NTS LogoSkeptical News for 15 February 2010

Archive of previous NTS Skeptical News listings

Monday, February 15, 2010

The End of Intelligent Design?


Feb 9, 2010
Stephen M. Barr

It is time to take stock: What has the intelligent design movement achieved? As science, nothing. The goal of science is to increase our understanding of the natural world, and there is not a single phenomenon that we understand better today or are likely to understand better in the future through the efforts of ID theorists. If we are to look for ID achievements, then, it must be in the realm of natural theology. And there, I think, the movement must be judged not only a failure, but a debacle.

Very few religious skeptics have been made more open to religious belief because of ID arguments. These arguments not only have failed to persuade, they have done positive harm by convincing many people that the concept of an intelligent designer is bound up with a rejection of mainstream science.

The ID claim is that certain biological phenomena lie outside the ordinary course of nature. Aside from the fact that such a claim is, in practice, impossible to substantiate, it has the effect of pitting natural theology against science by asserting an incompetence of science. To be sure, there are questions that natural science is not competent to address, and too many scientists have lost all sense of the limitations of their disciplines, not to mention their own limitations. But the ID arguments effectively declare natural science incompetent even in what most would regard as its own proper sphere. Nothing could be better calculated to provoke the antagonism of the scientific community. This throwing down of the gauntlet to science explains not a little of the fervor of the scientific backlash against ID.

The older (and wiser) form of the design argument for the existence of God—one found implicitly in Scripture and in many early Christian writings—did not point to the naturally inexplicable or to effects outside the course of nature, but to nature itself and its ordinary operations—operations whose "power and working" were seen as reflecting the power and wisdom of God. The following passage from the Book of Wisdom is essentially a design argument addressed, circa 100 b.c. to those impressed by ancient Greek science:

For all people who were ignorant of God were foolish by nature; and they were unable from the good things that are seen to know the one who exists, nor did they recognize the artisan while paying heed to his works; but they supposed that either fire or wind or swift air, or the circle of the stars, or turbulent water, or the luminaries of heaven were the gods that rule the world. If through delight in the beauty of these things people assumed them to be gods, let them know how much better than these is their Lord, for the author of beauty created them. And if people were amazed at their power and working, let them perceive from them how much more powerful is the one who formed them. For from the greatness and beauty of created things comes a corresponding perception of their Creator. Yet these people are little to be blamed, for perhaps they go astray while seeking God and desiring to find him. For while they live among his works, they keep searching, and they trust in what they see, because the things that are seen are beautiful. Yet again, not even they are to be excused; for if they had the power to know so much that they could investigate the world, how did they fail to find sooner the Lord of these things? (Wisd. 13:1–9)

These words are prophetically relevant to those today who investigate the world but fail to find its author. Note that the evidence of the creator to which this passage points consists of phenomena that even ID proponents would agree have good scientific explanations: "fire," "wind," "swift air," "the circle of the stars," "turbulent water," and "luminaries of heaven." The Letter of Clement (circa a.d. 97), one of the oldest surviving Christian documents outside the New Testament, speaks of God's "ordering of His whole creation" by pointing, again, to natural phenomena:

The heavens, as they revolve beneath His government, do so in quiet submission to Him. The day and the night run the course He has laid down for them, and neither of them interferes with the other. Sun, moon, and the starry choirs roll on in harmony at His command, none swerving from his appointed orbit. Season by season the teeming earth, obedient to His will, causes a wealth of nourishment to spring forth for man and beast and every living thing upon its surface, making no demur and no attempt to alter even the least of His decrees. Laws of the same kind sustain the fathomless deeps of the abyss and the untold regions of the netherworld. Nor does the illimitable basin of the sea, gathered by the operations of His hand into its various different centers, overflow at any time the barriers encircling it, but does as He has bidden it. . . . The impassable Ocean and all the worlds that lie beyond it are themselves ruled by the like ordinances of the Lord. Spring, summer, autumn, and winter succeed one another peaceably; the winds fulfill their punctual duties, each from its own quarter, and give no offence; the ever-flowing streams created for our well-being and enjoyment offer their breasts unfailingly for the life of man; and even the minutest of living creatures mingle together in peaceful accord. Upon all of these the great Architect and Lord of the universe has enjoined peace and harmony.

The emphasis in early Christian writings was not on complexity, irreducible or otherwise, but on the beauty, order, lawfulness, and harmony found in the world that God had made. As science advances, it brings this beautiful order ever more clearly into view. Every photograph from the Hubble Space Telescope, every picture from the ocean's depths, every discovery in subatomic physics, shows it forth. As Calvin wrote in his Institutes of the Christian Religion, "God [has] manifested himself in the formation of every part of the world, and daily presents himself to public view, in such manner, that they cannot open their eyes without being constrained to behold him." And, "[W]ithersoever you turn your eyes, there is not an atom of the world in which you cannot behold some brilliant sparks at least of his glory. . . . You cannot at one view take a survey of this most ample and beautiful machine [the universe] in all its vast extent, without being completely overwhelmed with its infinite splendor" [emphasis mine]. Note that "atoms of the world" are not irreducibly complex, nor is "every part of the world." Irreducible complexity has never been the central principle of traditional natural theology.

But whereas the advance of science continually strengthens the broader and more traditional version of the design argument, the ID movement's version is hostage to every advance in biological science. Science must fail for ID to succeed. In the famous "explanatory filter" of William A. Dembski, one finds "design" by eliminating "law" and "chance" as explanations. This, in effect, makes it a zero-sum game between God and nature. What nature does and science can explain is crossed off the list, and what remains is the evidence for God. This conception of design plays right into the hands of atheists, whose caricature of religion has always been that it is a substitute for the scientific understanding of nature.

The ID movement has also rubbed a very raw wound in the relation between science and religion. For decades scientists have had to fend off the attempts by Young Earth creationists to promote their ideas as a valid alternative science. The scientific world's exasperation with creationists is understandable. Imagine yourself a serious historian in a country where half the population believed in Afrocentric history, say, or a serious political scientist in a country where half the people believed that the world is run by the Bilderberg Group or the Rockefellers. It would get to you after a while, especially if there were constant attempts to insert these alternative theories into textbooks. So, when the ID movement came along and suggested that its ideas be taught in science classrooms, it touched a nerve. This is one reason that the New Atheists attracted such a huge audience.

None of this is to say that the conclusions the ID movement draws about how life came to be and how it evolves are intrinsically unreasonable or necessarily wrong. Nor is it to deny that the ID movement has been treated atrociously and that it has been lied about by many scientists. The question I am raising is whether this quixotic attempt by a small and lightly armed band to overthrow "Darwinism" and bring about a new scientific revolution has accomplished anything good. It has had no effect on scientific thought. Its main consequence has been to strengthen the general perception that science and religion are at war.

Cui bono? Only those people whose religious doctrines entail either Young Earth creationism or a rejection of common descent. Such people already and necessarily were in a state of war with modern science and have no choice but to fight that war to the bitter end. Many of them see in the ID movement a useful ally in that war (as the Dover trial illustrated), despite the fact that the ID movement does not deny common descent or the age of the earth. Other religious people, however, have nothing to gain and a great deal to lose by the ID movement's frontal assault on well-defended redoubts of modern science—an assault that has come to resemble the Charge of the Light Brigade.

I suspect that some religious people have embraced the ID movement's arguments because they want "scientific" answers to the scientific atheists, and they know of no others. But there are plenty of ways to make a case for the reasonableness of religious belief that can be persuasive to many in the scientific world. Such a case has been made by a growing number of research scientists who are Christian believers, such as John Polkinghorne, Owen Gingerich, Francis Collins, Peter E. Hodgson, Michal Heller, Kenneth R. Miller, and Marco Bersanelli. I have addressed many audiences myself using arguments similar to theirs and have had scientists whom I know to be of firm atheist convictions tell me that they came away with more respect for the religious position. Religion has a significant number of friends (and potential friends) in the scientific world. The ID movement is not creating new ones.

Stephen M. Barr is professor of physics at the University of Delaware and author of Modern Physics and Ancient Faith and A Student's Guide to Natural Science.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

John Donne Versus Tom DeLay


12:08 am
February 13, 2010

By Stuart Kauffman

We are discussing Creationism versus Evolution. More deeply we are discussing the God of the U.S. Christian Right with respect to the spirituality of the world. We must engage with this world. How will we do so, so full of discord?

I simply present two views, one by Elizabethan poet John Donne, one by Tom DeLay (R-TX), formerly U.S. Congress.

Batter my heart, three-person'd God; for you
As yet but knock, breathe, shine, and seek to mend;
That I may rise, and stand, o'erthrow me and bend
Your force, to break, blow, burn and make me new.
I, like an ursurpt town, to another due,
Labour to admit you, but Oh, to no end,
Reason your viceroy in me, me should defend,
But is captiv'd, and proves weak or untrue.
Yet dearly I love you, and would be loved fain,
But am bethroth'd unto your enemy;
Divorce me, untie, or break that knot again,
Take me to you, imprison me, for I
Except you enthrall me, never shall be free,
Nor ever chaste, except you ravish me.

Quoting from Ursula's last post:

Former representative Tom DeLay (R-TX) famously noted that the Columbine massacres were a result of exposure to evolutionary theory, that "our school systems teach the children that they are nothing but glorified apes who are evolutionized [sic] out of some primordial soup."

You choose.


Creationism Vs. Evolution: An American Problem, An American Opportunity


10:00 am
February 12, 2010

By Adam Frank

The problem is not Science vs. Religion. The problem is not Science vs. a particular religion. The problem is Science vs. one specific interpretation of one particular religion and, in general, the problem is an American one.

This week at 13.7 we covered a lot of ground. KC asked about Science and Diplomacy. Marcelo wrote of the limits of knowledge. Stu dug deeper into the Adjacent Possible. Ursula explored how science can serve to underpin ethics. In my post I argued that it was time to let the Evolution vs. Creationism debate go and move in a new direction with our public discussion of Science and Religion.

Some comments rightly asked -- with a sizable fraction of the American public doubting evolution -- how such a move could be meaningful. The question is a just one. So, today, I wanted to briefly put our situation into context. Specifically I want to put it into a global context.

Last month I visited Europe participating in a collaboration exploring the early stages of star formation. At lunch one day a British researcher asked me how my book on Science and Religion was doing. Then he looked very serious for a moment and said, "What is up with you Americans and evolution?" Everyone at the table -- Italians, French, Irish, Dutch -- all simultaneously nodded their heads in agreement and shook their heads in sorrow. My British colleague's question, and the groups' response, underline a sad truth.

When it comes to Science and Religion, America is in a league of its own.

The other "developed" nations do not have this problem. The other nations whom we must collaborate with and compete against are not wasting endless hours rehashing arguments over the foundations of biological science. In terms of political, legal and, most importantly, educational influence, the Creationism vs. Evolution debate is an American phenomenon.

When I argued that we need to move beyond the Creationism vs. Evolution debate, I was acknowledging a fundamental truth. No amount of evidence is going sway the most strident advocates of creationism (or its modern variant Intelligent Design). It's not a discussion or a debate that will do anything but cover old ground.

In a similar vein, no amount of debate is going to convince the most stringent of atheists that religion, or spiritual endeavor, is an important part of the human experience that can have its own valuable "content". There is a difference between the strident atheists and strident creationists, of course. The latter group has political power in some parts of the nation that they are willing to wield as a club.

I have seen directly the potentially chilling effect that the Evolution vs. Creation debate has for our collective future. In working with high school textbook publishers, I watched as instructional material was sculpted to carefully dance around issues of evolution. This move was needed to avoid offending politically and economically powerful forces associated with creationism. I was stunned. We are edging around deliberately NOT teaching students the basics of biological science because of his "debate."

This intellectual hamstringing is not happening in China or India or Europe. The nations we are be competing with are not playing these games. The nations we are competing with to shape our own, and the planets, future are not wasting their time in this intellectual vortex. They are moving forward while we stare at our navels and argue over the shape of lint bunnies we find there.

I have had hundreds of discussions with people on all sides of the issue. From this perspective I am convinced that there is a frontier in thinking about Science and Religion that remains unexplored. That frontier is available to everyone unless you choose to place yourself firmly on the issues extremes.

It is true that the entrenched poles of the debate have a uniquely American character. It is, however, just as true that this unexplored frontier holds a unique call to American spirit.

We have an extraordinary line of enlightened and enlivened thinking about religion in this country. From Thomas Merton to Martin Luther King to Philip Kapleau, we have had our share of great innovators in the domains of religion.

Most importantly, there has been ferocious American creativity in developing new sensitivities between Science and the domains of spiritual endeavor. It stretches from Thoreau, Emerson, the great William James and on to our time. That is powerful mojo to draw on as we try to imagine what's been missed as creationist polarities have sucked all the air out of the room.

So it is time to draw on the best of the American imaginative tradition. It is time to turn away from those looking for the easy applause lines and begin the serious work. With respect and an open mind we can ask the hard questions about what it means to be human in a Universe of grand order and chaos, a Universe mixed with equal parts of sorrow and boundless beauty.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Want to Make a Difference for ID? Enroll in Discovery Institute's Summer Seminars


Academic freedom week is about more than quoting Darwin and maybe watching an appropriate film for the occasion. (No, not that one. That one's boring. This one.) It's about the scientists, scholars, journalists, teachers and students who are affected when fear of inquiry rears its ugly head in the debate over evolution. When you hear the stories of ordinary men and women who have been targeted in this battle over an idea, the importance and impact of the debate becomes clear.

So you're informed about the issues — you read the blog, listen to the podcast, get the newsletter, and stay involved in the debate as it continues. What else can you do?

If you're a college or graduate student, you can learn even more about intelligent design. In fact, you can get equipped and be inspired to join the movement.

Discovery Institute has two intensive summer seminars on intelligent design, science, and culture from July 9-17, 2010 in Seattle. The first seminar is for students in the natural sciences and philosophy of science; the second seminar is for students in the social sciences and humanities (including politics, law, journalism, and theology).

These seminars are designed for highly-motivated college students who seek a deeper understanding of science and its implications for society. The seminar focusing on ID in the natural sciences will explore the scientific issues in greater technical detail and the seminar on ID in the social sciences and humanities will give more in-depth attention to the social impact of science. This year's seminar will feature Michael Behe, Douglas Axe, Stephen Meyer, Jay Richards, and many other leading lights in the intelligent design community.

Discovery Institute will pay expenses for students who are accepted into this special program (travel, lodging, meals, books and other course materials). Applications will be accepted until April 16, 2010, but earlier applications may receive priority consideration. Click here for more information.

If you're not a student, please consider forwarding this information on to the students you know who may be interested. Who knows? They may end up becoming the next Michael Behe or Stephen Meyer.

Posted by Anika Smith on February 10, 2010 3:15 PM | Permalink

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

School's sacking of Christian science teacher divides town in Bible belt


A class experiment has left a deep mark in a strongly religious community

Chris McGreal in Mount Vernon, Ohio The Guardian, Wednesday 10 February 2010

Jennifer Dennis studied her 13-year-old son's skin and was uncertain which to be more astonished by: the shape made by the strange dots running the length of his forearm, or how they got there.

"When I looked at it, the shape was definitely a cross, like a Christian cross," said Dennis. "Zach said his teacher did it with an instrument that gave off something like a lightning bolt. It was red, like a sunburn or if you burn your arm on the oven."

The next morning, Dennis was standing in the reception of Mount Vernon middle school demanding to know what had been done to Zachary.

That was three years ago and the small, deeply religious Ohio town is bracing itself for the answer to Dennis's question after the lengthy de facto trial of a man who is either a decorated teacher martyred for his Christian faith, or a religious zealot who spent years undermining the very science he was paid to teach.

Along the way, the dispute has prompted Bible-waving students to march on their school, set teacher against teacher, and forced Jennifer Dennis and her family to leave town.

At the heart of the controversy is John Freshwater, who taught at Mount Vernon middle school for 21 years.

Freshwater said he had done the same science experiment to hundreds of students before Zachary Dennis, using a Tesla coil, which gives off an electric spark.

The teacher said it was painless and harmless – although a doctor would later testify that Dennis had second-degree burns – and that he had made an X, not a cross, on the boy's skin.

That might have been the end of the matter after the school ordered Freshwater to stop using the coil on children.

But Zachary Dennis's parents asked him what else was going on in science class. Out poured accounts of lessons on evolution mingled with creationist theories about "intelligent design", a euphemism for the hand of God, of questions about religious beliefs and of classroom walls pasted with the Ten Commandments.

Other children told of also having crosses burned on their arms.

The school sacked Freshwater in June 2008. He invoked his right to a hearing that is about to reach its conclusion after dragging on and off for more than a year and costing the school board close to $500,000 (£300,000).

Dick Hoppe – a former nuclear missile engineer who later helped design the Apollo spacecraft command module, and who was more recently a visiting professor of biology at a local college – has attended almost every day of the hearings.

"One student, when asked what he had learned about science from Mr Freshwater, testified that what he learned was you can't trust science. That surprised me. I didn't want to believe it was that overt," said the avowed atheist.

"Freshwater was teaching what the text taught – age of the Earth, fossils – and then would add an overlay of creationist material that cast doubt on what the text said. He would use a handout that described all the adaptations of a woodpecker and at the bottom he added: was intelligent design involved? He was teaching against the curriculum."

The hearings heard that Freshwater pinned up a poster of President George Bush and the then US secretary of state, Colin Powell, at prayer, and another advertising an evangelical meeting.

The school also discovered questionnaires in which Freshwater asked students whether religion was important to them.

Bonnie Schutte, a science teacher in the adjacent high school who received students from Freshwater's class, told the hearing that when she asked new pupils what they had previously learned, some said that science is "a lot of theory and guesswork" and that "evolution follows opinion and it's not fact".

Freshwater denied responsibility for writing references to God and religion on class notes even though the hearings were told that they matched his handwriting.

But he did acknowledge that in 2003 he was ordered by school officials to cease a part of his teaching in which he scattered Lego blocks on a table and said that however long you left them there they would not build themselves, and so something as complex as the eye could not be the result of evolution but had to have been created by someone.

All this was known to some other teachers who kept their own children away from Freshwater's class, but failed to alert the school board or other parents.

While the school board would appear to have a commanding case, Freshwater and his supporters managed to persuade a large part of the town, on the edge of the Appalachia region, popularly regarded as culturally backward and home to about three dozen churches and an evangelical university, that the issue is about his religious rights.

The teacher allied himself with a militant rightwing group, the Minutemen, and held a rally in Mount Vernon's town square at which he announced he had been sacked for refusing to remove a Bible from his desk.

The school denied that was the motive but the claim prompted a wave of support. Students held a "take a Bible to school" day and wore T-shirts proclaiming that God supported Freshwater.

"We have a Christian martyrdom thing going here. This town is ripe for it," said Hoppe. "My guess is that a majority in this town believe that man was created in his present form in the last 10,000 years, the creationist view. You've got a large conservative fundamentalist population."

Freshwater declines to speak to reporters on the advice of his lawyers but he has alleged that members of the school board have been out to get him since he made a proposal in 2003 for the science curriculum to include intelligent design.

The teacher is a member of the Trinity Worship Centre, part of the country's largest Pentecostal denomination, where the pastor, Don Matolyak, is in effect Freshwater's spokesman.

"We heard many times: if he'd had a Qur'an on his desk he would never have had a problem. They're probably right because that would be seen as diversity," said Matolyak, who has stood in as a teacher for Freshwater's class.

"This is about a person's religious liberty. I see this as a battle that's going on in America, and there are those who want to totally secularise America and almost explain away our Christian heritage."

Hoppe, whose wife has taught at the school for 35 years, says that Freshwater was not alone in pressing his religious views on his pupils.

"There's been a small group of teachers who've been running what amounts to a private Christian school within the middle school. There is testimony from several teachers about how they also had Bibles on their desks and religious displays," he said.

Many in Mount Vernon have sided with Freshwater. Persuaded that the Dennises were hounding the teacher over nothing more than a Bible on his desk, some turned on the family.

Jennifer Dennis said: "We've gotten phone calls, things in the mail, anonymous letters. They send scriptures and how you should raise your children, implying we're not raising our children correctly. Everywhere we go I feel like people know it's us so they don't talk to us or they will say things. Even in church." Eventually it was too much for the Dennis family. They moved 35 miles away.

Targeting schools

Creationists have long fought to force "intelligent design" on to the school curriculum. They first tried to use legislatures in states where the Christian right is strong, but those moves were defeated by political opposition or in the courts. Now activists are trying to take control of school boards. Missouri is the latest state to consider a law that would require the teaching of the "scientific strengths and weaknesses of the theory of … evolution" – interpreted as intended to give equal weight to creationism.

In other states such as Mississippi and Alabama, efforts to force the teaching of alternative views to evolution have foundered. But creationists have had more success through election to school boards, particularly in Texas, where the Christian right has succeeded in limiting the teaching of evolution in biology lessons. It is now pressing for history lessons to emphasise the part played by Christianity in the founding of the US.

Tuesday, February 09, 2010

Interview with Intelligent Design Mathematician Granville Sewell Now Online


A new website has just launched in support of Dr. Granville Sewell's new book, In The Beginning and Other Essays on Intelligent Design. Along with information about the book, there is a nice brief interview with Sewell that you will want to read.

Q. You express some doubt that even under "the right conditions, the influx of stellar energy into a planet could cause atoms to rearrange themselves into nuclear power plants and spaceships and computers." This, you say, ought to be "considered an open question" at least by scientists and the public alike. Why isn't it?

A. A typical college physics text I read contains the statement "One of the most remarkable simplifications in physics is that only four distinct forces account for all known phenomena." Most people just haven't ever thought about things in this way, that if you don't believe in intelligent design, you must believe this claim, that the four unintelligent forces of physics caused atoms on Earth to rearrange themselves into nuclear power plants, spaceships and computers. When they do think about it, they may start to see things a little differently. This is part of the "broader view" that is often missed by biologists, but noticed by mathematicians and physicists.

Read the whole interview here.

Also, a heads up for those of you in Seattle. Dr. Sewell will be presenting his book at Discovery Institute on February 23rd. And for everyone else, next week ID The Future will podcast two interviews with Dr. Sewell about his views on intelligent design, origin of life theories, and why he thinks Darwin's theory about the struggle for life "easily the dumbest idea ever taken seriously by science." Posted by Robert Crowther on February 9, 2010 9:00 AM | Permalink

Monday, February 08, 2010

It isn't an exclusionary filter, it's a standard of quality


Category: Creationism • Science philosophy
Posted on: February 8, 2010 8:07 AM, by PZ Myers

In my week long visit to Ireland, I only had one encounter that left a bad taste in my mouth. Everyone I talked to was forthright and willing to state their views clearly, even if I thought they were dead wrong and rather stupid (my radio interview with Tom McGurk comes to mind — he was an unpleasant person more interested in barking loudly than having a conversation, but his views were plain), and most of my conversations were fun and interesting. The one exception was with a creationist in Belfast.

After my talk, this one furtive fellow who hadn't had the nerve, apparently, to ask me anything in the public Q&A, came down front to confront me with his, errm, 'irrefutable' argument, which came straight from Answers in Genesis. I later learned that he's one of the leaders of a creationist organization on campus.

He first declared that creationists and evolutionists all use the same evidence, we just differ in our presuppositions. AiG makes this claim all the time, and it's complete nonsense. The creationists deny almost all of the evidence, using their catch-all excuse: if it contradicts the Bible, it is false. It's not just a difference in starting premises, but a willingness on the part of the faith-based crowd to stick their fingers in their ears and shout "LA-LA-LA" at the majority of the reality-based evidence.

The only way to call it merely a difference in presuppositions is if they're willing to admit that their fundamental presupposition is an unthinking obtusity.

That was just his prelude, though. His real goal was to try and trap me. He asked me if I admitted that the scientific position demands that we reject all alternative explanations — whether we can consider supernatural causes. I've thought about this before, and I told him no. I am willing to consider other possibilities, if someone provides a useful, testable, confirmable means for evaluating truth claims.

Then I asked him what alternative method to science he was suggesting.

He didn't give me one — he simply announced with a grin that he was just confirming that I automatically rejected alternative explanations, and as I repeated my simple statement, that no, I did not, but that he was obligated to explain what his alternative might be — after all, I reject tarot cards and entrails-reading as methods for interpreting the world, and it's a bit silly to pretend that I should have blanket acceptance of just any alternative method without telling me what it is — he thanked me for confirming his opinion and the sneaky little git scuttled away.

That's what I detest most. Lying weasels who won't listen honestly, and especially won't even speak honestly.

Anyway, what brought up this recollection was an interesting post on Sandwalk on methodological naturalism. It nicely points out that there is a convention in the scientific community that treats methodological naturalism as a straitjacket that arbitrarily binds us. I don't think that's true at all.

The principle of MN is often conceived of as an intrinsic and self-imposed limitation of science, as something that is part and parcel of the scientific enterprise by definition. According to this view (Intrinsic MN or IMN) - which is defended by people like Eugenie Scott, Michael Ruse and Robert Pennock and has been adopted in the ruling of Judge John E. Jones III in the Kitzmiller vs. Dover case - science is simply not equipped to deal with the supernatural and therefore has no authority on the issue. It is clear that this depiction of science and MN offers some perspectives for reconciling science and religion. Not surprisingly, IMN is often embraced by those sympathetic to religion, or by those who wish to alleviate the sometimes heated opposition between the two.

However, we will argue that this view of MN does not offer a sound rationale for the rejection of supernatural explanations. Alternatively, we will defend MN as a provisory and empirically grounded commitment of scientists to naturalistic causes and explanations, which is in principle revocable by future scientific findings (Qualified MN or QMN). In this view, MN is justified as a methodological guideline by virtue of the dividends of naturalistic explanation and the consistent failure of supernatural explanations in the history of science.

I think science is primarily a pragmatic approach that takes whatever tools work to build a better (as evaluated by testing against real-world observations) understanding of how the universe works. My major objection to creationism isn't that it violates a set of dogmatic rules established by scientists playing a formal game, but that it provides no working alternative that I can use. The creationists mistake a series of assertions about history for a bank of operational methods for creating and answering new questions about the world.

Exclusion isn't quite the right word for what we're doing. Science's job is to fill up the silos of the world with the grain of useful information, and we've found that applying the principles of the scientific method and operating under the guidelines of methodological naturalism means we're productive: we can keep trundling up with wagonloads of corn and wheat and rice. The creationists are showing up with broken-down, essentially empty carts, containing nothing but chaff, a few dirt clods, and some fragrant manure, and they're being turned away because they have nothing to contribute. You're not being excluded if you have nothing to offer.

I imagine that Belfast creationist went back to his clique of ignorant pissants with a sense of triumph, and proudly announced that I had dogmaticly refused to include his offering of hot air and dust as nutritious and fit for a feast, and therefore was yet another tool of the establishment who unfairly discriminated against their way of knowing. Sorry, guy; a wealth of ignorance is no substitute for even a grain of knowledge.

Oh, cool: somebody standing there actually recorded the conversation in question.

Is It Time To Throw Out 'Primordial Soup' Theory?


February 7, 2010

Is the "primordial soup" theory — the idea that life emerged from a prebiotic broth — past its expiration date?

Biochemist Nick Lane thinks so. The University College London writer and his colleagues argue that the 81-year-old notion just doesn't hold water.

Lane tells NPR's Guy Raz there's another possible explanation for the emergence of life. But before we get to that, why toss out the soup theory?

Lane says the idea of a primordial soup goes back to 1929, and great biologists like J.B.S. Haldane.

"He proposed that the Earth's early atmosphere was composed of simple gases like methane and ammonia. And they would react together under the influence of ultraviolet rays or lightning to produce a thin 'soup' — which became thicker over time — of organic molecules," Lane says.

Those molecules formed amino acids, so the theory goes, which are the building blocks of the proteins from which all life has evolved.

But, Lane says, it turns out that the planet's early atmosphere might not have contained much methane or ammonia after all. Instead of atmospheric gases and lightning, Lane's team proposes that deep-sea, alkaline hydrothermal vents powered life's predecessors.

At these vents, warm fluids percolate up through the ocean floor. When they react to ocean water, they form tiny, inorganic cells. Lane says these cells produce energy the same way that living cells do today: by harnessing chemical gradients across a membrane.

To understand how these gradients work, Lane says to imagine a reservoir behind a dam. "It's the flow of water downhill through the power turbine which is generating electricity. Much the same thing happens in our cells, except instead of having water across a dam, what you actually have in cells is protons," he says.

Lane says the movement of protons drives energy production in all living cells. His argument is that the first cells learned to do this from the honeycomb of tiny chambers found at these deep-sea vents.

"We think that the first cells could not have left these vents unless they'd found a way of tapping into these gradients that were naturally existing there, and then later on learning to generate their own."

He hopes that laboratory scientists will now put the idea to the test.

Thursday, February 04, 2010

Texas creationist fights for his career--and the truth


February 3, 9:45 PM

John Donald "Don" McLeroy, DDS, representative from Texas Education District 9 on the TSBOE, is an unabashed young-earth creationist. Elected to the board in 1998, he was appointed as its chairman in 2007 by Governor Rick Perry. This appointment was highly significant for one reason above all: every ten years, the TSBOE must revise the textbooks used in the State's high schools, and that time had arrived.

In the two years that McLeroy was allowed to serve as chairman, he engineered a number of curriculum changes to various curricula, including mathematics, science and English. His most important changes were to the science standards. A close examination of the standards reveals no explicit rejection of evolution. Instead, the new standards encourage students to think critically about the still-prevailing theory of evolution, and to "analyze and evaluate" certain evidence (like the complexity of the cell and the sudden appearance and disappearance of species in the fossil record) that speak directly to the evolution theory's most glaring weaknesses.

That alone has been too much for the proponents of evolution, who began immediately to undermine him and have him removed as chairman. On May 26, 2009, McLeroy failed of confirmation as permanent chairman in the Texas Senate, when he came one vote shy of the required two-thirds. Governor Perry appointed one of McLeroy's allies on the board as chairman.

Last month the board postponed a key vote on the social studies curriculum, the last curriculum remaining to be decided, until March. This is significant because on March 2, Texas holds its primary election. McLeroy now faces a primary challenge from one Thomas Ratliff, who yesterday won an endorsement from the Dallas Morning News and has already indicated that he would oppose everything that McLeroy stands for. The Democratic Party has no announced candidates for the District 9 board seat in its primary, so the upcoming vote will determine whether McLeroy keeps his job.

This is a story of national importance, for two reasons above all. First, as goes Texas, so goes the rest of the country, simply on account of the sheer volume of textbooks that Texas schools purchase. Second, Texas is one of two States (the other is Alaska) that have decided not to join a movement, which some say is driven by the federal government despite denials by the National Governors' Association and others, to impose one set of curriculum standards on every State in the Union. McLeroy has been one of the staunchest advocates of continued Texas independence in this regard.

Wednesday, February 03, 2010

"Design"? Don't Panic, It's Only a Metaphor!


In the Darwinist community there's a general acceptance, however uneasy, of the necessity of speaking in design-related metaphors to describe features of organisms. Such language may be regrettable since it attracts the attention of the bogeyman, "creationism," but really it's kind of unavoidable. In Darwin and Design, Michael Ruse sought to offer solace to fellow Darwinians. He asked,

We still talk in terms appropriate to conscious intention….In biology, we still use forward-looking language of a kind that would not be deemed appropriate in physics or chemistry. Why is this?

His answer:

Organisms, produced by natural selection, have adaptations, and these give the appearance of being designed.…If organisms did not seem to be designed, they would not work and hence would not survive and reproduce. But organisms do work, they do seem to be designed, and hence the design metaphor, with all the values and forward-looking, causal perspective it entails, seems appropriate.

So it's precisely because organisms are not really designed, but rather built up by natural selection, that they seem designed. Well, comfort must be taken where it's available.

Unfortunately for the Darwin faithful, the discomfort level keeps getting kicked up notch by notch as the design metaphor proves itself increasingly useful to bioengineers -- as a model to be instantiated in very practical, not merely literary, ways. If you were to imagine that life really does reflect an intelligent purpose, then that purpose would probably be reflected somehow in the genetic material, coded in DNA. So it's of interest that a couple of new projects seek to be in relationship to DNA what your local auto parts store or catalogue is to the cars we drive. Keep in mind that cars and their parts are designed products. The Scientist has an item noting the launch of a "DNA factory."

Need a gene promoter? You may soon be able to order one from a catalog. California synthetic biologists are launching a production facility that will provide free, standardized DNA parts for scientists around the world.

The project, called BIOFAB: International Open Facility Advancing Biotechnology -- or just BIOFAB for short -- aims to boost the ease of bioengineering with "biological parts" that are shared resources, standardized and reliable enough that they can be switched in and out of a genome like electronic parts in a radio. If BIOFAB's vision is realized, researchers will be able access an online registry and simply order what they need.

Meanwhile a not-for-profit foundation, BioBricks, seeks to make standard DNA parts available:

Using BioBrick™ standard biological parts, a synthetic biologist or biological engineer can already, to some extent, program living organisms in the same way a computer scientist can program a computer. The DNA sequence information and other characteristics of BioBrick™ standard biological parts are made available to the public free of charge currently via MIT's Registry of Standard Biological Parts.

Normally, with language, it's the way of metaphors to develop from things in the real world that in turn lend themselves, through a certain limited similarity, to describing other things. So you start with a real chicken or a real fox, which in turn lend their names to a cowardly person or an attractive one. Here, what's happened appears to be just the reverse: first comes the metaphor -- which is only a metaphor, remember -- and only then the instantiation into objects in the real world. Can you think of another instance of a mere metaphor behaving so strangely? I can't.

We'll resist the temptation to draw the obvious conclusion that speaking of the DNA sequence., a metaphor -- at all. Sorry, I guess we didn't resist that temptation after all.

Posted by David Klinghoffer on January 22, 2010 12:23 AM | Permalink

Protozoans Against Intelligent Design


Ronald Bailey | January 21, 2010

The Journal of Eukaryotic Microbiology has just published a very nice paper showing how the details of protist evolution "dispel the myths of intelligent design." Generally, protists are "unicellular eukaryotes that either exist as independent cells, or if they occur in colonies, do not show differentiation into tissues." Think amoebae or foraminifera.

Biologists Mark Farmer and Andrea Habura address various ID claims and show how the evolution of protists disprove them. The first such claim is that the Cambrian explosion 545 million years ago cannot be explained by Darwinian evolution - it was too fast. Farmer and Habura point out that protistan evolution had begun well before then and provided the genomic diversity from which multicellular organisms arose.

The second claim is that no one has ever seen the development of a new species -- that is, a new species that becomes genetically isolated from its parent species. Again turning to protists, Farmer and Habura cite the example of just such a speciation event in which amoebae became symbiotically dependent upon infecting bacteria. If the symbotically dependent amoebae subsequently tried to interbreed with the parent stock, the parent stock died of the bacterial infection. Thus the two became genetically isolated.

Thirdly, IDers also argue that the fossil record does not show transitional species, therefore there is no evidence of one species evolving into another. Farmer and Habura explain that the exquisitely detailed fossil record of protists does exhibit just such intermediate forms.

Fourthly, the two biologists deal with the claim that nature exhibits biochemical changes that simply are too impossibly complex to occur without a designer. They specifically refute ID proponent Michael Behe's argument that the malaria parasite's resistance to chloroquine is too complex to have arisen through natural selection.

Farmer and Habura conclude:

A detailed understanding of protistan biology, therefore, offers scientists and lay persons alike the ability to address current attacks on evolutionary theory, and to refute the claims of ID creationists who insist on invoking supernatural explanations to account for observable phenomena.

Go here to read their excellent article. I also cannot pass up the opportunity to suggest clicking on the youtube mash up of my talk "Attack of the Super Intelligent Purple Space Squid Creators" which I delivered during a debate with IDers from the Discovery Institute.

Via Tree of Life blog.

Med Students Back Advances In Alternative Medicine


January 25, 2010 by Personal Liberty News Desk

According to a large-scale national survey, most current medical students believe that knowledge of complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) would greatly benefit Western doctors.

CAM is characterized by a more individualized approach to patient care and utilizes therapies such as yoga, herbal medicine, acupuncture and massage.

Researchers at the University of California sent a 30-question survey to more than 120 medical schools and found that 77 percent of respondents believe that patients would benefit more if their physicians had a strong understanding of CAM in addition to Western medicine.

"Even now, medical schools have the opportunity to train the next generation of medical practitioners in healthcare systems outside of conventional medicine," said study author Ryan Abbot. "Core values of CAM can help students develop a more holistic and individualized approach to patient care."

Researchers also found that the further along a medical student was in school, the more likely he or she was to believe that their knowledge of CAM therapies was sufficient.

A total of 44 academic institutions now comprise the Consortium of Academic Health Centers for Integrative Medicine, which attempts to advance the principles of holistic healthcare.

Leaked climate change emails scientist 'hid' data flaws


Exclusive: Key study by East Anglia professor Phil Jones was based on suspect figures

Fred Pearce guardian.co.uk, Monday 1 February 2010 21.00 GMT

Professor Phil Jones, who was director of the Climatic Research Unit (CRU) and a professor of environmental sciences at the University of East Anglia in Norwich. Photograph: University of East Anglia

Phil Jones, the beleaguered British climate scientist at the centre of the leaked emails controversy, is facing fresh claims that he sought to hide problems in key temperature data on which some of his work was based.

A Guardian investigation of thousands of emails and documents apparently hacked from the University of East Anglia's climatic research unit has found evidence that a series of measurements from Chinese weather stations were seriously flawed and that documents relating to them could not be produced.

Link to this audio Jones and a collaborator have been accused by a climate change sceptic and researcher of scientific fraud for attempting to suppress data that could cast doubt on a key 1990 study on the effect of cities on warming – a hotly contested issue.

Today the Guardian reveals how Jones withheld the information requested under freedom of information laws. Subsequently a senior colleague told him he feared that Jones's collaborator, Wei-­Chyung Wang of the University at Albany, had "screwed up".

The revelations on the inadequacies of the 1990 paper do not undermine the case that humans are causing climate change, and other studies have produced similar findings. But they do call into question the probity of some climate change science.

The apparent attempts to cover up problems with temperature data from the Chinese weather stations provide the first link between the email scandal and the UN's embattled climate science body, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, as a paper based on the measurements was used to bolster IPCC statements about rapid global warming in recent decades.

Wang was cleared of scientific fraud by his university, but new information brought to light today indicates at least one senior colleague had serious concerns about the affair.

It also emerges that documents which Wang claimed would exonerate him and Jones did not exist.

The revelations come at a torrid time for climate science, with the IPPC suffering heavy criticism for its use of information that had not been rigorously checked – in particular a false claim that all Himalayan glaciers could melt by 2035 – and UEA having been criticised last week by the deputy information commissioner for refusing valid requests for data under the Freedom of Information Act.

The Guardian has learned that of 105 freedom of information requests to the university concerning the climatic research unit (CRU), which Jones headed up to the end of December, only 10 had been released in full.

The temperature data from the Chinese weather stations measured the warming there over the past half century and appeared in a 1990 paper in the prestigious journal Nature, which was cited by the IPCC's latest report in 2007.

Climate change sceptics asked the UEA, via FOI requests, for location data for the 84 weather stations in eastern China, half of which were urban and half rural.

The history of where the weather stations were sited was crucial to Jones and Wang's 1990 study, as it concluded the rising temperatures recorded in China were the result of global climate changes rather the warming effects of expanding cities.

The IPCC's 2007 report used the study to justify the claim that "any urban-related trend" in global temperatures was small. Jones was one of two "coordinating lead authors" for the relevant chapter.

The leaked emails from the CRU reveal that the former director of the unit, Tom Wigley, harboured grave doubts about the cover-up of the shortcomings in Jones and Wang's work. Wigley was in charge of CRU when the original paper was published. "Were you taking W-CW [Wang] on trust?" he asked Jones. He continued: "Why, why, why did you and W-CW not simply say this right at the start?"

Jones said he was not able to comment on the story.

Wang said: "I have been exonerated by my university on all the charges. When we started on the paper we had all the station location details in order to identify our network, but we cannot find them any more.

"Some of the location changes were probably only a few metres, and where they were more we corrected for them."

In an interview with the Observer on Sunday Ed Miliband, the climate change secretary, warned of the danger of a public backlash against mainstream climate science over claims that scientists manipulated data. He declared a "battle" against the "siren voices" who denied global warming was real or caused by humans. "It's right that there's rigour applied to all the reports about climate change, but I think it would be wrong that when a mistake is made it's somehow used to undermine the overwhelming picture that's there," he said.

Last week the Information Commissioner's Office – the body that administers the Freedom of Information Act – said the University of East Anglia had flouted the rules in its handling of an FOI request in May 2008.

Days after receiving the request for information from the British climate change sceptic David Holland, Jones asked Prof Mike Mann of Pennsylvania State University in the United States: "Can you delete any emails you may have had with Keith [Briffa] re AR4? Keith will do likewise.

"Can you also email Gene [Eugene Wahl, a paleoclimatologist in Boulder, Colorado] and get him to do the same ... We will be getting Caspar [Ammann, also from Boulder] to do the same."

The University of East Anglia says that no emails were deleted following this exchange.

Journal Retracts 1998 Paper Linking Autism to Vaccines


Published: February 2, 2010

A prominent British medical journal on Tuesday retracted a 1998 research paper that set off a sharp decline in vaccinations in Britain after the paper's lead author suggested that vaccines could cause autism.

The retraction by The Lancet is part of a reassessment that has lasted for years of the scientific methods and financial conflicts of Dr. Andrew Wakefield, who contended that his research showed that the combined measles, mumps and rubella vaccine may be unsafe.

But the retraction may do little to tarnish Dr. Wakefield's reputation among parents' groups in the United States. Despite a wealth of scientific studies that have failed to find any link between vaccines and autism, the parents fervently believe that their children's mental problems resulted from vaccinations.

Tom Skinner, a spokesman for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, called the retraction of Dr. Wakefield's study "significant."

"It builds on the overwhelming body of research by the world's leading scientists that concludes there is no link between M.M.R. vaccine and autism," Mr. Skinner wrote in an e-mail message.

A British medical panel concluded last week that Dr. Wakefield had been dishonest, violated basic research ethics rules and showed a "callous disregard" for the suffering of children involved in his research. Dr. Richard Horton, editor in chief of The Lancet, said that until that decision, he had no proof that Dr. Wakefield's 1998 paper was deceptive.

"That was a damning indictment of Andrew Wakefield and his research," Dr. Horton said.

With that decision, Dr. Horton said he could retract the 1998 paper. Dr. Wakefield could not be reached for comment.

Jim Moody, a director of SafeMinds, a parents' group that advances the notion the vaccines cause autism, said the retraction would strengthen Dr. Wakefield's credibility with many parents.

"Attacking scientists and attacking doctors is dangerous," he said. "This is about suppressing research, and it will fuel the controversy by bringing it all up again."

Dr. Wakefield is part of a small but fervent group of doctors who discourage vaccinations because of a seeming link with autism.

Dr. Wakefield's paper reported on his examinations of 12 children with chronic intestinal disorders who had a history of normal development followed by severe mental regressions. He speculated that the combined measles, mumps and rubella vaccine may have caused some sort of chronic intestinal measles infection that in turn damaged the children's brains. He suggested that the combined vaccine should be split into three separate shots and given over a longer period of time.

But an investigation by a British journalist found financial and scientific conflicts that Dr. Wakefield did not reveal in his paper. For instance, part of the costs of Dr. Wakefield's research were paid by lawyers for parents seeking to sue vaccine makers for damages. Dr. Wakefield was also found to have patented in 1997 a measles vaccine that would succeed if the combined vaccine were withdrawn or discredited.

After years of investigation, the General Medical Council in Britain concluded that Dr. Wakefield had subjected 11 children to invasive tests like lumbar punctures and colonoscopies that they did not need and for which he did not receive ethical approval.

After Dr. Wakefield's study, vaccination rates plunged in Britain and the number of measles cases soared.

In the United States, anti-vaccine groups have advanced other theories since then to explain why they think vaccines cause autism. For years, they blamed thimerosal, a vaccine preservative containing mercury. Because of concerns over the preservative, vaccine makers in 2001 largely eliminated thimerosal from routinely administered childhood vaccines.

But this change has had no apparent impact on childhood autism rates. Anti-vaccine groups now suggest that a significant number of children have a cellular disorder whose effects are set off by vaccinations.

With each new theory, parents' groups have called for research to explore possible links between vaccination and autism. Study after study has failed to show any link, and prominent scientific agencies have concluded that scarce research dollars should be spent investigating other possible causes of autism.

Me and my homeopathic overdose


How I knocked back a bottle of homeopathic 'medicine' and lived to tell the tale

Hadley Freeman The Guardian, Wednesday 3 February 2010

I had a great weekend, thanks for ­asking. A bunch of like-minded souls and I got together in a frosty square in central London and took a massive overdose. Now, I should add at this point that I have not joined an extreme Christian cult (I couldn't – the Christian bit would upset my ­parents too much), and, as you can guess from the fact that I am writing this, the overdose was unsuccessful. I was at one of the many "mass homeopathic overdoses" taking place around the country to prove that homeopathy has as much effect on one's health as ­being hit in the face with a twig.

Whereas many of my fellow overdosers were protesting against the availability of homeopathic remedies at Boots, this doesn't bother me so much. If I felt outrage at the thought of Boots selling something that didn't live up to its promises, I'd have taken to the streets over several moisturisers years ago. ("Really? Literally reverse time?") What does offend me, though, is that this stuff is available on the NHS.

As a vegetarian who has been known to go to a fashion show and a yoga class in her time, I might seem a likely ­candidate for slapping on the arnica. But I feel about homeopathy the way Sarah Palin feels about climate change: shock that anyone in the modern world is daft enough to believe this rubbish. If I go to a fashion show or a yoga class, chances are I'll get a return on my investment: I'll see some fashion or I'll do some yoga. Buy a homeopathic remedy and will I be remedied? Maybe. But probably not. And unlike fashion shows, homeopathic treatments are available on the NHS, at a cost of £4m a year. This may seem a lot to anyone who has never been in a health food store; anyone who has will be saying, "They must have got one heck of a discount – honestly, last time I went in there to stock up on extract of cranberry, CQ10 vitamins and selenium supplements it cost me seven gajillion pounds."

A senior nurse makes at most £25,000 a year. Because I haven't been taking my Omega 3 supplements as regularly as I no doubt should, I can't work out how many more nurses the health service would be able to afford if it passed on the pollen extract without my brain exploding. But hopefully not for much longer. Next week a House of Commons select committee is publishing its findings on the use of ­homeopathy in the NHS. If this should turn out to be ­anything other than "please stop", I shall be tempted to pull a Billy Bragg and refuse to pay my ­income tax.

Inevitably, the homeopaths have been fighting their corner with a ­tenacity that belies their reliance on ­ineffective nutritional supplements and there has been much talk in the press about the value of garlic, ­cranberries and what have you. Here, the ­homeopaths don't actually help their case ­because cranberries/goji ­berries/insert name of this month's trendy fruit are very ­unlikely to be present in the final ­product because it has been so heavily diluted. Instead, homeopaths claim that the active ingredient imprints itself on the water's memory by a very special shaking ­process, a theory that sparks two obvious questions: if water has memory, does that mean vegetarians aren't allowed to drink it? And is this special shaking process similar to a ­toilet flushing? Because if so, ­presumably all drinking water must carry ­cherished memories of several generations of sewage. Pass the Evian.

Homeopathy styles itself as the ­caring, natural side of healthcare, ­removed from dangerous chemicals and nasty pharmaceutical companies. Quite how giving questionable hope with ­inflated price tags to people counts as caring or ­natural is never ­really ­explained. That homeopathy is ­promoted by the likes of Prince Charles is reason enough to be sceptical of it.

In a revealing ­moment, Senator Tom Harkin, the man behind the ­National Center for Complementary and ­Alternative Medicine in the US, last year ­confessed that he was ­disappointed with the organisation he helped ­establish because "one of the purposes of this centre was to investigate and validate alternative approaches. Quite frankly, I must say publicly that it has fallen short." Instead the NCCAM has been "disproving things rather than seeking out and approving things".

So back to what we'll call "Me and My Overdose". On the count of 10 we all knocked back bottles of ­homeopathic remedies. In fact, we all overdosed five times for the sake of the ­newspaper ­photographers present and still ­remained unaffected. But there was a good reason for that, claimed the two homeopaths who turned up to watch proceedings: it's not the amount you take, it's how long you take it for ­(making me wonder if this is just the length of time it takes for an illness to ease on its own); and second, it didn't work ­because it wasn't prescribed to us ­(making me wonder if it only works if someone has told you it will). They also wheeled out – twice – the ­alleged fact that there are "400,000 ­homeopathic doctors in India", as though the proof was not so much in the pudding, but in there being a chef in the kitchen in the first place.

So in the name of science, I ­conducted an experiment. That night, I took a sleeping pill. I hadn't been ­prescribed it, so presumably it shouldn't work. But guess what? I went to sleep! I pondered the wisdom of ­taking the whole bottle to see if this would make no difference to the result – as was the case with my bottle of arnica – but by then I was too tired to follow through. Anyway, I'd already taken one overdose that day.

Herbal Remedies Not a Good Idea For Heart Patients; Dangerous Drug Interactions Possible


Category: Alternative Medicine News

Wednesday, February 03, 2010 at 8:56:38 AM

Alternative medicine has caught the imagination of more and more Americans who are turning to herbal remedies to help manage chronic conditions or promote general health and wellness. But experts advise that such subscribers should be aware of its other effects also.

Many of today's popular herbal supplements, including St. John's wort, gingko biloba, garlic and even grapefruit juice can pose serious risks to people who are taking medications for heart disease, according to a review article published in the February, 9, 2010, issue of the Journal of the American College of Cardiology. The use of these products is especially concerning among elderly patients who typically have co-morbidities, take multiple medications and are already at greater risk of bleeding, according to authors.

"Many people have a false sense of security about these herbal products because they are seen as 'natural,'" Arshad Jahangir, M.D., Professor of Medicine and Consultant Cardiologist, Mayo Clinic Arizona, adding that more than 15 million Americans reportedly use herbal remedies or high-dose vitamins. "But 'natural' doesn't always mean they are safe. Every compound we consume has some effect on the body, which is, in essence, why people are taking these products to begin with."

In addition to their direct effects on body function, these herbs can interact with medications used to treat heart disease, either reducing their effectiveness or increasing their potency, which may lead to bleeding or a greater risk for serious cardiac arrhythmias.

"We can see the effect of some of these herb-drug interactions—some of which can be life-threatening—on tests for blood clotting, liver enzymes and, with some medications, on electrocardiogram," Dr. Jahangir said.

According to the report, a major concern is that patients do not readily disclose their use of herbal remedies, and healthcare providers may not routinely ask about such use. In addition, because these herbs are regarded as food products, they are not subject to the same scrutiny and regulation as traditional medications.

"If patients aren't satisfied with their care today, many will turn to herbs because they believe these compounds can help them manage chronic conditions or improve health and prevent future disease," said Dr. Jahangir. "In fact, patients are willing to spend nearly the same or more on out-of-pocket expenses for herbal remedies than traditional medical care."

Two nationwide surveys conducted in 1990 and 1997 found that the number of visits to complementary and alternative providers increased from 427 million to 629 million, whereas the number of visits to primary care physicians remained basically unchanged.

Some examples of herbs and their adverse effect on heart disease management include:

•St. John's wort, which is typically used to treat depression, anxiety and sleep disorders among other problems, reduces the effectiveness of medications contributing to recurrences of arrhythmia, high blood pressure or increase in blood cholesterol levels and risk for future heart problems.

•Ginkgo biloba, which is supposedly used to improve circulation or sharpen the mind, increases bleeding risk in those taking warfarin or aspirin.

•Garlic, which supposedly helps boost the immune system and is commonly used for its cholesterol and blood pressure lowering properties, can also increase the risk of bleeding among those taking warfarin.

In addition to highlighting commonly used herbs and potential interactions with cardiovascular medications, the present review also outlines steps for improving their safe use and reducing harm among patients with heart disease.

"These herbs have been used for centuries—well before today's cardiovascular medications—and while they may have beneficial effects these need to be studied scientifically to better define their usefulness and, more importantly, identify their potential for harm when taken with medications that have proven benefit for patients with cardiovascular diseases," said Dr. Jahangir. "Patients, physicians, pharmacists and other healthcare providers need to know about the potential harm these herbs can have."

In addition to greater public education about the risks of using herbal products, patients and clinicians need to actively discuss the use of over-the-counter medications, supplements and herbal products in addition to prescription medications.

Tuesday, February 02, 2010

The 'Evolving' Story of Teacher Who Burned Cross into Student's Arm


By Lauri Lebo
February 2, 2010

More than a year after a high school student's arm was burned by a Christian schoolteacher, John Freshwater, the story continues to change. While the family has settled with the school the Dennis family suit against Freshwater awaits trial while Freshwater has launched a counterclaim.

Meanwhile, the Mount Vernon School District is a divided community in this rural section of south-central Ohio. And John Freshwater, the 8th-grade science teacher who admitted to using an electrostatic device known as a Tesla coil on Zachary Dennis' arm, remains a polarizing figure at the center of the fray.

Despite the case's layered subtexts much of the debate is over evolution.

Interestingly, one of the reasons for the divisiveness is that there appears to be no established version of events between the two sides. Depending on whom you talk to, this is either about a student being branded... or it's about a Bible on a desk.

The story began in December 2007, after Zachary came home with a burn mark on his arm. Jenifer Dennis and her husband Steve complained to the school district after Zachary told them that Freshwater had asked him to volunteer to be part of a science experiment. The Dennises said the burn, which in photos [above, right] show an 8-by-4-inch mark on their son's forearm, raised blisters, kept their son awake that night, and lasted for several weeks.

At first glance, they saw the mark as a religious emblem. But their first concern was less about religion and more about what they considered to be a case of a teacher injuring their son.

In response, the Dennises filed a federal lawsuit against Freshwater and the Mount Vernon School District, which is still three months away. However, in August, the school district, which had been named in the suit, settled with the family.

After the Dennises complained to the district, the school launched a lengthy independent investigation in which Freshwater, other teachers, students, and administrators were all interviewed. The consultant concluded in a report that Freshwater had been teaching students that evolution is a lie for at least 11 years.

The report said that Freshwater had witnessed to students, at one point telling them that there couldn't possibly be a genetic link to homosexuality because the Bible says it is a sin. The report also said that he handed out Bibles to members of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes and led them in prayers during school hours.

It also said Freshwater had misused the Tesla coil during the science experiment.

Citing the findings, the district tried to fire Freshwater in July 2008. Alleging religious persecution, Freshwater fought back, filing a request with the Ohio Board of Education for a pre-termination hearing. Due to lengthy ongoing delays by Freshwater's attorney, the teacher has not yet finished presenting his case before the state-appointed referee. The hearing has continued for more than a year and has cost the district more than a half million dollars.

He remains suspended without pay.

Brand v. Bible

Attacks against the teaching of evolution are not uncommon in small towns across America. But the grisly accusations and the extremism of some of Freshwater's supporters have recently caught the attention of both the New York Times and the Guardian UK, both of which sent reporters to Mount Vernon recently. The Times piece highlighted the divide in the school district, which is flanked by the liberal arts school of Kenyon College and the Church of the evangelical Mount Union Nazarene University.

One of Freshwater's move vocal supporters, Dave Daubenmire, is the creator of the town's Minute Men United, a militant organization that endorses Christian theocracy. Two years ago, according to the Columbus Dispatch, Minutemen led protests at religious services of two local churches that embraced the gay community. Until the branding incident, Freshwater had been an active participant at Minutemen anti-abortion events.

Daubenmire has characterized the Freshwater case as a war and has accused the district superintendent Steve Short of doing the devil's bidding.

In a recent interview, Daubenmire said there has been a lot of misinformation in the news media about the case. "Everything you read is not true," he told me. His primary objection to the New York Times article was that it said Freshwater admitted to burning Zachary Dennis.

The Times wrote:

Mr. Freshwater, who declined to be interviewed, has said he did not mean to burn a cross on any student's arm. Instead, he said he intended to leave a temporary X on the skin using a device called a Tesla coil during a science demonstration. He says he had done that, with no complaints, hundreds of times in his 21 years as a teacher at Mount Vernon Middle School.

Daubenmire said that Freshwater had admitted using the Tesla coil on Zachary Dennis, as he has done to students for 20 years, but he denies that he burned him. "There is no proof that is his arm in the photo," he said.

However, during the school district hearing last year, a mole on the arm in the photo was shown to match up to the mole on Zachary's arm. Also, other students testified for both the defense and on behalf of the school district that Freshwater had put similar marks on their arms.

When I spoke to Freshwater a year ago for an article I wrote for RD, he also said he had used the Tesla coil on Zachary, but said he didn't know whether it had left a mark at the time.

Still, Daubenmire maintains that Freshwater did not burn Zachary.

"That is not the arm of Zachary Dennis, or if it is, it was not a mark left by John Freshwater," Daubenmire said.

Hidden Dangers of Herbal Meds Reviewed


By John Gever, Senior Editor, MedPage Today
Published: February 01, 2010

Herbal medicines are not always the harmless nostrums that many patients and even some physicians think, but may actually contribute to cardiovascular morbidity and mortality, researchers warned in a review covering 44 years of research into the subject.

Many such products, including aloe vera, ginkgo biloba, ginseng, and green tea, can interact with conventional cardiovascular drugs and lead to serious adverse reactions, according to Arshad Jahangir, MD, of the Mayo Clinic in Scottsdale, Ariz., and two other Mayo physicians.

"There is a clear need for better public and physician understanding of herbal products through health education, early detection and management of herbal toxicities, scientific scrutiny of their use, and research on their safety and effectiveness," they wrote in the Feb. 9 Journal of the American College of Cardiology.

Jahangir and colleagues also called for increased regulation of such products, at least requiring manufacturers of herbal medicines to register with the FDA and provide evidence of good manufacturing practices.

"Some of these adverse drug reactions are preventable," Jahangir told MedPage Today in a telephone interview. "Simple things like taking a good history or giving that history and discussing these issues, probably we can avoid [such reactions]."

Other physicians contacted by MedPage Today and ABC News agreed that the growth in popularity of herbal medicines poses problems for physicians and patients.

"Because these remedies are 'natural,' their potential dangers are not considered the same way they would be if they were medication," commented Suzanne Steinbaum, MD, a cardiologist at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City, in an e-mail.

"For many reasons, patients tend not to disclose to their doctors if they are taking herbal remedies, including fear that their doctors won't approve or they will be told to stop them," Steinbaum added. "This lack of knowledge and full-disclosure, for some, might be a fatal omission."

Jahangir and colleagues reviewed nearly 90 publications that have addressed herbal or complementary therapies and cardiovascular effects since 1966.

Their JACC article listed 15 common herbal medicines known to interact adversely with conventional cardiovascular drugs.

In many cases, the herbal products compete with the regular medicines for the same drug-metabolizing cytochrome P450 enzymes, potentiating the latter's effects. In other cases, the herbal products have their own cardiovascular effects.

Many physicians already know that grapefruit juice occupies the CYP3A4 enzyme, leading to slower-than-expected metabolism and, therefore, higher blood levels of a host of pharmaceuticals.

These include the statins, calcium channel antagonists, several common anti-arrhythmic drugs, and the angiotensin receptor blocker irbesartan (Avapro), Jahangir and colleagues noted.

Garlic is one of several common herbal remedies with specific cardiovascular effects in its own right (others include ginkgo biloba, ginseng, and saw palmetto). Garlic inhibits platelet aggregation and thus can lead to increased bleeding risks when combined with aspirin, clopidogrel (Plavix), or warfarin (Coumadin), the researchers noted.

The Mayo group identified 10 herbal products that increase bleeding risks with anticoagulant and antiplatelet drugs, as well as 14 that can induce arrhythmias.

In all, Jahangir and colleagues listed 27 herbal products that patients with cardiovascular diseases would do well to avoid. These include such common and harmless-seeming products as green tea, capsicum pepper, licorice, and kelp, as well as grapefruit juice and garlic.

"We need to check with our patients what type of products they are using, to identify these potential interactions," Jahangir told MedPage Today.

He cited the previously reported figure of 100,000 deaths annually from drug interactions, adding, "We don't even know how many of these are due to use of compounds that we are not aware that our patients are taking."

Jahangir said he was surprised, in preparing the review, at the scale of hebal medicine use in the U.S.

He and his colleagues found data from the 1990s suggesting that more patients consult complementary and alternative medicine providers than regular physicians.

The total annual out-of-pocket expenditure on complementary and alternative medicine services and products also was greater than for conventional physician services.

"The surprise for me was . . . how much people are willing to spend on a type of therapy which has not shown, in any scientific way, to be effective or safe," Jahangir said.

He added that the trend may reflect shortcomings of the conventional medical system.

"What is the reason people are going there? Is it because there is some unmet type of need that we are not recognizing as practitioners of conventional medicine?"

Jahangir said it may be that physicians aren't spending enough time with patients to understand their true needs. He said it appears that, "despite the advancement in our technology and new medicines, there is a demand for alternative therapies that is increasing."

He recommended that, in addition to asking patients in detail about herbal and other alternative therapies they may be using, physicians should educate themselves on what these therapies purport to do and what is known about their real biological effects.

The National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine at the National Institutes of Health is a good starting point for such information, both for physicians and for patients, Jahangir said.

Lenox Hill's Steinbaum said it was important that conventional physicians "become more open-minded and accepting" of alternative medicine, if only because so many of their patients are already practicing it.

David Meyerson, MD, JD, a Johns Hopkins University cardiologist, told MedPage Today and ABC News in an e-mail that he advises patients to limit their use of "unstudied and unproven and FDA-unregulated herbal medications."

"It's unfortunately very big business, and potential drug interactions and potential harmful effects abound," he wrote.

But another physician criticized the Mayo physicians' emphasis on adverse effects in their review.

"For many of products listed, evidence for side effects seems to be minimal," Scott Grundy, MD, of the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas, argued in an e-mail.

He agreed that the efficacy and safety of such drugs remains largely unproven, but added, "It is mainly for these reasons that they cannot be recommended for use."

Creating alarm about side effects "may not be the appropriate way to discourage their use," Grundy said.

This article was developed in collaboration with ABC News.

Herbal medicine is under threat


Alternative medicines face a backlash just when clinical research is turning back to nature

Bibi van der Zee The Guardian, Tuesday 2 February 2010

Tomorrow, an army of medical herbalists will be demonstrating outside the House of Commons. "What are they going to do," wonders sceptic Adam Rutherford, an editor at the science journal Nature, "wave strands of lavender at MPs?" But Michael McIntyre, chair of the European Herbal and Traditional Medicine Practitioners Association (EHTPA), has called for the demonstration because, quite frankly, he has had enough.

For several decades, it's true, the field of complementary and alternative medicines (CAMs, as they are often known) has boomed, with acupuncturists, osteopaths and homeopaths springing up on every corner. Lately, however, a fierce backlash has been brewing. Scientists such as Professor Edzard Ernst (who puts complementary medicine's claims through clinical trials), and writers such as the Guardian's own Ben Goldacre, have turned a long-needed microscope on to CAMs and accused them of being at best harmless, and at worst fraudulent and toxic. Herbal medicine was described by Rose Shapiro, in her book Suckers: How Alternative Medicine Makes Fools Of Us All, as mostly "ineffective . . . if it worked and was safe it wouldn't need to be alternative . . . Herbal medicine should be subject to the same evidence-based regulation as are orthodox pharmaceuticals."

These days, though, the majority of herbal practitioners are crying out for regulation, but despite promising to implement this for 20 years now, the government is still dragging its heels. Meanwhile, discredited herbalists are able to continue practicing, giving the field a bad name. And next year, when European legislation comes in which will stop unregulated practitioners from accessing many key herbal medicines, UK herbalists may well find themselves snookered.

But it has not all been bad news, as some new clinical trials have proved the efficacy of various herbal treatments. A review of studies of hawthorn (authored by Ernst) concluded that it is not only useful as a treatment for chronic heart failure, but also carries few of the risks associated with some conventional medicines. Horse chestnut, in another study by Ernst, has been shown to be useful for treating chronic venous insufficiency (when leg veins are not strong enough to pump blood back up to the heart), again with fewer side effects than conventional equivalents. And some of the studies on St John's wort have shown that it can improve symptoms of depression.

Garlic, another common herbal treatment, is regularly shown to reduce blood cholesterol, while black cohosh, an ancient Native American treatment, has had some success in clinical trials of its efficacy in treating menopausal symptoms. Studies of green tea,meanwhile, have shown that it can help inhibit tumour growth.

But this is not enough for the sceptics. "Yes, a few herbal treatments may turn out to be medically effective," says Rutherford. "But for every one that turns out to work, there are hundreds that are just bollocks. It's not half and half; many of these treatments turn out to be no better than a placebo."

And yet scientists are increasingly turning back to the natural world in their search for modern medicines.Research is throwing up rich and intriguing results, showing that, among other things, the combination of tomatoes and broccoli is more effective in combatting tumours than either vegetable used alone; that cranberries really are effective at preventing urinary tract infections; that ginger can reduce nausea in the early stages of chemotherapy.

Declan Naughton, professor of biomolecular sciences at Kingston University, was part of a team which last year showed that mixing pomegranate rind with metal salts and vitamin C created an ointment effective at fighting the hospital superbug MRSA. "As time has gone on," he says, "it has become more and more clear to me that a great number of the drugs we use originate from plants. If you were to sit down and list them, you'd be speaking for a long while, and if you're looking at developing new drugs, then you should obviously look to nature."

Could there ever be a meeting of minds between ancient herbal and modern medics? "You do have [herbal practitioners] following practices that are just unacceptable," says Naughton. "But you also have an increasing number of scientists screening herbs to find new drugs; more and more scientists are turning back to the original sources of medicine, the micro-bacteria, marine organisms and plants from the rainforests."

"For centuries now we've been using these treatments," says McIntyre, a herbalist himself for 30 years. "It's profoundly frustrating to have to spend so much time battling to get ourselves regulated when what I'd really like to be doing is be in my practice, treating people."

Monday, February 01, 2010

Freshwater Hearing to Conclude Soon


Update: Mount Vernon Teacher Faces Termination for Violating First Amendment
By: Sarah Friedman
Posted: 1/28/10

The 18-month ordeal of the contract termination hearing of John Freshwater will continue into February and possibly longer, according to David Millstone, the attorney representing the Mount Vernon Board of Education in the hearing. The Mount Vernon Middle School eighth grade science teacher is accused of burning students with a Tesla coil and violating the First Amendment by endorsing religion in his public school classroom.

The New York Times reported on Jan. 19 that the hearing was set to end on Jan. 22, but it was rescheduled. "We've seen a lot of delays," Millstone said, but declined to comment on why. According to Millstone, there are two more days of hearings scheduled. "I believe it will end sometime in February, but I don't want to guarantee anything," he said.

The specific allegations against Freshwater are numerous. Perhaps the most serious is the accusation that he burned students with a Tesla coil, an electricity-producing device, on their forearms, in some cases in the shape of a cross. The original lawsuit was filed by the parents of a burned student who suffered lasting pain as a result of the classroom experiment. In John Doe, et. al. vs. Mount Vernon City School Board of Education, Freshwater was also accused of teaching creationism and intelligent design. According to a court order of the Southern District of Ohio Court, "Freshwater also allegedly advised his students that, although he is forced to teach from the textbooks, the teachings are wrong or not proven according to the Bible." According to Millstone, Freshwater is accused of saying in class: "I know how the world's going to end because I've read it in the Book" and "science is wrong and we see that. There's a recent study in Time magazine where they said that they found a gene that is linked to homosexuality, but the Bible says homosexuality is a sin and therefore those who choose to be homosexuals are sinning."

Public school teachers are required to follow curriculums approved by the state and local boards of education. According to page 130 of the Ohio State Board of Education's Academic Content Standards for eighth-grade science, by the end of the curriculum students should grasp the concepts of evolutionary theory, including being able to "[e]xplain how variations in structure, behavior or physiology allow some organisms to enhance their reproductive success and survival in a particular environment" and "[e]xplain that diversity of species is developed through gradual processes over many generations (e.g., fossil record)." Under the category of Ethical Practices, the Standards mandate that students understand how to "[e]xplain why it is important to examine data objectively and not let bias affect observations."

Freshwater also kept a Bible on his desk, along with posters with religious quotations and copies of the Ten Commandments in his classroom.

In early 2008, the parents of the severely burned student filed a complaint about Freshwater to the School Board, which conducted an investigation into the allegations, according to Millstone. The Board instructed Freshwater to remove the religious display, and although he removed the Ten Commandments and all but one of the posters, according to Millstone, he "left his Bible on his desk and went out on the public square and … thumbed his nose at the District and said 'I have a constitutional right to have a Bible on my desk and I'm therefore not going to remove it.'"

Freshwater then checked out two library books, according to Millstone, and placed them on his desk: Jesus of Nazareth and another version of the Bible. He was charged with insubordination for refusing to carry out the district's orders.

Finally, Freshwater is accused of actively participating in the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, a student religious group of which he was a sponsor, by praying with the students and contacting speakers for the group. As a public school employee, his involvement in the group legally could be only "on a non-participatory basis," said Millstone.

Legal action

In early July 2008, the Board of Education adopted a resolution to consider terminating Freshwater. According to Ohio law, after the Board adopts such a resolution, the teacher under consideration has a ten-day window in which to request a due process hearing before the Board makes its decision. Freshwater did so, and the Ohio State Department of Education appointed a referee to look into the case and make a recommendation to the Board. Since then, the pre-termination hearings have been going on and Freshwater has been suspended without pay, according to Millstone.

Besides the current contract termination hearing, several other legal disputes have arisen in connection with the Freshwater case. Currently, Freshwater himself is suing the Mount Vernon Board of Education, and the parents of the MVMS student are suing Freshwater, said Millstone.

The parents had initially sued the Board of Education as well, but on Aug. 26, 2009, the plaintiffs and the Mount Vernon City School District Board of Education settled the lawsuit filed against the Board, Superintendent Stephen Short and Mount Vernon Middle School Principal Bill White. The settlement agreement concerned only the Board, Short and White and had no effect on the plaintiffs' claims against Freshwater, according to the Board's meeting minutes for the special session on Aug. 26, 2009.

Freshwater could not be reached for comment. Short and members of the School Board could not speak publicly about the case.

© Copyright 2010 The Kenyon Collegian

Fire Freshwater


Staff Editorial
Issue date: 1/28/10 Section: Opinion

The principle was established 219 years ago as the First Amendment to our Constitution: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof." Why is this still a national conversation?

We are lucky that in our country we are all free to practice whatever religion we choose, to espouse any religious beliefs with legal impunity. This freedom and privilege applies only to individuals, however; public school teachers are agents of the state, and thanks to the separation of church and state they cannot legally impose their beliefs on students.

But that doesn't stop some from trying. John Freshwater, the currently suspended eighth grade science teacher at Mount Vernon Middle School (MVMS) who the School Board tried to fire for teaching creationism and burning a student with a Tesla coil in the shape of a cross, among other allegations, has been in the midst of contract termination hearings for a year and a half. Freshwater clearly violated the separation of church and state, and even worse, he abused the privilege of his position of influence over young students. So why is it taking so long to fire him? The State of Ohio appointed a referee to look into his case, and the resulting hearings that have lasted so long are a product of a system that allows teachers to defend themselves before being fired by the Board of Education. The problem isn't the system - teachers certainly should be able to give their sides - but rather the fact that the two sides are being given moral equivalence in this debate. By teaching creationism in violation of Ohio State Academic Content Standards and referencing the Bible during science lessons, Freshwater violated a basic American principle. This is a fact, whether or not your religious beliefs align with his and whether or not you like him personally (he was a very popular teacher). He has no place in the public school system. He would have made a good teacher in a private religious school - had he not injured a student.

The "Principal's Message" on the MVMS Web site states: "Our goal is to have our students leave MVMS with skills to make them productive and active citizens." Students become "productive and active citizens" by being equipped with the tools to think critically about the world around them. They have the right to receive an objective scientific education and a right to come to their own conclusions about religion. Any attempt by a schoolteacher to mix the two is indoctrination and an abuse of power. We at the Collegian therefore believe that Freshwater should be fired.

Health bill provision in Congress could broaden care options


January 31, 2010

By Frank Konkel

The big business of alternative medicine in the United States could be getting bigger.

A provision in the health-care-reform bill currently being debated by Congress could force health-care providers to cover alternative-medicine techniques anywhere those techniques are licensed by state regulatory agencies.

The vast majority of American health-care providers currently offer only limited coverage for alternative treatments — including practices like acupuncture, naturopathy, chiropractics, homeopathy and herbal medicines — so the cost for these practices comes out a patient's pocket.

According to Sylvia Warner, spokeswoman for U.S. Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Brighton, if the bill is signed into law with the current provision, it "opens the door" for all that to change.

"There is nothing in the bills that directly addresses the issue of alternative medicines or treatments, but they do give complete discretion to the federal government to mandate any benefit federal officials deem necessary," Warner said. "It certainly opens the door, but there is no way to tell what will happen."

Americans spent $34 billion on alternative therapies in 2009, and industry experts estimated that dollar figure will continue to grow in coming years. To science-based skeptics like Dr. Harriet Hall, a former family physician and current editor of www.sciencebasedmedicine.org, forcing health providers to cover alternative therapies is a dangerous prospect because, by definition, they're not proven.

"When something is proven to work, it's conventional," Hall said. "Alternative medicines are not proven to work."

Not all agree on that assessment, least of all those such as Michigan-licensed chiropractor Eric Duncan of Duncan Chiropractic Group in Brighton.

"We get our doctorate in chiropractic, and put just as many hours in as those in the medical or dental fields," Duncan said. "I think (skeptics) are coming from a more old-school thinking."

Regardless of their effectiveness, alternative medicines constitute a large business with large profits.

Robert Zirkelbach, spokesman for America's Health Insurance Plans, told the Los Angeles Times for a December story that "requiring health plans to provide access to unproven therapies would increase costs and reduce the quality and safety of patient care."

On Thursday, he told the Livingston County Daily Press & Argus that health-care providers make coverage decisions based on on medical evidence behind treatments. Most alternative therapies, he said, don't come with much scientific backing, despite how potentially common or popular they are.

Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan spokeswoman Helen Stojic said the insurance provider is monitoring the health-reform bill closely as it works its way toward finalization, in part because of alternative medicines.

Currently, Stojic said, Blue Cross offers coverage "based on generally accepted standards of medical, clinical or professional practice," but noted that alternative therapies do not fall in to those categories at this time. Blue Cross does, however, offer large groups — of 1,000 or more employees — the option to include alternative therapies in their coverage options, but Stojic said "very few" have chosen to do so.

How the legislation shakes out remains to be seen.

The Senate's version of the health-care bill contains the provision that include alternative medicines. When the House and Senate versions of the bills are brought together — which could be in a matter of months — Warner said it's impossible to know what will be cut and what will remain.

Moreover, Warner noted how the future legislation is implemented is just as important with regard to mandates as the legislation itself.

"What's in the legislation is one thing, but how the agency charged with handling that piece of legislation interprets and implements it is another," Warner said.

Contact Daily Press & Argus reporter Frank Konkel at (517) 552-2835 or at fkonkel@gannett.com.

Additional Facts

Supplements are big business

Of the more than $34 billion Americans spent on alternative medicines last year, dietary supplements made up the largest percentage purchases. Common supplements include vitamins, echinacea, protein powders, fish oils and a multitude of other products. One thing they all have in common?

They're all big sellers, even in the nation's declining economy.

"The customer count is down a little bit, but people are still spending, and we're still seeing people heavily purchasing what I would call staples," said Grand River Plaza GNC store manager Colleen Glander.

Glander noted that vitamins, fish oils, glucosamine and probiotics are some of the most popular products at her store.

"People are still buying supplements. It's one thing they don't seem to go without," she said.

Dietary supplements are regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration's Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act of 1994, which puts the onus of safety and responsibility on a product's manufacturer. Manufacturers are not required to register their products, nor do they have to get FDA approval before they market them. The act loosely regulates how manufacturers market these products. Many skeptics feel it's not enough.

"Basically, (manufacturers) are allowed to make substantial claims as long as they use a disclaimer. They can get away with quite a bit in that sense," said Dr. Peter Lipson. "It doesn't matter if (a product) works or if it kills people, a manufacturer doesn't have to prove its purity. You could put 3 grams of goat p—- in a canister and tell people it's an immune booster and make a huge amount of money."

Lipson contends that dietary supplements are only investigated by the FDA when serious problems arise. Such was the case with the stimulant Ephedra — which was banned by the FDA, but blamed for 155 deaths.

"You just don't know what you're getting," Lipson said.

That's the logic Dr. Zoe Foster of Pinckney Family Care utilizes on a daily basis. Foster works with athletes and is regularly bombarded with questions from her clients on what supplements to take.

Her answer, she said, is always the same.

"My blanket recommendation to my athletes who are in the pool of folks who'll be blood-tested is not to take any supplement because it's not worth the risk," Foster said. "Many of these products contain varying kinds of banned substances — potentially steroids and diuretics — and all kinds of things reported that could trigger a drug test. ... Some of these products can be detrimental to your health."

Yet, people are buying in record numbers. Why? Skeptics like Dr. Harriet Hall, a former family physician and current editor of www.sciencebasedmedicine.org, and supplement users like Glander agree on that.

"What I'm hearing and seeing from customers is that they're not getting results from conventional medicines or that the side effects are too harsh," Glander said.

Added Hall, "Lots of people have bad experiences in conventional medicine, and that makes them attracted to other options."