NTS LogoSkeptical News for 26 August 2010

Archive of previous NTS Skeptical News listings

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Some announcements

The Texas Freethought Convention will be in Dallas this year.

October 8-10th, 2010
Sheraton Grand Hotel at Dallas/Fort Worth Airport
4440 W. John Carpenter Frwy.
Irving, Texas 75063

Tickets and schedule at

Although it might be a bit late for people to schedule a trip, SkepTrack at Dragon*Con is coming up

September 3-6, 2010 in Atlanta.
Details at:

Video from Skeptrack might be streamed live on the internet. The stream will be announce at the SkepTrack web site if available.

Skepticon 3 will be November 19-21, 2010 in Springfield, MO.

It may have more attendees than The Amazing Meeting.
Admission is free.

Acupuncture Infiltrates the University of Maryland and NEJM


Science Business

Posted by Steven Salzberg

This is embarrassing. In a recent article in the New England Journal of Medicine, Brian Berman from the University of Maryland argues why acupuncture should be recommended for patients with lower back pain. In the very same article he and his colleagues explain that the evidence shows that there is no difference between real acupuncture and sham acupuncture. That's right: it doesn't matter where you place the needles, or even if you puncture the skin. Even toothpicks will give the same effect. Most scientists would conclude, obviously, that acupuncture doesn't work.

But not Dr. Berman. Or (to give proper credit) his co-authors, Drs. Langevin, Witt, and Dubner.

Without a hint of irony, Berman and colleagues describe how

"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. 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."

Note the careful wording: they write "is believed to cause" and "is supposed to restore." Perhaps they don't believe it themselves? Maybe they'll explain later that this pre-scientific magical thinking has no place in modern medicine, and no basis in biology, physiology, physics, or any other science.

Nope! Instead, they say

"Efforts have been made to characterize the effects of acupuncture in terms of the established principles of medical physiology on which Western medicine is based. These efforts remain inconclusive, for several reasons."

How about this reason: there's no effect, therefore nothing to explain.

Let's be clear: acupuncture is pseudoscience. It's based on magical thinking about a non-existent "life force" that has never had one whit of evidence to support it. The only benefits are placebo effects, as the sham acupuncture experiments demonstrate. The notion of "meridians" that can be somehow fixed by sticking needles into the skin is laughable. (A 2000 review article concluded that meridians and acupuncture points simply don't exist.) Berman's article attempts to give acupuncture credibility by pointing to studies that show, for example,

"Acupuncture has been shown to induce the release of endogenous opioids in brain-stem, subcortical, and limbic structures."

Without getting into the details (most of these studies are poorly done), it's no surprise that sticking needles into the skin causes a physiological effect. Duh!

Berman has gone to great lengths to try to show that acupuncture works. One of the studies he cites is his own NIH-funded study of "electroacupuncture", a treatment that involves sticking in needles and then applying an electrical current. (One wonders how the "ancient" Chinese acupuncturists managed to plug in their needles.) To demonstrate that electroacupuncture releases hormones, they had to zap rats with high doses of current, in fact. To quote from the study:

"EA [electroacupuncture] intensity was adjusted slowly over the period of approximately 2 min to the designated level of 3 mA, which is the maximum EA current intensity that a conscious animal can tolerate. Mild muscle twitching was observed."

Why do I say this is embarrassing? Well, I'm a professor at the University of Maryland. I'm not at the the School of Medicine (where Berman is), which is an independent campus in Baltimore, quite distinct from the much larger main campus in College Park, where I work. But when the headline says "University of Maryland", it reflects on all of us. And while I can't prevent Dr. Berman from promoting pseudoscience, at least I can make it clear that he's not speaking for me.

Dr. Berman is the recipient of millions of dollars in grants from NIH's National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM) (here's one). It's no surprise, then, that Berman concludes his NEJM article by calling for more research into acupuncture:

"It may also be important to try to identify the optimal candidate for acupuncture on the basis of individual beliefs, expectations, and psychological profile."

In other words, let's see if particularly gullible people might be more willing to tell us that acupuncture works. He recommends other studies too, presumably to be funded by NCCAM. Berman's work is an example of why I have repeatedly called on Congress and the President to eliminate NCCAM. NCCAM's annual budget of $129 million is an appalling waste, and after >15 years and >$2 billion in funding, it has yet to prove the efficacy of a single "alternative" treatment.

After reviewing the research and acknowledging out that sham acupuncture is just as effective as "real" acupuncture, Berman and colleagues recommend how to treat a hypothetical patient with chronic lower back pain:

"We would suggest a course of 10 to 12 treatments over a period of 8 weeks from a licensed acupuncturist or a physician trained in medical acupuncture."

This is astonishing: they just finished explaining that acupuncture doesn't work any better than sham treatment. So why go to an expensive licensed acupuncturist, since you can use toothpicks that don't puncture the skin and get the same effect? Toothpick acupuncture presumably wouldn't cost $125 per session (that's $1000 for Berman's recommended course of treatment). It doesn't carry risk of infection, as discussed earlier this year in the highly regarded journal BMJ.

UMB seems happy to support Berman (as does NEJM, I should add). It issued a press release about Berman's article in which Albert Reece, Dean of the medical school, says

"Dr. Berman and his team at the University of Maryland Center for Integrative Medicine are international leaders in the field of integrative medicine; they are among the many innovative, world-class researchers at the University of Maryland School of Medicine."

I'm afraid I'll have to disagree with the Dean on that. In my opinion, its presence at the University of Maryland undermines the efforts of scientists to understand and treat disease.

But hey, maybe I'm missing something. Perhaps I just have a blockage in my qi.

(For further reading, I highly recommend the excellent blog posts on the Berman et al. study by Mark Crislip, David Gorski, and Steven Novella, all at Science-Based Medicine.)

Alternative medicine council ousts critic


26 August 2010

By Paul Jump

'Ofquack' dismisses professor who claims 'reflexology is bollocks'. Paul Jump reports

An academic has been sacked from a committee of the Complementary and Natural Healthcare Council - dubbed "Ofquack" by opponents - after practitioners drew attention to his outspoken criticism of alternative medicine.

David Colquhoun, honorary Fellow and former chair of pharmacology at University College London, applied to join the "conduct and competence committee" of the CNHC when it was established in 2008 as a self-regulatory body for practitioners of alternative medicine.

"I presumed they wouldn't take me, and then I could write about it. But after a phone interview with executive chair Maggy Wallace, I was amazed to be offered the job," he explained in his blog last week.

He said the committee, which is charged with investigating complaints about alternative therapists, had not yet had any cases referred to it.

But the CNHC had moved to oust him after being made aware of an email circulating among alternative therapists highlighting some of his hostile remarks about alternative medicine - including the claim that "reflexology is bollocks".

The memo says that allowing him on to the committee is "like asking a racist to be objective about the circumstances of racist crime", and calls for a boycott by the CNHC.

Professor Colquhoun did not deny making the comments, but said his views did not render him incapable of dispassionately judging a misconduct case.

But he added that the CNHC's "dire" financial problems, resulting from its failure to meet targets for registering practitioners, had made his ousting "inevitable".

A statement he agreed with the committee says that "the make-up of CNHC needs to be focused and targeted to achieve the best outcomes for the organisation".

Ms Wallace admitted that some potential registrants were "finding it difficult to understand how (Professor Colquhoun) could contribute positively to the council", but she added: "There is another view that you shouldn't always ask your friends for comments if you really want to know how you are doing."


Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Behe Critic on Bacterial Flagellum: No Intelligence Required Because "Natural forces work 'like magic'"


Over at BioLogos, biologist Kathryn Applegate has offered what has to be one of the more creative alternatives to the intelligent design of the bacterial flagellum: Magic. I'm not kidding. Applegate readily concedes biochemist Michael Behe's point that the flagellum "looks and functions just like the outboard motor, a machine designed by intelligent human engineers. So conspicuous is the resemblance that it seems perfectly logical to infer a Designer for the flagellum." But, wait, she says: "The bacterial flagellum may look like an outboard motor, but there is at least one profound difference: the flagellum assembles spontaneously, without the help of any conscious agent." (emphasis added)

Acknowledging that "the self-assembly of such a complex machine almost defies the imagination," Dr. Applegate assures her readers that this is not really a problem because "Natural forces work 'like magic." Presto, chango, something appears!Now Dr. Applegate admits that in our common experience things don't just magically self-assemble without any guiding intelligence. "We've all put together toys, furniture, or appliances; even the simplest designs require conscious coordination of materials, tools, and assembly instructions (and even then there's no guarantee that we get it right!)." However, Dr. Applegate assures us that with nature things are different. "It is tempting to think the spontaneous formation of so complex a machine is 'guided,' whether by a Mind or some 'life force' but we know that the bacterial flagellum, like countless other machines in the cell, assembles and functions automatically according to known natural laws. No intelligence required." (emphasis added)

One wonders whether Dr. Applegate draws the same conclusion every time she opens a spreadsheet program and discovers that it "magically" adds and subtracts sums--no intelligence required. Or when her word processing program "magically" checks the grammar and spelling of her blog posts--no intelligence required. One further wonders whether Dr. Applegate has ever visited a modern assembly line, where robotic equipment "magically" assembles any number of amazing products--no intelligence required.

Of course, intelligence is required for each of these actions; the intelligence simply happens to be pre-programmed into the computer operations and assembly instructions. Similarly, the so-called magical assembly of the bacterial flagellum requires massive amounts of genetic information encoded in DNA, and as Stephen Meyer has persuasively argued in Signature in the Cell, that information cannot be accounted for simply as the product of a blind physical law. It requires intelligence.

In the words of C.S. Lewis's admirable Prof. Kirke, "Logic! Why don't they teach logic at these schools?"

Posted by John G. West on August 25, 2010 9:10 AM | Permalink

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

"Integrative oncology": Quackademic medicine victorious?


Category: Alternative medicine • Cancer • Medicine • Quackery
Posted on: August 23, 2010 10:30 AM, by Orac

One of the main topics that I've covered over the last four or five of laying down a swath of not-so-Respectful Insolence directed at pseudoscience is the relatively rapid, seemingly relentless infiltration of pseudoscience into what should be bastions of science-based medicine (SBM), namely medical schools and academic medical centers promoted by academics who should, but apparently don't, know better. This infiltration has been facilitated by a variety of factors, including changes in the culture of medical academia and our own culture in general, not to mention a dedicated cadre of ideologues such as the Bravewell Collaboration, whose purpose is to blur the lines between science and pseudoscience and promote the "integration" of quackery into science-based medicine. Certainly promoters of what Dr. Robert W. Donnell termed "quackademic medicine" wouldn't put it that way, but I would. ("Quackademic medicine," by the way, is a beautiful term to describe this phenomenon that I dearly wish I could claim to be the one to have coined but, alas, cannot.) Indeed, promoters of quackademic medicine scored a major victory last month, when a credulous piece of tripe about acupuncture passing as a review article managed to find its way into the New England Journal Medicine, a misstep that was promptly skewered by Mark Crislip, Steve Novella, and myself, among others.

Today, I want to riff a bit on one aspect of this phenomenon. As a cancer surgeon, I've dedicated myself to treating patients with cancer and then subspecialized even further, dedicating myself to the surgical treatment of breast cancer. Consequently, the interface of so-called "complementary and alternative medicine" (CAM) in the treatment of cancer both interests and appalls me. The reason for my horror at the application of CAM to cancer patients, as you might expect, is that cancer is a disease that is highly feared and can be highly deadly, depending upon the specific kind of cancer. Cancer patients deserve nothing less than the best science-based evidence that we have to offer, free of pseudoscience. Yet in even the most highly respected cancer centers, such as M.D. Anderson Cancer Center and Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, there are departments or divisions of what is increasingly called "integrative oncology." The claim behind "integrative oncology" is that it is "integrating the best of science-based and 'alternative' medicine," but in reality all too often it is "integrating" quackery with science-based medicine. I have yet to hear an explanation of how "integrating" pseudoscience or nonscience into science-based oncology benefits cancer patients, but, then, that's probably just the nasty old reductionist in me. Let's find out.

"Integrative oncology"

I was reminded by the level of "progress" in integrating woo into oncology last month when the July 25 issue of HemeOnc Today showed up. Right there on the front page I saw a story Integrative oncology combines conventional, CAM therapies, with a subtitle reading "This growing medical discipline incorporates methods such as yoga, acupuncture and stress management." And so it does. But I worry that that's just the beginning:

The National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine defines integrative medicine as treatment that combines conventional medicine with complementary and alternative therapies that have been reported to be safe and effective after being studied in patients.

Lorenzo Cohen, MD, PhD, of M.D. Anderson Cancer Center is conducting a phase 3 trial of the effects of yoga on women with breast cancer.

"Integrative medicine is a philosophy based on treating patients by focusing on the whole person and using both conventional and complementary therapies in a multidisciplinary care fashion," Lorenzo Cohen, MD, PhD, director and professor of the Integrative Medicine Program at The University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center, told HemOnc Today.

"It is similar to complementary medicine, but one key difference is that there is an open communication between practitioners of the different traditions," he said.

"Between the traditions"? Note the clever use of language that Kimball Atwood is so fond of pointing out. Note how Dr. Cohen equates "conventional" and "alternative" therapies (the latter of which he calls "complementary") as though they had equal validity and equal efficacy. It's just two different traditions! What's the problem with bringing them together, and integrating one into the other? It's the best of both worlds, right?

Also notice another thing. I've referred to certain aspects of CAM, sometimes called "integrative medicine" (IM) and, in this case called "integrative oncology" (IO), as a "Trojan horse" to bring woo into medical schools and academic medical centers. Most -- but not all -- academic medical centers do not use hard core quackery like homeopathy, although many appear to be using a modality just as bad, reiki, which happens to be Dr. Mehmet Oz's favorite modality. In any case, whenever you see discussions of "integrative medicine" and in particular "integrative oncology," chances are, the modalities discussed generally include yoga, various dietary modalities, exercise, and, quite frequently, acupuncture. Sometimes, they include various herbal remedies. In other words, "integrative oncology" rebrands modalities that have no reason not to be counted as part of science-based medicine as "alternative" or "integrative" and points to them as having some promise. They then lump together pseudoscience like reiki and acupuncture with the rebranded modalities, such as herbal therapies. This story demonstrates exactly what I mean in this passage:

According to Cohen, integrative medicine includes a plethora of therapies and methods but can be most easily classified into five categories: biologically based therapies, mind/body medicine, manipulative body-based practices, energy medicine and whole medical systems.

Biologically based therapies include ingestibles such as herbs and supplements, megadoses of vitamins or specialized diets. Mind/body medicine consists of techniques that typically help with stress management. These techniques include meditation, yoga, guided imagery and other forms of relaxation, according to Cohen. Manipulative body-based practices include therapies such as massage, medical acupuncture and chiropractic work.

The most controversial area of integrative medicine, according to Cohen, is energy medicine, which includes techniques such as healing touch, Reiki, a Japanese form of energy healing, or the use of magnets for healing. Healing touch techniques such as Reiki and Qigong, an ancient Chinese healing therapy, are based on the theory that human beings are energetic bodies and certain individuals with specific training can emit energy into another person for therapeutic purpose.

I realize that HemeOnc Today isn't the NEJM, but on the other hand, given how the NEJM recently fell for the pseudoscience that is acupuncture, maybe they aren't so different after all. In any case, this entire article is the sort of credulous treatment that drives me crazy, particularly the last paragraph quoted above. Energy medicine isn't just "controversial": it's quackery, pure and simple, and Dr. Cohen should know that. The best that can be said about so-called "energy medicine" is that it is religion, not science, or that the various modalities that fall under the rubric of "energy medicine" are based on a prescientific understanding of how the human body works and how diseases attack it. Some of them are not even "ancient." Reiki, for instance, only dates back to 1922. It was invented by a man named Mikao Usui, who wanted to find out how Jesus healed the sick. His answer, reiki, is no more than faith healing; the only difference between it and what Benny Hinn does is that reiki is based on Eastern mysticism instead of Christian faith. None of this discussion of "energetic bodies" and the claims that practitioners can either channel some form of "universal energy" or manipulate the flow of human "life energy" for therapeutic intent belongs in science-based medicine, at least until someone can characterize the claimed energy and actually show that these practitioners can actually do anything other than wave their hands over patients.

Cohen also speaks of "whole medical systems." In other words he refers to ancient medical systems, such as traditional Chinese medicine and Ayurvedic medicine, characterizing them as having "their own methods and techniques for diagnosing patients, prescribing treatments and following patients over time." That much is certainly true, but none of these techniques were based on science, either. They were based on much the same thoughts that early "Western" medicine was based on. After all, when you come right down to it, "balancing" or "adjusting" the flow of qi is not that different than the idea that the four humors must be balanced or that disease comes from "contamination" due to miasmas. As Ben Kavoussi has pointed out, there isn't that much difference between the concepts used to justify blood letting as a treatment for disease. Yet, somehow "integrative medicine" and CAM love modalities based on Eastern mysticism. Where's the love for black bile, yellow bile, phlegm, and blood, which make just as much sense, from a science-based standpoint as the concept of qi? In fact, they make more sense, because they, at least, exist and can be observed.

The Trojan horse

Time and time again, when I observe integrative oncology programs, I notice that many of them heavily emphasize modalities like diet and exercise. Indeed, in the HemeOnc Today article, the various advocates and "experts" in integrative oncology emphasized time and time modalities like yoga:

Karen Mustian, PhD, MPH, assistant professor of radiation oncology and preventive medicine at the University of Rochester Medical Center, discussed the findings of a yoga study at the 2010 ASCO Annual Meeting, held in Chicago in June.

Researchers enrolled 410 survivors of non-metastatic disease who participated in the Yoga for Cancer Survivors program. Survivors reported suffering from moderate or severe sleep disruption 2 months to 24 months after completing adjuvant therapy.

The participants were assigned to breathing exercises, 18 gentle Hatha and restorative yoga postures and meditation for 4 weeks with twice-weekly sessions.

Patients practicing yoga had greater improved sleep quality (22% vs. 12%), decreased incidence of clinically impaired sleep (31% vs. 16%) and less daytime sleepiness (29% vs. 5%) compared with those who did not practice yoga.

Adding to these findings, a study of the effects of yoga on women with breast cancer is also in the works. In April, Cohen received a $4.5 million grant to conduct a phase 3 trial in women with breast cancer to determine the improvement in physical function and quality of life during and after radiation treatment.

The results of the study presented at ASCO described above are, of course, utterly unsurprising and unremarkable, at least to me. Would anyone expect that gentle exercise and meditation would harm quality of life and sleep quality? My guess is that substituting gentle exercise and prayer or non-yoga meditation would likely produce very similar results. But yoga is "Eastern," so, you know, it's automatically way, way, way more cool than any boring old "Western" exercises. In any case, I bet I could save the NIH $4.5 million by predicting the results of Dr. Cohen's study. Yes, yoga very likely will be found to improve physical functioning and quality of life, because, by and large as it is practiced in this country (I'm aware that yoga can be quite a workout if you do the more rigorous forms), yoga is relatively gentle, low-impact flexibility exercise. In fact, in women who have undergone axillary dissection (removal of the lymph nodes under their arms), I would predict that yoga probably will decrease the incidence of impaired range of motion. The reason I make this latter prediction is because I already prescribe gentle stretching exercises to women who have undergone axillary surgery because it does decrease the incidence of impairments in range of motion. In fact, I would go so far as to predict that virtually any low impact exercise, be it yoga, Tai Chi, or simply low impact "Western" forms of exercise, such as walking and stretching, would produce the same results.

Oddly enough, I have been unaware of any investigators being awarded $4.5 million to study whether walking preceded by some gentle "limbering up" has all these effects in cancer patients. Why is that? This is the sort of stuff that is well-within the purview of science-based medicine, leading me to ask: Since when did exercise become "alternative" or "integrative"? Dr. Cohen's study compares yoga versus "stretching/relaxation" (which is what I thought much of yoga was; so I'm not sure what the difference is) versus a wait list control group. So my being unaware of such a study is at an end, because apparently that's just what Dr. Cohen will study. But does anyone think that the NIH would have funded such a study if it were about exercise and relaxation rather than yoga? My prediction for the outcome: the first two groups will both do better than the control group in terms of the outcome measures. I also wonder why on earth it will take $4.5 million and five years to answer this question. In any case, given the copious science already demonstrating that low impact exercise results in better quality of life outcomes for cancer patients, I would question the value, the "bang for the buck," of spending $4.5 million in order to study an "alternative" or "complementary" therapy that is nothing more than a fancy form of stretching exercises and relaxation, the former of which is already known to be of benefit in cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy, surgery, and radiation. Surely such a study could be done for $1 million? Heck, for $4.5 million, I could start up a multi-investigator P01 with teams of investigators doing heavy duty basic science.

I know, I know. Sour apples. I really am in the wrong business, at least when it comes to getting research funding. Figuring out how cancer cells grow and metastasize and how to stop them is really, really hard.

In any case, the HemeOnc Today article, as credulous as it is, though, is merely an indication of just how far the concept of "integrative oncology" has gone. To appreciate just how far it has gone, I thought I'd peruse the websites of what are commonly accepted as two of the most respected institutions devoted to cancer in the United States, if not the world.

"Integrative oncology" invades and metastasizes

"Inspired" by the HemeOnc Today article, I decided to peruse the "integrative oncology" website of one of the two premier cancer centers in the country, that of the M.D. Anderson Cancer Center, as well as to take a peak at what the National Cancer Institute website says about various "alternative," "complementary," or "integrative" modalities. What many readers may not know is that the NCI has an Office of Cancer Complementary and Alternative Medicine (OCCAM, perhaps the most unfortunate acronym ever thought of, given what it stands for). Moreover, OCCAM has a budget that is of approximately the same magnitude as that of the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM), in the range of $121 million a year. Thus, OCCAM is potentially as large a force in studying and promoting CAM as NCCAM has ever been.

Let's start with M.D. Anderson first. On its website, it has a webpage called Complementary/Integrative Medicine Education Resources (CIMER). On the CIMER webpage, perhaps the most telling and useful "resource" is a page on therapies. On this page are links to several review articles authored by CIMER staff and physicians in the Integrative Medicine Program of the M.D. Anderson Cancer Center.

Whenever I take a look at a cancer center's website, I go straight for the most hard core quackery to see what it says about it. Usually, I go straight for homeopathy. If a website concludes anything other than that homeopathy is pure quackery and that there is not a single molecule of active substance in most true hemopathic remedies (the dilution and succussion process having diluted it to nothing), then I know I'm dealing with quackademic medicine. Here's an excerpt from what the great M.D. Anderson says about homeopathy:

The practice of homeopathy is based on its "law of similars" which proposes that "like cures like". That is, a substance that causes specific symptoms in a healthy person is believed to ultimately relieve those same symptoms in a sick person. A few homeopathic physicians treat cancer by prescribing minute doses of tumors and carcinogenic substances.

The intent of homeopathic medicine is to help the body begin the healing process. Rather than focusing on a specific diagnosis, prescriptions are tailored to an entire set of symptoms and may vary between individuals with the same disease.

Significant reduction of some side effects of cancer treatments has been reported in two randomized controlled trials justifying further research with larger trials.

Current research includes a National Cancer Institute (NCI) clinical trial of a homeopathic substance for chemotherapy induced mucositis in children.

So far, not so good. The passage above is completely credulous, without the least bit of skepticism about the very basis of homeopathy. It reports homeopathy as a homeopath would report it, which makes me wonder if it was written by a homeopath. Particularly disturbing is the "detailed scientific review" of homeopathy. I'll give the author credit because he at least mentions Avogadro's number. That's "science-y" and at least admits that there is a serious plausibility problem with homeopathy right from the get-go. Unfortunately, the article then credulously parrots the typical homeopath claim that water has "memory" and cites primarily articles from that journal of pure woo, whose editorial standards I've lambasted here and elsewhere time and time again, the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine, as well as homeopathy journals, such as the British Homeopathic Journal. It is beyond the scope of this post to explain why such journals are generally not good sources (someday...someday), but they aren't. The only "real" journal article I saw was the infamous TRAUMEEL S study from 2001 looking at whether homeopathic TRAUMEEL S can alleviate stomatitis in children undergoing treatment for lymphoma and leukemia. (I shudder at the unethical nature of testing magic water in a clinical trial with children as the subjects.) In any case, this study reported a positive effect; however, one might also note this from the study itself:

TRAUMEEL S® is a homeopathic-complex remedy that has been sold over the counter in pharmacies in Germany, Austria, and Switzerland for over 50 years. It contains extracts from the following plants and minerals, all of them highly diluted (10-1-10-9 of the stem solution): Arnica montana, Calendula officinalis, Achillea millefolium, Matricaria chamomilla, Symphytum officinale, Atropa belladonna, Aconitum napellus, Bellis perennis, Hypericum perforatum, chinacea angustifolia, Echinacea purpurea, Hamamelis virginica, Mercurius solubilis, and Hepar sulfuris. Information from the manufacturer indicates that TRAUMEEL S is used normally to treat trauma, inflammation, and degenerative processes.

In other words, this is an herbal remedy in which there is still ingredient, given that even a 10-9 dilution is not enough to dilute away what's in there. Why it's even called homeopathic, I have a hard time figuring out, given that there are many herbs and minerals in there, with no rationale of "like curing like" obvious for them all. If TRAUMEEL S "works," it's not any sort of validation of homeopathy; all it shows is that maybe some of the herbs or minerals in the concoction have a beneficial effect. One also notes that this is a small study (N=30, 15 per group) and that the distribution of disease in the two groups was very different and that this study has never been replicated. Both Edzard Ernst and the Cochrane Reviews note this study but conclude that there is no evidence that homepathy is any better than placebo for cancer side effects.

But apparently not M.D. Anderson. M.D. Anderson appears to believe in magic. If you don't believe me, just take a look at its review on reiki, including the "scientific evidence" for its efficacy in cancer patients, or its review on healing touch, which is more or less reiki shorn of the explicit Eastern mysticism. Particularly nauseating is this introduction to "energy therapy" methods, which divides the very concept of energy itself into "Western" and "Eastern" notions of energy. (Silly me, I thought that energy was energy, and it was defined scientifically.) The author then postulates the "blending" of "Eastern" and "Western" concepts of energy thusly:

Modern physics has shown that light can exist as two interchangeable forms: a particle (form and structure) and a wave (movement and vibration). The rest of nature can also be experienced in the form of a particle and a wave. For example, water in the ocean is both particles of water and movement of coastal currents, thermal layers and tides. As in the ocean, the human body contains and is affected by energy that can be blocked, flow freely or vary in frequency. Various forms have been postulated:

An all-pervasive background frequency without form that extends beyond the limits of the body structure

Vertical energy flows that serve as conduits to external energy

Additional currents of energy with identifiable paths and patterns

The extent to which a background field extends beyond a person reportedly varies with each individual. Some people have said that they are sensitive to these fields - seeing or hearing these projections. Heat emanating from a body is one form of energy and one expression of that person's energy field8.

Notice that no evidence is presented showing that these claims are valid.

The introduction concludes:

Contemporary energy therapies are only recent manifestations of a larger and more ancient body of energetic and spiritual concepts that are beyond the scope of these reviews of a few contemporary energetic healing practices. MD Anderson recognizes that physical healing is only part of the cancer treatment process and also offers spiritual support through many different programs such as the Chaplaincy Services -- representing a wide range of faiths and spiritual beliefs -- and the Place ... of wellness -- where people touched by cancer can enhance their quality of life with activities that help to heal the mind, body and spirit.

Remember, this is the website of the M.D. Anderson Cancer Center, which is widely viewed to be one of the top two or three cancer centers in the United States, if not the world, and its Integrative Medicine Program appears to be based on magic more than anything else. Quackademic medicine, indeed.

Unfortunately, the NCI's OCCAM website isn't all that much better. Because I spent longer than anticipated going through the M.D. Anderson website, I'll wrap it up fairly quickly. OCCAM has some fairly disturbing pages itself. For instance, its Categories of CAM Therapies is a simple list of CAM therapies with little discussion at all other than defining what they are in the way any woo-meister would be happy with. OCCAM is superior to M.D. Anderson's CAM pages in that it does from time to time throw in passages like this:

Biofield therapies are intended to affect energy fields that purportedly surround and penetrate the human body. The existence of such fields has not yet been scientifically proven.

If there is no good science to show that these fields even exist, then why study trying to manipulate them? I never understood putting the cart before the horse like that. There's a lot of that sort of stuff going on in the list of CAM therapies referenced by OCCAM, although a lot of the articles are in fact NCCAM articles. One article on a CAM therapy that is hosted by the NCI and apparently was written by NCI staff is entitled Questions and answers about acupuncture. Depressingly, it begins with a credulous discussion of qi and meridians that is credulous and full of magic. It also contains statements like:

Scientific studies on the use of acupuncture to treat cancer and side effects of cancer began only recently. Laboratory and animal studies suggest that acupuncture can reduce vomiting caused by chemotherapy and may help the immune system be stronger during chemotherapy. Animal studies support the use of electroacupuncture to relieve cancer pain.


Human studies on the effect of acupuncture on the immune system of cancer patients showed that it improved immune system response.

One wonders just how critically the studies to which this article refers were evaluated. Certainly, the lists mix "electroacupuncture" (which is not acupuncture at all -- as Mark says, where were those batteries in ancient China to hook up to the acupuncture needles?) with acupuncture studies. One wonders if this is another case of accepting the authors' misinterpretation of their own results, as I discussed for one such study a couple of months ago. As for the effects of acupuncture on the immune system, the physician's version of the review points out that all these studies were conducted in China, and, unfortunately, it's well known that acupuncture studies from China tend to be overwhelmingly positive, in marked contrast to acupuncture studies from other countries, leading some writers of meta-analyses to question how to handle these studies. In any case, it would appear that the NCI, although its material on its website is not as credulous as that of M.D. Anderson, is not exactly a bastion of science when it comes to some "alternative" medical modalities.

Indeed, let me tell you a brief anecdote. Two years ago, at the AACR Meeting, I visited the NCI booth on the convention floor because I knew there was going to be a representative from OCCAM there. My confidence in the scientific rigor of the entire OCCAM enterprise was not boosted by the conversation I had there. In brief, after a brief (and neutral) conversation about what OCCAM does, I gently challenged the OCCAM representative regarding alternative medicine by pointing out that there really isn't that much evidence for much of it and asking him if he could point me in the right direction. In particular, I asked him why one would think that a mixture of herbal medicines would do better than pharmaceuticals. He then began to pontificate about "royal herbs" and couldn't provide a good rationale why anyone should conclude that impure mixtures of compounds would be more effective or reliable than pharmaceuticals. When he started going on about "emperor" herbs, "minister" herbs, and "assistant" herbs, I couldn't take it anymore and looked for an opportunity to politely excuse myself.

"Integrative oncology": The quackademic oncology that's here to stay?

I first became aware of the phenomenon of quackademic medicine several years ago. Before then, I was blissfully ignorant. Over the last several years, in particular the last couple of years, I've become increasingly alarmed at just how much pseudoscience is finding its way into medical academia in general and into oncology in particular in the form of "integrative" oncology. When the websites of what have in the past been a bastion of science-based oncology, M.D. Anderson Cancer Center and the NCI, become infiltrated with this sort of pseudoscience, I become alarmed. But it's far, far worse than that. I only picked two websites. There are many more out there, thanks to promoters of woo like the Bravewell Collaborative and others. I only picked on M.D. Anderson and the NCI because of their reputation for being much better than this, a reputation they are endangering by their embrace of woo. Cancer patients, as I say frequently, are among the most vulnerable of patients. Many of them are facing a very unpleasant death without treatment; seeing that they receive the most effective medicines and treatments we have, free of quackery, is a moral imperative, and I fear that we will soon be failing our patients. We now even have a Society of Integrative Oncology promoting the "integration" of pseudoscience into oncology.

The Trojan horse of herbals, diet, and exercise in the form of yoga may have breeched the walls of academia, bringing with it pseudoscience like acupuncture, reiki, and even homeopathy, but still I see reason for hope. Val Jones once coined the term "shruggie" for health care professionals who have seen the infiltration of pseudoscience into medicine and in essence shrug their shoulders, dismissing it as not being important or as not being their business if people choose quackery instead of science-based medicine. However, as the infiltration of pseudoscience reached a critical mass, it started to alarm even some of the shruggies. There has been pushback. We here at SBM like to think that we have been a significant part of that reaction, but we also know that there are many others, such as Edzard Ernst, Ben Goldacre, and Simon Singh. Even though a disturbing number of skeptics seem to have a blind spot when it comes to quackery, the broader skeptical movement appears to be taking more and more notice. I only hope that it's not too late. When an admired and esteemed institution like M.D. Anderson goes woo, the woo-meisters are not only at the gate, but they've stormed the bastions, driving defenders of SBM to the keep to make a last stand.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Newly Disclosed Documents Show California Science Center Fishing for a Reason to Cancel Intelligent Design Event


For some evolutionists, the First Amendment is less important than enforcing strict Darwinian dogma. In October 2009, the California Science Center (CSC) cancelled a showing of Darwin's Dilemma, which led to a lawsuit alleging viewpoint discrimination and breach of contract filed by the group whose event was cancelled, American Freedom Alliance (AFA). The lawsuit revolves around one crucial question: Was the showing cancelled because of a contractual violation (as CSC claims), or was it cancelled because the publicly operated Science Museum discriminated against AFA on the basis of its pro-intelligent design (ID) viewpoint? Recent internal CSC emails disclosed by CSC per the terms of its settlement of Discovery Institute show that AFA's contract was cancelled for reasons that stemmed from CSC's viewpoint discrimination against ID.

The official stance of CSC is that the showing of Darwin's Dilemma was cancelled because AFA violated terms of the event contract. If CSC is telling the truth, it would seem that only an actual violation of the contract would have caused the CSC staff to seek to cancel the contract. Presumably, until CSC officials knew if and how the contract was violated, they would have had no desire or motivation to cancel a legally binding agreement. Yet the CSC emails tell a different story. CSC staff are seen fishing for a contractual pretext to cancel the contract to show the film. The key point is this: CSC wanted to cancel the event before they even knew whether there was a violation of the contract (which there wasn't).

In an email to Chris Sion, the Vice President of Food & Event Services at CSC, Shell Amega , CSC's Vice President of Communications, begins a fishing expedition for that pretext. She writes:

Hi Chris - Jeff (Rudolph; CSC's President and CEO) just called and is wondering if they violated an agreement - like was this supposed to be a private screening or did they say it was a public screening? If they misrepresented the event, then we can cancel them. He would like to chat with you about it and will talk to you tonight.

There are a couple things wrong here.

First and most obvious, Jeff Rudolph, the man responsible for cancelling the event, is "wondering" whether he can cancel the showing based on the contract. He doesn't even know if the contract has been violated, yet he wants to cancel the event. Why? It's because he doesn't like the fact that CSC is viewed publicly as renting its facilities for a pro-ID event. Having already decided that the showing should be cancelled, Rudolph is searching for a legal excuse to do just that.

Second, it's clear that both Amega or Rudolph are clueless as to what contractual excuses are available. Amega suggests that "misrepresent[ation]" might be a good pretext, but since everything that Discovery Institute and AFA said in their press releases was accurate, this approach never made it past the email stage. In the end, the CSC grabbed hold of an entirely different excuse; the promotional materials approval clause in the contract. This sort of haphazard and desperate search for any sort of escape route demonstrates CSC's illegal motive for cancelling the contract.

Chris Sion eventually found shelter in the promotional materials clause and shared the excitement with Amega in a reply email:

They did receive an agreement w/ the following language - hope this covers us well! I will work it out w/ Jeff.... PROMOTIONAL MATERIALS: It is required that the Event Services Office approve, for technical and factual accuracy, all promotional materials mentioning the California Science Center produced for your event (including invitations, programs, press releases, etc.) prior to printing or broadcast...

Besides lack of any clear justification for cancelling AFA's contract over the broad and unspecific boilerplate language of the promotional materials clause, the most telling line in this email is when Sion says she "hopes" the clause "covers us well!" She doesn't know whether it covers them but hopes that it will give them an excuse to cancel the contract.

The decision to cancel the contract was made regardless of whether there were a legitimate reason. A government entity deciding that a particular viewpoint isn't acceptable is a violation of First Amendment. After-the-fact attempts by CSC to claim that the motivation for the cancellation was the violation of a vague clause in the contract are not only manipulative; they're also dangerous.

Posted by Casey Luskin on August 23, 2010 9:32 AM | Permalink

BOOK REVIEW: Wise defense of intelligent design


By Anthony J. Sadar
The Washington Times
6:17 p.m., Wednesday, August 18, 2010

By Stephen C. Meyer
HarperOne, $19.99, 624 pages

In "The Blind Watchmaker," atheist Richard Dawkins proclaimed, "Darwin made it possible to be an intellectually fulfilled atheist." Now, with the paperback release of Stephen C. Meyer's "Signature in the Cell: DNA and the Evidence for Intelligent Design," theists can rejoin with, "Meyer made it possible to be an intellectually fulfilled theist." Indeed, in his book, Mr. Meyer begins the chorus by stating that "as a Christian theist, I find this implication of intelligent design 'intellectually satisfying.' "

But, to suppose that "Signature in the Cell" is a book that argues for intelligent design (ID) from a religious or even metaphysical perspective is to suppose badly. For this book makes a strong case for ID as a rigorous scientific argument for the origin of life - at least as rigorous and scientific as any purely materialistic explanation such as neo-Darwinism.

Whether it be evolutionary/materialistic- or ID-based, the fundamental challenge for any proposition that claims to explicate the causes for life's inception is this: Explain in a scientific way "the origin of the central feature of living things: information." Mr. Meyer claims that orthodox evolutionary thinking, with its reliance upon chance and necessity, has failed to meet that challenge.

"Signature in the Cell" makes the case for ID being the only reasonable scientific explanation for the origin of information by showing first that overall, ID studies operate like other historic scientific endeavors (such as archaeology and crime-scene investigation) and indeed follow a method popularized by Darwin himself in "On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection."

The method relies on "inference to the best explanation." (However, in the case of ID investigations, the possibility of an intelligent cause is not ruled out a priori.) Mr. Meyer states that "like other scientific theories concerned with explaining events in the remote past, intelligent design is testable by comparing its explanatory power to that of competing theories."

In addition, to be "scientific," an ID hypothesis must be based on empirical evidence and not, for instance, religious dogma. "Signature in the Cell" itself is a book that belies the claim that ID theory has developed no specific empirical arguments. In general, this book has developed a cogent defense of ID from "the discovery of digital information in the cell."

Furthermore, an ID hypothesis must be "falsifiable," that is, able to be shown false. Of course, claims abound that ID is not falsifiable. However, Mr. Meyer points out that the attempts (and abject failure) to show how a purely materialistic explanation can demonstrate the onset of life is, in essence, an attempt to falsify the role of ID in the generation of living material.

Another aspect of scientific practice is the ability to make and verify predictions. Here is where ID proponents recently scored a significant victory in their efforts to gain more positive attention. When first discovered, excess, non-protein-coding DNA found in the cell was considered to be "junk" - useless remnants of an evolutionary past - by leading proponents of the materialistic worldview.

On the contrary, rather than being useless, ID advocates predicted in published reports, the excess DNA would turn out to be functional. In fact, it has in a big way. The so-called junk has been discovered to perform many important functions in the generation and operation of cells.

Further bolstering the ID claim to prognostic power, one of the appendices of "Signature in the Cell" provides a dozen verifiable predictions of ID and suggests areas of further research from an ID perspective.

New discoveries are revealing the increased superabundance in complexity of life at its basic level. It seems that the living cell more and more can be compared with the most advanced supercomputers, and as such, by analogy, it compels a reasonable consideration that maybe, just maybe, at some time in the very distant past, some thought was given to life's origin.

On a practical note, this fall at Geneva College, I will be teaching a course on "ID and Evolution," using the most accessible information available that makes the case for both ID and evolution. For course "textbooks," I have selected "Signature in the Cell" for the ID perspective and Richard Dawkins' latest book, "The Greatest Show on Earth: The Evidence for Evolution," to defend the evolution position. I expect the course will achieve what most if not all college courses hope to achieve: an opportunity for students to gain perspective on an important topic and use critical thinking skills to judiciously evaluate contemporary ideas.

Anthony J. Sadar is a certified consulting meteorologist and an adjunct associate professor at Geneva College in Beaver Falls, Pa.

© Copyright 2010 The Washington Times, LLC

Signature in the Cell, A "Wise Defense of Intelligent Design


Now that it's out in paperback, Stephen Meyer's book is getting more attention and a wider audience. Today Professor Anthony J. Sadar has a thoughtful review of Signature in the Cell in the Washington Times, where he writes:

In "The Blind Watchmaker," atheist Richard Dawkins proclaimed, "Darwin made it possible to be an intellectually fulfilled atheist." Now, with the paperback release of Stephen C. Meyer's "Signature in the Cell: DNA and the Evidence for Intelligent Design," theists can rejoin with, "Meyer made it possible to be an intellectually fulfilled theist." Indeed, in his book, Mr. Meyer begins the chorus by stating that "as a Christian theist, I find this implication of intelligent design 'intellectually satisfying.' "

But, to suppose that "Signature in the Cell" is a book that argues for intelligent design (ID) from a religious or even metaphysical perspective is to suppose badly. For this book makes a strong case for ID as a rigorous scientific argument for the origin of life - at least as rigorous and scientific as any purely materialistic explanation such as neo-Darwinism.

Here's someone who gets the methodological equivalence of Darwinian evolution and intelligent design, and no wonder, for Prof. Sadar sees good pedagogy in teaching both sides:

On a practical note, this fall at Geneva College, I will be teaching a course on "ID and Evolution," using the most accessible information available that makes the case for both ID and evolution. For course "textbooks," I have selected "Signature in the Cell" for the ID perspective and Richard Dawkins' latest book, "The Greatest Show on Earth: The Evidence for Evolution," to defend the evolution position. I expect the course will achieve what most if not all college courses hope to achieve: an opportunity for students to gain perspective on an important topic and use critical thinking skills to judiciously evaluate contemporary ideas.

Kudos to Prof. Sadar for exposing his college students to the full debate and letting them "gain perspective" and "use critical thinking skills." Prof. Sadar's class should be interesting; his review certainly is, and you can read the whole thing here.

Posted by Anika Smith on August 19, 2010 9:00 AM | Permalink

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Can Hands-On Prayer Help Heal?


African study in sight- and hearing-impaired people suggests it might, even if through placebo effect.
By Amanda Gardner
HealthDay Reporter

THURSDAY, Aug. 5 (HealthDay News) -- An older Mozambican woman named Maryam could not see two fingers held up just one foot in front of her when she arrived for a Pentecostal prayer intervention in her village. Nor could she see an eye chart from a similarly close distance.

But after a healer at the evangelical meeting laid hands on her and prayed for less than a minute, Maryam was able to not only see the fingers held up in front of her but could count them as well. The eye chart also came into view, with Maryam able to read down to the 20/125 line.

The experiences of Maryam and 23 other Mozambicans, part of a study reported in the September issue of the Southern Medical Journal, a peer-reviewed journal, suggest to the researchers that "proximal intercessory prayer (PIP)" -- in which the healer is in close proximity to the patient, often touching or hugging him or her -- may be a useful complement to Western medical practice.

In this study, the degree of improvement seen in people with vision and hearing impairments was more than that seen previously in hypnosis and suggestion studies, the team noted.

And while they don't discount that much of the results may stem from a placebo effect, benefits did seem to occur in some individuals.

"We found a statistically significant effect of PIP for the population of both those with auditory and visual impairments," said study lead author Candy Gunther Brown, associate professor of religious studies at Indiana University in Bloomington. "We didn't generally find that people who were totally deaf or blind to start with ended up with 20/20 vision and perfect hearing, but those with moderate to severe impairments when tested before the intervention, had a much, much improved threshold."

Previous studies have tended to focus on "distant intercessory prayer," in which the person or persons praying and the subject of the prayer are not in direct or even close contact with each other.

"The problem with studying distant intercessory prayer is that's not how people actually pray for healing," Brown said.

PIP is especially common among Pentecostal groups, which, with half a billion members globally, are the fastest growing Christian subgroup, according to the researchers.

"It's a common practice but there's little scientific understanding of what, if anything, happens when people pray for healing," Brown said. "A lot of empirical claims are being made and they need to be tested empirically."

Those empirical claims have fostered a great deal of controversy, with some groups even arguing that intercessory prayer can be harmful.

Brown and her colleagues focused only on hearing and seeing impairments because they are relatively easy to measure with an audiometer and vision charts.

The investigators found improvement across the group of participants.

When it came to boosting hearing, two individuals with hearing deficits were able to hear sounds 50 decibels below their pre-prayer level.

And three visually impaired people improved their vision to 20/80 or better, up from 20/400 or worse, the team reported.

Although these authors did not look at the why's of healing prayer, a number of hypotheses are circulating as to how it could be beneficial.

"Placebo effects are certainly the best known of these kinds of mind-body interactions that take place," Brown said. The effects could also be attributable to subjects being more motivated simply because they are being studied.

One physician believes prayer may have some as-yet-unexplained power to heal.

"There's a lot out there about the power of touch and human connection and just being present with somebody, and whether that might be contributing to healing," added Dr. J. Adam Rindfleisch, an integrative-medicine practitioner and assistant professor of family medicine at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health. "It stands to reason if someone is near you and you know they're caring about you and want your well being, you're more likely to [get better]," he said.

"I have to tell you that in my time of doing integrative medicine, sometimes people get better and you might not know the mechanism, but that's fine," he stated. "It doesn't have to be explicable to have value."

More information

There's more on the role of spirituality in cancer care at the U.S. National Cancer Institute.

(SOURCES: Candy Gunther Brown, Ph.D., associate professor, department of religious studies, Indiana University, Bloomington, Ind.; J. Adam Rindfleisch, M.D., integrative-medicine practitioner and assistant professor, family medicine, University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health, Madison; September 2010, Southern Medical Journal)

Copyright © 2010 ScoutNews, LLC. All rights reserved.

HealthDayNews articles are derived from various sources and do not reflect federal policy. healthfinder.gov does not endorse opinions, products, or services that may appear in news stories. For more information on health topics in the news, visit Health News on healthfinder.gov.

Kurzweil still doesn't understand the brain


Category: Kooks
Posted on: August 21, 2010 11:08 AM, by PZ Myers

Ray Kurzweil has responded to my criticisim of futurist fortune-telling. It really just compounds the problems, though, and gullible people who love Ray will think he's answered me, while skeptical people who see through his hocus-pocus will be unimpressed. It's kind of pointless to reply again, but here goes.

His first point is silly.

For starters, I said that we would be able to reverse-engineer the brain sufficiently to understand its basic principles of operation within two decades, not one decade, as Myers reports.

I don't care.

I didn't make an issue of his timescale in the first place; in fact, I said it made no difference. The problem is that he has provided no reason to specify a date, other than his vague mantra of "exponential growth". Why not say 5 years? Why not 50? The heart of the Kurzweil method is to simply pick a date far enough in the future that we cannot predict what technological advances will occur, and also far enough forward that he isn't likely to be confronted with his failure by people who remember what he said, and all is good. My complaint isn't that he has set a date by which we'll understand the brain, but that he has provided no baseline value for his exponential growth claim, and has no way to measure how much we know now, how much we need to know, and how rapidly we will acquire that knowledge. "Really fast" or "exponentially increasing" are not informative.

I mentioned the genome in a completely different context. I presented a number of arguments as to why the design of the brain is not as complex as some theorists have advocated. This is to respond to the notion that it would require trillions of lines of code to create a comparable system. The argument from the amount of information in the genome is one of several such arguments. It is not a proposed strategy for accomplishing reverse-engineering. It is an argument from information theory, which Myers obviously does not understand.

I think I understand it better than Kurzweil. If we have a seed of information that initiates a process, followed by many activities and interactions that add progressively more information to the process, you can't use information theory to measure the amount of information in the seed and then announce that you've put an upper bound on the amount of complexity in the process.

For instance, you can't measure the number of transistors in an Intel CPU and then announce, "A-ha! We now understand what a small amount of information is actually required to create all those operating systems and computer games and Microsoft Word, and it is much, much smaller than everyone is assuming." Put it in those terms, and the Kurzweil fanboys would laugh at him; put it in terms of something they don't understand at all, like the development and function of the brain, and they're willing to go along with the pretense that the genome tells us that the whole organism is simpler than they thought.

I presume they understand that if you program a perfect Intel emulator, you don't suddenly get Halo: Reach for free, as an emergent property of the system. You can buy the code and add it to the system, sure, but in this case, we can't run down to GameStop and buy a DVD with the human OS in it and install it on our artificial brain. You're going to have to do the hard work of figuring out how that works and reverse engineering it, as well. And understanding how the processor works is necessary to do that, but not sufficient.

Kurzweil does add another piece to his argument, although it doesn't help: the modularity and repetitive organization of the human brain.

For example, the cerebellum (which has been modeled, simulated and tested) -- the region responsible for part of our skill formation, like catching a fly ball -- contains a module of four types of neurons. That module is repeated about ten billion times. The cortex, a region that only mammals have and that is responsible for our ability to think symbolically and in hierarchies of ideas, also has massive redundancy. It has a basic pattern-recognition module that is considerably more complex than the repeated module in the cerebellum, but that cortex module is repeated about a billion times. There is also information in the interconnections, but there is massive redundancy in the connection pattern as well.

This is true — the cortex is a layered structure with similar elements repeated over and over again, in broad arrays. Pyramidal neurons, for instance, are instantly recognizable and and share a whole suite of common morphological elements between each other — but each one is also as unique as a snowflake. Those differences matter, and they are not specified in the genome. (For that matter, you won't find any blueprint in the genome for the dendrite pattern of pyramidal neurons, either). If you want to recreate a generic human brain, it won't work if you just make every pyramidal neuron exactly identical; there have to be spatial differences and differences in connectivity. You especially won't be able to carry out something far more specific, such as emulate Ray Kurzweil's brain, if you decide to simplify and make his cortex a uniform array of identical modules.

In short, here's Kurzweil's claim: the brain is simpler than we think, and thanks to the accelerating rate of technological change, we will understand it's basic principles of operation completely within a few decades. My counterargument, which he hasn't addressed at all, is that 1) his argument for that simplicity is deeply flawed and irrelevant, 2) he has made no quantifiable argument about how much we know about the brain right now, and I argue that we've only scratched the surface in the last several decades of research, 3) "exponential" is not a magic word that solves all problems (if I put a penny in the bank today, it does not mean I will have a million dollars in my retirement fund in 20 years), and 4) Kurzweil has provided no explanation for how we'll be 'reverse engineering' the human brain. He's now at least clearly stating that decoding the genome does not generate the necessary information — it's just an argument that the brain isn't as complex as we thought, which I've already said is bogus — but left dangling is the question of methodology. I suggest that we need to have a combined strategy of digging into the brain from the perspectives of physiology, molecular biology, genetics, and development, and in all of those fields I see a long hard slog ahead. I also don't see that noisemakers like Kurzweil, who know nothing of those fields, will be making any contribution at all.

So what exactly is the basis of Kurzweil's expected magic great leap forward? And no, the miracle of exponential growth is not an answer. If all a futurist has to do is wave his hands and say things will change more rapidly than we expect, then futurists like Kurzweil are nothing but techno-gimmicky Criswells. Utterly useless.

The skeptic's view of alternative medicine


National Post August 21, 2010 – 12:00 pm

By Claire Trottier and Behzad Elahi

Alternative medicine is gaining popularity in Canada, especially for the treatment of chronic conditions. Many treatment modalities are endorsed by practitioners of alternative medicine: from nutritional supplements, to acupuncture, to magnetic bracelets. It is important to examine scientifically if these treatments works, and in so doing, we can see how skeptics examine the claims of alternative medicine.

For a skeptic, it is important to constantly remain open to new ideas; being skeptical does not mean dismissing ideas outright. Skepticism means carefully investigating claims to determine if they are biologically plausible, and if they are supported by evidence. When a reproducible effect is found for a new therapy, it becomes accepted as part of medicine. Incorporating new evidence is how medicine works – which is why treatments and practices change so often. Our current understanding of ulcers is a perfect illustration of the flexibility of science-based medicine.

Medical theory used to state that ulcers were caused by stress. In 1982, two Australian scientists discovered that a bacteria was in fact responsible. There was some early resistance in the scientific community upon publication of these results. However, once these finding were reproduced, the medical community accepted this evidence. Ulcers are now successfully treated with antibiotics, and a 2005 Nobel Prize was awarded to Barry J. Marshall and J. Robin Warren in recognition for these important findings.

The American government has poured hundreds of millions of dollars annually into the study of alternative therapies through their National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM) (the 2009 budget was 121 million dollars). In collaboration with the alternative medical community, the studies undertaken at the NCCAM have not shown any evidence of efficacy for most of the treatments studied. Gingko biloba on cognitive function: no effect. Echinacea for prevention and treatment of colds: no effect. Acupuncture for back pain: no effect. In 2009, the Associated Press investigated the NCCAM and found that after a total of $2.5 billion in research funding, no new advances in medicine had been identified.

There are occasions where there are tenuous links between alternative theories and real science. Most alternative nutritional supplements are ineffective, and some have been found to contain high levels of pesticides and trace amounts of heavy metals. However, the use of certain supplements is well-supported by science: folic acid supplements prevent neural tube defects, and many physicians recommend vitamin D supplements during the winter. These supplements are not alternative, they are part of mainstream science and medicine. What sets these therapies apart from alternative supplements is that they are supported by reproducible evidence and make biological sense.

Magnets have long been believed to have healing powers, and this idea is still very popular in alternative medicine. The magnetic bracelet is a good example; it supposedly produces a magnetic field that relieves inflammation. These bracelets have been studied, and no evidence has been found to support their use. However, specific uses of magnetic fields have shown promise in depression, and a technique called Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation is currently being studied as a possible treatment. Science and medicine do not reject the potential of magnetic fields for affecting biology. The distinction between evidence and unproven pseudoscientific claims lies at the heart of skepticism.

A skeptic must have an open mind, examine biological plausibility, and review the evidence before coming to a conclusion. Skeptics are careful to avoid being swayed by personal testimonials and anecdotes. The former editor of the Journal of the American Medical Association, George Lundberg, said it best when he argued that alternative medicine does not exist: "there is only scientifically proven, evidence-based medicine supported by solid data, or unproven medicine, for which scientific evidence is lacking". When it comes to health, skeptics separate the wheat from the chaff and only support therapies that have been shown to work.

National Post

Claire Trottier has a Ph.D. in Microbiology and Immunology, and is currently working in biomedical science education as a Postdoctoral Fellow. She is a CFI science adviser and lives in Montreal, Quebec.

Behzad Elahi grew up in Iran in a family of skeptics and physicians. He received his M.D. degree from Tehran University of Medical Sciences, Iran in 2005. Since 2008 he has been working on his PhD in University of Toronto, department of Neurology and Neurosurgery.

How Darwin Sustains My Baptist Search for Truth


The Huffington Post August 22, 2010

Karl Giberson, Ph.D.BioLogos Foundation, Eastern Nazarene College
Posted: August 21, 2010 06:20 AM

My sainted mother, who passed away this year, raised me to value the truth. My family members were fundamentalist Baptists, attending a church in rural New Brunswick, Canada, pastored by my father. The reason I am no longer a fundamentalist is precisely because I was taught to value the truth and there are some fundamentalist beliefs that I just don't think are true any more. The earth, for example, is not 10,000 years old.

I have naively assumed, until recently, that respect for the truth is deep in the DNA of Baptists. I have assumed that when a Baptist speaks or writes, they do their best to be truthful. I am thus quite alarmed that America's leading Baptist, Al Mohler -- widely read author, president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and, according to Time, the "reigning intellectual of the evangelical movement in the U.S." -- does not seem to care about the truth and seems quite content to simply make stuff up when it serves his purpose.

About two months ago Mohler spoke to a group of leading fundamentalists at a prestigious venue. He topic was why Christians must believe that the earth is just a few thousand years old. A transcription of his talk is available here.

In this talk Mohler made false statements about Darwin. He apparently wanted to undermine evolution by suggesting that it was "invented" to prop up Darwin's worldview, rather than developed to explain observations in the natural world. He said, "Darwin did not embark upon the Beagle having no preconceptions of what exactly he was looking for or having no theory of how life emerged in all of its diversity, fecundity, and specialization. Darwin left on his expedition to prove the theory of evolution."

Because Darwin was constantly journaling, keeping careful notebooks, and writing letters, historians have established beyond all doubt that Mohler's summary is simply false. To be fair, an alarming number of fundamentalists have made similar claims. John Ankerberg and John Weldon make essentially the same false claims in Darwin's Leap of Faith: Exposing the False Religion of Evolution.

Of course, Mohler may simply have made a mistake. He is, after all, a theologian and not a historian. He could have gotten this wrong idea from any number of his fellow anti-Darwinians. However, I don't think so. In his address he read from my book Saving Darwin, in which I took some pains to correct the all-too-common misrepresentation of Darwin he presented. So, unless he was just cherry-picking ideas from my book that he wanted to assault, he should have known better. But let us bend over backwards here and give him the benefit of the doubt. Perhaps his only real encounter with Saving Darwin was an instruction to an assistant to "find something in Giberson's book that I can ridicule in my speech."

I gave Mohler the benefit of the doubt in an open letter that I posted on the BioLogos website. (He had also criticized BioLogos in his address.) In this letter I invited him to correct the record, naively thinking that he had been raised with the same respect for the truth that I had. "Dr. Mohler," I wrote, "I must express my dismay at your mispresentation of Darwin. I can only hope it is because you used some questionable sources and perhaps you might be willing to do some checking and try to set the record straight. I encourage you to do so, since I know you value speaking the truth highly."

Two months have passed and Mohler has made no effort to correct his misrepresentation of Darwin; he has not even acknowledged it, at least publicly. I can only conclude that because this particular "truth" is a political liability, Mohler chooses to ignore it. Mohler perhaps, is being a "faith fibber," something I have been guilty of, although not on this scale.

What disturbs me about this is the revelation -- which has taken me a long time to accept -- that some of my fellow Christians have no more respect for the truth than some of my non-Christian critics. In fact, the most honest dialog I have had on this topic was with Michael Shermer. Shermer, the editor of Skeptic Magazine, is an enthusiastic agnostic, but he seems far more engaged in searching for truth than winning converts to his position. I am disappointed to realize that Shermer, who repudiated his faith, has more respect for the truth than Al Mohler, who views himself as a caretaker of a faith that I share.

Religious belief is complex and full of mystery, paradox, and contradiction. Those without faith often seem unable to even understand it, much less enter into meaningful conversation with believers. And often they express this with caricature and ridicule. But our conversation, as shaky and precarious as it may be, should always be anchored to whatever bits of truth we can find and agree on.

Darwin's religious journey has been the subject of intense scrutiny and even entire books. He struggled throughout his life with issues of faith. He did eventually lose his childhood Anglican faith, but he lost it reluctantly and not until middle age, long after his famous voyage on the Beagle. Toward the end of his life he wrote to an old friend about the painful experience of losing his faith: "I was very unwilling to give up my belief." He recalled daydreaming as a younger man about something that could arrest his slide into disbelief, perhaps the discovery of "old letters between distinguished Romans, and manuscripts being discovered at Pompeii or elsewhere, which confirmed in the most striking manner all that was written in the Gospels." Gradually, though, he found it harder to imagine being rescued in this way and "disbelief crept over me at a very slow rate, but was at last complete."

This is the Darwin of history -- not the fictional character preferred by his anti-evolutionary critics. It is the story of an honest seeker, with a profound respect for the truth, even when it did not serve his purposes.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Alfred Russel Wallace, Co-Discoverer of Evolution by Natural Selection -- and "Creationist"


Despite repeated explanations that intelligent design is not creationism, Lauri Lebo at Religion Dispatches and others persist in equating the two. There's a lot of bandying about of terms without defining them. One possible definition of "creationism" is the attempt to make scientific assertions regarding the natural world and/or the origin of life based upon a literal reading of Genesis. Yet with intelligent design, as David Klinghoffer points out, even if the source of the intelligence were identified as a deity, that wouldn't make it creationism in this sense of Genesis literalism. In short, when it comes to speaking of "creationism," there is a need for much greater clarity of thought and expression.

I can think of no better illustration of the point than Alfred Russel Wallace. In a 1910 interview previewing Wallace's forthcoming book, The World of Life, Harold Begbie asked about his explanation for the origin of life. Wallace said this:

Well, it is the very simple, plain, and old-fashioned one that there was at some stage in the history of the earth, after the cooling process, a definite act of creation. Something came from the outside. Power was exercised from without. In a word, life was given to the earth. All the errors of those who have distorted the thesis of evolution into something called, inappropriately enough, Darwinism have arisen from the supposition that life is a consequence of organization. This is unthinkable. Life, as Huxley admitted [Wallace elsewhere attacks many of Huxley's notions], is the cause and not the consequence of organization.

Admit life, and the hypothesis of evolution is sufficient and unanswerable. Postulate organization first, and make it the origin and cause of life, and you lose yourself in a maze of madness. An honest and unswerving scrutiny of nature forces upon the mind this certain truth, that at some period of the earth's history there was an act of creation, a giving to the earth of something which before it had not possessed; and from that gift, the gift of life, has come the infinite and wonderful population of living forms.

Then, as you know, I hold that there was a subsequent act of creation, a giving to man, when he had emerged from his ape-like ancestry, of a spirit or soul. Nothing in evolution can account for the soul of man. The difference between man and the other animals is unbridgeable. Mathematics is alone sufficient to prove in man the possession of a faculty unexistent in other creatures. Then you have music and the artistic faculty. No, the soul was a separate creation.

I should point out that, for Wallace, man's "ape-like ancestry" did not mean that man was in any sense related to the ape. Wallace always pointed out that the imbuing of man with a soul made him substantively different, a change in kind not degree. Wallace never agreed with Darwin's Descent of Man.

Wallace was not a Christian by any measure. So here we have the co-discoverer of natural selection clearly espousing a version of "creationism" according to Lauri Lebo's expansive definition. And how did Wallace come to this? Certainly not from Scripture but from Darwin's own principle of utility, the idea that no organism will develop an attribute unless it affords it some survival advantage.

Wallace concluded that those things that make us most human -- our ability to reason, to enjoy art, music, and so on -- were inexplicable on Darwin's own principle. So what precisely do we mean by creationism? Lauri Lebo needs to clarify. In fact, a reading of Wallace above makes it clear that strictly speaking evolution (meaning simply common descent and change through time) need not exclude "creationism" and certainly not intelligent design. What Wallace's "creationism' does rule out is Darwinian materialism. The point is, Steven Pinker notwithstanding, the human mind remains as unexplained by Darwinian principles as when Wallace raised these issues. The repeated failures of materialistic explanations for the human mind and for the origin of life must keep "creationism," in Alfred Russel Wallace's sense, viably on the table for discussion.

Posted by Michael Flannery on August 20, 2010 8:33 AM | Permalink

Answers in Genesis responds to enthologist's claims that creation museum discriminates against, isolates non-Christians


Posted on 20 August 2010

Kentucky's Creation Museum responded recently to an article featured in an online publication that was based on research conducted by a sociology professor in preparation for a book.

The article, published by Live Science, suggested that the Creation Museum can be a painful reminder of discrimination and isolation by religious fundamentalists.

Answers in Genesis, the body behind the Creation Museum, said the article posed a number of outright inaccuracies and contextual errors, giving an extremely false impression of the museum. The article was based on a study by Bernadette Barton, a sociology professor at Morehead State University in Kentucky.

Barton's research methodology is the ethnography, which is essentially a narrative. It does not aim to be impartial but instead focuses on the researcher's personal reactions and reflections to observation, according to Live Science.

Barton based her study on three visits to the Creation Museum where she attended lectures, observed guests at the museum and brought a group of her students there, then noted down their feelings and observations about the visit.

Of her motive in doing the study Barton said, "I went there seeking to understand how people adhere to [a] set of beliefs that can, in my opinion, have sometimes destructive consequences," Live Science reported.

Points of argument

Answers in Genesis responded to the following points that were presented in the Live Science article:

1. The museum's description as fundamentalist.

The Creation Museum felt they are not "fundamentalist" which today has come to carry derisive connotations of extremism. The Creation Museum's depiction of how God created humans is believed by almost half of all Americans, rendering this one of many mainstream areas of agreement.

2. The museum can be uncomfortable for non-fundamentalist visitors.

The Creation Museum presents its worldview in a respectful way. They noted that there are many institutions with different beliefs and forms of thought including secular museums and media outlets that deride Christians or present a humanist viewpoint, which can make creationist students feel uncomfortable. They also acknowledge the Last Adam theater challenges people to accept the claims of Christ, but this is done lovingly and not aggressively.

3. The museum's primary message is to proclaim the truth of a young earth.

The Creation Museum upholds the authority of the entire Bible, rather than isolates the belief in a young earth. This is shown through their "walk through history" as depicted in the Bible. Dr. Jason Lisle, director of the museum's planetarium, clearly said the museum was made to show visitors that the Bible is true, beginning with Genesis.

4. "Graffiti Alley" shows that when men abandon Young Earth creationism the consequences include abortion, divorce, gay marriage and murder.

A visual on answersingenesis.org clearly states, "Scripture abandoned in Culture: Leads to relative morality, hopelessness and meaninglessness."

5. Warning signs in the museum were nerve-wracking including those that said guests could be asked to leave any time, and museum staff can send the group off if they are not honest about their "purpose of [the] visit."

The signs, answersingenesis.org said were posted in 2009 in response to continuous threats from atheist bloggers. Also, museums often show such signs and some even inspect the bags of guests.

6. People non-adherent to fundamentalism felt pressured to hide their beliefs for fear of being snubbed or judged.

Answers in Genesis said they sincerely wish for skeptics to visit and have hosted many agnostic and atheist groups. The museum is evangelistic at heart and so welcomes nonbelievers. They see themselves as a way to attract nonbelievers who might otherwise not want to go to a Christian church, so they can be exposed to the gospel.

7. The article's subhead "Compulsory Christianity."

Answersingenesis.org noted that guests come to the museum out of choice, and are not forced to read all exhibits nor watch all videos. Even detractors of the museum have described it as "family-friendly" and "cordial."

The LiveScience article also mentioned that a guard and his guard dog circled around one student twice who wore leggings and a long shirt. The Examiner said without independent corroboration there is no need to respond except to say that K-9 dogs only attack at the urging of their handler.

Evolution education update: August 20, 2010

It's not too late to submit your cartoon to Florida Citizens for Science's Stick Science contest! Plus videos from the University of Chicago's Darwin conference are now available on-line, and Lauri Lebo rehearses the connections between "intelligent design" and earlier manifestations of creationism at Religion Dispatches.


Less than two weeks remain to submit entries for Stick Science -- the science cartoon contest sponsored by Florida Citizens for Science, a grassroots organization defending and promoting the integrity of science education in Florida. At the FCFS blog (August 1, 2010), Brandon Haught explains, "The basic concept here is to draw a cartoon that educates the public about misconceptions the average person has about science." And lack of artistic ability isn't a problem: "all entries must be drawn using stick figures. This is about creative ideas, not artistic ability."

Entries are due (by e-mail or post) by August 31, 2010. Prizes include various books and t-shirts, and even a telescope kit. Judges are NCSE's executive director Eugenie C. Scott, Carl Zimmer, the author of The Tangled Bank: An Introduction to Evolution, Jorge Cham, the writer and artist of the Piled Higher and Deeper on-line comic strip, and Jay Hosler, the author and illustrator of The Sandwalk Adventures and Optical Allusions. Full details of the contest are available on FCFS's website.

For the announcement on FCFS's blog, visit:

For information about Stick Science, visit:


Videos of the presentations from Darwin/Chicago 2009 -- the University of Chicago's conference celebrating the 200th anniversary of Darwin's birth and the 150th anniversary of the Origin of Species -- are now available on-line. Among the thirty-one speakers featured are NCSE executive director Eugenie C. Scott -- asking "What Would Darwin Say to Today's Creationists?" -- as well as NCSE Supporters Douglas J. Futuyma, Philip Kitcher, Richard Lewontin, Michael Ruse, and Elliott Sober. (The plenary addresses, by Lewontin, Ronald L. Numbers, and Marc Hauser, are not yet available but will be posted shortly.) Also included on the conference's website are video interviews of thirteen of the speakers, including Scott, Lewontin, and Ruse; a gallery of photographs from the conference; and information about the University of Chicago's conference in 1959 celebrating the 100th anniversary of the Origin.

For the conference's website, visit:


Writing on Religion Dispatches (August 11, 2010), Lauri Lebo anticipates the fifth anniversary of Kitzmiller v. Dover by rehearsing the connections between "intelligent design" and creationism, both in Dover, Pennsylvania, in 2005 and in Livingston Parish, Louisiana, in 2010.

In a previous post at Religion Dispatches (August 5, 2010), Lebo commented incisively on a column in which Bruce Chapman, the president of the Discovery Institute, "backpedaled from a Louisiana creationism mishap he helped spawn." The mishap in question was the fact that certain members of the Livingston Parish School Board explicitly considered the Louisiana Science Education Act, supported by the Discovery Institute, to license the teaching of creationism. As NCSE previously reported, members of the board asked, "Why can't we get someone with religious beliefs to teach creationism?" and declared, "Teachers should have the freedom to look at creationism and find a way to get it into the classroom." The board formed a committee to explore the possibilities of incorporating creationism in the parish's science classes, although no action is expected to be taken during the 2010-2011 school year.

In his column, Chapman tried to distance the Discovery Institute from the Livingston Parish School Board members, and compared them to the Dover Area School Board members who in 2004 adopted the policy that provoked eleven parents to file suit in Kitzmiller v. Dover. Lebo, who reported on Kitzmiller v. Dover for the York Daily Record and then wrote a book on the case, The Devil in Dover: Dogma v. Darwin in Small-Town America (New Press, 2008), replied, "just as in the case of Livingston, Dover board members correctly interpreted that code language like 'intelligent design' and 'teach the controversy' were merely other ways of saying 'creationism.' And after the board members' remarks about creationism became too widely reported to ignore, the Discovery Institute tried to distance itself from the case and ran away."

A Discovery Institute blogger, David Klinghoffer, then complained that Lebo was ignoring "the enormous difference" between creationism and "intelligent design" -- prompting Lebo, in her August 11, 2010, post to retort, "No matter how many times they deny it, intelligent design relies on the supernatural." She added, "But don't take my word for it. Especially when Discovery Institute and its fellows have so many words of their own that reveal their intention." Citing the Wedge Document, the booklet Intelligent Design in Public School Science Curricula: A Legal Guidebook, and the copious documentation provided in Barbara Forrest and Paul R. Gross's Creationism's Trojan Horse, she explained why, as Judge John E. Jones III wrote in the Kitzmiller decision, "The writings of leading ID proponents reveal that the designer postulated by their argument is the God of Christianity."

"So it's a bit early at this point to speculate whether Louisiana and the Livingston Parish School District will be the site of the next constitutional test case of the Discovery Institute's latest brand of creationism," Lebo concluded. "But the echoes of Dover are certainly interesting."

For Lebo's August 11, 2010, post at Religion Dispatches, visit:

Thanks for reading! And don't forget to visit NCSE's website -- http://ncse.com -- where you can always find the latest news on evolution education and threats to it.

Glenn Branch
Deputy Director
National Center for Science Education, Inc.
420 40th Street, Suite 2
Oakland, CA 94609-2509
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fax: 510-601-7204

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Middle ways on evolution

http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/belief/2010/aug/20/religion-evolution-genesis-original-sin Sixty years ago pope Pius XII moved the the Catholic church to a compromise position on human evolution

John Farrell guardian.co.uk, Friday 20 August 2010 12.48 BST

More and more these days it seems like evolution is turning into a litmus test with only two possible results. If you accept evolution, creationists consider you a heretic. If you question evolution, Darwinists denounce you as a moron. But history shows that a qualified acceptance of evolution was, from the moment Darwin published his Origin of Species, a default position for many who were open to the theory, even when they were deeply disturbed by it.

Sixty years ago the controversial pope Pius XII, for example, made an accommodation with evolution the official position of the Catholic Church, when he wrote in his encyclical Humani Generis, that the scientific investigation of the material origins of the human body was perfectly legitimate, provided Catholic theologians kept in mind that the soul was to be considered always the direct creation of God.

This is not a position that would win friends amongst creationists or materialists. But it was a step forward for the Catholic Church, as it had not been nearly so accommodating to theologians even a generation before Pius XII. In two noteworthy cases in the late 19th century, Father Rafaello Caverni in Italy, and Father Dalmace Leroy in France were forced to withdraw from publication thoughtful books they had written attempting to reconcile Christianity with evolution.

What's fascinating about the cases of both priests, is that their books were quite modest, and very conservative: both argued—as many theists do today—that all species, with the exception of the human race, could be considered the products of evolution, while reserving for humanity alone a special status as the direct creation of God. [You don't have to be religious to believe that humans are special; it has been the default position of Hollywood filmmakers since Kubrick produced 2001: A Space Odyssey.]

This was not good enough for critics in Rome, and after long deliberations and reviews by the Holy Office, which decided whether certain works should be placed on the Index of Forbidden Books, both men good naturedly submitted in writing retractions that today would be considered utterly humiliating for any scholar. History would prove kinder to them, however. Indeed, one of the reasons Pope Pius XII decided to address evolution formally in 1950 was to alleviate some of the embarrassment the Catholic Church felt over of its treatment of scholars like Caverni, Leroy and others.

But the tale does not end there. For one thing, Pius ruled out a polygenic origin for the human race, signifying that Original Sin, as defined by the Catholic Church, could only be understood in terms of an offense committed by a founding couple, and passed on to all of humanity.

Genomic specialists have since ruled out the possibility that the human race could have evolved from any fewer than a population of a couple of thousand individuals. And this is not a case of scientists being unable to trace the genes back far enough to establish a single progenitor couple. It is rather that the level of variation existent among humans of all races today is at odds with such a possibility.

But does the concept of original sin require an Adam and Eve? One look at the nightly news or ten minutes with the morning paper would convince most people, whatever they think of Christian theological tradition, of the empirical reasons behind the notion that there is something "off" about humans, and that our propensity to lie, cheat, steal and kill certainly seems written into the genes from one generation to the next.

To the discomfort of many Christians, pope John Paul II raised the stakes in 1996 when he reiterated Pius' position on evolution, but noted with some appreciation the degree to which the theory had been confirmed by various disciplines.

John Paul II went further, mentioning in tantalizing fashion that something occurred to that original population back in the mists of time, what he called an "ontological leap" that changed hominids into true humans, able to conceptualize and ultimately rebel against the idea of God.

Was there an ontological leap? And what does that mean? The Pope never elaborated, but he did urge theologians to grapple with the questions posed by evolution. For Creationists this is heresy. For atheists, a complete waste of time.

But for many thoughtful readers turned off by the litmus test, it was simply an invitation to think more about evolution and what it means for humanity.

Document Sheds Light on Investigation at Harvard


August 19, 2010

The evolutionary psychologist Marc D. Hauser was told by Harvard to explain issues that had been raised about a few of his articles to the journals that published them.
By Tom Bartlett

Ever since word got out that a prominent Harvard University researcher was on leave after an investigation into academic wrongdoing, a key question has remained unanswered: What, exactly, did he do?

The researcher himself, Marc D. Hauser, isn't talking. The usually quotable Mr. Hauser, a psychology professor and director of Harvard's Cognitive Evolution Laboratory, is the author of Moral Minds: How Nature Designed Our Universal Sense of Right and Wrong (Ecco, 2006) and is at work on a forthcoming book titled "Evilicious: Why We Evolved a Taste for Being Bad." He has been voted one of the university's most popular professors.

Harvard has also been taciturn. The public-affairs office did issue a brief written statement last week saying that the university "has taken steps to ensure that the scientific record is corrected in relation to three articles co-authored by Dr. Hauser." So far, Harvard officials haven't provided details about the problems with those papers. Were they merely errors or something worse?

An internal document, however, sheds light on what was going on in Mr. Hauser's lab. It tells the story of how research assistants became convinced that the professor was reporting bogus data and how he aggressively pushed back against those who questioned his findings or asked for verification.

A copy of the document was provided to The Chronicle by a former research assistant in the lab who has since left psychology. The document is the statement he gave to Harvard investigators in 2007.

The former research assistant, who provided the document on condition of anonymity, said his motivation in coming forward was to make it clear that it was solely Mr. Hauser who was responsible for the problems he observed. The former research assistant also hoped that more information might help other researchers make sense of the allegations.

Related ContentDean Confirms Allegations of Scientific Misconduct Against Hauser

It was one experiment in particular that led members of Mr. Hauser's lab to become suspicious of his research and, in the end, to report their concerns about the professor to Harvard administrators.

The experiment tested the ability of rhesus monkeys to recognize sound patterns. Researchers played a series of three tones (in a pattern like A-B-A) over a sound system. After establishing the pattern, they would vary it (for instance, A-B-B) and see whether the monkeys were aware of the change. If a monkey looked at the speaker, this was taken as an indication that a difference was noticed.

The method has been used in experiments on primates and human infants. Mr. Hauser has long worked on studies that seemed to show that primates, like rhesus monkeys or cotton-top tamarins, can recognize patterns as well as human infants do. Such pattern recognition is thought to be a component of language acquisition.

Researchers watched videotapes of the experiments and "coded" the results, meaning that they wrote down how the monkeys reacted. As was common practice, two researchers independently coded the results so that their findings could later be compared to eliminate errors or bias.

According to the document that was provided to The Chronicle, the experiment in question was coded by Mr. Hauser and a research assistant in his laboratory. A second research assistant was asked by Mr. Hauser to analyze the results. When the second research assistant analyzed the first research assistant's codes, he found that the monkeys didn't seem to notice the change in pattern. In fact, they looked at the speaker more often when the pattern was the same. In other words, the experiment was a bust.

But Mr. Hauser's coding showed something else entirely: He found that the monkeys did notice the change in pattern—and, according to his numbers, the results were statistically significant. If his coding was right, the experiment was a big success.

The second research assistant was bothered by the discrepancy. How could two researchers watching the same videotapes arrive at such different conclusions? He suggested to Mr. Hauser that a third researcher should code the results. In an e-mail message to Mr. Hauser, a copy of which was provided to The Chronicle, the research assistant who analyzed the numbers explained his concern. "I don't feel comfortable analyzing results/publishing data with that kind of skew until we can verify that with a third coder," he wrote.

A graduate student agreed with the research assistant and joined him in pressing Mr. Hauser to allow the results to be checked, the document given to The Chronicle indicates. But Mr. Hauser resisted, repeatedly arguing against having a third researcher code the videotapes and writing that they should simply go with the data as he had already coded it. After several back-and-forths, it became plain that the professor was annoyed.

"i am getting a bit pissed here," Mr. Hauser wrote in an e-mail to one research assistant. "there were no inconsistencies! let me repeat what happened. i coded everything. then [a research assistant] coded all the trials highlighted in yellow. we only had one trial that didn't agree. i then mistakenly told [another research assistant] to look at column B when he should have looked at column D. ... we need to resolve this because i am not sure why we are going in circles."

The research assistant who analyzed the data and the graduate student decided to review the tapes themselves, without Mr. Hauser's permission, the document says. They each coded the results independently. Their findings concurred with the conclusion that the experiment had failed: The monkeys didn't appear to react to the change in patterns.

They then reviewed Mr. Hauser's coding and, according to the research assistant's statement, discovered that what he had written down bore little relation to what they had actually observed on the videotapes. He would, for instance, mark that a monkey had turned its head when the monkey didn't so much as flinch. It wasn't simply a case of differing interpretations, they believed: His data were just completely wrong.

As word of the problem with the experiment spread, several other lab members revealed they had had similar run-ins with Mr. Hauser, the former research assistant says. This wasn't the first time something like this had happened. There was, several researchers in the lab believed, a pattern in which Mr. Hauser reported false data and then insisted that it be used.

They brought their evidence to the university's ombudsman and, later, to the dean's office. This set in motion an investigation that would lead to Mr. Hauser's lab being raided by the university in the fall of 2007 to collect evidence. It wasn't until this year, however, that the investigation was completed. It found problems with at least three papers. Because Mr. Hauser has received federal grant money, the report has most likely been turned over to the Office of Research Integrity at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

The research that was the catalyst for the inquiry ended up being tabled, but only after additional problems were found with the data. In a statement to Harvard officials in 2007, the research assistant who instigated what became a revolt among junior members of the lab, outlined his larger concerns: "The most disconcerting part of the whole experience to me was the feeling that Marc was using his position of authority to force us to accept sloppy (at best) science."

Update 3:47 p.m., August 20: A letter from Michael D. Smith, Dean of Arts and Sciences at Harvard University, confirms allegations against Hauser, saying, "it is with great sadness that I confirm that Professor Marc Hauser was found solely responsible, after a thorough investigation by a faculty investigating committee, for eight instances of scientific misconduct under FAS standards." To read the full text of the letter, click here.