NTS LogoSkeptical News for 6 August 2010

Archive of previous NTS Skeptical News listings

Friday, August 06, 2010

Templeton prayer study meets expectations


Category: Religion • Science
Posted on: August 4, 2010 11:39 AM, by PZ Myers

I have no idea how this stuff gets published. I've been sent a new paper that tests the effect of prayer, and I was appalled: it's got such deep methodological problems that nothing can be concluded from it, but that doesn't stop the authors, who argue that they're seeing that Proximal Intercessory Prayer improves vision and hearing in people in Mozambique.Proximal Intercessory Prayer (PIP) is their very own term for what they do, to distinguish it from distant prayer. What is it, you may ask? Here is their protocol.

Western and Mozambican Iris and Global Awakening [two evangelical/missionary organizations that cooperated with the research] leaders and affiliates who administered PIP all used a similar protocol. They typically spent 1-15 minutes (sometimes an hour or more, circumstances permitting) administering PIP. They placed their hands on the recipient's head and some- times embraced the person in a hug, keeping their eyes open to observe results. In soft tones, they petitioned God to heal, invited the Holy Spirit's anointing, and commanded healing and the departure of any evil spirits in Jesus' name. Those who prayed then asked recipients whether they were healed. If recipients responded negatively or stated that the healing was partial, PIP was continued. If they answered in the affirmative, informal tests were conducted, such as asking recipients to repeat words or sounds (e.g. hand claps) intoned from behind or to count fingers from roughly 30 cm away. If recipients were unable or partially able to perform tasks, PIP was continued for as long as circumstances permitted.

Vision and hearing tests were carried out before and after the procedure using eye charts and an audiometer. Subjects were recruited from a self-selected population of rural Africans who were attending a charismatic/evangelical revival…that is, people who knew they would be rewarded with acclaim if they publicly demonstrated dramatic improvements in their health under the influence of a priest. This experiment did not use single-blind trials — in fact, the subjects were hammered repeatedly with the protocol until they reported that it worked for them, subjectively.

It also wasn't double-blind. Not only were the experimenters fully aware of what treatment the subjects received, but they knew that every single subject they tested had reported a positive effect. This study was wide open to experimental bias, and given that two of the authors of the study were not medically trained at all, but were instead members of schools of theology, and that all of the work was funded by the Templeton Foundation, we can guess what answer they wanted.

Most damning of all, there were no controls.

I repeat, no controls anywhere in the experiment.

No controls, experiment not done double-blind or even single-blind, a small number (24) of subjects self-selected from a suggestible population predisposed to demonstrate an effect…this study is total crap. All it would take to get their results is a tendency for people coming in for magical healing to exaggerate their afflictions, and minimize them after a few minutes of personal attention, and presto, PIP works. And that seems like an extremely likely situation to me.

Now there could be a real physiological effect: compelling attentiveness, physical stimulation, and just generally waking people up could generate an increase in blood flow to the head, which would lead to better sensory performance — I know I wake up bleary-eyed and wooly-headed until I've snapped myself awake with a little cold water and some physical activity, so we also know that sensory performance varies over time. But can we determine that from this work? No! No controls! This is completely worthless work.

What's particularly galling is that the investigators go on to suggest that maybe the suffering people in the undeveloped world could benefit from PIP.

Although it would be unwise to overgeneralize from these preliminary findings for a small number of PIP practitioners and subjects collected in far-from-ideal field conditions, future study seems warranted to assess whether PIP may be a useful adjunct to standard medical care for certain patients with auditory and/or visual impairments, especially in contexts where access to conventional treatment is limited. The implications are potentially vast given World Health Organization estimates that 278 million people, 80% of whom live in developing countries, have moderate to profound hearing loss in both ears, and 314 million people are visually impaired, 87% of whom live in developing countries, and only a tiny fraction of these populations currently receive any treatment.

No, I think those hundreds of millions of people deserve something a little more substantial than a witch-doctor dribbling oil on their heads and chanting to their Jesus juju. And no, nothing in this work can warrant further investigation.

By the way, you may wonder why they had to go to rural Mozambique to find subjects. There is no shortage of crazy preachers and gullible believers willing to be healed by magic in the US. They reveal the answer to that in an aside.

Conducting similar studies under controlled clinical conditions in North America would be desirable, yet neither Iris nor Global Awakening claims comparable results in industrialized countries (arguing that "anointing" and "faith" are lower where medical therapies are available)—see Supplemental Digital Content for our unsuccessful attempts to collect data in the US.

Ah, the incredible shrinking god — he just doesn't work where conditions are amenable to more thorough examination. I am not surprised.

I'm also not surprised that this garbage was funded by the Templeton Foundation. It could only have been supported by an organization that places scientific rigor a distant second to making excuses for faith.

Thursday, August 05, 2010

Artificial life forms evolve basic intelligence


04 August 2010 by Catherine Brahic
Magazine issue 2772

Editorial: Digital evolution and the meaning of life

FOR generations, the Avidians have been cloning themselves quietly in a box. They're not perfect, but most of their mutations go unnoticed. Then something remarkable happens. One steps forward, and that changes everything. Tens of thousands of generations down the line, some of its descendents will evolve memory.

Avidians are not microbes, or sci-fi alien life forms. They are the digital offspring of Charles Ofria and colleagues at Michigan State University (MSU) in East Lansing. They "live" in a computer world called Avida, and replicate using strings of coded computer instructions instead of DNA. But in many ways they are similar to real life: they compete with each other for resources, replicate, mutate, and evolve. They - or things like them - might eventually evolve to become artificially intelligent life forms.

Similar to microbes, Avidians take up very little space, have short generation times, and can evolve new traits to out-compete their rivals. Unlike microbes, their evolution can be stopped at any time, reversed, repeated, and the precise sequence of mutations that led to the new trait can be dissected. "They're wonderful evolutionary pets," says Ben Kerr, a biologist at the University of Washington in Seattle.

They could become so much more. At the 12th annual international conference on artificial life in Odense, Denmark, this month, philosopher and computer scientist Robert Pennock of MSU will present the findings of experiments in which Avidians were made to evolve memory.

"The big question is: how did we get here? Our intelligence didn't evolve all at once," says Pennock. "You need certain ingredients. Memory is one."

Experiments in Avida nearly always start with the simplest possible organisms, ones that can only clone themselves. To make them evolve, the experimenters release them into a competitive environment where the prize is an amount of "food" - aka processing time - which allows organisms to produce more clones.

In early memory experiments, Laura Grabowski, now at the University of Texas-Pan American, Edinburg, set up a food gradient in a computer environment made of a grid of cells. First-generation Avidians were placed at the low end of the gradient, in a cell that had minimal food. Straight ahead of them, however, lay a cell that had more.

The Avidians replicated themselves for nearly 100 generations, "living" and "dying" in the cell. Then one evolved a computer instruction to move forward. When it landed in an energy-richer cell, it reproduced more rapidly. Many thousands of generations later, some of its descendents were seen following the food gradient to its source, where concentrations were highest (Artificial Life 2009, p 92).

Even then the Avidians did not home in on the source. They stumbled their way along the gradient in zigzags, sensing the food and eventually reaching the source. They had evolved to ability to compare food in its current and past locations. "Doing this requires some rudimentary intelligence," says Pennock. "You have to be able to assess your situation, realise you're not going in the right direction, reorient, and then reassess."

Next, Grabowski sent a fresh batch of non-evolved Avidians on a treasure hunt. This time, cells contained a numerical code, which indicated in what direction the organisms should turn to find more food. But there was an additional twist to the task. Some cells contained the instruction "repeat what you did last time". The Avidians once more evolved into forms that could interpret and execute the instruction. "The environment sets up selective pressures so organisms are forced to come up with some kind of memory use - which is in fact what they do," says Grabowski.

This is not unlike evolution in living creatures, and the findings of the MSU computer scientists have attracted interest from biologists. "Laura's work suggests that the evolution of an ability to solve simple navigational problems depends on first evolving a simple short-term memory - and this in digital organisms that still don't exhibit something you would call learning," says Fred Dyer, an MSU zoologist who advised Grabowski. Dyer says this sort of insight would be all but impossible to obtain by studying biological systems.

But studies on complex behaviours in digital organisms don't just shed light on the evolution of organic life. They could be used to generate intelligent artificial life.

"In the past, the approach has been to start with high-level intelligence and reproduce that in a computer," says Grabowski. "This is the opposite. We're showing how complex traits like memory can be built from the bottom up, from things that are really very simple." To demonstrate this, Grabowski has evolved Avidians that move towards a light source. Her colleagues then translated the evolved "genome" into code that could control a Roomba robot. It worked: the Roomba was attracted to glowing light bulbs.

Starting simple is also what Jeff Clune, another member of the MSU dynasty, is interested in. In particular, he is focused on producing artificial brains that move robots. Clune works with a system called HyperNEAT, which uses principles of developmental biology to grow a large number of digital neurons from a small number of instructions.

In nature, the location of a cell in an embryo often determines its function - whether it will become a heart cell or a neuron for instance. Similarly, in HyperNEAT, the location of each artificial neuron - given by coordinates - is plugged into a matrix of equations and the result defines what the cell's role will be.

This, says Clune, means that you can build complex brains from a relatively small number of computerised instructions, or "genes". In contrast, traditional neural networks have worked on a one-to-one principle: each cell in the network is encoded by a single instruction which is not re-used.

It also means you can evolve brains that share structural properties with real brains. For instance, Clune has found that unlike old-school neural networks, brains evolved with HyperNEAT tend to be symmetrical and ordered - like real brains. His analysis of the networks shows this comes from having evolved symmetry and pattern-generating instructions right at the start of the series of instructions.

To test whether such brains actually perform better, Clune drops them into a virtual robot, which then has to perform a task like running across a flat surface. If the robot performs well, he selects that brain and evolves it further. As with Avidians, evolution involves copying the brain's "genes", and introducing random errors in the process to produce brains with slightly modified connections or instructions.

Clune's results, presented at the Genetic and Evolutionary Computation Conference in Portland, Oregon, last month, show that symmetrical, organised artificial brains tend to perform better at tasks like running than do non-HyperNEAT brains.

"Brains that have been evolved with HyperNEAT have millions of connections, yet still perform a task well, and that number could be pushed higher yet," he says. "This is a sea change for the field. Being able to evolve functional brains at this scale allows us to begin pushing the capabilities of artificial neural networks up, and opens up a path to evolving artificial brains that rival their natural counterparts."

"That is a lofty long-term goal, of course," he adds, "but this technology allows us to start marching towards it."

A history of life in silicon

Before Avida and before its predecessor Tierra there was Core Wars. Popular in the 1980s, the game pitted computer programmers against each other. The principle was simple: players would write computer programs that shut each other down and the last one standing would win.

In the late 1980s, ecologist Thomas Ray, who is now at the University of Oklahoma in Norman, got wind of Core Wars and saw its potential for studying evolution. He built Tierra, a computerised world populated by self-replicating programs that could make errors as they reproduced.

When the cloned programs filled the memory space available to them, they began overwriting existing copies. Then things changed. The original program was 80 lines long, but after some time Ray saw a 79-line program appear, then a 78-line one. Gradually, to fit more copies in, the programs trimmed their own code, one line at a time. Then one emerged that was 45 lines long. It had eliminated its copy instruction, and replaced it with a shorter piece of code that allowed it to hijack the copying code of a longer program. Digital evolvers had arrived, and a virus was born.

Avida is Tierra's rightful successor. Its environment can be made far more complex, it allows for more flexibility and more analysis, and - crucially - its organisms can't use each other's code. That makes them more life-like than the inhabitants of Tierra.

Faith and Foolishness: When Religious Beliefs Become Dangerous


From the August 2010 Scientific American Magazine

Religious leaders should be held accountable when their irrational ideas turn harmful

By Lawrence M. Krauss

Every two years the National Science Foundation produces a report, Science and Engineering Indicators, designed to probe the public's understanding of science concepts. And every two years we relearn the sad fact that U.S. adults are less willing to accept evolution and the big bang as factual than adults in other industrial countries.

Except for this time. Was there suddenly a quantum leap in U.S. science literacy? Sadly, no. Rather the National Science Board, which oversees the foundation, chose to leave the section that discussed these issues out of the 2010 edition, claiming the questions were "flawed indicators of scientific knowledge because responses conflated knowledge and beliefs." In short, if their religious beliefs require respondents to discard scientific facts, the board doesn't think it appropriate to expose that truth.

The section does exist, however, and Science magazine obtained it. When presented with the statement "human beings, as we know them today, developed from earlier species of animals," just 45 percent of respondents indicated "true." Compare this figure with the affirmative percentages in Japan (78), Europe (70), China (69) and South Korea (64). Only 33 percent of Americans agreed that "the universe began with a big explosion."

Consider the results of a 2009 Pew Survey: 31 percent of U.S. adults believe "humans and other living things have existed in their present form since the beginning of time." (So much for dogs, horses or H1N1 flu.) The survey's most enlightening aspect was its categorization of responses by levels of religious activity, which suggests that the most devout are on average least willing to accept the evidence of reality. White evangelical Protestants have the highest denial rate (55 percent), closely followed by the group across all religions who attend services on average at least once a week (49 percent).

I don't know which is more dangerous, that religious beliefs force some people to choose between knowledge and myth or that pointing out how religion can purvey ignorance is taboo. To do so risks being branded as intolerant of religion. The kindly Dalai Lama, in a recent New York Times editorial, juxtaposed the statement that "radical atheists issue blanket condemnations of those who hold religious beliefs" with his censure of the extremist intolerance, murderous actions and religious hatred in the Middle East. Aside from the distinction between questioning beliefs and beheading or bombing people, the "radical atheists" in question rarely condemn individuals but rather actions and ideas that deserve to be challenged.

Surprisingly, the strongest reticence to speak out often comes from those who should be most worried about silence. Last May I attended a conference on science and public policy at which a representative of the Vatican's Pontifical Academy of Sciences gave a keynote address. When I questioned how he reconciled his own reasonable views about science with the sometimes absurd and unjust activities of the Church—from false claims about condoms and AIDS in Africa to pedophilia among the clergy—I was denounced by one speaker after another for my intolerance.

Religious leaders need to be held accountable for their ideas. In my state of Arizona, Sister Margaret McBride, a senior administrator at St. Joseph's Hospital in Phoenix, recently authorized a legal abortion to save the life of a 27-year-old mother of four who was 11 weeks pregnant and suffering from severe complications of pulmonary hypertension; she made that decision after consultation with the mother's family, her doctors and the local ethics committee. Yet the bishop of Phoenix, Thomas Olm­sted, immediately excommunicated Sister Margaret, saying, "The mother's life cannot be preferred over the child's." Ordinarily, a man who would callously let a woman die and orphan her children would be called a monster; this should not change just because he is a cleric.

In the race for Alabama governor, an advertisement bankrolled by the state teachers' union attacked candidate Bradley Byrne because he supposedly supported teaching evolution. Byrne, worried about his political future, felt it necessary to deny the charge.

Keeping religion immune from criticism is both unwarranted and dangerous. Unless we are willing to expose religious irrationality whenever it arises, we will encourage irrational public policy and promote ignorance over education for our children.

Belief can be dangerous


Category: Crime • Kooks
Posted on: August 4, 2010 8:40 AM, by PZ Myers

Gullibility really does destroy lives. A Vietnamese couple in Australia, the Trans, were missing a purse, so they made mistake #1: they went to a fortune teller to find out where it was. Really, magic doesn't work.

Mistake #2: the fortune teller told them that a young woman, Leilani dos Santos, who was living with them had stolen it. The fortune teller had no way of knowing, but made this potentially destructive accusation anyway.

Mistake #3: The Trans believed the fortune teller.

Mistake #4, and this is the really big one: The Trans believed that torture was an appropriate method of getting the purse back.

Ms Tran also allegedly told Ms dos Santos they would cut off her fingers, but they loved her and would inject her with heroin, so she would not feel it.

Ms dos Santos said Mr Tran beat her in the back with a meat cleaver, threatened her with a samurai sword and burnt her arm with a cigarette.

Ms dos Santos said the couple had a Lady Gaga CD playing loudly. "I was screaming," she said. "I was hoping maybe somebody would break down the door and help me."

Ms dos Santos eventually escaped, and the Trans are currently on trial. Let's hope the court doesn't make mistake #5 and let those insane people go — the Trans are clearly infected with a delusional belief system that they use to justify horrific acts against others.

I mean, really…Lady Gaga?

What Happens When You Die? Evidence Suggests Time Simply Reboots

Robert Lanza, M.D..Scientist, Theoretician
Posted: June 10, 2010 07:00 AM

What happens when we die? Do we rot into the ground, or do we go to heaven (or hell, if we've been bad)? Experiments suggest the answer is simpler than anyone thought. Without the glue of consciousness, time essentially reboots.

The mystery of life and death can't be examined by visiting the Galapagos or looking through a microscope. It lies deeper. It involves our very selves. We awake in the present. There are stairs below us that we appear to have climbed; there are stairs above us that go upward into the unknown future. But the mind stands at the door by which we entered and gives us the memories by which we go about our day. Everything is ordered and predictable. We're like cuckoo birds who appear through a door each morning. We fancy there's a clockwork set in motion at the beginning of time.

But if you remove everything from space, what's left? Nothing. The same applies for time -- you can't put it in a jar. You can't see through the bone surrounding your brain (everything you experience is information in your mind). Biocentrism tells us space and time aren't objects -- they're the mind's tools for putting everything together.

I was a young boy when I realized there was something unexplainable about life that I simply didn't understand. I learned this from one of the last smiths in New England, when I, as a child, tried to capture a woodchuck on his property.

Over his shop a chimney cap went round and round, squeak, squeak, rattle, rattle. One day the blacksmith came out with his shotgun and blew it off. The noise stopped. Mr. O'Donnell pounded metal on his anvil all day. No, I thought, I didn't want to be caught by him. Yet, I had my purpose.

The woodchuck's hole was in such close proximity to Mr. O'Donnell's shop that I could hear the bellows fanning his forge. I crawled noiselessly through the long grass, occasionally stirring a grasshopper or a butterfly. After setting a new steel trap that I had just purchased at the hardware store, I took a stake and, rock in hand, pounded it into the ground. When I looked up, I saw Mr. O'Donnell standing there, his eyes glaring. I said nothing, trying to restrain myself from crying. "Give me that trap, child," he said, "and come with me."

I followed him into his shop, which was crammed with all manner of tools and chimes of different shapes and sounds hanging from the ceiling. Starting the forge, Mr. O'Donnell tossed the trap over the coals and a tiny flame appeared underneath, getting hotter until, with a puff it burst into flame. "This thing can injure dogs, and even children!" he said, poking the coals with a fork. When the trap was red hot, he took it from the forge, and pounded it into a little square with his hammer. He said nothing while the metal cooled. At length, he patted me upon the shoulder, and then took up a few sketches of a dragonfly. "I tell you what," he said. "I'll give you 50 cents for every dragonfly you catch." I said that would be fun, and when I parted I was so excited I forgot about my new trap.

The next day I set off with a butterfly net. The air was full of insects, the flowers with bees and butterflies. But I didn't see any dragonflies. As I floated through the last of the meadows, the spikes of a cattail attracted my attention. A huge dragonfly was humming round and round, and when at last I caught it, I hopped and skipped all the way back to Mr. O'Donnell's shop. Taking a magnifying glass, he held the jar up to the light and made a careful study of the dragonfly. He fished out a number of rods, and with a little pounding, wrought a splendorous figurine that was the perfect image of the dragonfly. It had about it a beauty as airy as the delicate insect.

As long as I live I will remember that day. And though Mr. O'Donnell is gone now, there still remains in his shop that little iron dragonfly -- covered with dust now -- to remind me there's something more elusive to life than the succession of shapes we see frozen into matter.

Before he died, Einstein said "Now Besso [an old friend] has departed from this strange world a little ahead of me. That means nothing. People like us ... know that the distinction between past, present and future is only a stubbornly persistent illusion." In fact, it was Einstein's theory of relativity that showed that space and time are indeed relative to the observer. Quantum theory ended the classical view that particles exist if we don't perceive them. But if the world is observer-created, we shouldn't be surprised that it's destroyed with each of us. Nor should we be surprised that space and time vanish, and with them all Newtonian conceptions of order and prediction.

It's here at last, where we approach the imagined border of ourselves, the wooded boundary where in the old fairy tale the fox and the hare say goodnight to each other. At death, we all know, consciousness is gone, and so too the continuity in the connection of times and places. Where then, do we find ourselves? On stairs that, like Emerson said, can be intercalated anywhere, "like those that Hermes won with the dice of the moon, that Osiris might be born." We think that the past is past and the future the future. But as Einstein realized, this simply isn't the case.

Without consciousness, space and time are nothing; in reality you can take any time -- whether past or future -- as your new frame of reference. Death is a reboot that leads to all potentialities. That's the reality that the experiments mandate. And when I see Mr. O'Donnell's old shop, I know that somewhere the chimney cap is still going round and round, squeak, squeak. But it probably won't rattle for long.

"Biocentrism" (BenBella Books) lays out Lanza's theory of everything.

Grandpa Simpson gets a writing gig


Category: Kooks • Weirdness
Posted on: June 14, 2010 6:53 AM, by PZ Myers

Grandpa Simpson is that old character in the animated show who tells odd, rambling stories. "We can't bust heads like we used to, but we have our ways. One trick is to tell 'em stories that don't go anywhere - like the time I caught the ferry over to Shelbyville. I needed a new heel for my shoe, so, I decided to go to Morganville, which is what they called Shelbyville in those days. So I tied an onion to my belt, which was the style at the time. Now, to take the ferry cost a nickel, and in those days, nickels had pictures of bumblebees on 'em. 'Give me five bees for a quarter,' you'd say." That sort of thing.

Grandpa has been hired by the Huffington post, and is writing stuff under the pen name of Robert Lanza. For instance, he's got a fascinatingly weird tale up titled "What Happens When You Die? Evidence Suggests Time Simply Reboots". Now if you or I were writing something with that title, we'd probably write something about what happens after we die, or about time, or maybe we'd get really ambitious and write about some evidence linking the two. Not Grandpa Lanza! No, we learn that when he was a boy, his hobby was killing small mammals by torture, until one day a blacksmith destroyed his trap and gave him a new mission in life. "I'll give you 50 cents for every dragonfly you catch," the old man said, and when the excited Little Lanza had caught one, the blacksmith made a model dragonfly out of iron rods. Oh, and he fixed a squeaky chimney cap by blowing it away with a shotgun. But it's not dead! He's sure it's squeaking somewhere.

Someone needs to explain to Grandpa Lanza that the plural of anecdote is not data. And neither is the plural of senile rambling.

CellCraft, a subversive little game


Category: Creationism • Entertainment
Posted on: July 15, 2010 12:02 PM, by PZ Myers

A lot of people have been writing to me about this free webgame, CellCraft. In it, you control a cell and build up all these complex organelles in order to gather resources and fight off viruses; it's cute, it does throw in a lot of useful jargon, but the few minutes I spent trying it were also a bit odd — there was something off about it all.

Where do you get these organelles? A species of intelligent platypus just poofs them into existence for you when you need them. What is the goal? The cells have a lot of room in their genomes, so the platypuses are going to put platypus DNA in there, so they can launch them off to planet E4R1H to colonize it with more platypuses. Uh-oh. These are Intelligent Design creationist superstitions: that organelles didn't evolve, but were created for a purpose; that ancient cells were 'front-loaded' with the information to produced more complex species; and that there must be a purpose to all that excess DNA other than that it is junk.

Suspicions confirmed. Look in the credits.

Also thanks to Dr. Jed Macosko at Wake Forest University and Dr. David Dewitt at Liberty University for providing lots of support and biological guidance.

Those two are notorious creationists and advocates for intelligent design creationism. Yep. It's a creationist game. It was intelligently designed, and it's not bad as a game, but as a tool for teaching anyone about biology, it sucks. It is not an educational game, it is a miseducational game. I hope no one is planning on using it in their classroom. (Dang. Too late. I see in their forums that some teachers are enthusiastic about it — they shouldn't be).

Flashy graphic illustration of the creationism problem


Category: Creationism
Posted on: July 17, 2010 7:44 AM, by PZ Myers

There have been some recent surveys of attitudes towards evolution and the state of science education in the US, and I've mainly used tables in presentations — so it's nice to see some eye-catching graphical representations of the data. Use these!

One thing surprised me — usually, this datum is presented in a positive light, but it's always bugged me. 28% of science teachers accept that evolution occurred, and god had nothing to do with it; 47% of science teachers accept evolution, but believe that god guided it. That 47% is typically presented as no problem, these are the teachers on our side. Not in this graph!

(Click for larger image)

Those are teachers who believe in Intelligent Design.

Yes, they are. And complaining that they aren't those Discovery Institute frauds because they believe it is their god that does the designing doesn't get them off the hook, it just makes them plain old creationists.

The only difference is that usually the teachers in that 47% aren't actively trying to undermine the science they present in the classroom, so the situation isn't quite as dire as the chart implies — but they're still afflicted with a superstition that is grossly unscientific and an obstacle to embracing the concepts of science. And it's probably a factor in the graph on the page just above this image, which shows how little time is spent on classroom teaching of evolution: in all of high school, half of the students get less than an hour or two of exposure to the ideas of human evolution.

I can testify to that. Most of my freshman students are remarkably naive about evolution, and from personal experience…I'm one of the percentage of students that had absolutely no instruction in evolution in high school. It wasn't even mentioned, and I was one of those kids who was largely self-taught in grade-school biology, and was looking for it.

A Mr. Fix-It aims to repair bodies using naturopathy


Posted on Mon, Jul. 19, 2010

Randy Aiken believes his hands are "gifts." He can turn a wrench with authority. His practical skills are broad.

In winter, he delivers fuel oil. He also installs and repairs heating and air-conditioning systems. He is a plumber and electrician. He removes asbestos and inspects buildings for structural soundness.

He is a chatty, affable man who is known by his trademark cowboy boots. He is 65 years old, but looks younger. His body is solid and muscular, and he exudes health and vigor. He hasn't been sick in 33 years, he claims. He expects to live to age 100.

For many customers, he is a doctor, in the original sense of the word - a teacher. He fixes more than furnaces; he also tries to repair bodies.

"When I visit people's houses, and see a kitchen table full of pills, it bothers me," Aiken says.

He carries a loose-leaf binder in his service truck filled with articles from various sources about different ailments - heartburn, hair loss, high blood pressure, stiff joints - and their supposed remedies. He hands them out freely.

"He fixes my heater or my leaky faucet and then he gives me health advice," says Alison Shoemaker of Wyndmoor.

In May, Aiken received a doctorate in naturopathy from Clayton College of Natural Health in Birmingham, Ala., after four years of online study. His interest was stirred when he was a teenager at Willow Grove High School. To repel bullies, he began lifting weights and exploring nutritional supplements to add bulk.

Proponents of naturopathy believe proper nutrition can secure and prolong health. For Aiken, the holy trinity of naturopathy is exercise; raw fruits and vegetables; and a daily multivitamin and mineral supplement.

Many in mainstream medicine look askance at naturopathy, dismissing it as folk medicine and quackery, unsupported by hard science and reliable studies.

"Natural healing has been around for thousands of years," Aiken says. "Before aspirin, people chewed on willow bark to reduce fever, pain, and inflammation."

Aiken finds it ironic that more progressive elements of the medical establishment have embraced naturopathic precepts under the label "alternative medicine." There are many paths to well-being; naturopathy is the path that works for him, Aiken says.

"I'm carrying on Grandma's tradition," Aiken says. "When she told you to drink a shot of vinegar, to take a spoonful of cod liver oil, and to eat fresh fruits and vegetables, she was right."

Aiken, a divorced father of five who lives in Plymouth Meeting, practices what he preaches by lifting weights five days a week at the Abington Y. In between sets, he runs in place.

For breakfast, he typically eats cereal with a banana ("the potassium keeps me from cramping up"), sausage ("the body needs fat and the protein keeps my blood sugar from dropping"), and a small glass of hot pepper juice topped off with apple cider vinegar.

For lunch, he eats salad greens, raw vegetables (tomatoes, carrots, radishes, onions), and fruit (grapes, apples, oranges, bananas, plums, pineapple).

Supper may consist of salmon, spare ribs, beans, and more raw vegetables. Every day, he drinks at least two cups of herbal tea and eats half a lemon and four celery stalks. He also takes a multivitamin, fish oil capsules, and a tablespoon of liquefied minerals.

He shuns white sugar, flour, and rice, and processed foods. Instead of table salt, he uses sea salt.

His bete noire is anything pharmaceutical. "Everyone wants a magic pill," he laments, "so they can continue to do what they want uninterrupted."

If there is a "magic pill," it is this: moderation and balance. Too much stress can also derange the body's chemistry, he says. Exercise is one way he relieves stress. His 34-foot motorboat is another. Recently, he learned to fly and earned a pilot's license.

"The key is to have a clear mind," Aiken says, "and to be content in your own skin."

Read more: http://www.philly.com/inquirer/health_science/weekly/20100719_A_Mr__Fix-It_aims_to_repair_bodies_using_naturopathy.html#ixzz0vjP9YEU6

Pharmacy Customers Perception of Complementary and Alternative Medicine in Pharmacies


Darcy Cowan Aug 05

This post is syndicated from Scepticon » Sciblogs – Original Post

Going through the papers cluttering my inbox I found this survey of Australian pharmacy customers relating to their use of CAM and their impressions of how pharmacists should approach the subject.

Regular readers of Sciblogs may remember a kerfuffle earlier in the year regarding the sale of homeopathic remedies in pharmacies, I and others were uncomfortable with these items being sold in pharmacies to begin with. Fortunately, when surveyed homeopathy didn't make it into the top ten modalities used in the last 12 months, though 3% noted that they had seen a homeopath.

This survey was published in BioMed Central's journal of Complementary and Alternative Medicine. I might point out that I disagree with the authors views of Complementary Medicine (CM) but I agree with many of the conclusions of the survey, though I suspect for different reasons.

The survey included data from 1,221 respondents from 54 pharmacies that cover both rural and urban areas. Beyond that the methods aren't particularly interesting, people filled out forms.

Findings of the survey showed that a significant number of pharmacy customers think that it is important for pharmacists to be knowledgeable about CM and to know about their customer's CM use. I would agree with this, pharmacists should be aware of how CM is marketed and of the claims made on order to give customers appropriate advice on effectiveness. Another result of the survey that helps with this point is that almost 70% of respondents agreed that they trust their pharmacist's advice regarding CM. This reveals an excellent opportunity for education of the public regarding these modalities.

In addition many of the respondent felt comfortable telling pharmacist about their CM use whereas previous research has shown this not to be the case for patients of other medical practitioners. Again this is an opportunity for pharmacists to assess the safety of CM modalities their patients are using, especial in conjunction with other treatments (this was also a conclusion of the survey).

That said, the survey also revealed that many customers rely on family and friends as information sources. This accords with with existing research on the importance of personal anecdote in making decisions. Next most popular were medical doctors (not bad) and in third place (disturbingly) was the media. Pharmacists were in 6th place after naturopaths and pharmacy assistants. While far down on the list pharmacists still rank and one of the important sources of information and should not be under estimated.

One of the questions that I disagree with the majority of respondents on is regarding the inclusion of natural medicine practitioners in pharmacy practices. To me this is inviting abuse of the pharmacist's position of authority, it might even undermine some customers trust of the institution (I'd certainly think twice about any pharmacy that did this). At the very least it may allow pharmacists to divest themselves of the responsibility to actually learn about the alternative products they may be selling.

In conclusion, I consider the results of this survey important to keep in mind when considering the role of pharmacists in the field of CM. Pharmacists are in a somewhat unique position to educate the public regarding CM as a consequence of the level of trust afforded to them by customers. It also reveals that pharmacies are vulnerable to particular abuse for exactly the same reason, products sold in pharmacies are lent an aura of respectability by association.

It behoves pharmacists to take seriously the responsibility to be current on the debate around the safety and efficacy of CM modalities and be able to confidently relay this information to customers. No longer should pharmacists sit on the sidelines while irrationality invades their practice, hiding behind public demand as an excuse for not taking a stand for science based therapies.

'Trinidad and Tobago can develop ayurvedic medicine'


2010-08-05 06:00:00

Port-of-Spain, Aug 5 (IANS) Latin America and the Caribbean have the highest rates of non-communicable and lifestyle diseases in the world, and a place like Trinidad and Tobago has the potential to develop ayurvedic treatment for these diseases, leading experts have said.

The high level of occurance of lifestyle diseases has put a burden on the economy of small and developing states, Dyer Narinesingh, acting principal of the University of the West Indies said Wednesday.

He was speaking at an international seminar and exhibition at the Medical Campus of the University of the West Indies, St. Augustine.

The seminar was organised by the Indian High Commission and the Mahatma Gandhi Institute for Cultural Co-operation in collaboration with the University of the West Indies. It was supported by the department of Ayush, Government of India.

Minister of Science, Technology and Tertiary Education, Fazal Karim said that alternative medicine is, however, no stranger to Trinidad and Tobago.

'The possibility of finding a balance between the two types of medicines - alternative and conventional - can be achieved, but it is not expected that you will embrace all the principals or concepts of alternative medicine but you should try to understand it,' he said.

Indian High Commissioner to Trinidad and Tobago, Malay Mishra said ayurveda is part of the Vedic system of 'looking at life in a holistic manner'.

'Ayurveda looks after the body, soul and emotions to create a well-balanced and well-rounded individual.'

There were around 7,000 practitioners of ayurveda and over 3,000 hospitals which employ ayurvedic technologies in India.

Trinidad and Tobago has a population of 1.3 million people with 44 percent being people of Indian origin, whose forefathers came from Uttar Pradesh and Bihar between 1845 and 1917.

Wednesday, August 04, 2010

Multiple sclerosis theory dealt a blow by studies


A recent theory holds that MS is caused by obstruction in the blood vessels. New research calls that idea into question.

August 02, 2010|By Shari Roan, Los Angeles Times

A novel theory about the cause of multiple sclerosis — one that quickly led to millions of dollars in research pledges and an increasingly popular, though unproved, treatment — took a hit Monday from two studies calling the premise into question.

The theory, proposed last year, had gained traction in a field desperate for research advances. It suggests that multiple sclerosis can be traced to obstruction in the veins carrying blood from the brain back to the heart — leading to nervous system damage and causing the hallmark symptoms of muscle weakness, decreased coordination and vision problems.

Despite the fact that multiple sclerosis has long been acknowledged as an immune system disorder, patients immediately leaped for MS endovascular surgery to open blocked or narrowed veins in the neck. The National MS Society has reported that one patient undergoing such treatment died.

Now research published online in the Annals of Neurology undermines the theory — called chronic cerebrospinal venous insufficiency by its creator, Italian researcher Paolo Zamboni.

In one study, conducted by German scientists, ultrasound imaging tests of the veins around the brains and nervous systems of 56 multiple sclerosis patients found that blood flow was normal in all but one person. A control group of 20 healthy patients had similar blood flow.

The second study, conducted in Sweden, used a different type of imaging test to compare blood flow in MS patients and a group of healthy people; both had similar amounts of blood vessel blockage.

"These are important, cautionary papers," said Dr. Stephen L. Hauser, chairman of the department of neurology at UC San Francisco, who was not involved in the research. "It should help us all to step back and wait for additional word before any patient with MS moves forward."

The theory picked up steam last year when Zamboni, director of the Vascular Diseases Center at the University of Ferrara in Italy, published a paper in the Journal of Vascular Surgery suggesting that the majority of 65 MS patients studied had abnormal blood drainage from the brain and spinal cord — and that angioplasty to open blocked veins improved symptoms. Zamboni theorized that poor blood flow causes blood to reverse and flow back into the brain, setting off inflammation and immune system damage.

Dr. Florian Doepp of University Hospital Charité in Berlin did not find that to be the case.

"Taking a Stand for Jesus" in the Public Schools


August 3, 201011:11AM
Post by Lauri Lebo

Eugenie Scott, executive director of the National Center for Science Education, says that creationists are proof of evolution. They keep evolving their message—from creationism to intelligent design to "academic freedom."

If I may hammer the metaphor a little further, their vestigial gaffes also appear to offer proof of their shared ancestry.

Earlier this week, the Livingston Parish School District in Louisiana decided against pursuing creationism in science class for the upcoming school year. A discussion last week about the possibility was in response to Lousiana's Science Education Act, which opens the door to teaching creationism under the guise of "academic freedom." At a meeting last month, district officials said they wanted to explore the possibility.

But according to an article Sunday in Baton Rouge's The Advocate, board members shied away amid fears of a costly lawsuit which almost certainly would arise. (Amazing how quickly these folks forget their own state history. The 1987 U.S. Supreme Court decision of Edwards v. Aguillard, which ruled that the teaching of creationism in public school science class violated the Establishment Clause, was a test case of Louisiana's Balanced Treatment Act.)

The article includes this stunningly familiar quote from a board member:

David Tate, the School Board member who brought up the matter at the board's last meeting, said he would rather not see litigation, but added that the board gets sued on other matters.

"We don't want litigation, but why not take a stand for Jesus and risk litigation," Tate said.

In 2004, Dover Area School Board member Bill Buckingham, in defending the teaching of creationism in science class, made the statement, "Two thousand years ago, someone died on the cross. Won't someone stand up for him?"

Buckingham's famous remark, about which he later lied and denied saying at a public meeting before about 100 people, became one of the key issues in the Kitzmiller v. Dover constitutional test case of intelligent design. The statement made clear his religiously-based motivation—a constitutional no no. For those who don't remember how the trial ended, refresh your memory here. (Hint: Didn't go well for the intelligent design/creationists.)

So that Tate used almost the same religious language as Buckingham provides a direct link back to the last time creationists got walloped in court, proving once again it's all about forcing their Christian beliefs on our children.

Perhaps Tate suffered from what my friend and columnist Mike Argento described as Buckingham's Homer Simpson moment, in which the board member, when finally confronted on the stand with his own words about creationism, finally admitted saying it, but then said he only said it because he was trying not to say to it. If you can follow that.

To paraphrase Argento, maybe Tate had it in his head that he wasn't supposed to talk about standing up for Jesus. "Don't say take a stand for Jesus. Don't say take a stand for Jesus.


A Classic Evolution Policy Blunder


By Bruce Chapman on 8.4.10 @ 6:08AM

Bruce Chapman is president of Discovery Institute.

Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal signed into law last year an act that sets parameters for teachers who introduce scientific supplements on Darwinian evolution, global warming, human cloning and other controversial subjects. The state's Science Education Act encourages "open and objective discussion of scientific theories being studied." It specifically prohibits religious instruction or interpretations (or irreligious interpretations, for that matter). The law is simple, reasonable and avoids constitutional and scientific mistakes that afflicted earlier laws in Louisiana and elsewhere.

But in Livingston Parish, east of Baton Rouge, some enthusiasts for a literal Biblical account of creation decided that the new law gives them authority to teach creationism -- the account from Genesis. That view clearly violates the law and also the U.S. Constitution as it long has been interpreted. Reported statements from Livingston school board member David Tate were so fallacious and confrontational that they could have been scripted by his supposed adversaries if they were looking for ways to make him look bad.

"We just sit up here and let them teach evolution," Tate orated, "and not take a stand about creationism. To me, how come we don't look into this as people who are strong Christians and see what we can do to teach creationism in schools. We sit back and let the government tell us what to do. We don't pray to the ACLU and all them people: we pray to God."

Tate's fulminations are not characteristic of the educators and legislators who passed the new Louisiana law, but you can be sure that the Darwinist opponents of the law will try to make them sound representative. The same thing happened in Dover, Pennsylvania, in 2005 when school board members decided to grab onto the phrase (not the reality) of "intelligent design" to promote religious doctrine. The board members, as in Livingston, Louisiana, were as ignorant of the limits of the scientific case against strict Darwinism as they were of the content of intelligent design theory. The scientists and political scientists at Discovery Institute -- colleagues of mine -- who actually know something about intelligent design, tried to dissuade them, but to no avail. The Dover board members did not believe that a court could stop them. But a central Pennsylvania federal judge, John E. Jones, did stop them.

Where public school districts have been willing to stick to scientific evidence for and against Darwinian theory, and ignore religious implications in the classroom, Darwinian opponents have not sued, let alone sued successfully.

Darwin's theory of evolution, as its main advocates assert it, presumes that there can be no scientific evidence against a totally unguided and unintelligent course to evolution. Evidence to the contrary is ruled out ahead of time. This causes Darwinists to label practically anyone a "creationist" who refuses to take the standard line. That of course includes young Earth creationists who think the world is only a few thousand years old, but also scholars who make a more limited critique that Darwin's theory cannot account for evidence of purpose and design in nature and the origins of the universe. Even "theistic evolutionists" -- who claim to adopt Darwin's theory, but still see a prior purpose of some kind guiding evolution -- are subject to Darwinian censure if they make that claim too boldly in a classroom.

To clear the air of Darwinist cant and enter a debate on the actual evidence, no religious assertions are necessary or desirable. Obviously, there may be religious implications to repudiation of Darwinism, just as there may be irreligious implications to the theory itself. Plainly, emotions on all sides are stirred up by those implications. But science is not supposed to be about religious implications, but about the evidence; and scientific evidence, though illuminating, can only take one so far.

Science class -- in public schools, at least--should leave religious implications at the school door. Even if one doesn't agree with that policy, the federal courts are clear on the matter.

Someone should explain the facts of life to the Livingston Parish school board.

Exposing quackery in medical education


Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Academic medical woo (maybe we should start calling it quackademic medicine) has, in recent weeks, received increased coverage in the blogosphere and beyond. I'm encouraged by this groundswell of interest. Medical education needs a good Flexnerian housecleaning. What better tribute could be paid to Abraham Flexner a century after his seminal report? If Flexner could see what's happening in academic medicine today he would be appalled. He was not in sympathy with integrative medicine. Wikipedia has this to say about the impact of the Flexner Report:

Medical schools that offered training in various disciplines including eclectic medicine, physiomedicalism, naturopathy and homeopathy, were told either to drop these courses from their curriculum or lose their accreditation and underwriting support. A few schools resisted for a time, but eventually all complied with the Report or shut their doors.

(If you're interested in primary sources read Chapter 10 of the original report where you'll find some pretty harsh language concerning integrative medicine).

Soon after the Flexner Report and for decades thereafter medical education and practice gradually became more scientific, long before Guyatt and colleagues coined the term evidence based medicine. (I reviewed some of the history of twentieth century medicine's scientific progress in a recent post here). Ironically, in fact, it was about the time the evidence based medicine movement was birthed in 1992 that pseudoscience under the rubric of complementary and alternative medicine was getting its foot in the door of medical schools. Since then medical education has turned its back on Flexner's warnings and devolved from its scientific underpinnings.

If there's any chance to expunge quackery promotion from academic medicine it has to start with exposure. Recent blog and media reactions have been modestly encouraging. Here's a roundup of the past few weeks along with some observations.

Kevin, in typical pithy style, nailed it by pointing out that the infiltration of woo is weakening the credibility of academic medicine and damaging the evidence based medicine movement. His post was titled A step backward for academic medicine. Indeed academic medicine is moving backward, but I would characterize it as more of a slide down a slippery slope, a slide that's picking up speed.

Dr. Wallace Sampson's rich posts from the last two weeks on the new Science Based Medicine blog examine the origins and consequences of the infiltration of pseudoscience (which he, like Flexner, terms sectarianism). He cites several examples including a recent melding of pseudoscience and mainstream medicine at Harvard University and its astonishingly uncritical coverage in, of all places, Science Magazine.

Sampson documents a broad and uncritical societal acceptance of CAM at a time when a self-doubting and overly self-critical medical establishment was vulnerable, succinctly pointing out that "the press wowed and academics cowed…"

In a post yesterday Orac noted increased media attention to CAM which, unfortunately, ranges from promotional to only partially critical. The latter article, though, from U.S. News and World Report (USNWR), made this perceptive observation: "The setting for the unorthodox therapy—an academic medical center—would have been startling just five or 10 years ago." Yes, there was a time, a decade or two ago, when the promoters of quackery would have been laughed off the podium of most medical school classrooms.

The USNWR quoted Andrew Weil as advocating an inconsistent evidentiary standard for medical claims, a "sliding scale" of evidence in which treatments with lower risk would require an easier standard of proof. Orac notes the logical extension of that argument by pointing out that true homeopathic remedies, consisting of only water, would require no proof at all. (Maybe the burden of proof would decrease in proportion to the number of dilutions of the remedy!). On its face that argument might have some appeal. After all, if it's harmless why question it? Aside form the obvious theoretical objection (that all scientific claims should require rigorous scientific proof) there are practical consequences to that argument which become apparent on closer examination.

The article also provided examples of academic woo that even Orac wasn't aware of. No doubt he'll be updating his Academic Woo Aggregator soon.

Finally, let me mention (again) the latest Medscape Roundtable in which colleagues and I debated the issue of CAM teaching in medical school. This was a unique opportunity to take the issue (apologies to Dr. Anonymous) "beyond the blog" to the vast audience of Medscape.

A recurring question was raised in many of the postings: what's driving the infusion of woo into academic medicine? One obvious factor is money. Consumer demand for woo is high and patients are willing to pay out of pocket for it. There being no scientific basis for most of these therapies, a desire to take patients' money may be reason enough for some folks on the administrative side of academic medical institutions.

But there are other, perhaps less well appreciated reasons. One is irrational anti-corporate hatred and the growing popular distrust of the pharmaceutical industry, leading many to seek "alternatives." It doesn't take extreme googling to document numerous examples.

Other reasons include political correctness and postmodernism which I discussed at some length here. Wallace Sampson and Kimball Atwood IV, in a commentary in the Medical Journal of Australia, describe the effects of postmodernism with its "multiple ways of knowing" on medicine:

In the postmodern catechism, facts and science are artefacts of social constructions, and modern medicine expresses political hegemony over other, subjugated forms of healing, such as naturopathy and homoeopathy.

Postmodern CAM also tolerates contradiction without need for resolution through reason and experiment, resulting in a medical pluralism. Various "schools" and philosophies of healing — each inconsistent with the others, such as chiropractic, homoeopathy, orthomolecular medicine, and traditional Chinese medicine — create a scientific multiculturalism. Implausible proposals and claims become tolerable and comfortable, and the CAM advocate's burden of proof is shifted to disproof by the science community, which that community accepts without major objection.

Finally, and somewhat paradoxically, the rise in unfounded CAM modalities may be an unintended consequence of the EBM movement. EBM advocates devalue scientific rationale and physiologic plausibility. (That reflects a very popular distortion, not a core principle, of EBM). Again, from the Medical Journal of Australia paper:

Evidence-based medicine (EBM), relying on results of randomised trials, should be a bulwark against the Absurd. However, the heterogeneity of clinical trial methods and designs, differing population bases, and varying endpoints often result in heterogeneity of outcomes. This has precluded systematic reviews of CAM methods from defining a line of inefficacy. EBM also does not include plausibility or consistency with basic science in its methods and reviews, leaving each to physician and patient interpretation.

In another editorial Dr. Sampson further laments the distortion of EBM leading to uncritical acceptance of implausible research claims:

The second is a paradoxical consequence of "evidence-based medicine" (EBM). EBM, in the form of RCTs and their systematic reviews (SRs), is a means for accumulating and ranking data. EBM is not a means for interpreting the significance of the data. Significance depends in part on plausibility. EBM is independent of physiology and ignores plausibility.

Plausibility depends on prior reliable observations, physical and chemical laws, pharmacological principles, and advocates' economic and legal misadventures. The

National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine spends $100 million/year on implausible research and training grants. In performing RCTs on implausible proposals, clinical research has taken a wrong turn and departed from rationality.

So where's it all going? Are medical schools really becoming Hogwarts schools of witchcraft and wizardry? Maybe so! If we're not there yet we're headed there with increasing velocity. The boosters of CAM education are organized. Many academic medical centers have formed a Consortium for Integrative Medicine. The Consortium is supported by big money and seeks to promote integrative medicine. A careful reading of the pages of their website suggests an agenda for medical education based on experiential and promotional learning rather than critical analysis.

Even more disturbing is medical student activism for non-evidence based and implausible CAM. The American Medical Student Association (AMSA), the largest (some 68,000 strong) and best organized medical student society in the U.S., suggests, through its various publications, chelation therapy for multiple ailments, TCM, therapeutic touch, qigong and fasting. These students are our future academic leaders and even now are participating in CAM curriculum development at some schools.

What can be done about it? Although the rising chorus of voices against pseudoscientific medical education is encouraging the chorus is small, and the situation, from where I sit, is not good. At this late point nothing short of all out war on quackademic medicine will be effective. It can be done. It's not unprecedented. Just look at the lobby against deceptive pharmaceutical company marketing. They have web sites. They're making documentary films. They're writing books. They have visibility. We need to be similarly organized.

Posted by R. W. Donnell at 3:34 PM

Quackademic medicine infiltrates the New England Journal of Medicine


Category: Alternative medicine • Medicine • Quackery
Posted on: August 3, 2010 8:00 AM, by Orac

One of the things that disturbs me the most about where medicine is going is the infiltration of quackery into academic medicine. So prevalent is this unfortunate phenomenon that Doctor RW even coined a truly apt term for it: Quackademic medicine. In essence, pseudoscientific and even prescientific ideas are rapidly being "integrated" with science-based medicine, or, as I tend to view it, quackery is being "integrated" with scientific medicine, to the gradual erosion of scientific standards in medicine. No quackery is too quacky, it seems. Even homeopathy and naturopathy can seemingly find their way into academic medical centers.

By far the most common form of pseudoscience to wend its way into what should be bastions of scientific medicine is acupuncture. Harvard, Stanford, Yale, M. D. Anderson, and many others, they've all fallen under the sway of the idea that somehow sticking thin little needles into points that bear no relationship to any known anatomic structure and that supposedly "unblock" the flow of some sort of "life energy" that can't be detected by any means that science has. Most recently, as I described, studies that seek to "prove that acupuncture works" have found their way into high quality, high impact journals whose editors should know better but apparently can't recognize that the evidence in the study doesn't actually show what the authors claim it shows. Even so, there are some journals that I didn't expect to see this sort of infiltration of quackademic medicine. Granted, I never expected it to show itself in one of the Nature journals, as it did in the study I just mentioned. I also never expected it to show up in that flagship of clinical journals, a journal that is one of the highest impact and most read medical journals that exists. I'm talking the New England Journal of Medicine, and, unfortunately, I'm also talking an unfortunately credulous article from Dr. Brian M. Berman, who is the founder of the Center for Integrative Medicine, University of Maryland School of Medicine and the holder of multiple NCCAM center grants, and other institutions, entitled Acupuncture for Chronic Low Back Pain.

The article appeared under the section of the NEJM known as Clinical Therapeutics. Articles published in this section begin:

...with a case vignette that includes a therapeutic recommendation. A discussion of the clinical problem and the mechanism of benefit of this form of therapy follows. Major clinical studies, the clinical use of this therapy, and potential adverse effects are reviewed. Relevant formal guidelines, if they exist, are presented. The article ends with the authors' clinical recommendations.

And this is the clinical vignette:

A 45-year-old construction worker with a 7-year history of intermittent low back pain is seen by his family physician. The pain has gradually increased over the past 4 months, despite pain medications, physical therapy, and two epidural corticosteroid injections. The pain is described as a dull ache in the lumbosacral area with episodic aching in the posterior aspect of both thighs; it worsens with prolonged standing and sitting. He is concerned about losing his job, while at the same time worried that continuing to work could cause further pain. The results of a neurologic examination and a straight-leg-raising test are normal. Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) shows evidence of moderate degenerative disk disease at the L4-L5 and L5-S1 levels and a small midline disk herniation at L5-S1 without frank nerve impingement. The patient wonders whether acupuncture would be beneficial and asks for a referral to a licensed acupuncturist.

Berman et al begins with a simple discussion of low back pain, which, as he correctly notes, is an incredibly common clinical problem. He also points out that most of the really bad causes of low back pain (tumors, infection, or inflammatory disorders) are seen relatively infrequently in common practice. The most common cause of low back pain is the dreaded "I" or "N" word: idiopathic or nonspecific, both of which basically mean that we don't know what causes it. So far, fair enough. Berman et al even produce a fairly good discussion of the pathophysiology of low back pain, including the role of the central nervous system, behavioral elements, and musculoskeletal contributions, among others. Then, unfortunately, the authors go off the deep end:

Traditional Chinese medicine espouses an ancient physiological system (not based on Western scientific empiricism) in which health is seen as the result of harmony among bodily functions and between body and nature. Internal disharmony is believed to cause blockage of the body's vital energy, known as qi, which flows along 12 primary and 8 secondary meridians (Figure 1). Blockage of qi is thought to be manifested as tenderness on palpation. The insertion of acupuncture needles at specific points along the meridians is supposed to restore the proper flow of qi.

They even include a figure of acupuncture points

It was at this point that I wondered whether I was reading the NEJM or a quackademic medical journal such as the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine. Here was an actual discussion of qi as though it might actually exist and as though meridians and qi were anything other than the result of prescientific concepts about how the body works and disease develops. One wonders if, for its next trick, the NEJM will publish Clinical Therapeutics articles touting the wonders of the humoral theory of disease and how the four humors must be balanced. Or maybe the miasma theory. That was a good one, and quite in accord with the modern day obsession with contamination and "detoxification."

My expectation to see greater woo appearing in the NEJM notwithstanding, as most CAM advocates do, Berman et al next try to justify acupuncture, starting with the belief that it works and then working backwards to cherry pick studies that they believe to support the hypothesis that acupuncture works for low back pain as anything other than a placebo effect. They begin with several inconclusive and conflicting animal studies, concluding by mentioning the study that I blogged so extensively about two months ago without noting that it didn't show what the authors thought it showed, nor did it demonstrate that adenosine mediates the effects of acupuncture. As I pointed out, what really irritated me about the adenosine study was that it was relatively interesting science but it was yoked into the service of trying to justify acupuncture with an animal model that had very little to do with acupuncture.

It gets even worse.

Next, Berman et al decide to delve into the clinical evidence for acupuncture:

A number of clinical trials have evaluated the efficacy of acupuncture for chronic low back pain. A meta-analysis in 2008, which involved a total of 6359 patients,44 showed that real acupuncture treatments were no more effective than sham acupuncture treatments. There was nevertheless evidence that both real acupuncture and sham acupuncture were more effective than no treatment and that acupuncture can be a useful supplement to other forms of conventional therapy for low back pain.

At least Berman's honest about this one in admitting that the meta-analysis showed that real acupuncture is no more effective than sham acupuncture, something that regular readers of this blog know. Then Berman tries to do what acupuncture apologists do every time they encounter studies that show that "true" acupuncture performs no better than the acupuncture control. Rather than simply admitting that acupuncture doesn't work and that acupuncture effects are placebo effects, they try to spin the results by pointing out that both sham and "real" acupuncture "work" and therefore are useful! In other words, they argue for placebo medicine without calling it placebo medicine. They then do it again for a German trial. Unfortunately for them, it's a study that I described in detail and explained why, as is the case with many acupuncture studies, the results didn't mean what the authors claimed they mean. Once again, Berman tries to represent the finding that sham acupuncture was just as effective as "real" acupuncture. In any randomized clinical trial of a conventional therapy, such a result would lead to the conclusion that the therapy doesn't work, but not in acupuncture. If both the placebo control and the treatment are indistinguishable from each other, then that means acupuncture must work.

The third study that Berman chooses is a so-called "pragmatic" trial. Basically, it's a mixed randomized trial with a non-randomized cohort. Let me quote one small passage from the trial that demonstrates why it is an utterly useless study:

In this study, neither providers nor patients were blinded to treatment. Therefore, a bias due to unblinding cannot be ruled out.

That's putting it mildly. Basically, the study is utterly worthless because it can't account for the rather large placebo effect that is common in intervention studies for back pain. In fact, it's fairly amazing that the peer reviewers at the NEJM let that pass, because the cherry picking of studies that went on in this particular review belongs at the National Cherry Festival, not in the pages of the NEJM, leading them to write:

Acupuncture is considered to be a form of alternative or complementary medicine, and as noted above, it has not been established to be superior to sham acupuncture for the relief of symptoms of low back pain.

In other words, acupuncture does not work. Even so:

However, since extensive clinical trials have suggested that acupuncture may be more effective than usual care, it is not unreasonable to consider acupuncture before or together with conventional treatments, such as physical therapy, pain medication, and exercise. Many pain specialists incorporate acupuncture into a multidisciplinary approach to the management of chronic low back pain.

In other words, even though acupuncture does not work, we should use it anyway because there are enough practitioners who believe it works and use it even though extensive clinical trials have shown that acupuncture is no better than sham acupuncture, and neither are better than placebo effects.

Even though:

As noted above, the most recent well-powered clinical trials of acupuncture for chronic low back pain showed that sham acupuncture was as effective as real acupuncture. The simplest explanation of such findings is that the specific therapeutic effects of acupuncture, if present, are small, whereas its clinically relevant benefits are mostly attributable to contextual and psychosocial factors, such as patients' beliefs and expectations, attention from the acupuncturist, and highly focused, spatially directed attention on the part of the patient.34,65 These studies also seem to indicate that needles do not need to stimulate the traditionally identified acupuncture points or actually penetrate the skin to produce the anticipated effect.

In other words, acupuncture does not work.

Let's put it this way. Berman concedes that "true acupuncture" doesn't work any better than sham acupuncture for low back pain. He concedes that it doesn't matter where you stick the needles. It makes no difference; the effect is the same. He concedes that any perceived benefit from acupuncture in low back pain is due to nonspecific factors, in particular psychosocial factors, patient's expectations, and the attention paid to the patient by the acupuncturist. What, I ask, do we call such a treatment, a treatment that is no better than placebo control and whose efficacy depends on beliefs and expectations, attention from the provider, and contextual factors.

We call it a placebo.

It turns out that using placebo medicine is just what Berman is recommending to this patient in the clinical vignette that started out this post. He recommends a trial of 12 courses of acupuncture, since the patient is interested in it. Oddly enough, his recommendation that the patient go to a licensed acupuncturist with "adequate training" doesn't even jibe with his findings in his review article. After all, if it doesn't mater where you place the needles, then it doesn't matter if the acupuncturist is trained.

As Steve Novella points out, what Berman is doing in this article in the NEJM is the same thing that CAM advocates in general and acupuncture apologists in particular have a maddening tendency to do. They either cherry pick studies that appear to indicate that their favored woo works. When, as Berman et al were, they are forced to admit that well-designed studies with lots of patients show that their woo is no better than a valid placebo control, they then shift to embracing the placebo, to owning it, so to speak, all without actually calling it placebo.

What I find so disturbing about this NEJM article is not so much that Berman et al pulled these usual CAM tricks. I expect that. I see it all the time in CAM journals and sometimes in unsuspecting legitimate medical or scientific journals. What I find so disturbing about this NEJM article is that the peer reviewers did not spot the obvious CAM abuses of language designed to obscure the fact that acupuncture is no better than placebo. The editors of the NEJM should be ashamed of themselves. The peer reviewers who reviewed this article should be ashamed of themselves. Those of us who rely on the NEJM for evidence-based findings and assessments of various treatments should be afraid.

After all, if quackademic medicine can infiltrate the NEJM, there's nowhere it can't go.

ADDENDUM: Right on schedule, a CAM advocate misrepresents this review article as being "evidence" that "acupuncture works."

Tuesday, August 03, 2010

The Problem With Science Is Scientists


by Pat Archbold Monday, August 02, 2010 11:02 PM

Paraphrasing Edward Longshanks from the movie Braveheart "The problem with science, is all the scientists."

I am amused by a piece in the New York Times Magazine by Virginia Heffernan. I am amused by Heffernan's piece not because I disagree with her, but because she seems surprised. Note to Heffernan—It has always been thus.

Heffernan writes about the meltdown over at Science Blogs. "Science Blogs", as you may well remember is the home of blogger PZ Myers who is famous for advancing science by desecrating the Eucharist. While Myers is the most read of the cynics at Science Blogs, his penchant for the unpleasant is rather standard fare.

"Science Blogs" has recently seen many of its bloggers leave in protest over the addition of a new nutrition blog called Food Frontiers. Science Blogs' sin that PepsiCo sponsors the site. It is indubitable that nobody does righteous indignation quite like the ungodly.

Heffernan, in following up on the story, discovered anew the vitriol that passes for scientific discourse at Science Blogs.

Clearly I've been out of some loop for too long, but does everyone take for granted now that science sites are where graduate students, researchers, doctors and the "skeptical community" go not to interpret data or review experiments but to chip off one-liners, promote their books and jeer at smokers, fat people and churchgoers? And can anyone who still enjoys this class-inflected bloodsport tell me why it has to happen under the banner of science?

Heffernan wonders what ever happened to pure scientific discourse that is interested in observing, hypothesizing, and proving? Perhaps one could ask these same questions of Richard Dawkins and his atheist toadies.

What's bothersome is that the site is misleading. It's not science by scientists, not even remotely; it's science blogging by science bloggers. And science blogging, apparently, is a form of redundant and effortfully incendiary rhetoric that draws bad-faith moral authority from the word "science" and from occasional invocations of "peer-reviewed" thises and thats.

Heffernan, like many, seem to believe that once science was pure but somehow has been corrupted. Not so. It has always been this way. One need look no further than the patron saint of snarky scientists, Galileo himself.

What we usually hear about ol' Galileo is that he was persecuted by the Church for his ideas and that is true to a point. I bet many people probably believe he was beheaded or something rather than being forced into early retirement at an Italian Villa. Anyway, we all know the Galileo story, right?

Well did you know that that Pope Urban VIII had been a friend and admirer of Galileo. When Galileo wanted to write a book about the controversy of the day, heliocentrism, the Pope gave him the go ahead. All he asked is that Galileo present fairly both sides of the argument. So what did the patron saint of scientists do? He put the words of the Pope into a character in his book name Simplicio, a fool. Not content to fairly promote his ideas, Galileo mocked the Pope who gave him permission for the book.

The more things change, the more they stay the same.

But… But…. Galileo was right! So he was advancing science by mocking those who disagreed. He is vindicated!

Well I am not sure if being right is vindication for poor behavior, but the truth is that scientists have conducted this vitriolic inquisition on their own kind more than anyone else. Such scathing scientific discourse may have destroyed more lives than the Inquisition. The real sin here is disagreeing with the prevailing wisdom of the scientific clique of the day.

Just one example of many is the case Alfred Wegener. Wegener was an astronomer by trade but he proposed a simple theory in the field of geology. Alfred Wegener proposed the theory then called 'continental drift' and now know as plate tectonics. Plate tectonics is well accepted now but in the early 20th century when Wegener proposed it, it flew in the face of accepted scientific wisdom.

For his insight, Wegener was mocked and criticized and ultimately ostracized by the mainstream scientific establishment. Ultimately he died virtually unknown on an expedition trying to prove his theory.

We can see the same type of behavior by global warming scientists today. You are either in the club or out. And if you are out, watch out.

So while I understand Heffernan's frustration at the level of discourse in science today, she should just resign herself to this reality. It has always been this way.

Science is great, scientists however….

The Problem With Science Is Dumb Non-Scientists


Category: Kooks
Posted on: August 3, 2010 9:30 AM, by PZ Myers

Man, that Heffernan article is turning out to be such an excellent marker for stupid. Now some Catholic wanker is citing it as supporting his claim that scientists are all nasty people, claiming that the problem with science is scientists. Being Catholic, you know exactly who he is going to complain about.

Heffernan writes about the meltdown over at Science Blogs. "Science Blogs", as you may well remember is the home of blogger PZ Myers who is famous for advancing science by desecrating the Eucharist. While Myers is the most read of the misogamists at Science Blogs, his penchant for the unpleasant is rather standard fare.

"Science Blogs" has recently seen many of its bloggers leave in protest over the addition of a new nutrition blog called Food Frontiers. Science Blogs' sin that PepsiCo sponsors the site. It is indubitable that nobody does righteous indignation quite like the ungodly.

Wow. Every sentence is wrong.

1.There is no meltdown. There was risk of one, but Seed got their act together, and we're all working away productively now.

2.Cracker abuse is so 2008. Get over it. And no, that wasn't science, nor did I claim it was: it was a protest against the inanity of reactionary Catholics.

3.Misogamist? Moi? I've been happily married for over 30 years!

4.Nobody quit over the addition of Food Frontiers.

5.It was not a sin that Pepsi sponsored the site. The problem was that it was not labeled as an advertisement, and blurred a boundary between advertisement and content. That's what got people upset, as well as a pattern of infrastructure neglect.

6.Funny about that ungodly business. I'm definitely ungodly; I'm still here. So is Greg Laden. ERV thought it was all a tempest in a teacup. Jason Rosenhouse didn't even seem to notice. The biggest ungodliest bloggers here seem to have had a range of reactions; and several of the people who decamped were theists.

Like I said, everyone who cites the Heffernan noise positively seems to be factually incompetent, including Heffernan herself.

The rest of that wanker's article is just as bad. To defend his claim that scientists are all rotten people, he cites two examples. Galileo: not as nice as you'd think! After all, the Catholic church didn't behead him, but only sentenced him to a life of confinement, and he had been very rude in mocking the Pope by putting his words into the mouth of a character called Simplicio in his dialogue.

His second case is Alfred Wegener, who he claims was persecuted by a scientific inquisition (every bit as bad as the Catholic inquisition, apparently — despite the fact that we don't use thumbscrews). Here's what scientists did to the discoverer of continental drift:

For his insight, Wegener was mocked and criticized and ultimately ostracized by the mainstream scientific establishment. Ultimately he died virtually unknown on an expedition trying to prove his theory.

Well, no. He was a well-respected meteorologist who died on an expedition to Greenland to study Arctic weather. He wasn't ostracized at all, but was a working scientist right up until his death. His theory of continental drift was criticized and rejected in his lifetime, because he had no mechanism and because his evidence was all circumstantial. That's what scientists are supposed to do — demand solid evidence. And when that evidence came in after Wegener's death, the theory was accepted.

I'm kind of impressed. That Heffernan article is smoking out a lot of nobodies who are proudly standing up to demonstrate how stupid they are.

The End of ScienceBlogs?


Rod Dreher: Macroculture
Times writer not sorry to see 'class-war' blog go

Monday, August 2, 2010
Tags: blogging, Science

Do you ever look in on ScienceBlogs? The only one of them I read regularly is Sharon Astyk's, though I do pop in randomly on some of the others from time to time. But only sometimes: in my random sampling of the blogs, I find that the juvenile sneering of PZ Myers, the most popular of the ScienceBloggers by far, sets the tone for too many of them. Anyway, because Sharon's been writing about it, I know that a big foofarah came up over the parent company's decision to sell blog space to PepsiCo to write a food and science blog. The ScienceBloggers went on strike, driving the Pepsi blog out. But the group site hasn't recovered, and it appears that it might be shipwrecked.

Turns out that the impression I had about the site's off-putting air of snottiness wasn't just me. In an unusually strong denunciation of the site, Virginia Heffernan of the New York Times says good riddance. Excerpts:

Over at Pharyngula — which often ranks in the Top 100 blogs on the Internet— PZ Myers revels in sub-"South Park" blasphemy, presenting (in one recent stunt) his sketch of the Prophet Muhammad as a cow-pig hybrid excited about "raping a 9-year-old girl."

Clearly I've been out of some loop for too long, but does everyone take for granted now that science sites are where graduate students, researchers, doctors and the "skeptical community" go not to interpret data or review experiments but to chip off one-liners, promote their books and jeer at smokers, fat people and churchgoers? And can anyone who still enjoys this class-inflected bloodsport tell me why it has to happen under the banner of science?

Hammering away at an ideology, substituting stridency for contemplation, pummeling its enemies in absentia: ScienceBlogs has become Fox News for the religion-baiting, peak-oil crowd. Though Myers and other science bloggers boast that they can be jerky in the service of anti-charlatanism, that's not what's bothersome about them. What's bothersome is that the site is misleading. It's not science by scientists, not even remotely; it's science blogging by science bloggers. And science blogging, apparently, is a form of redundant and effortfully incendiary rhetoric that draws bad-faith moral authority from the word "science" and from occasional invocations of "peer-reviewed" thises and thats.

Under cover of intellectual rigor, the science bloggers — or many of the most visible ones, anyway — prosecute agendas so charged with bigotry that it doesn't take a pun-happy French critic or a rapier-witted Cambridge atheist to call this whole ScienceBlogs enterprise what it is, or has become: class-war claptrap.

Heffernan is onto something here, and not just with ScienceBlogs. A few years ago, I was in an editorial board meeting with some pro-science academics and others, who had come in to speak to us about some issue, I forget precisely what, having to do with science education in Texas. We entered that meeting entirely on their side, but by the time it was over, we were, as I recall, still on their side on the merits of the argument, but we had a distinctly nasty taste in our mouth. The advocates were simply dripping with contempt for their opponents, and carried themselves with an aristocratic hauteur, as if they considered it beneath them to be questioned by others about this stuff. I never quite got a handle on why they acted that way, but reading Heffernan, it's more clear: I thought these people had come to argue about science and science education, but whether they realized it or not, they were class warriors. They acted the same way you would expect 19th century colonial English vicars to behave if asked to give a serious thought to the protestations of the dark and inscrutable Hindoos of the Raj.

What is it with science-oriented advocates who consider contempt a virtue? Who, exactly, do they think they are going to persuade? (You could say the same thing about sneering political bloggers, sneering religious bloggers, and, well, sneerers in all forms of public discourse, inasmuch as sneering seems to be a popular pose these days.) Most of us are tempted to sneer every now and then (I certainly am guilty of this), but some of these people adopt sneering as a basic intellectual stance to the world. It works for drag queens and comedians, who have it down to an art, but for the rest of us, it's just ugly and, ultimately, boring. In the case I mention, the self-righteousness the pro-science folks could barely contain actually undermined their authority and effectiveness before a sympathetic audience. Nobody likes jerks, except other jerks.

Could Virginia Heffernan possibly be more wrong?


Category: Media • Stupidity
Posted on: July 30, 2010 8:41 PM, by PZ Myers

That would be tough. She's written a diatribe in the NY Times on the Pepsico debacle, and it isn't just that she doesn't like many of the scienceblogs (including yours truly), but that she gets the facts wrong.

This was just bizarre.

I was nonplussed by the high dudgeon of the so-called SciBlings. The bloggers evidently write often enough for ad-free academic journals that they still fume about adjacencies, advertorial and infomercials. Most writers for "legacy" media like newspapers, magazines and TV see brush fires over business-editorial crossings as an occupational hazard. They don't quit anytime there's an ad that looks so much like an article it has to be marked "this is an advertisement."

Errm, many of the early departures in the wake of Pepsico were science journalist/bloggers — and the impression I got was that they were more concerned about the ethics of advertorials than the pure science bloggers. And the problem with the Pepsico blog was that it was an ad that looked much like an article but wasn't marked "this is an advertisement".

There is much in her rant that is clearly outrage that some of us (uh, yours truly again) have no sympathy for religious excuses, or indulge in "religion-baiting" as she calls it, but I'll pass over that — atheist-haters are dime-a-dozen, and it's not even particularly notable. But this final bit is absurd and discredits her completely: she lists some blogs she favors for her version of 'science'.

For science that's accessible but credible, steer clear of polarizing hatefests like atheist or eco-apocalypse blogs. Instead, check out scientificamerican.com, discovermagazine.com and Anthony Watts's blog, Watts Up With That?

The first two are fine, but seriously: the pretentious weatherman who jiggers the evidence and makes up stuff about climate to deny the facts? If only she would have also mentioned a creationist blog or two, it would have made my day.

Skip Heffernan's ignorant noise. David Dobbs has a more judicious reply.

Unnatural Science


The Medium
Published: July 30, 2010

Deconstructing science is a fool's game. In the '90s, literary critics used to try. They'd argue that science is a system of metaphors, complete with a style and an ideology, rather than the royal road to the truth. They were laughed at as cultural relativists, posers high on Gaul­oises and nut jobs who didn't believe in gravity.

Science writers play rough. They like hoaxes, humiliations and Oxbridge-style showdowns that let them use words like "claptrap" and "gibberish." There's a reason people don't call themselves deconstructionists and pick fights with science anymore. The old battle is won: books called "The Science of X" fly off shelves, while "The Culture of" books are remaindered.

So why have I been thinking it's time to don the old Derridean cloak and re-enter the unwinnable science-culture battle?

It started last month when 20 or so high-placed science bloggers angrily parted ways with an extremely popular and award-winning online collective called ScienceBlogs because it starting running Food Frontiers, a nutrition blog that PepsiCo paid to have on the site. (Several of the collective's contributors, including some who left in protest, have written for The Times Magazine.) In farewell posts, the bloggers charged that the advertorial was deceptive and undermined the purpose of the collective.

Seed Media Group, which oversees ScienceBlogs, eventually killed off the commercial blog, but the staff bloggers kept leaving. Some have predicted that the ScienceBlogs network won't survive the defections. "The ship is sinking," mused PZ Myers, the writer of the site's top blog, Pharyngula, which is devoted to "evolution, development and random biological ejaculations from a godless liberal."

I was nonplussed by the high dudgeon of the so-called SciBlings. The bloggers evidently write often enough for ad-free academic journals that they still fume about adjacencies, advertorial and infomercials. Most writers for "legacy" media like newspapers, magazines and TV see brush fires over business-editorial crossings as an occupational hazard. They don't quit anytime there's an ad that looks so much like an article it has to be marked "this is an advertisement."

But the bloggers' eek-a-mouse posturing wasn't the most striking part of the affair. Instead, it was the weird vindictiveness of many of the most prominent blogs. The stilted and seething tone of some of the defection posts sent me into the ScienceBlogs archives, where I expected to find original insights into science by writers who stress that they are part of, in the blogger Dave Munger's words, "the most influential science blogging network in the world." And while I found interesting stuff here and there, I also discovered that ScienceBlogs has become preoccupied with trivia, name-calling and saber rattling. Maybe that's why the ScienceBlogs ship started to sink.

Recently a blogger called GrrlScientist, on Living the Scientific Life (Scientist, Interrupted), expressed her disgust at the "flock of hugely protruding bellies and jiggling posteriors everywhere I go." Gratuitous contempt like this is typical. Mark Hoofnagle on Denialism Blog sideswiped those who question antibiotics, writing, "their particular ideology requires them to believe in the primacy of religion (Christian Science, New Age Nonsense) or in the magical properties of nature." Over at Pharyngula — which often ranks in the Top 100 blogs on the Internet— PZ Myers revels in sub-"South Park" blasphemy, presenting (in one recent stunt) his sketch of the Prophet Muhammad as a cow-pig hybrid excited about "raping a 9-year-old girl."

Clearly I've been out of some loop for too long, but does everyone take for granted now that science sites are where graduate students, researchers, doctors and the "skeptical community" go not to interpret data or review experiments but to chip off one-liners, promote their books and jeer at smokers, fat people and churchgoers? And can anyone who still enjoys this class-inflected bloodsport tell me why it has to happen under the banner of science?

Hammering away at an ideology, substituting stridency for contemplation, pummeling its enemies in absentia: ScienceBlogs has become Fox News for the religion-baiting, peak-oil crowd. Though Myers and other science bloggers boast that they can be jerky in the service of anti-charlatanism, that's not what's bothersome about them. What's bothersome is that the site is misleading. It's not science by scientists, not even remotely; it's science blogging by science bloggers. And science blogging, apparently, is a form of redundant and effortfully incendiary rhetoric that draws bad-faith moral authority from the word "science" and from occasional invocations of "peer-reviewed" thises and thats.

Under cover of intellectual rigor, the science bloggers — or many of the most visible ones, anyway — prosecute agendas so charged with bigotry that it doesn't take a pun-happy French critic or a rapier-witted Cambridge atheist to call this whole ScienceBlogs enterprise what it is, or has become: class-war claptrap.

Wherein 'jerk' is defined as anyone who vigorously opposes creationism


Category: Creationism

Posted on: August 2, 2010 12:40 PM, by PZ Myers

Virginia Heffernan did us all a favor: it's easy now to tell who the ignoramuses are by looking for favorable reactions to her ill-informed screed. And of course, if you want to find a real ignoramus, we wouldn't even need that much: we could just look to Rod Dreher, apologist and apparatchik of the Templeton Foundation. He thinks Heffernan is onto something, by which I think he means she reiterates his same clueless biases.

Heffernan is onto something here, and not just with ScienceBlogs. A few years ago, I was in an editorial board meeting with some pro-science academics and others, who had come in to speak to us about some issue, I forget precisely what, having to do with science education in Texas. We entered that meeting entirely on their side, but by the time it was over, we were, as I recall, still on their side on the merits of the argument, but we had a distinctly nasty taste in our mouth. The advocates were simply dripping with contempt for their opponents, and carried themselves with an aristocratic hauteur, as if they considered it beneath them to be questioned by others about this stuff. I never quite got a handle on why they acted that way, but reading Heffernan, it's more clear: I thought these people had come to argue about science and science education, but whether they realized it or not, they were class warriors. They acted the same way you would expect 19th century colonial English vicars to behave if asked to give a serious thought to the protestations of the dark and inscrutable Hindoos of the Raj.

What is it with science-oriented advocates who consider contempt a virtue? Who, exactly, do they think they are going to persuade? (You could say the same thing about sneering political bloggers, sneering religious bloggers, and, well, sneerers in all forms of public discourse, inasmuch as sneering seems to be a popular pose these days.) Most of us are tempted to sneer every now and then (I certainly am guilty of this), but some of these people adopt sneering as a basic intellectual stance to the world. It works for drag queens and comedians, who have it down to an art, but for the rest of us, it's just ugly and, ultimately, boring. In the case I mention, the self-righteousness the pro-science folks could barely contain actually undermined their authority and effectiveness before a sympathetic audience. Nobody likes jerks, except other jerks.

He forgets precisely what, but it had something to do with science education in Texas. Hmm. What could have pro-science educators and academics "dripping with contempt" on that subject? Has he considered the possibility that just maybe the agents provocateur of the creationist side in the culture war in Texas deserve some contempt? It's hard not to look at someone like Don McLeroy, professional science-denier and flaming creationist asshole, and not feel considerable disgust that that man was in charge of destroying the public school curriculum in the state.

But I forget: Dreher is part of an organization whose goal is to make those poisoners of the minds of children comfortable.

Does Mr Dreher think he's going to persuade a Don McLeroy, for example, to somehow stop trying to inject lies about the age of the earth or the inadequacy of evolutionary theory into textbooks? I'd like to know how. I'd especially like to see it done. I might just have to back off on my 'sneering' at the liars for Jesus if one of these namby-pamby wimps for theistic evolution managed to convince a few of these stark raving mad creationist opponents of science to change their tunes; if they were actually successful in persuading leading creationists, I'd have to admit they have a good strategy.

But of course they don't. They only work to hush the critics of creationists. I, for one, admit that I have no hope in hell of ever persuading the likes of McLeroy or Ham or Hovind or Comfort of ever recognizing good science, and I don't think anyone else can, either. So I content myself with being intellectually honest and not pretending that they're part of a community of reason, and will continue to point and laugh and encourage everyone else to treat these clowns appropriately.

Students to learn alternative treatments


Tuesday, 03 August 2010 09:28

Valuable medical knowledge can be obtained by looking into alternative treatments

The use of medicinal herbs, acupuncture and healing is being introduced into several of the country's university medical studies, reports Kristeligt Dagblad newspaper.

Aarhus University, the University of Copenhagen and the University of Southern Denmark have all begun incorporating the study of alternative medicine as part of their medical education programmes.

But according to Jørgen Olsen, head of medical studies at the University of Copenhagen, students are not taught how to use alternative treatments, but rather the complications that can arise when those treatments either cause side effects or conflict with more accepted medical practices.

Helle Johannessen, professor in humanistic health research, pointed out that around half of all Danes have tried alternative treatments.

'But doctors require scientific evidence that these treatments actually have an effect before they can be used as part of the national healthcare system,' she said. 'And that's the Achilles heel for alternative medicine.'

Monday, August 02, 2010

Heads of Charles's former charity to set up alternative medicine college


Former fellows of a complementary medicine charity set up by the Prince of Wales, which was shut down following the launch of a fraud investigation, are to launch a college supporting the use of integrated treatments in the NHS.

By Nick Collins
Published: 9:15AM BST 02 Aug 2010

The four senior officials from the now defunct Foundation for Integrated Health hope to raise support for holistic medicine through courses, films and publications.

Their move comes after the closure of the Prince's charity in April, following a probe into alleged fraud and money laundering at the foundation.

George Gray, the finance director, was later charged with theft to the sum of £253,000. None of the figures involved with the new college have been accused of wrongdoing.

Integrated medicine, which can include the use of alternative therapies such as homeopathy in conjunction with more widely accepted treatments, is said to benefit patients because it accounts for their beliefs and helps them manage their own health.

But opponents say there is little scientific evidence of any benefits and that funding the approach on the taxpayer could put the lives of patients at risk.

Documents relating to the college, filed at Companies House, were obtained by David Colquhoun, professor of pharmacology at University College London and an opponent of alternative treatments.

He told The Guardian: "It is the constant claim of alternative medicine enthusiasts that only they appreciate the caring side of medicine. That is simply not true.

"If I'm ill, I want above all to be cured. I don't want to be given magic beans and left to die."

Papers showed the college was originally registered as the College for Integrated Health but that its name was altered following the closure of Prince Charles's charity.

A slide show for the College for Integrated Health described it as "a new strategy to take forward the vision of HRH Prince Charles" and "The evolution of his Foundation for Integrated Health's work to date".

The directors behind the new college are Michael Dixon, formerly medical director of the Foundation; David Peters, chairman of the British Holistic Medical Association; George Lewith, head of a complementary medicine department at Southampton University; and Christine Glover, a holistic health consultant.

A spokesman for Clarence House said the prince knew about the college's existence but has not been involved with its launch and has no official role with it.

A spokeswoman for the College said promoting alternative medicine would only form part of its activities but that no further statements would be made before its opening later this year.