind, Richard Dawkins is probably associated with two influential ideas: the selfish gene and the meme. The first is associated with a particular way of thinking of natural selection, a "gene's-eye view" that, as Dawkins has always acknowledged, was heralded by W.D. Hamilton and G.C. Williams in the 1960s, or even earlier. To an outsider it now appears quite orthodox within that field, although one needs to be very surefooted to follow the mathematics and the logic behind controversies over whether evolution "operates at" the level of genes, individuals, species, or other units. Indeed, it is not always clear whether there is real rivalry here.
Thus at some points in his writings Dawkins himself has suggested that we just have different ways of looking at the same thing. In The Extended Phenotype, he uses the analogy of a Necker cube, which "flips" from being seen one way to being seen another, suggesting that the gene's-eye
view and the individual's perspective are then just two different ways of looking at the same truth. In his usual, more evangelical mood he wants to insist that the gene's-eye view is better. In the introduction to the second edition of The Selfish Gene, while still admitting that the different standpoints cannot be judged by experiment, verification, and falsification, nevertheless the change of vision can "usher in a whole climate of thinking, in which many exciting and testable theories are born, and unimagined facts laid bare." New ways of seeing make their own contributions to science.
They do indeed, and spectators such as myself will have to take it on trust that this has happened here. But it is not completely obvious how. For comparison, imagine a new method of treating an injury at football, such as a sprained ankle. Suppose it is quicker and less painful than the old method, which it then supplants. It makes little sense on the face of it to argue about which is the prime beneficiary, what Dawkins calls the "optimon" or the "entity for whose benefit adaptations may be said to exist." Is it the ankle, the player, the team, the supporters, or even the doctor? More outlandishly, is it perhaps the treatment itself, a cultural device or "meme" in Dawkins's sense, which will replicate itself effectively just because it is better adapted to the football environment than the old treatment? I do not think that these are very well- formed questions, or that we do well to choose one answer over another. All that does seem clear is that there is an arrow of causation. The change in treatment benefits the spectators because it benefits the team, which it does only because it benefits the player, and it benefits the player only because it benefits his ankle. You cannot say it the other way around: it is not true that the treatment benefits the ankle because it benefits the team.
Similarly, an adaptive mutation in a gene may benefit a group because it benefits individuals, and may spread because it does so. In saying these things, at least we use "benefit" in a literal sense. If, in the football example, we go on to say that the prime beneficiary is the meme, the treatment itself, I doubt if we mean anything--except, of course, that because of its superior merits this treatment is set to become more common than other treatments. Similarly, if we say that the prime beneficiary of a mutation is the gene itself, I doubt we can mean more than that because of its superior merits in aiding the life of its host this gene is set to become more common than its allele, or less adaptive rival.
Perhaps this is all that we should mean. By now it is not seriously doubted that the random variations described in core Darwinism occur at the level of the gene. That much is not in question. Is everything else, such as the apparent personification of the gene, merely rhetorical? It is hard to be sure. Dawkins is such a vivid and powerful writer, with such a range of metaphor at his disposal, that it is not always his readers' fault if they take him to mean more. The notorious descriptions of persons as blind or lumbering robots, of human life prostituted to the selfish gene (a phrase that he takes from the late Christopher Evans), of human beings as "alone on earth" rebelling against the tyranny of the selfish replicators, is deliberately thrilling. But then comes the sobering up. "Lumbering robot" does not quite mean what it sounds to mean. It covers anything capable of learning, intelligence, creativity, and emotion. Us, in fact. "Selfish" does not mean selfish, which implies a capacity to think in terms of self, but simply means capable of replicating itself more numerously than others. I should not be surprised if somewhere Dawkins patiently explains that "prostitute" and "tyranny" have technical meanings in biology, so that the idea of ourselves as prostituted to our genes or heroically rebelling against their tyranny has simply been misunderstood by laypersons.
There is, of course, no reason at all why biology, like any other science, should not give terms a technical use. But it is important to insist that our words control us at least as much as we control them, and I am not convinced that in places such as these Dawkins is in perfect control. Consider the idea that we alone on earth can rebel against the tyranny of the selfish replicators within us. What is the stripped-down, sober biological truth intended by such language? Like all other living things, we have genes. We also have psychologies; that is, in accordance with our genetic recipes and chemical environments, large brains have formed, so that we think and desire and form intentions and plans after we have grown into the culture around us. But what is all this about rebelling and tyranny? A tyrant may tell me to do something, and, rebelling, I do something else. What is the analogy? Perhaps an occasion when I am really tempted to do something, but control myself and do something else instead. But why describe this as a case of defying my genes? You might as well say that I am rebelling against my brain, whereas the fact is that I am using it. It is only Cartesian dualists--that is, dare one say it, religious people--who go in for opposing what nature would have me do against what I, the real me, does. And it is not even true that we alone on earth can exercise self-control. A dog may resist the temptation to take a biscuit, having been told not to do so.
The concept of cultural items such as tunes or games, beliefs or fashions, as themselves "memes" with a kind of life of their own, making use of human beings as vehicles in their pitiless Darwinian struggle with competitors, has similar problems. First it sounds perverse, but then it seems dazzling and exciting. Yes! A gunman is a bullet's way of making another bullet, and a librarian is a library's way of making another library! Like Samuel Butler, who instructed that "even a potato in a dark cellar has a low cunning that stands it in excellent stead," we suddenly think of tunes and games and accents and treatments as pursuing their own projects, plotting to invade us, making use of us to pursue their own competitive existences. Again, though, there is the sobering up. Get rid of any image of a tune or a treatment cunningly squirreling away, invading people and bringing about changes. A tune does not literally make use of people, since it is not the kind of thing that has purposes and designs. What is true is that when one lodges in people's heads, they are prone to spread it. And then we feel let down, since this is all that is apparently left when the rhetorical flourishes are cleaned off.
The upshot, then, is that for his ideas to work, there need to be three levels at which to read Dawkins on such matters. There is strict science--empirical, verifiable, and falsifiable. There is the value of the gene's-eye view or the meme's-eye view, giving us some surplus meaning: a guiding metaphor or way of thinking of things, earning its keep through prompting stricter science. And there is the merely rhetorical level, where the surplus meaning might mislead the layperson, but which is in Dawkins's view easily detachable and disavowed. I have been voicing some doubts about this last claim, but the more important question for science is what is left, or whether everything goes when the bad surplus meaning goes. I am tempted to suppose that this is how it is with memes. At the very least, it would be nice to see which real, fruitful, empirically testable hypotheses about the processes of cultural transmission have been offspring of the idea.
It would be churlish to end on a note of doubt, since memes and genes take up only a small part of this book. Richard Dawkins is too valuable an ally in the battle to keep our culture educated and reasonable to allow these refined issues to matter too much. He is a superb writer, and a great advocate for sanity, and an endlessly informative resource. He should be compulsory reading for school boards everywhere.
Simon Blackburn is professor of philosophy at the University of Cambridge. His recent books include Think (Oxford University Press) and Being Good (Oxford University Press).
Doctors here are testing the claims of a 78-year-old-man who says he has stayed without food and water for 60 years.
Prahladbhai Maganbhai Jani, revered by followers as a spiritual guru, spends most of his time in a cave in the temple town of Ambaji in north Gujarat.
Jani, known as 'maadi', or mother, among his followers, wears a bindi on his forehead, a chain around his neck, bangles around his wrists, anklets on his feet and is draped in a red sari-like stole, although he sports a white beard.
As news of Jani's stay at the super-speciality Sterling Hospital here spreads, followers have begun to camp nearby, waiting for a 'darshan', or glimpse, when he appears at the window of his room and blesses them.
Jani, on reaching the hospital, reportedly chose to climb the stairs rather than take an elevator to the sixth floor.
Hospital director V.N. Shah and neurophysician Sudhir Shah are watching over the "miracle man". His magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) test, done Wednesday, was normal, surprising the doctors, a hospital source said.
Under a 24-hour scrutiny, his moves are being closely watched through a video camera in his room.
While he claims to not eat or drink, to test his claim of not needing to defecate either, the toilet in the ICU ward where he has been put up has been sealed, a report in a local daily said.
The whole affair is shrouded in secrecy and his name has not been entered in the hospital's register.
It is being hinted that specialists from New Delhi and abroad may be invited to examine the man's claims.
According to Jani's followers, however, this is not the first time he is being regarded as a medical phenomenon.
He is said to have spent 40 days at the J.J. Hospital in Mumbai under medical observation.
"I don't need any proof to believe in maadi's divine powers. But let them test the claim. I am ready to quit public life if it is proven wrong," said Haribhai Chaudhari, a follower and head of the Gandhinagar district panchayat, or village council.
from the June 30, 2004 edition
By Mary Ruggie
CAMBRIDGE, MASS. – With another presidential campaign in full swing, polls show that the ever-rising cost of healthcare is near the top of voters' worries. Yet the candidates will almost certainly trot out the two timeworn choices: cut benefits or raise taxes. It is time to try a new approach. Alternative medicine promises an innovative, inclusive, and fiscally responsible solution.
Scientists across the country are beginning to demonstrate that certain alternative therapies are both safe and effective. The therapies range from ancient remedies to modern techniques and include, significantly, healing through prayer. Some patients use alternative therapies to avoid the need for conventional treatment altogether. Reports in major medical journals show that some approaches may help patients manage stress and prevent the incidence or recurrence of disease. Other patients turn to alternative therapies in conjunction with conventional medicine, often to reduce unpleasant side effects such as those that come with chemotherapy.
The cost-saving implications of all this are potentially enormous. When heart patients take a $250 meditation class to lower blood pressure and reduce cholesterol, they also help stave off a $15,000 bypass procedure. Studies show massage therapy ($85 an hour) is the most effective alternative treatment for lower back pain. It also helps avoid surgery (average cost: $16,000), cuts medication, and reduces workers' compensation claims (billions of dollars annually). When surgeons invite a reiki practitioner ($100 a session) into a music-filled operating room, patients heal faster, allowing them to leave the hospital sooner. An extra day in the hospital costs at least $1,000.
Are the ears of insurance companies pricking up?
The next step is more research to prove the anecdotal evidence. This next round of studies will compare the effectiveness and costs of alternative therapies with standard treatments using conventional medicine.
And doctors will have to learn how to cooperate with those involved in alternative therapies, just as they are now learning to share information and decision-making with patients themselves.
It is simple common sense that whenever people can prevent illness or promote healing, they will use fewer healthcare resources. America is looking for a way out of skyrocketing healthcare costs. People are voting with their feet and identifying alternative medicine as a possible alternative strategy.
• Mary Ruggie teaches at Harvard University's Kennedy School of
Government. She is author of 'Marginal to Mainstream: Alternative
Medicine in America.'
By Mike Perrault
The Desert Sun
June 30, 2004
-- State education officials are investigating the drug-prevention program Narconon, which is closely linked to the Church of Scientology and has made at least one fund-raising stop in the Coachella Valley.
California Superintendent of Public Schools Jack O'Connell has ordered a probe to determine whether Narconon's drug-prevention program may also be a vehicle to promote the teachings and philosophy of the late L. Ron Hubbard, author and founder of the Church of Scientology.
The probe also aims to find out whether anti-drug presentations at some 350 schools across the state are scientifically sound or have questionable content.
"Right now we're in the probing phase," said Tina Woo Jung, a spokeswoman for the California Department of Education, said in a telephone interview on Tuesday.
"We're going to talk to them (Narconon International) and just look over what they're teaching to see if it aligns (with state standards)," Jung said.
At issue are Narconon's "Truth About Drugs" hour-long classroom presentations. O'Connell's office is following up on recent complaints and questions that have surfaced in school districts alleging that some of Narconon's medical theories are based on "pseudoscience" and students have been subtly introduced to the church's concepts.
Narconon's program, which is provided to schools nationwide for free, teaches that drugs accumulate in body fat and can cause drug cravings and flashbacks for years; that saunas can sweat drugs out of the body; and that colored ooze is released when drugs leave the body. All drugs are referred to as "poisons."
Narconon officials have defended the program's medical claims. They acknowledge Scientologists support the program and that Narconon administrators and lecturers are Scientologists. But they insist the program is legally and financially separate from the Church of Scientology.
In a recent press release distributed this month, Narconon International said its drug-prevention network spans 120 organizations in 39 countries. Over the past year, Narconon's drug prevention staff has reached more than 400,000 students in 36 countries with in-school presentations on the physical and personal consequences of drug abuse, Narconon officials said. Clark Carr, president of Narconon International, held a news conference in downtown Palm Springs in 1999 to announce the organization's effort to raise $50 million for "Truth About Drugs," the drug-education program for schools.
Several Coachella Valley residents were then named to coordinate fund-raising efforts. Non-profit Narconon International is based in Hollywood and operates the Web site www.narconon.org.
O'Connell's office said there was no way to know how many schools in California have welcomed Narconon presenters.
Educators in the valley's three public school districts said they haven't taken up Narconon on its free drug-education offer.
"We have not used these people at all," said David Gibbons, facilitator of Coachella Valley Unified's Student Assistance Program.
"The only time I've heard of this organization is through the Betty Ford Clinic or something like that," Gibbons said. The other two districts don't recall using Narconon.
The debate about Narconon's tactics began recently after officials in the San Francisco Unified School District raised questions about the scientific basis for presentations made in more than a dozen schools in the district.
The San Francisco Chronicle published articles in early June that detailed links between Narconon's instruction and the Church of Scientology's religious teachings.
Since then, Los Angeles Unified School District officials have issued a warning to the district's schools not to use the program.
It's too early to tell what the state's investigation may show, but O'Connell said findings could lead to an order barring Narconon from providing instruction in all state schools.
Michael Perrault covers education for The Desert Sun. He can be reached at 760-778-4634 or via e-mail.
Scientologists Tackle Bums, Gang Violence
by Paul McMorrow
After four homicides in the span of one May week, Boston Police Commissioner Kathleen O'Toole was in need of some serious anti-crime divine intervention. The Commissioner convened a meeting of 30 Boston ministers and pledged a redoubling of Boston's faith-based crime prevention efforts, but despite all the talk, the bodies continued to pile up.
Last week, God, the ministers and the BPD got a little help from an unorthodox source: old friend L. Ron Hubbard and the Church of Scientology.
The Scientologists, according to their Community Outreach Director, Rev. Robert Castagna, could not sit idly by while drugs, violence and illiteracy continued to rend Boston's social fabric; the city's year-to-date homicide count had just reached 29 (it had risen to 31 at press time), and something had to be done about it.
And something could be done, Castagna argued. At least, that was the message emblazoned on the side of the Scientologists' big yellow tent, which was parked on the Boston Common last week. Inside the tent, officially called the Scientology Volunteer Minister Cavalcade, Scientology volunteer ministers spoke with 2500 members of Boston's crime-loving public, urging them to please stop shooting each other.
"We realize that there is violence, illiteracy and drug use, but we want to put out some solutions," explained Castagna. "Something can be done about it! In spite of violence, there are solutions. The public is distraught, they feel apathetic; we have solutions."
Castagna likens the Scientologists' current outreach to the ongoing collaboration between O'Toole and the Black Ministerial Alliance, as well as to the partnership between the city's ministers and police that helped stem the tide of Boston's early '90s crime waves. The Scientologists, he says, are looking to establish "collaborations with clergy, police and civic groups. When you collaborate, you actually solve problems. We want to take our church in that direction."
At this point, if it helps Boston's youths lay down their guns, O'Toole isn't ruling anything out. Although she could not get to the tent's ribbon-cutting ceremony, she sent BPD Night Supervisor Bobby Johnson in her place. Other dignitaries hoping that the Scientologists can "do something about it" included at-large City Councilor Maura Hennigan and child actor Patrick Renna (the big-boned, redheaded kid from The Sandlot).
BPD spokeswoman Beverly Ford said that there was "nothing sinister" about Johnson's appearance at the tent and that the commissioner welcomed the Scientologists' efforts in the context of the BPD's anti-crime "faith partnerships."
Theodore Boddie, director of the new Codman Square Scientology Volunteer Ministry center, pledged to do anything he could to help Boston's hooligans turn their lives around. "We have a terrific new police commissioner in Kathleen O'Toole, who is aware that the police can operate much more efficiently when working with religious and community leaders," he said. "The commissioner's goals of making Boston a safe and crime-free city align with The Aims of Scientology, and we intend to help her as much as possible."
Renna sounded an equally hopeful note. "Boston's my home town and I don't feel that I can sit back after the 29th homicide of the year has just occurred. The works of Scientology religion founder L. Ron Hubbard regarding drug awareness, literacy and morality have made me successful and have kept me on the right path. This is what this community needs!"
According to Castagna, lives are being changed already. "One person came through the tent, drunk and homeless. One of the ministers helped him with what we call a 'locational' - he looked at the grass and trees until he became more oriented to his surroundings. He had a realization. He realized that he had no purpose in life; he went out and started helping others. He had actually found a purpose in life. Many, many people were helped there this week."
Sharon Shenkar, a Scientologist volunteer minister who manned the tent last week, described it as a smashing success. "We had a great turnout, a real great cross-section of people. Scientology handles the root of a lot of the problems that cause crime. You can help one person momentarily, and six months later they won't be doing well. This week, we were teaching people that someone might have a problem with crime and drugs, and that can be traced back to literacy. Something happened to make them not feel good about themselves. You wouldn't normally put the two together. People feel frustrated, and that leads to drugs and crime. I've seen small miracles in that area alone.
"Several people came in with problems with study, technology and relationships. It's about having techniques that work, having a philosophy that works permanently. It's not a band-aid. It's the biggest relief to have help permanently. It just works."
More than 4,000 scientists have signed a petition accusing George Bush of twisting their work to further his political agenda. Andrew Buncombe investigates the war between the White House and the men in white coats
29 June 2004
For Michael Greene, there was little hesitation. The Harvard professor has spent much of his life working in the field of reproductive health, and when - in his capacity as a member of a federal advisory committee - he was asked his opinion about a new emergency contraception, he had few doubts about recommending that it be licensed.
And neither did the overwhelming majority of his colleagues on the committee, formed by the US federal Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Indeed, the distinguished panel voted 23-4 in favour of selling the "morning after" pill Plan B without prescription. The FDA almost always follows its experts' recommendations.
But not this time. Despite the wealth of expert opinion, the FDA rejected the committee's view, claiming that there was insufficient data. Committee members were incensed. E-mails flew back and forth, talking of resignation and political interference in the scientific process. "People are very angry," says Greene. "The issue here is much larger than just Plan B. The decision is blatantly contrary to the science and the facts, and so blatantly politicised."
But critics say that this is just one modest example among dozens of the way in which the administration of President George Bush is manipulating and twisting science for its own extreme ideological ends. On issues from global warming to lead in drinking water and the alleged link between breast cancer and abortions, this administration, like no other before it, is turning science into a political battleground.
Suddenly, science is responding in what is almost certainly an unprecedented revolt against the government. Earlier this year, the non-profit group, the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), put together a petition that has so far been signed by more than 4,000 scientists, among them 20 Nobel prize-winners, demanding that the Bush administration change its behaviour. It also published a 38-page report detailing the government's scientific distortions.
"Successful application of science has played a large part in the policies that have made the United States the world's most powerful nation, and its citizens increasingly prosperous and healthy," the report says. "Although scientific input to the government is rarely the only factor in public policy decisions, this input should always be weighed from an objective and impartial perspective to avoid perilous consequences. Indeed, this principle has long been adhered to by presidents and administrations of both parties in forming and implementing policies. The administration of George Bush has, however, disregarded this principle."
The result of this politicisation, say disgruntled scientists, has resulted not only in flawed policies but the very undermining of American scientific ideals - and even perhaps the nation's founding principles. What has transpired, Lewis Lapam noted recently in Harper's Magazine, which he edits, has been "the systematic substitution of ideological certainty for reasonable doubt across the entire spectrum of issues bearing on the public health and welfare... [a] rejection of the scientific method in favour of the conviction that if the science doesn't prove what it's been told to prove, then the science has been tampered with by Satan or the Democratic Party".
There are few issues where the evidence of scientific distortion is more apparent than that of reproductive health. On 22 January 2001, four days after his inauguration, Bush reinstated the so-called Mexico City policy, which denies federal funds to family- planning groups that provide abortion counselling or services overseas.
Since then, led by its born-again evangelical leader, the government has waged war on anything that might be considered a "liberal approach" towards reproductive health. Condoms have been condemned as ineffective, and the administration has adopted "abstinence only" as the official approach towards sex education. Over the last three years, Congress has given more than $100m in grants to organisations that promote abstinence-only education.
A report published last year by the House of Representatives committee on government reform noted that this had only been achieved by manipulating the facts. "The Bush administration has consistently distorted the scientific evidence about what works in sex education," it said. "Administration officials have never acknowledged that abstinence-only programmes have not been proven to reduce sexual activity, teen pregnancy or sexually transmitted disease. Instead, [it] has changed performance measures for abstinence-only education to make the programmes appear successful, censored information on effective sex education programmes, and appointed to a key panel an abstinence-only proponent with dubious credentials."
If the administration can use science to turn common sense on its head - does anyone really believe that simply telling teenagers not to have sex will prevent pregnancies? - there is little wonder that it is prepared to manipulate the facts in more obviously "scientific" areas where ordinary people may be less equipped to decide for themselves. In one incident, the administration altered the National Cancer Institute's website to suggest that there was a link between abortion and breast cancer. The federally funded institute was forced to change the site after an outcry from scientists insisting that there was no such link.
It was in this environment that Barr Laboratories, the makers of Plan B, sought federal approval for their new emergency contraception. Though Greene's panel, along with the Non-Prescription Drugs Advisory Panel, voted last December to license the product, it was only this month that the FDA's acting director, Steven Galson, announced that he was overruling his experts. Galson denied that anyone outside the FDA had influenced his decision. "As is the case with a lot of these difficult decisions, there may not be agreement among people who are experts in data analysis," he said. He failed to mention, however, that 44 members of Congress had written to those on the committee urging them to reject the contraception.
James Trussell, a professor at Princeton University's Office of Population Research and a panel member, said that he believed that Plan B will only get approved if there is a change of government. "It is being done to reflect the philosophy of the administration. It is a very sad day," he said. "But this is not just limited to the FDA and just one decision. It's not an isolated thing. Bad policy is being made."
Indeed, the report drawn up by the committee on government reform lists 20 different topics, ranging from agricultural policy to ecological problems in the Yellowstone National Park, in which science had been twisted. The report concluded: "The Bush administration, however, has repeatedly suppressed, distorted or obstructed science to suit political and ideological goals. These actions go far beyond the traditional influence that Presidents are permitted to wield at federal agencies, and compromise the integrity of scientific policy-making."
Critics say that the administration has adopted three strategies to twist facts. The first is to manipulate the membership of advisory committees, stacking them with people who share its views. Elizabeth Blackburn, a member of the President's Council on Bioethics, found out in February that she and a colleague were not to be reappointed to the panel after speaking out in support of research on human stem cells. They were replaced by three new members who opposed such research. "Not one of the newly appointed members is a biomedical scientist," she said.
In other cases, people with links to the industries that the panels are supposed to be monitoring have been appointed. Elsewhere, people have been asked about their views on abortion and the death penalty and their voting record. The Bush administration is even prepared to block the appointment to international bodies of American scientists. In April 2002, it ensured that Robert Watson - a critic of America's energy policy - was voted out of his job as chairman of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, after being lobbied by the ExxonMobil oil company.
The second strategy is simply to misrepresent the truth. In August 2001, Bush banned federal funding of research on new stem-cell lines, saying that there were already 60 such lines available. He was not telling the whole truth. In May 2003, the director of the National Institute of Health (NIH) confirmed that there were just 11 such lines available to researchers.
The final strategy, outlined by Martin McKee and Thomas Novotny in an article in the European Journal of Public Health, is to block funding for controversial issues. A federal analysis on air pollution that might have come up with information uncomfortable to the administration was blocked, while researchers applying to the NIH for funds on HIV research have been told to avoid using phrases such as "sex worker", "gay" and "anal sex" in their applications.
The administration dismisses charges of distortion. In April, Dr John Marburger, the President's chief science adviser, issued a report rebutting many of the accusations levelled by the UCS and others. (The UCS, in turn, issued an equally detailed rebuttal of his rebuttals.) "The accusations in the document are inaccurate, and certainly do not justify the sweeping conclusions of either the document or the accompanying statement," Marburger told Congress. "I believe the document has methodological flaws that undermine its own conclusions, not the least of which is the failure to consider publicly available information, or to seek and reflect responses or explanations from responsible government officials."
In a telephone interview, Marburger did not deny that there may be individual cases where scientists dispute the view of the White House. But he said: "What I am denying is that there is a systematic practice of undermining science, or manipulating or distorting it." He also said that as science pushed at the boundaries it was bound to come into contact with contentious issues. He regretted that science had become politicised, but blamed groups such as the UCS for that.
Marburger's office sent me information claiming that the Bush administration has raised the funding of research and development to levels not seen since 1968 and the Apollo programme. It also said that the National Academies' National Research Council had come out in favour of Bush's strategic plan for global warming, which it had earlier criticised. The academy actually said that the plan was "much improved" compared with an earlier draft, but that commitments to fund many of the newly proposed activities were lacking.
Despite Marburger's assertions, what appears beyond question is that an unprecedented number of American scientists believe that science is being manipulated as never before. Their anger is now seeping from the pages of medical journals and reaching the mainstream.
Kurt Gottfried, professor of physics at Cornell and the UCS chairman, said his organisation, as well as collecting the signatures of 4,000 scientists, had had many messages of support from people working for the government who were unable to make their concerns public. "In the first Bush administration, there were no problems. This whole issue is unprecedented."
A team of Japanese researchers at a leading national university have upended the entire scientific world when it unexpectedly calculated the value of pi to 1.3511 trillion places, which is apparently the final digit in this number previously thought to be infinite.
"We don't understand," said visibly panicked project team member Makoto Kudo. "We were just trying to set a new world record for most digits calculated. We had no idea it would run out. Honestly!"
Researchers at Tokyo University, led by Professor Yasumasa Kanada, calculated the value for pi with a Hitachi supercomputer for over 500 hours in April. They were seeking to break their own world record. The Hitachi supercomputer is capable of 2 trillion calculations per second.
"We just wanted to get to 1.5 trillion places," said Kudo. "We intended no harm."
Pi is a number expressing the ratio of the circumference of a perfect circle to its diameter. As there are no perfect circles or spheres in nature (since matter is composed of atoms and is therefore not smooth) the continued extension of pi has long been seen as a harmless exercise of computer power. However, its symbolic value to the scientific world is profound.
"Probably no symbol in mathematics has evoked as much mystery, romanticism, misconception, and human interest as the number pi," said David Blatner, author of The Joy of Pi. "It is the ultimate limitless vista serving as inspiration to mathematicians the world over. With our world so rudely circumscribed, how are we to continue? What point is there in going on if even pi has a limit?"
Kanada's team has volunteered to continue building on pi by generating random numbers, but the mathematical community seems to feel it wouldn't be the same. Some refuse to accept the findings, although Kanada's team has run the calculation three times.
"We thoroughly condemn the slanderous allegation that pi has a limit," said Rolf Umbridge of the Ancient and Honorable Society of Pi Watchers. "We are so incensed by the very notion that we hereby officially censure the University of Tokyo. Dr. Kanada, you are dead to me, sir!"
Most, however, do not blame Kanada or his team, acknowledging that someone would have discovered that pi is finite sooner or later.
"Pi showed me the power of numbers," said UCLA graduate student in mathematics Alan Prentiss wistfully. "It was that episode of Star Trek where Captain Kirk exorcizes the evil energy entity from the ship's computer by commanding the computer to calculate the value of pi, which used up all the computer's memory. I was just a kid, but I thought - wow, math can be used to fight evil. But now I realize that was just a fantasy, a sham: the computer would have finished the job, and the Enterprise would have been lost. It's profoundly disillusioning."
Copyright © 2003-2004 The Watley Review
Wednesday, June 30, 2004
It's too bad the Dover Area School Board has nothing better to do than create controversy.
Darwin discovered what scientists now accept as the best explanation of how evolution works. The literal interpretation of the Genesis story was shown to be improbable long before "Origin of the Species" was published in 1859. These fundamentalists such as William Buckingham are still fighting this battle, when there is overwhelming evidence to the contrary.
Creationism cannot be placed side by side with science. It is a religious belief of fundamentalist Christians. Others should not be forced, in public schools, to listen to these religious beliefs. Shall we impose the wishes of a vocal minority, and at the same time lower the educational standards for all, by imposing a substandard and erroneous curriculum?
I believe the science department should be choosing the textbooks, not Mr. Buckingham. I also wonder what his scientific credentials are, since he sets himself up as judge and jury.
Separation of church and state is a necessity. If others cannot accept that, there are religious schools as an alternative.
You're Not the Only One Sold on Alternative Approaches. Here Are Ten of America's Favorites -- and What the Science Shows
By Elizabeth R. Agnvall
Special to The Washington Post
Tuesday, June 29, 2004; Page HE01
It's not exactly a secret that Americans have leapt ahead of the science on alternative medicine, trying supplements and therapies -- such as echinacea for colds and yoga for back pain -- without waiting for proof of their efficacy. But just how far ahead they've gotten became clear earlier this month when the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM) released a survey showing that more than one-third of American adults used some kind of complementary and alternative medicine in the past year. Broadening the definition of alternative health to include prayer raised the figure to nearly two-thirds.
The willingness of Americans to experiment on themselves generated $49.6 billion in supplement sales and payments to alternative health care providers in 2002, according to the Nutritional Business Journal, an industry publication.
Some researchers say it's time for the science to catch up with this hefty market -- especially since not all of these treatments can be presumed to be harmless. Experts caution that people should be sure to tell their doctors when they try herbs or other therapies, and people should not use alternative medicines or treatments in lieu of safe and effective conventional care.
But do the most frequently used alternative treatments really work? In many cases, it's hard to say. Because most mainstream medical researchers have shown little interest in studying alternative healing methods and because funding for large-scale research has been scarce, controlled, randomized studies are rare. The NCCAM is trying to change that. The center, which was established by Congress in 1998 and is part of the National Institutes of Health, will spend an estimated $103.5 million in 2005 to fund scientific studies into alternative and complementary medicines and treatments. Government funding for the center has risen from $50 million in 1999 to $117 million this year.
Meanwhile, we examined 10 therapies that placed high on NCCAM's survey to see what the best science currently shows about their efficacy.
After prayer -- a special case that we'll return to later -- herbs and other "nonvitamin, nonmineral, natural products" are the alternative therapies Americans turn to most, used by a quarter of the more than 31,000 adults interviewed for the NCCAM survey. And among such products, echinacea is the hands-down favorite, used by 40 percent of this smaller group. That places it in the top 10 therapies used in the survey.
Native Americans used echinacea, made from the root and other parts of the coneflower, for various ailments, and some German studies have shown that doses of echinacea can stimulate parts of the immune system. Today, users mostly take the herb in pill or liquid form in hopes of warding off or reducing the severity of the common cold.
Bruce Barrett, a researcher with the University of Wisconsin-Madison Department of Family Medicine, said evidence for the use of the herb as a natural cold medicine is mixed. While some small, older studies suggested that echinacea reduces the symptoms and duration of the common cold, several larger, more recent studies found no effect. (This includes one of Barrett's own studies, published in December 2002 in the Annals of Internal Medicine.) A study published this month in the Archives of Internal Medicine (and described in Quick Study, Page F8) also found that taking echinacea did not lessen the severity of colds or speed recovery. Another study, published in the December 2003 Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA), found the herb didn't help children get over their colds faster or improve their symptoms.
According to the Mayo Clinic Web site, most forms of echinacea are unlikely to cause serious side effects if dosing instructions are followed. (Echinacea injections, which are not recommended by Mayo, can cause severe allergic reactions.) Some studies are examining whether echinacea may interfere with birth control medications.
The Chinese have used Panax ginseng, the root of Asian ginseng, for 2,000 years. In the United States, users generally take it in pill form, hoping to improve mental performance and concentration. Ginseng was the second most popular natural product in the NCCAM survey -- 24 percent of those who used herbal products had used it in the past year.
Some studies have shown that ginseng can improve reaction time and learning ability, but they haven't been well designed or reported, according to the Mayo Clinic Web site. Other studies have suggested that taking ginseng together with ginkgo biloba may boost brain power, but again the studies are small and not randomized or controlled.
Some athletes take ginseng to improve stamina, but here, too, the evidence is mixed. Several studies suggest ginseng may lower blood sugar in people with type 2 diabetes, but long-term effects and proper dosage haven't been studied.
"Well-conducted trials do not support the efficacy of ginseng to treat any condition," wrote Edzard Enrst, a British researcher, in a 2002 review article in the Annals of Internal Medicine.
While serious side effects are rare, some people taking ginseng have reported diarrhea, sore throat, excitability, anxiety, depression or insomnia. Because ginseng may have some estrogen-like effects, the Mayo Clinic recommends that people with hormone-sensitive conditions -- such as breast or uterine cancer -- avoid ginseng. Some case reports suggest ginseng may thin the blood, making it potentially dangerous for people on blood-thinning medications like warfarin.
Imagine if a natural product could prevent Alzheimer's disease and dementia or even improve concentration and memory. Extracts from the leaves of the ginkgo biloba tree, imported to the United States from China in 1784, can do all that, some say, plus relieve a multitude of other ills, including altitude sickness, premenstrual syndrome, impotence, depression and glaucoma.
All this may explain why ginkgo is one of the top-selling herbs in the United States, accounting for some $130 million in sales in 2003, according to the Nutrition Business Journal. Ginkgo was the third most popular natural product in the NCCAM survey; 21 percent of those who took herbal supplements reported taking it.
But does it work? "Ginkgo extract has a number of chemical activities that theoretically keep dementia away, but you've got to do the study to see," said Steven DeKosky, chairman of the department of neurology at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine. A 1997 study in JAMA found ginkgo could improve cognitive performance in people with dementia. But a rigorous 2004 review by a the Cochrane Collaboration, a U.K.-based nonprofit group that analyzes data from clinical trials, recommended further study, despite what it called "promising evidence" of benefit.
With the help of NCCAM funding, DeKosky is conducting the largest ginkgo trial ever, which will follow 3,000 people with normal mental function or mild cognitive impairment over at least five years. In addition to tracking how many subjects develop dementia, researchers hope to learn whether ginkgo could decrease heart attacks, strokes and related deaths.
Because ginkgo may change insulin and blood sugar levels, people with diabetes or hypoglycemia should consult a doctor before using it. Some studies suggest ginkgo may increase bleeding, making it dangerous for people with bleeding disorders or on blood-thinning drugs. Ginkgo seeds are poisonous and can cause seizures.
Promoters say garlic can lower cholesterol and blood pressure, prevent hardening of the arteries and protect against cancer. Skeptics say it's as likely to keep away vampires.
The Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality, a federal agency that develops evidence-based reports on medical treatments, conducted a systematic review of the evidence and found that while garlic supplements may temporarily lower LDL ("bad" cholesterol), it doesn't appear to to raise HDL ("good" cholesterol) or confer long-term protection against heart disease. The agency found no proof that it lowered blood pressure or treated diabetes and called the evidence on cancer prevention inconclusive.
Other than smelly breath and body odor, possible adverse effects associated with garlic include abdominal pain, asthma and intestinal obstruction. A few studies suggest garlic may cause bleeding or blood-thinning, so garlic supplements are not recommended for people who are on blood-thinning medication. Severe allergic reactions are also possible.
One challenge to studying garlic is the many forms in which it's available -- cooked, raw, mashed and in supplements. Christopher Gardner, director of nutrition studies at the Stanford Prevention Research Center, is trying to allow for possible differences in effectiveness by giving 200 people with moderately elevated cholesterol either fresh garlic, one of two types of garlic supplements or a placebo every day for six months. A previous Gardner study found at least one garlic supplement did not lower cholesterol, but he's not finished exploring the possibility that some form of garlic has a cardiovascular benefit.
"It's biologically plausible that [herbs like garlic, ginkgo and ginseng] can help people," he said, "but . . . it doesn't mean that it works. When you do these clinical trials, it takes dozens of them to show something."
Deep breathing is an integral part of meditation and yoga, but some alternative practitioners teach deep breathing alone to calm the mind and body. Plenty of people are trying it -- 11 percent of respondents to the NCCAM survey reported trying it for health reasons in the past year -- more than any of the other "mind-body therapies" in the survey except prayer.
David Spiegel, medical director of the Center for Integrative Medicine at Stanford Medical Center, said his center uses deep breathing therapy mainly to help patients with stress and anxiety disorders.
"The problem with modern humans is that our stress response is a physical one," Spiegel said. "When we prepare our bodies to fight or flee, we tend to get hyper-aroused." Deep breathing, he said, can help people regulate their stress levels and heart rate.
A few small studies in Israel have found that sessions of slow, deep breathing can lower blood pressure in people with high blood pressure. But large, randomized, controlled studies on the health effects of deep breathing are rare. On the other hand, no studies appear to report negative side effects.
People have sought mental calm and physical relaxation through meditation for thousands of years, but only recently have researchers begun to study meditation's effect on the brain. The NCCAM survey found that 7.6 percent of respondents had tried meditation in the past year.
Andrew Newberg, a neuroscientist involved in studies of the practice at the University of Pennsylvania Medical School, says meditation may improve immune system function and affect dopamine and serotonin levels, which affect feelings of well-being.
A few studies have shown meditation may help reduce blood pressure and relieve pain from arthritis and other conditions, but because study participants also received biofeedback and other alternative therapies, it's hard to say how much of the effect was due to meditation. A meta-analysis published last year in the Journal of the American Board of Family Practice similarly reported that fibromyalgia patients may benefit from a combination of meditation and other therapies.
While the link between meditation and disease prevention or treatment is still tentative, some practitioners use meditation in clinical settings. The program for stress management at the University of Pennsylvania, for example, teaches meditation in hospitals, schools and violence prevention programs.
NCCAM is funding clinical trials on the use of meditation and other alternative therapies to treat rheumatoid arthritis, binge eating disorder and cardiovascular disease. In addition, the center is partnering with the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute and the National Institute on Aging to study the effect of meditation and health education on heart disease in African American women age 60 and over.
Some mainstream doctors may view it as a fringe treatment, but chiropractic is more commonly covered by insurance than any other type of alternative care. About 95 percent of PPOs and 80 percent of HMOs provide some coverage for chiropractic care, according to the American Chiropractic Association. An estimated 30 million Americans visit chiropractors each year -- mostly for low back pain. In the NCCAM survey, 7 percent of respondents reported receiving chiropractic care in past 12 months; 20 percent reported ever having gone to a chiropractor.
Do the treatments help? Depends on whom you ask.
A Cochrane Collaboration meta-analysis published last year in the Annals of Internal Medicine suggested that spinal manipulative therapy worked better than sham manipulation and discredited therapies at relieving acute or chronic low-back pain. But researchers found no evidence spinal manipulation was better than other standard treatments.
William Meeker, director of the Palmer Center for Chiropractic Research in Davenport, Iowa, which has received NCCAM funding, said researchers don't yet fully understand the exact biomechanism by which spinal adjustments might relieve pain. One theory, he said, is that bombardment of impulses to the sensory system modifies pain sensation; another is that spinal manipulation changes the way joint surfaces interact with each other.
Side effects of chiropractic treatment, Meeker said, can include muscle soreness and pain. One maneuver to the upper cervical spine has been implicated in strokes, but the incidence is very rare, he said.
The ancient practice that combines deep breathing, meditation and stretching has become wildly popular in the past several years. According to a 2003 survey by Yoga Journal magazine, 15 million people -- mostly women -- practice yoga in the United States. Among respondents to the NCCAM survey, 5 percent had tried it within the last year.
Most Americans practice yoga for fitness and stress reduction, but Mary Lou Gallantino, a physical therapist who researches yoga at the University of Pennsylvania Medical School, said more people are turning to yoga as therapy. Some of the most common ailments that she said send people to their yoga mats: depression, anxiety, hypertension, asthma and back pain.
A study published this month in the journal Neurology found that people with multiple sclerosis who practiced yoga for six months significantly reduced fatigue levels.
Other studies have found that yoga may help with chronic low back pain, sleep problems and hypertension. Harvard researcher Sat Bir Singh Khalsa has found yoga reduces the levels of stress hormones in some people, allowing them to fall asleep more easily even after they discontinue yoga exercises.
"It's a very good treatment for stress-related disorders," Khalsa said. Gallantino said she used yoga to help her through her recent battle with breast cancer. "It assisted with the side effects of chemotherapy for me. I was fully functional, and I didn't have any major energy loss," she said. "I was able to weather the storm."
Some people do injure themselves while trying to contort themselves into yoga positions, and bikram, or "hot," yoga is not recommended for people with heart conditions or who have had previous problems with heat cramps or heatstroke.
In the NCCAM survey, 5 percent of respondents reported using massage therapy in the last year.
Small studies have suggested that massage can reduce anxiety and perception of pain in cancer patients, promote sleep in critically ill patients and increase relaxation, energy and mobility in residents of long-term care facilities, but most studies on massage haven't been replicated in an effort to confirm their findings. One 2003 review published in the Annals of Internal Medicine found that massage is effective for chronic back pain, but a 2004 review by Edzard Ernst in the Clinical Journal of Pain found insufficient evidence to recommend massage for controlling musculoskeletal or other pain.
NIH nurse Jim Nichols finds massage helpful for people with terminal illnesses and chronic pain. "A lot of times when I work with people with terminal illnesses, they tend to take their mind away from their body," Nichols said. "What I try to do is let them reconnect with themselves and be able to calm down and come back into their body."
A 2003 review in the journal Rheumatology found that although massage is not entirely free of risks, most reported problems with massage were associated with "exotic types of manual massage or massage delivered by laymen."
If meditation, yoga and deep breathing may help people use their minds to heal their bodies, what of the power of faith? The NCCAM survey found that 43 percent of people pray for their own health and 24 percent have had others pray for their health in the previous year -- a total of 45 percent reported some sort of prayer for health reasons.
Prayer was by far the most common alternative treatment in the survey.
But can we measure the power of prayer? Studies have found that people who regularly attend church live longer than those who don't, but the fact that they smoke less and tend to be less depressed may account for their durability. People who have others praying for them when they are ill also tend to have the personal relationships that have proven health benefits. Is it possible to separate prayer from other factors to see whether prayer alone can affect people's health?
Duke cardiologist Mitchell Krucoff studied 750 patients undergoing heart catheterization or angioplasty. Preliminary results showed that one group of patients who were prayed for by multiple prayer groups (Roman Catholics in the United States, Buddhist monks in Nepal, Jews in Israel) did no better than a group that received standard care or a third group that received therapies including guided imagery, music, stress relaxation or touch therapy. A fourth group, which received both prayers and the relaxation therapies, however, showed a significant reduction in death rates compared with the other therapies.
"The combination of the bedside therapies and the prayer intervention creates a trend to improve survival," Krucoff said.
The study of prayer as a health intervention raises ethical questions -- as well as theological ones, such as: Do the prayers of 1,000 strangers count more than those of a mother at her sick child's bedside? -- but some researchers say prayer is worth studying.
"There is an association with spirituality, religious practice and prayer that all seem to have an impact," Baime said. "If we really believe in the scientific method, it's worth investigation. Otherwise we're just blowing hot air."•
Elizabeth R. Agnvall last wrote for the Health section about health club fitness legislation. Staff writer January Payne also contributed to this story.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company
New columnist: Linda Black's Horoscope replaces the horoscope by Joyce Jillson. The new column will run daily
By Dan Fagin
June 30, 2004
Four years after identifying a portion of northeast Brookhaven as an apparent breast cancer cluster, state officials told community residents yesterday that after combing through environmental records and analyzing six suspect pollutants in detail, they're no closer to identifying a cause.
Health investigators said they have compiled more evidence confirming the unusually high breast cancer rates in the Coram-Mount Sinai-Port Jefferson area. But they also said that so far none of the dozens of specific environmental risks they're examining - from pesticides and radiation to hazardous waste sites and power plant pollution - appears significant enough to justify a full-blown investigation that would include air and water sampling and interviews with women diagnosed with breast cancer.
A disappointing effort
But even as state officials were holding an "open house" in classrooms at Ward Melville High School in East Setauket to explain the detective work they've done so far, local activists and a half-dozen politicians were holding a news conference in the auditorium to criticize the state's efforts as inadequate.
"I am disappointed with the information being provided," said the news conference's organizer, Sarah Anker of the Community Health and Environmental Coalition, a grassroots group based in Mount Sinai. "The state needs to focus in on the areas, streets and homes, take samples of the air, water and soil ... They need to do a more thorough job. Our community needs direction."
U.S. Rep. Tim Bishop (D-Southampton), whose sister-in-law recently died of breast cancer, said he and other politicians would press the state to do more. "We are still looking for that smoking gun, which I believe is out there," he said.
The state's study of the seven communities owes its existence to Long Island's breast cancer activists, who pressed the state for years to develop maps showing cancer rates in every ZIP code in the state. When the state finally released those maps in April 2000, northeast Brookhaven was the place where breast cancer rates were the highest, and Health Commissioner Antonia Novello announced the state would launch a special study of the area to find out why.
Using scientific method
Yesterday, state officials said they hoped to complete their analysis of local pollution records by the end of the year, and would then decide whether to do a full-blown epidemiological study. "I understand the frustration at how long this is taking, but we've decided to undertake a very deliberative, scientific process," said Nancy Kim, director of the health department's division of environmental assessment.
"Whatever we do, we want it to be useful and likely to contribute to science and help the community," she said, noting that in many cases records are spotty or unreliable, making it difficult to estimate the kinds of chemicals local women were exposed to in the years before they were diagnosed with breast cancer.
At the open house, state investigators revealed that so far they have taken a close-up look at six chemicals that appeared to be of special concern to the local area. The chemicals are the industrial air pollutant ethylene thiourea (a rare compound legally released by a rubber-making factory in Connecticut), the weed-killer 2,4-D (used in unusually high quantities locally), and four solvents detected in a few local water wells during the 1980s: 1,1,1-trichloroethane, 1,1-dichloroethane, carbon tetrachloride and benzene.
But in each case, Kim said, calculations suggested that the chemicals could be responsible for only about one additional breast cancer case per 1 million residents - not nearly enough to explain the unexpectedly large number of local breast cancer cases. She said the state plans to do similar analyses for more than a dozen other chemicals to see if they appear to pose a large enough risk to justify a more detailed study.
One thing the state has learned, she said, is that the unusually high breast cancer rate in the area probably can't be explained away as a one-time fluke or by lifestyle factors.
The state's initial analysis showed the breast cancer rates in the seven ZIP codes were 38 percent higher than expected, and when investigators then factored out local demographics - compared to the Long Island average, the area is more Caucasian, more affluent and more educated, all of which are risk factors for breast cancer - the breast cancer rate was still 24 percent higher than expected. The state also found that while their initial analysis was based on cancer rates from 1993 to 1997, rates remained high when data from 1998-2000 were included.
Kim said investigators plan to use property-ownership records to see how long women with breast cancer have lived in the local area. That's a key consideration, because it can take a decade or longer for a tumor triggered by an environmental exposure to grow large enough to be diagnosed.
Copyright © 2004, Newsday, Inc.