NTS LogoSkeptical News for 15 November 2011

Archive of previous NTS Skeptical News listings

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Still Clueless at the Clergy Letter Project


David Klinghoffer November 15, 2011 6:00 AM | Permalink

Michael Zimmerman of the Darwin-lobbying Clergy Letter Project takes to Huffington Post again to demonstrate that his collective of gullible clergy men and women -- or anyway their spokesman -- doesn't understand the debate he seeks to influence or the players in it. In this, Zimmerman succeeds wonderfully.

In a previous HuffPost article he tried to attack Discovery Institute and intelligent design on several imaginary fronts, for being "fundamentalist," for seeking to redefine science, for promoting an idea out of step with public/religious opinion. Before responding in public, I emailed him to ask what meaning he attached to the term "fundamentalist" -- a favorite scare word with Darwinists, depicting a phantom menace and always-under-the-bed boogeyman with, in my own personal experience anyway, no actual referent in the real world of the scientific debate about Darwinian theory. Of course I realize that genuine fundamentalists exist -- folks insisting that science reflects their own literal reading of the Biblical text -- and they are very useful to Darwinian propaganda efforts. But I don't work with any of them. Zimmerman never answered me.

In his current HuffPost contribution, he seeks to make the case that intelligent design proponents such as those affiliated with Discovery Institute want to roll back science as represented by the likes of Isaac Newton. (That's William Blake's Newton above.) But as Stephen Meyer shows in Signature in the Cell, Newton himself made design arguments -- in the Opticks, for the intelligent design of the eye; in the Principia, for the intelligent design of the planetary system. Newton explained, "[Thus] this most beautiful system of the sun, planets, and comets could only proceed from the counsel and dominion of an intelligent and powerful being."

Zimmerman writes, "Bacon and Newton and others like them moved us away from superstition and ushered in the modern scientific world." OK, fine, but it's precisely a scientific worldview of the kind embodied by Newton -- not arbitrarily ruling any scientific explanation out of bounds just because it violates dogmatic materialism but following the evidence where it goes -- that intelligent-design proponents seek to reinvigorate.

As for the main point he makes in his original article -- that Darwin-doubting puts its proponents in a societal margin occupied by a sliver of fever-swamp "fundamentalists" (whatever that means), an obvious bid to intimidate those gullible clergy with the threat of social embarrassment -- I pointed out here at ENV that a view identical with ID represents the solid majority view of Americans whether religious or not. So Zogby polling reveals. To this, Zimmerman also doesn't respond.

But he wouldn't, would he. He couldn't. Everything he thinks he knows about ID was apparently gleaned from skimming the Wikipedia article. The bulk of Darwinian apologetics, a great and futile exercise in shadow boxing, is based on a steady refusal to understand what the other side in the debate actually has to say.

Christian Opposition To Evolution Is Neither Inevitable Nor Universal


Christopher Lane

Professor of English, Northwestern University; Author, The Age of Doubt: Tracing the Roots of Our Religious Uncertainty

Christianity , Evolution , Religion And Science , Christian View Evolution , Christian Views Of Evolution , Christianity And Evolution , Evolution In Christianity , Politics And Evolution , Religion And Evolution , Religion News

"The majority of Republicans in the United States do not believe the theory of evolution is true," Gallup News Service reported in June 2007, following significant interest in the topic during the GOP primaries that summer. With Sam Brownback, Mike Huckabee and Tom Tancredo all indicating that they did not believe in evolution, Gallup conducted several polls showing how closely Americans' beliefs about evolution correlate with their religious behavior.

"Those who attend church frequently," Frank Newport reported for the news agency, "are much less likely to believe in evolution than are those who seldom or never attend." The results also pointed to a strong connection between Americans' beliefs about evolution and their political philosophy. "Being religious in America today is strongly related to partisanship," Newport determined, "with more religious Americans in general much more likely to be Republicans than to be independents or Democrats."

As doubts about evolution continue to abound in the current Republican primaries, with Rick Perry, Michele Bachmann and Rick Santorum all indicating that they are firmly Creationist in their beliefs and Herman Cain and Ron Paul dismissing evolution as "just a theory," it might seem as if, on this issue, little had changed among Republicans. But with Mitt Romney and Jon Huntsman adopting the Mormon position that there is no conflict between their faith and the principles of evolution, and Newt Gingrich assuming the same stance as a Catholic (and former Southern Baptist), striking intellectual differences on this issue have emerged among the candidates. By underlining them, we can see that among Christians there are in fact radically different ways of thinking about science that need not disturb faith.

In 1950, encouraged by Pope Pius XII, the Roman Catholic Church found a way to reconcile itself to evolution. In the years since, it has moved from neutrality on the issue to implicit acceptance of it. The Vatican continues to insist that humans are a special creation requiring the existence of God (premises that Darwinism considers neither necessary nor particularly likely). But the principle of "theistic evolution," where God is said to embrace evolution in advance, allowed the Church to narrow the gulf between faith and scientific evidence, doubtless to minimize the risk of its followers having to choose between either.

Nor were even earlier Christian responses to Darwin consistently fearful or angry. Many devout scientists in the 1860s and later not only accepted his argument about natural selection through adaptation, but also found it relatively easy to reconcile with their beliefs. They simply claimed that evolution was one of the ways in which God worked. On the basis of such thinking, the Christian Darwinist Aubrey L. Moore felt able to state in his 1889 collection Science and the Faith, "Panic fear of new theories" such as Darwin's was "as unreasonable as the attempt to base the eternal truth of religion on what may eventually prove to be a transient phase of scientific belief."

Two years ago, when the Yale Divinity School Library held an exhibition on transatlantic Christian responses to Darwin, the curators called Moore "the clergyman who more than any other man was responsible for breaking down the antagonisms toward evolution then widely felt in the English Church." The description was perfectly accurate, but the reforms were hardly limited to England.

On this side of the Atlantic, the exhibition also stressed key thinkers such as Harvard botanist Asa Gray, an evangelical Calvinist, who also worked to reconcile Christians to evolution. Gray was a lifelong friend of Darwin's who arranged the U.S. publication of his famous treatise "On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection," to the point of negotiating for royalties on its author's behalf. Gray's 1874 collection Darwiniana pointed out that "the attitude of theologians toward doctrines of evolution... is no less worthy of consideration, and hardly less diverse, than that of naturalists."

Large numbers of evangelicals in America are well-known to have adopted a quite different tack, turning Darwinism into a threat to their bedrock beliefs because it implies that the opening verses of Genesis aren't statements of literal truth. That challenge to Genesis has of course come from many quarters other than Darwin, including from geologists in the 1790s doubtful of the planet's creation in six days. But it was the passing of a 1925 law in Tennessee, essentially making it unlawful in state schools for teachers to deny the biblical account of man's creation, that led to the infamous Scopes Monkey Trial. Repeal of the law in 1967 has had many beneficial effects, but it has done little to resolve the underlying problem of antipathy towards evolutionary theory and its scientific argument, due to biblical literalism.

Still, it is important to stress that other branches of Christianity have found a way to embrace science and evolution by treating Genesis (as one Victorian commentator put it) with the "latitude of poetry." When Republican Presidential hopeful Jon Huntsman recently chided his fellow Republicans for "becom[ing] a party that was antithetical to science," he essentially took the same line.

Huntsman clearly has his work cut out for him convincing his party of his position on evolution and of his candidacy. But in breaking with Republican doubts about evolution, his stance usefully reminds us that there's nothing inevitable about Christians opposing science and, indeed, the study of evolution.

HIV/AIDS denialism versus science


Respectful Insolence

"A statement of fact cannot be insolent." The miscellaneous ramblings of a surgeon/scientist on medicine, quackery, science, pseudoscience, history, and pseudohistory (and anything else that interests him)

Orac is the nom de blog of a (not so) humble pseudonymous surgeon/scientist with an ego just big enough to delude himself that someone, somewhere might actually give a rodent's posterior about his miscellaneous verbal meanderings, but just barely small enough to admit to himself that few will. (Continued here, along with a DISCLAIMER that you should read before reading any medical discussions here.)

Category: Medicine • Pseudoscience • Quackery • Science • Skepticism/critical thinking
Posted on: November 15, 2011 3:00 AM, by Orac

As a skeptic and a blogger, my main interest has evolved to be the discussion of science-based medicine and how one can identify what in medicine is and is not based in science. Part of the reason for this is because of my general interest in skepticism dating back to my discovery that there actually are people who deny that the Holocaust ever happened, which led to a more general interest in pseudoscience, pseudohistory, and other non-evidence-based and non-science-based viewpoints that now includes quackery, anti-vaccine nonsense, 9/11 "Truth," creationism, and anthropogenic global warming denialism, among other topics. Part of the reason is because, among various forms of pseudoscience, quackery and anti-vaccine views arguably have the potential to do the most direct and immediate harm to people. Teaching creationism will harm our nation in the future as it erodes the ability of young people to have a good grasp of biology that will have deleterious effects on our science effort years from now, and AGW denialism is likely to cause harm in decades to come if nothing is done to mitigate climate change, but quackery kills--and kills now. All of this is why, no matter how far I might stray from medicine from time to time, be it for a change of pace or just a desire to indulge my other interests for a while, I always eventually come home to discussing pseudoscience in medicine.

Among the various forms of pseudoscience in medicine, the two most potentially harmful are probably anti-vaccine beliefs and HIV/AIDS denialism. I write a lot about anti-vaccine pseudoscience here, but only occasionally about HIV/AIDS denialism, even though the latter has arguably done more concrete measurable harm to real people, particularly in Africa where, for instance, it was estimated that government policies in South Africa based on HIV/AIDS denialist beliefs have contributed to the preventable deaths of 330,000 people. Anti-vaccine activists haven't been responsible for that body count--yet--at least in the modern era (but give them a chance). In any case, HIV/AIDS denialism is an excellent example of how the same sorts of arguments made for pseudoscience can, when applied to a subject like treating and preventing AIDS or vaccines, go from being curiosities that we skeptics like to dissect as intellectual exercises to being deadly threats to public health. At least, that was what I was thinking as I read a post I had come across by HIV/AIDS denialist Henry Bauer, who turns right into left, up into down, hot into cold, and intelligence into stupid with a post entitled HIV/AIDS exemplifies scientific illiteracy.

Yes, you read that right. Bauer thinks that the well-established, scientifically well-supported hypothesis that HIV causes AIDS exemplifies "scientific illiteracy." In actuality, if he inserted the word "denialism" after "HIV/AIDS" he would have been a lot closer to the truth. But denialists are known for nothing if not for their utter lack of self-awareness when it comes to the pseudoscience behind their arguments, and that utter lack of self-awareness is very apparent in Bauer's screed right from the very first passage:

HIV was never shown to have caused AIDS.

Nevertheless, during three decades huge arrays of people and organizations have become engaged in a variety of activities based on the mistaken belief that HIV is an infectious immune-system-killing virus that caused and continues to cause AIDS.

That such a mistake could metastasize so massively seems incredible to the conventional wisdom, which regards it as impossible that "science" could go so wrong -- after all, this is a scientific age in which all manner of technological marvels are accomplished all the time; and science itself can't go wrong because it uses the scientific method and is self-correcting.

Note that here, as in the rest of Bauer's post, no evidence is provided to back up his assertions. Indeed, this is argument by assertion at its baldest. At its core, however, Bauer's tactic is far more about casting doubt upon science itself than it is about providing actual evidence and doing actual science to demonstrate that the current scientific consensus about HIV causing AIDS is in serious error. In this post, Bauer is not about demonstrating that the evidence for the current consensus is seriously flawed or lacking and that the evidence supporting an alternative hypothesis is compelling enough to cast serious doubt on the current paradigm as the strongest explanation for how AIDS develops. He's about misrepresenting science itself.

For example, Bauer seems obsessed with the self-correcting nature of science, but in the reverse direction. In other words, he's obsessed with trying to convince readers that science is not self-correcting and consequently it's wrong about HIV/AIDS and won't let go of that hypothesis:

The conventional wisdom can hardly accept that it's wrong about HIV/AIDS so long as it doesn't realize that it's wrong about science. It needs to be understood that

  1. Science is not self-correcting.
  2. Science is not done by "the scientific method".
  3. Scientists are not the appropriate experts to explain science to policymakers, the public, or the media. On the whole*, scientists know only the technical intricacies of what they do; they don't understand the epistemology and sociology of science and they are ignorant of or mistaken about the history of science.

In fact, Bauer repeats the very same three points in almost exactly the same way a little later in his post. OK, already. We get it. You don't think that science corrects itself or that scientists actually use the scientific method. I'll get back to that in a minute. What interests me is his other assertion, namely that for some reason scientists aren't the appropriate experts to explain science to the public or the media. You know, whenever I hear someone say something like that I wonder to myself: If not scientists, then who? Who is "most appropriate" to explain science to non-scientists? The communication of science and medicine to lay people has been a major theme in this blog, one that I come back to periodically time and time again. It's also not as though scientists themselves don't ask how better to communicate science to the public and media. To some extent, science journalists and science writers can fill that role, but they can't do it all any more than scientists can do it all. One reason is that non-scientists by their very nature will never attain the deep understanding of science and scientific issues that people who have devoted their lives to science at the very highest level will, and often that is what is require, particularly when trying to communicate science to the media and to policymakers. I can't help but suspect that part of Bauer's motivation in arguing this is that he hopes that scientists will instead cede the field to him and his fellow propagandists of pseudoscience.

As for the claim that science is not self-correcting, Bauer simply asserts that more than once and claims that there is a "massive consensus" on this point. Really? Among whom? Bauer and his fellow denialists? Anti-vaccine loons? Creationists? Of that I have no doubt. But among scientists, those who study science, and historians of science? Not so much. Is science perfect? No one claims that, least of all me. As I've said many, many times before, it might be very messy, and it often takes a lot longer than scientists would like to admit, but eventually science does correct itself when it goes astray. And, yes, sometimes hypotheses hang around far longer than they should, especially in medicine, but in the end the evidence. However, as I've also said many times before, if you want to dethrone a hypothesis in medicine or science, you have to have the goods. In other words, you have to be able to produce evidence of such quality and quantity that, when weighed against the evidence supporting the current hypothesis, it casts enough doubt that other hypotheses must seriously be considered. I hate to point it out to Bauer (well, no I don't, actually, I don't), but HIV/AIDS denialists, like anti-vaccine activists and creationists, have never been able to do that. Bring us compelling data instead of self-pitying B.S., and maybe you'll be taken seriously.

Of course, as all anti-science cranks do sooner or later when they're on a roll, Bauer can't resist making a certain analogy that never fails to annoy the crap out of me because it's so off base:

What's understood in and about the humanities and social sciences is not understood with respect to science and medicine. The experts consulted and cited about matters of science and medicine are scientists and doctors; they are supposed to explain to the rest of us what science and medicine are about, what they mean to our culture and our society, how we should use what they produce. Scientists and doctors represent Science and Medicine in the same way as priests represent Religion: as unquestionable authorities.

Ah, yes, the comparison of science to religion and scientists and physicians to priests! Where have we heard that cliche before? Actually, I've read it on so many anti-science websites and blogs that I long ago lost count, and it's a common misconception (or outright lie) that frequently needs to be refuted. Religion, after all, requires belief in things that, by its adherents' own admission, can't be proven; indeed, religion is all about strong (or even absolute) belief without evidence. This is in marked contrast to science, which is all about tentative, provisional belief only after there is adequate evidence. More importantly, science is about subjecting those tentative beliefs based on evidence to further testing and overthrowing the ones that can't stand up to that testing. The difference between science and religion couldn't be more stark.

Finally, Bauer retreats into another favorite canard of the anti-science crank, namely trying to paint the scientific process as being hopelessly tainted with dogma, politics, and ideology, making the ridiculous assertion that HIV became accepted as the cause of AIDS based on politics and social factors rather than based on science, concluding:

The science relating to HIV and to AIDS has never supported the mainstream assertions. Vested interests determined the course of events: careerism, political exigencies, empire-building in government agencies, financial benefits for companies and individuals. Once an activity commands billions of dollars of annual expenditure, mere scientific findings can exert little if any practical influence.

If there's a substantive difference between this sort of nonsense and the "pharma shill gambit," I'm hard pressed to find it. Replace the phrase "the science relating to HIV and to AIDS" with "the science relating to vaccines and autism" in the passage above, and this post would be right at home on the anti-vaccine propaganda blog Age of Autism, so much so that it would not look the least bit out of place. Of course, that's because HIV/AIDS denialism is, at its heart, no different than anti-vaccinationism. It's pure pseudoscience and, more than that, it's utterly hostile to science because science doesn't support its conclusions.

But worst of all, HIV/AIDS denialism is, like anti-vaccinationism, deadly. It's a perfect example of how pseudoscience can kill.

Another creationist Free School proposed for 2013


14 Nov, 2011 13:16 CET

A creationist Free School, Sheffield Christian Free School, has been proposed to open in 2013, and last week held a public meeting to gauge parent support. The British Humanist Association (BHA), which recently worked with other groups to launch a new campaign website, 'Teach evolution, not creationism!', has expressed concern at the continuing confidence of creationist groups in applying to open Free Schools, and disappointment that the Department for Education (DfE) hasn't taken firmer steps to discourage such applications.

Sheffield Christian Free School will be run by Christian Family Schools Limited, who already run two private schools in Sheffield, including Bethany School. Both are members of the Christian Schools' Trust, a network of over 40 private schools founded by creationist Sylvia Baker, author of Bone of Contention, who was the guest speaker at the public meeting. Sheffield Christian Free School's curriculum policy will be 'broadly based on nine themes found in the early chapters of the book of Genesis.' Bethany School's science curriculum is all about God's role in creation, and creation appears throughout the school's curriculum grid. In explaining the appeal of Christian Schools, the Free School's website cites as a positive that just 7% of pupils agree with the statement, 'I believe in evolution creating all things over millions of years.'

BHA Chief Executive Andrew Copson commented, 'We welcomed last month's rejection of Everyday Champions Church's Free School bid because of their intention to teach creationism. We are concerned that, even following this, creationist groups continue to see Free Schools as a viable route.

'Following on from the launch of the 'Teach evolution, not creationism!' website, which we coordinated, we wrote to the DfE further outlining our concerns. Despite the weight of support from scientists and educators behind our position, in their reply the Government refused to make their guidance on the teaching of creationism statutory and enforceable. We again urge the Government to put this issue to bed once and for all by making this simple change.'


For further comment or information, please contact Andrew Copson on 07534 248596.

Read more about the BHA's campaigns work on countering creationism.

Read the statement from scientists including Sir David Attenborough, Professor Richard Dawkins and Professor Michael Reiss, the British Humanist Association, the Association for Science Education, the British Science Association, the Campaign for Science and Engineering and Ekklesia at http://evolutionnotcreationism.org.uk/

View the BHA-backed Government e-petition on the same subject at http://epetitions.direct.gov.uk/petitions/1617

The British Humanist Association is the national charity working on behalf of non-religious people who seek to live ethical and fulfilling lives on the basis of reason and humanity. It promotes a secular state and equal treatment in law and policy of everyone, regardless of religion or belief.

Creationist Polemicists: Disavowing Their Own Principles as Too Extreme


Michael Zimmerman, Ph.D.

Founder, The Clergy Letter Project

Posted: 11/14/11 12:00 PM ET

Creationism , Religion And Science , Science Education , Answers In Genesis , Discovery Institute , Ken Ham , Evolution Vs. Creationism , Religion News

It's funny how upset some people get when they read their own words.

My most recent Huffington Post piece seems to have struck quite a nerve with significant players in the creationist movement. That essay discussed the fact that peace is increasingly the norm between religion and science. Despite many examples of peaceful coexistence, understanding and respect, I mentioned that not everyone is on board with this program. I noted that some religious leaders as well as some scientists are opposed.

As you can see below, I mentioned Ken Ham, the head of Answers in Genesis, by name and I mentioned the Discovery Institute. Both were upset by what I had to say. Let's start with what I wrote:

Yes, there are religious leaders who proclaim that their religious teachings dictate their scientific beliefs. Fundamentalists who adhere dogmatically to a specific interpretation of ancient texts and demand that those bizarre interpretations be taught in science classes fall into this category. Fundamentalists like Ken Ham of Answers in Genesis who unilaterally break science into "operational" science and "historical" science fall into this category. And fundamentalists like those at the Discovery Institute who promote a redefinition of science to include the supernatural also fall into this category. But these people and organizations, as loud and as well funded as they are, do not represent the vast majority of religious individuals. When we conflate these two dramatically different groups and assume they have the same motives and intellectual underpinnings, we're making a huge mistake and missing an opportunity for enhanced understanding.

Ken Ham took to Twitter to complain. In what I can only describe as an utterly incomprehensible tweet, Ham wrote: "Now here is a shock for you. An atheist mocks at what I and Answers in Genesis teach about Genesis! Who would..." Please note that the ellipsis is Ham's and not mine.

The paragraph I wrote is grammatically very clear. The first sentence, the topic sentence, says that "there are some religious leaders who proclaim that their religious teachings dictate their scientific beliefs." That sentence is neither controversial nor mocking in tone. It simply makes a factual claim. The next three sentences provide specific examples of the sorts of religious leaders I alluded to in the first sentence. Ken Ham is addressed only in the second of those three sentences and all I said about him is that he and his organization "unilaterally break science into 'operational' science and 'historical' science."

While I'll be the first to admit that the dichotomy Ham promotes is both meaningless and not supported by the scientific community, I'd argue that simply articulating Ham's perspective is in no way disrespectful. Did I mischaracterize Ham's conceptualization of science? You be the judge. Go to the Answers in Genesis web page and search for "operational science." You'll find 221 results.

As an aside, how about readers offering suggestions for ways to complete the hanging sentence in Ham's tweet? I bet we could all have great fun with that.

David Klinghoffer of the Discovery Institute was also upset by what I had to say. He wrote a response on the Discovery Institute's web page entitled "Clueless at the Clergy Letter Project." Pointing to the same paragraph I quoted above, Klinghoffer complains, "Now that is a passage of prose rich in grotesque errors and misconceptions. There's nothing in intelligent design that redefines science -- it merely asks that the definition not be reformulated to arbitrarily exclude precisely those explanations of natural phenomena that best fit the data."

Wow! Klinghoffer is apparently arguing that science has been "reformulated" and all the Discovery Institute wants is a return to the good old definition of science. How recently did this "reformulation" take place? I guess the answer depends on your perspective. Very recently in evolutionary terms -- indeed, over virtually all of the 4.5 billion years the Earth has been here, science as we know it today did not exist.

But, in human terms, the time span is very different. The "reformulation" Klinghoffer complains about took place in the 16th and 17th centuries led by such scientific greats as Francis Bacon and Isaac Newton. Bacon and Newton and others like them moved us away from superstition and ushered in the modern scientific world. They created the scientific method which depends upon the concept of falsifiability and they recognized that that method cannot address the supernatural. Science, for over 400 years, has limited its reach to material explanations for natural phenomena.

The Discovery Institute clearly doesn't like this new-fangled idea called science. Take a look at some of the text of "The Wedge" document produced by the Discovery Institute.

Discovery Institute's Center for the Renewal of Science and Culture seeks nothing less than the overthrow of materialism and its cultural legacies. Bringing together leading scholars from the natural science and those from the humanities and social sciences, the Center explores how new developments in biology, physics and cognitive science raise serious doubts about scientific materialism and have re-opened the case for a broadly theistic understanding of nature.

If this isn't exactly the sort of "redefinition of science" I mentioned, I'll stand corrected. In reality, though, both the Discovery Institute and Answers in Genesis have staked out extreme positions, positions completely at odds with the world's scientific community.

The only thing I can conclude from all of this is that creationist beliefs are even too extreme for the creationists. Those beliefs make for good copy when preaching to the faithful and when raising funds, but when those very same beliefs are presented in a broader context, they are quickly disavowed. Creationists, after all, ultimately have to be able to appeal to an audience far broader than their base if they're going to be successful.

Over many years, I have found that the most successful way to move an audience away from creationism is to use the creationist's own words and simply ask: "Is this really what you believe?" Apparently the creationists have finally recognized exactly the same thing.

This Blogger's Books

Science, Nonscience, and Nonsense: Approaching Environmental Literacy
by Dean Michael Zimmerman

Follow Michael Zimmerman, Ph.D. on Twitter: www.twitter.com/mzclergyletter

Friday, November 11, 2011

Mark Hohmeister: No shortage of snake oil in alternative medicine


5:59 PM, Nov. 11, 2011

Mark Hohmeister
Associate Editor

Learn more about the issue at "Science-Based Medicine," http://www.sciencebasedmedicine.org, a website edited by Dr. David Gorski and Steve Novella.

It says something about the current respect for science in America that Dr. David Gorski — a blogger, breast cancer surgeon and associate professor at Wayne State University — was coming to speak to Florida State College of Medicine students about "science-based medicine."

I wondered, is there some other kind? I would think that even the folks who prefer grazing on herbs, having their spines popped or getting pins stuck in them to actually visiting a doctor would want to know that their therapies were scientifically sound.

Then I got the emails.

One faithful reader sent me a note on onions, marked "PLEASE READ TO THE END: IMPORTANT." Apparently, if you have the flu and leave a slice of onion by your bedside, you will be cured, because the onion sucks all the "germs" out of the air — and, by extension, you. It saved a farmer's family during the 1919 pandemic. This also is why chicken salad goes bad. It's not the mayonnaise; it's those darned onions attracting all the germs! Uh, OK.

But I can top that. There also was a note on the craze of "chicken pox lollipops." Parents are terrified that vaccines will instantly render their children autistic. So what are these concerned parents doing instead? They're exchanging by mail lollipops licked by complete strangers who have chicken pox, so that their children can then lick them and become "immune." I kid you not: A young person we know was invited to a local party at which children would be exchanging fluid from pox pustules.

Dr. Gorski, you couldn't get here soon enough.

Gorski's mission — when he's not helping women with cancer — is taking on complementary and alternative medicine, known as CAM. These practices can range from chiropractic and acupuncture, in which a practitioner can be licensed in Florida, to out-there practices such as aromatherapy and homeopathy.

The practices cause consternation in mainstream medicine, because they don't hold themselves to the same standards of scientific testing. In fact, at a dinner Wednesday attended by Gorski, doctors, psychiatrists, psychologists and more, two Florida State medical students interest in CAM protested that some practices were simply too complicated to test. They got points for courage, if not scientific aptitude.

Lack of any evidence that some therapies work certainly doesn't stop people from trying them. In local hospital rooms, patients receive acupuncture, as well as vitamins smuggled in by family members, the occasional exorcism and who knows what else. A recent national study tested asthma medication against a placebo and "sham" acupuncture (putting needles in random places). Only the medication actually improved the patients' breathing, but patients reported felling better with all three!

That raises the most potent argument in favor of CAM: Even if it's just the placebo effect, if it makes the patent feel better, what's the harm?

The question makes Gorski grab his head as if he needs some pain relief.

The harm comes on many levels, he says. It "undermines the scientific basis of medicine"; it creates "respectability for quackery"; it makes it hard for patients to tell the difference between what will have an actual effect and what won't; and, for the individual patient, it wastes money, time and effort for something that isn't necessary.

Alternative medicine was in the news recently with the death of Apple visionary Steve Jobs.

After being diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in 2003, Jobs turned to a special diet for the next nine months and looked at other ways of curing the cancer without surgery. Such alternatives often include juices, coffee enemas, and bowlfuls of supplements. Members of Apple's board tried to persuade him to have surgery. Eventually he did, as well as chemotherapy and radiation therapy, but he succumbed to the disease in October.

With pancreatic cancer, there usually is scant time between diagnosis and funeral notice. But Jobs had an unusual, slow-developing cancer. With early diagnosis, there is a decent chance of survival with surgery.

So, what killed Jobs? Some proponents of alternative medicine say it was mainstream medicine and the "cancer industry." Others in mainstream medicine say the delay killed him. In his review of the case, Gorski, showing true scientific restraint, says only that Jobs probably would have died anyway — but that the delay certainly didn't help.

As one Apple colleague said, "Steve is Steve. He can be pretty stubborn." But if somebody with Jobs' resources and technical know-how will opt for unproven treatments at the possible cost of his life, the anti-CAM crusaders know they face an uphill fight.

Their main weapon is education — of patients, medical students and doctors, but also of legislators who give these practices credibility. "It's really, really hard," Gorski said.

Jann Bellamy, a local attorney with an interest in the subject — and also the wife of Dr. Ray Bellamy, who is a faculty member at the FSU medical school — summed it up: "If you're going to throw out science as the standard, what's left?"

Well, nothing I'd want to rely on in an emergency.

— Contact Mark Hohmeister at mhohmeister@tallahassee.com or (850) 599-2330. Or follow him on Twitter @MarkHohmeister.

Evolution education update: November 11, 2011

A new poll suggests that challenges to climate change education are common in the classroom. And two recent webcast symposia on human evolution are now available on-line.


Challenges to climate change education are common in the classroom, according to a poll of science educators conducted by the National Science Teachers Association. Although 60% of respondents to the on-line poll reported that they were not concerned about how climate change is taught in their school, 82% reported having faced skepticism about climate change and climate change education from students, 54% reported having faced such skepticism from parents, and 26% reported having faced such skepticism from administrators.

The NSTA poll also invited respondents to describe their particular concerns about how climate change is taught in their school, list specific barriers and challenges teaching climate change, and explain how they have altered their pedagogical strategies in response to criticism or skepticism about climate change; a sampling from their responses -- including comments from teachers who accept, are agnostic about, and reject the idea of climate change -- appears in NSTA's article (November 7, 2011) describing the poll.

NSTA's poll was informally conducted among its members, however, as was a similar survey conducted among the members of National Earth Sciences Teachers Association in 2011. (NESTA's report on its survey is expected to be published in November 2011. As NCSE previously reported, NESTA's executive director Roberta Johnson told Science, "Evolution is still the big one, but climate change is catching up.") A rigorous survey of the prevalence and nature of climate change skepticism in the classroom apparently remains to be performed.

For NSTA's report on the poll, visit:

For NCSE's discussion of the Science article, visit:


Two recent webcast symposia on human evolution are now available on-line.

First, Bones, Stones, and Genes: The Origin of Modern Humans -- the Howard Hughes Medical Institute's Holiday Lectures on Science for 2011 -- is now available for on-demand viewing (and on DVD as well). The lectures address such questions as: Where and when did humans arise? What distinguishes us from other species? Did our distant ancestors look and behave like us? Featured are NCSE Supporter Tim White of the University of California, Berkeley, speaking on "Human evolution and the nature of science"; Sarah Tishkoff of the University of Pennsylvania speaking on "Genetics of human origins and adaptation"; John Shea of Stony Brook University speaking on "Stone tools and the evolution of human behavior"; and White again on "Hominid paleobiology."

Second, Changing Humans in a Changing Environment -- a symposium on evolution held at the 2011 meeting of the NABT and sponsored by the American Institute of Biological Sciences and the National Evolutionary Synthesis Center -- is also now available for on-demand viewing, along with a suite of educational resources. Featured are Rick Potts of the Smithsonian Institution speaking on "Evolution in an era of dramatic climate change"; Jill Pruetz of Iowa State University speaking on "What can chimpanzees tell us about human evolution?"; Susan Antσn of New York University speaking on "Becoming human in a changing world: the early evolution of Homo"; and John Hawks of the University of Wisconsin, Madison, speaking on "New discoveries from ancient genomes."

For Bones, Stones, and Genes, visit:

For information about ordering Bones, Stones, and Genes on DVD, visit:

For Changing Humans in a Changing Environment, visit:

For the educational resources for Changing humans, 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
510-601-7203 x305
fax: 510-601-7204

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The problem with Ron Paul


Brandon Schlacht, Detroit Atheism Examiner
November 10, 2011

Ron Paul has become a hot topic in yet another Republican primary. Many young voters (both liberals and conservatives) have been lured in by the man who claims to be a strict Constitutionalist. Ron Paul wants to withdraw all military forces from foreign soil. Great! So do many liberals. Ron Paul wants to legalize marijuana, or at least leave it up to the states. Great again! Many college students are smiling as their Bob Marley flag hangs on their dorm wall. The modern libertarian model, Ron Paul has made a name for himself by claiming to support individual rights. With that said, it's time for Ron Paul's farce to be exposed.

Ron Paul allows his personal religion to cloud his judgment, which leads him to actually go against certain individual rights. The man claims that the Constitution was not only guided by religion, but makes specific references to God Himself. For a man who is so adamant in his support of the Constitution, he may be disappointed to know that the words 'God' and 'Creator' are not mentioned once in the text. Resulting from this is a policy that has religion at its base. Ron Paul, the man who supports the liberties of humanity, is anti-choice. He'd prefer the positive term, pro-life, but as the debate remains unresolved, choice, based on individual values and beliefs, is the best option in the abortion debate. Ron Paul's position would allow states to remove the right for a woman to choose, one that is currently protected thanks to the Supreme Court's ruling in Roe v. Wade.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Where the "Science-Religion" Dichotomy Came From


Richard Weikart November 9, 2011 4:34 PM | Permalink

Many theistic evolutionists seem to think that science explains nature, while religion has nothing whatsoever to do with nature. The historian of science Frederick Gregory in his book, Nature Lost? Natural Science and the German Theological Traditions of the Nineteenth Century (Harvard University Press, 1992), explored the issue in nineteenth-century German theology and showed the heavy influence of Kantian philosophy on this development. Kant posited a distinction between the phenomenal realm (i.e., science, determinism, things-as-we-perceive-them) and the noumenal realm (i.e., God, free will, immortality, and things-in-themselves). This works itself out in many ways in Western intellectual history, giving rise to various dichotomies: science-religion, fact-value, knowledge-faith, objectivity-subjectivity, etc.

Most theistic evolutionists use this dichotomy to try to insulate religion from scientific and historical critiques. Of course, it also removes religion from the realm of reality, transporting it into the realm of the purely subjective. For an extensive discussion of how this dichotomy works itself out in Western culture, read Nancy Pearcey's most recent book, Saving Leonardo.

Cutting edge or bleeding Idiot?: iLIVE


Dr. Gary S. Hurd, California, USA | 10 November, 2011 09:51

In a series of exchanges over evolutionary biology vs creationism, Mr. Joseph Ulicki cited some "cutting edge science." His quote was not properly referenced. The source was an American Catholic website that promoted creationist literalism, "The Kolbe Center for the Study of Creation." There was no science there at all. There was a lot of dogma, and misinformation.

We do of course know several natural mechanisms that add "specified complexity" to genomes. One of the more obvious is simple duplication of a gene during mitosis. The duplicated gene is then free to mutate without and 'cost' to the organism. We have observed this process in nature, and can now induce it to happen in laboratories.

There is even evidence for whole chromosome duplication. We also know that in the early forms of single celled life, there was wide-spread transfer of genes; one mechanism still active today is retro-viral insertion of "borrowed" genes from one bacterial species to others. This also happens in "higher" animals.

Even we humans have thousands of retrovirus fragments in our DNA, and we share over 1000 of them with Chimpanzees. In fact, as we move further and further away from us through the primate family, the number of these shared retrovirus fragments decreases as well.

This is an excellent example of the genetic data that shows our shared heritage with other primates, aside from the obvious physical similarities, and the thousands of pre-human fossils.

The fossil evidence for whale evolution is just as good. My colleague Professor Mark S. Springer has also shown how the molecular biology of whales perfectly coincides with the fossil evidence.

There is simply no scientific support for the creationist reading of Genesis. Attempting to fake such evidence is demeaning to the Bible, and should not be encouraged among the faithful.

Wednesday, November 09, 2011

'No evidence' for extraterrestrials, says White House


8 November 2011 Last updated at 06:05 ET

Astronomers are listening to the cosmos; but no evidence exists yet for alien life

The US government has formally denied that it has any knowledge of contact with extraterrestrial life.

The announcement came as a response to submissions to the We The People website, which promises to address any petition that gains 5,000 signatories.

Two petitions called for disclosure of government information on ETs and an acknowledgement of any contact.

The White House responded that there was "no evidence that any life exists outside our planet".

More than 17,000 citizens joined the two petitions, and the White House has since amended the requirements for response to a minimum of 25,000 signatories.

"The US government has no evidence that any life exists outside our planet, or that an extraterrestrial presence has contacted or engaged any member of the human race," wrote space policy expert Phil Larson of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy.

"In addition, there is no credible information to suggest that any evidence is being hidden from the public's eye."

The post went on to outline the efforts that are underway that may add evidence to the debate, namely the space missions Kepler and the Mars Science Laboratory.

Kepler is searching for Earth-like planets around far-flung stars, and the Mars Science Laboratory will sample the Red Planet's geology looking for the building blocks of life - though it will not explicitly look for life itself.

Perhaps the most famous effort in the hunt for alien life is the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (Seti), once funded in part by US space agency Nasa, which continues to listen to and look around the cosmos for signs of intelligent civilisations elsewhere.

Mr Larson summarised the numbers game that a hunt for ETs necessarily entails.

"Many scientists and mathematicians have looked... at the question of whether life likely exists beyond Earth, and have come to the conclusion that the odds are pretty high that somewhere among the trillions and trillions of stars in the Universe there is a planet other than ours that is home to life," he wrote.

"Many have also noted, however, that the odds of us making contact with any of them - especially any intelligent ones - are extremely small, given the distances involved."

William Lane Craig and the problem of pain


Category: Bad Science • Development • Kooks • Religion
Posted on: November 8, 2011 9:21 AM, by PZ Myers

Kitties experience pain and suffering, which turns out to be a theological problem. If a god introduced pain and death into the world because wicked ol' Eve was disobedient, why is god punishing innocent animals? It seems like a bit of a rotten move to afflict the obedient along with the disobedient — shouldn't god have just stricken humanity with the wages of sin (or better yet, just womankind)?

William Lane Craig has an answer. His answer involves simply waving the problem away — animals don't really feel pain — and he drags in science to prop up his claim. Basically, Craig is playing the creationist gambit of abusing the authority of science falsely to support his peculiar theology.

So Christian theologians of all stripes have to face the challenge posed by animal pain. Here recent studies in biology have provided surprising, new insights into this old problem. In his book Nature Red in Tooth and Claw: Theism and the Problem of Animal Suffering, Michael Murray distinguishes three levels in an ascending pain hierarchy (read from the bottom up):

Level 3: a second order awareness that one is oneself experiencing (2).

Level 2: a first order, subjective experience of pain.

Level 1: information-bearing neural states produced by noxious stimuli resulting in aversive behavior.

Spiders and insects--the sort of creatures most exhibiting the kinds of behavior mentioned by Ayala--experience (1). But there's no reason at all to attribute (2) to such creatures. It's plausible that they aren't sentient beings at all with some sort of subjective, interior life. That sort of experience plausibly does not arise until one gets to the level of vertebrates in the animal kingdom. But even though animals like dogs, cats, and horses experience pain, nevertheless the evidence is that they do not experience level (3), the awareness that they are in pain. For the awareness that one is oneself in pain requires self-awareness, which is centered in the pre-frontal cortex of the brain--a section of the brain which is missing in all animals except for the humanoid primates. Thus, amazingly, even though animals may experience pain, they are not aware of being in pain. God in His mercy has apparently spared animals the awareness of pain. This is a tremendous comfort to us pet owners. For even though your dog or cat may be in pain, it really isn't aware of it and so doesn't suffer as you would if you were in pain.

As is usual upon reading any argument by William Lane Craig, I find myself wondering if we shouldn't, in the name of common decency, have him locked up or in some way isolated from the sane human population. He makes bad arguments, he makes dishonest arguments, and he seems opportunistically willing to sacrifice moral reasoning on the altar of his barbarian god. Or at least, maybe we should confiscate his pets and put them in a safer home.

A few objections popped instantly into my head when I read his essay.

An assertion built on a false premise is likely to be false itself. Craig (or possibly his source, Murray), misrepresent the science. They claim that the prefrontal cortex "is missing in all animals except for the humanoid primates." This is simply false! I've personally done histological work and surgery on the prefrontal cortex of cats, many years ago, and you can find papers describing the prefrontal cortex of opossums, and just about any common mammal you can think of. Craig has made a truly bizarre claim, like declaring that only people have noses or something.

Primates do have a unique histologic feature of their primary cortices, an internal granule layer that is developed to varying degrees. But it's also present in prosimians as well as all primates, so you can't argue that it is unique to 'humanoid primates', and you can't claim that it's necessary and sufficient for self-awareness. If a bushbaby is going to be declared self-aware because it has an internal granule layer, it seems ridiculous to argue that other mammals with a similar or greater degree of cortical development are excluded from the club on the basis of this one detail.

Scientists are supposed to talk about the evidence. Theologians are apparently not only exempt, but they get to fabricate their evidence. Also, I'm used to hearing theologians babble about the nonexistent as if it were real, but this is the first time I've heard one argue that a real structure is nonexistent.

There is a real issue here: we can identify pain neurons in insects and fish and all kinds of animals — they're ubiquitous. But you could ask about the slippery problem of consciousness, and wonder whether there is a real difference between reflexive aversion to a noxious stimulus and a more substantial awareness of pain. There are people who argue that non-human animals are not thinking and self-aware like we are, and so their perception of pain is qualitatively different.

Unfortunately, you can't make a binary distinction here. If we accept that humans are all aware of pain (there have been people who don't accept that: Nazi-types and racists have argued that Jews and blacks, for instance, are subhumans who have blunted sensitivities), it's hard to argue that chimpanzees aren't also aware — they exhibit all the signs of stress, of learning aversion, of memory and recall of unpleasant experiences, and their behavior is identical to ours: they make it known that they don't like needles or fear snakes or suffer pain and distress at their discomfort and the discomfort of others. And if you admit chimps, where do you draw the line? Dogs also exhibit all of those behaviors; they even show empathy when people are injured or unhappy.

How can anyone who has known a dog deny that they are capable of perceiving pain in fairly complex ways?

But it really is a continuum. I haven't been able to tell if cats feel much empathy — they don't show it, but I have no way to see what interesting (or terrifying) cognitive wheels are spinning in a cat's brain. I know they react to their own pain in very emotional ways, and I've seen mother cats respond with what looks like affection and protectiveness to their kittens…and I would not assume that a cat's aversive reaction to getting cut is all a superficial reflex, and therefore anesthesia is unnecessary in operating on them. That is the road of the psychopath.

Again, scientists rely on the evidence: if I see an animal struggling and making frightened noises and fighting to avoid a painful experience, and if it shows recognition of the circumstances of that pain in the future, I'm going to assume that it feels pain and is in some sense aware of its situation. Theologians are apparently able to see a cat or dog in the throes of agony and declare that it isn't really suffering, no, not like you or me. Hey, theologians and psychopaths have something in common!

Let us consider the implications of Craig's worldview. If this property of awareness sets humans apart from animals, making our suffering have a greater moral significance than that of animals, and if that awareness is a product of a specific neuroanatomical structure, the prefrontal cortex (or more specifically, a well-developed internal granule cell layer in that cortex), then what is the status of a human that lacks that all-important, very specific pattern of neuronal connectivity?

I'm thinking, of course, of the embryo. The internal granule cell layer does not pop into existence at the moment of fertilization — it arises much later, gradually, as the brain matures. Cortical wiring is an ongoing process after birth, as well — the microstructure of the human brain changes amazingly during the first couple of years of life. If we're going to claim that an adult dog, despite appearances, isn't really aware of pain, shouldn't we be saying the same thing about the embryo?

I mean, sure, babies squall and scream and flail about at the slightest discomfort, but how do you really know that they're actually conscious? Maybe they're just bio-reflexive hunks of meat until the final bits of their cortical cytoarchitecture snap into place, and we should be unperturbed by their struggles. They're not really human yet, after all — god hasn't given them that second-order awareness that they need in order to be conscious of their deontological status as the product of original sin, you know.

I don't know of any scientist — or sane human being — who could make that argument seriously. Again, it's about the evidence; they exhibit the symptoms of feeling pain, they have some complex cerebral machinery that we think is likely capable of processing experiences in complex ways (but we don't know for sure — we don't have a parts list of neuroanatomical correlates that are sufficient to generate consciousness), so the humane assumption is that yes, babies perceive pain. Apparently, this is a much more ambiguous issue for theologians, if they had any consistency in their views. Oh, but wait — theologians. Evidence, consistency, reason are not highly valued properties of theological arguments. If they were, it would suggest that Craig ought to rethink his dogmatic anti-abortion stance.

Sorry, Mr Craig, but pain is still a big problem for your religion, and you don't get to shoo it away or drag in the mangled, bleeding body of a butchered science in agony to act as a scarecrow and distract people from your absence of evidence.

The Scandal of the Evangelical Experts?


Faith in History

How can we upgrade evangelical intellectual life? A derisive piece in the "New York Times" is not a promising start.
By Thomas S. Kidd, November 09, 2011

Evangelicals have a knack for subculture. Christian music, Christian books, and Christian movies all enjoy a thriving business. Evangelicals have their own experts, too, popular authorities who champion causes from creationism to Christian childrearing to a uniquely spiritual founding of the United States.

Randall Stephens and Karl Giberson, authors of The Anointed: Evangelical Truth in a Secular Age, recently confronted the evangelical experts in a New York Times editorial titled "The Evangelical Rejection of Reason." This column, a blunt condensation of the argument in their book, portrayed Christian authorities such as history writer David Barton and creationist Ken Ham as culpable for Christian anti-intellectualism.

Stephens and Giberson, Christian academics themselves, are revisiting the argument of renowned historian Mark Noll that the evangelical mind is scandalous. They deplore the way that many evangelicals and their anointed experts eschew not only mainstream science or history, but even the conclusions of many Christian academics. If Christians were open to these influences, according to the authors, their faith would grow richer and more complex, and would become less centered on the polarized positions demanded by the evangelical experts and their versions of the culture war. Stephens and Giberson take the discussion a step further by explaining how the subculture's authorities encourage evangelicals (or more commonly, "fundamentalists") to cultivate their anti-intellectual tendencies.

Stephens and Giberson's New York Times piece generated indignation in the conservative blogosphere, revealing the perils of their approach. I suspect that nearly all evangelicals in academia, and many rank-and-file Christians, would sympathize with at least some of Stephens and Giberson's concerns. (For full disclosure, note that I am a friend of Randall Stephens, and I am credited in The Anointed for helping with their chapter on evangelical history). But I am concerned that Stephens and Giberson's tone seems so hostile toward their adversaries, and toward "fundamentalists" generally, that they will reach few beyond the already convinced.

The editorial's list of topics on which evangelicals have supposedly "rejected reason" is long and eclectic: evolution, homosexuality, religion and the Founding, and spanking children. On all these topics, evangelicals have not accepted the dominant academic position on the subject, and thus, the New York Times piece implies, have rejected reason. Surely many evangelicals would be open to a reasoned discussion on some or all of these topics, but they would need to feel that Stephens and Giberson appreciate that conservative Christians have logical justifications for believing what they do. Aren't there serious reasons to believe in a literal reading of the "six days" of Genesis 1, or the historic teachings of most major religions on human sexuality, or even that the Bible's mandates to spank your children (Proverbs 13:24 etc.) remain in effect?

Several critics have reasonably asked what Giberson and Stephens would not have evangelicals give up in order to satisfy mainstream academic sensibilities? One letter from a secular Harvard scientist following the New York Times editorial said Christian scholars would only earn his intellectual respect if they abandoned the notion of the supernatural entirely. The authors do not wish to go that far. But exactly how far evangelicals should go is left unclear.

In The Anointed, Stephens and Giberson express admiration for evangelical scientist Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health, and his belief in the resurrection of Christ and the virgin birth. So are these core Christian beliefs, but others, such as belief in the devil, a literal hell, and the historicity of Adam and Eve (doctrines the authors mention negatively) are not? Reading the book, I'm simply not sure. Giberson and Stephens don't give evangelical readers much guidance on how to draw the line between wisely appropriating mainstream scholarship and abandoning essentials of the faith.

The Anointed raises important questions about the way that some evangelicals sequester themselves in intellectual cul-de-sacs. But the book also makes me wonder what Christians in positions of academic influence can do to help upgrade the intellectual rigor of American churches. Obviously, academic Christians have largely failed to reach a general audience of believers or there would be less of a market for the populist entrepreneurs to fill. But deriding evangelicals' intellectual deficiencies in venues such as The New York Times probably isn't the most promising way to start addressing that failure.

Thomas S. Kidd teaches history and is a Senior Fellow at Baylor University's Institute for Studies of Religion. He is the author of God of Liberty: A Religious History of the American Revolution, and his Patrick Henry: First Among Patriots is forthcoming this year. Follow his writings via Facebook and Twitter.

Kidd's column, "Faith in History," is published on alternate Wednesdays on the Evangelical portal. Subscribe via email or RSS.

Monday, November 07, 2011

Theologians don't get to slither out from under the rules of nature


Category: Religion
Posted on: November 2, 2011 11:51 AM, by PZ Myers

Keith Ward sounds just like Ken Ham. It's remarkable. You see, Ken Ham has this schtick in which he basically denies all of history: you weren't there (the only valid evidence is eyewitness evidence captured through your biological senses), and because history isn't repeatable, its study isn't a real science, isn't empirically verifiable, and is subject to whims and fads and therefore lacks any substantial objective core. Ken Ham says this kind of nonsense because he believes in a great elaborate line of historical bullshit, and wants to pretend that his illusions are on an equal footing with the evidence-based history.

Keith Ward is doing the same thing.

A huge number of factual claims are not scientifically testable. Many historical and autobiographical claims, for instance, are not repeatable, not publicly observable now or in future, and are not subsumable under any general law. We know that rational answers to many historical questions depend on general philosophical views, moral views, personal experience and judgment. There are no history laboratories. Much history, like much religion, is evidence-based, but the evidence is not scientifically tractable.

I keep trying to get this message across: the creationists (Ward is definitely not a fundamentalist/literalist sort, however) aren't just out to corrupt biology, they stomp all over every scholarly discipline with great contempt. I agree that not every thing in the universe is scientifically verifiable or repeatable, but this cavalier attitude towards history is reprehensible. Yes, there are history laboratories: there are historians who do archaeology, chemistry, biology, astronomy and all kinds of hard sciences to confirm and test historical claims. The provenance and authenticity of documents is a major historical interest.

A discrete historical event may not be repeatable, but it is amenable to confirmation and validation. The source information can be independently verified. Multiple approaches can be taken to test a claim. Did Caesar invade Gaul? It only happened once, you don't get to repeat the invasion, and no one alive was there, after all. But we can look at the archaeology of France, we can see the linguistic evidence, we've got documents from the time, and every time someone digs up a Roman cache from the first century BCE we are getting more information on the event.

I do consider it scientifically tractable. Evidence-based, empirical study and logical analysis are right there at the heart of the discipline of history.

But you know why Ward is doing this, right? It's so he can claim Jesus, as a historical figure, is totally exempt from scientific examination.

Claims that the cosmos is created do not "trespass onto" scientific territory. They are factual claims in which scientific investigators are not, as such, interested. Scientific facts are, of course, relevant to many religious claims. But not all facts are scientific facts - the claim that I was in Oxford last night, unseen by anyone, will occur in no scientific paper, but it is a hard fact. So it is with the miracles of Jesus, with the creation of the cosmos and with its end.

So, if I claimed that Keith Ward was hatched from a rotten turtle's egg incubated in a dung heap, that would not be trespassing onto scientific territory? Because it happened in the past and no one directly witnessed it, my claim gets to stand unchallenged and unquestioned? I should think if I made a remarkable claim in defiance of a standard scientific observation — that humans are birthed in a standard mammalian way, and that Keith Ward is a mammal — I think I should certainly deserve an argument on scientific grounds against my assertion.

On his trivial claim that he was in Oxford, unobserved, I'd say it could be turned into question amenable to rational inquiry and verification. Is there evidence that is compatible with him being in Oxford at that time? Did he leave any traces, credit card receipts, was he spotted on a traffic camera, were there witnesses he didn't see? Even if there actually is a complete absence of evidence and nothing we can directly test, we can at least whether the claim is compatible with what we know.

A better comparison with the miracles of Jesus would be for Keith Ward to claim he'd been on Mars last night. Can we evaluate that scientifically? Sure can. If he's going to argue that, he'd better have a collection of Mars rocks, a spacesuit, and a rocketship in his back yard.

Again, I'm not claiming that everything has to be demonstrable as a scientific fact. A poem is not subject to a scientific determination of its truth. But the existence of a poem does not flout the nature of the universe, and doesn't call into question the validity of physics, while Ward is blithely swapping in mundane experience as proof of extravagantly unlikely, ridiculous claims like the "miracles of Jesus". Not only is it a very weak argument, it's dishonest. It's like saying you can't disprove I had a drink of water this morning, therefore you you can't disprove that my glass of water had cosmic consciousness and taught me how to fly.

Also, as long as you're insisting on saying very silly things, could you at least have the courtesy to avoid using your ignorance to spit all over the entirely respectable and rational discipline of history?

Sunday, November 06, 2011

The incredible self-destructing psychologist


Category: Bad Science • Bad science
Posted on: November 2, 2011 12:38 PM, by PZ Myers

Holy crap. A Dutch social scientist's career has just crashed flamingly. He apparently had a tremendous reputation.

"Somebody used the word 'wunderkind'," says Miles Hewstone, a social psychologist at the University of Oxford, UK. "He was one of the bright thrusting young stars of Dutch social psychology -- highly published, highly cited, prize-winning, worked with lots of people, and very well thought of in the field."

But maybe someone should have been made a bit suspicious by this behavior:

Many of Stapel's students graduated without having ever run an experiment, the report says. Stapel told them that their time was better spent analyzing data and writing. The commission writes that Stapel was "lord of the data" in his collaborations. It says colleagues or students who asked to see raw data were given excuses or even threatened and insulted.

Graduate students who were not doing experiments, a PI who was, graduate students doing all the analysis and writing, a PI who wasn't? This was an obvious inversion of the natural order. Human sacrifice, dogs and cats living together... mass hysteria! Such peculiar behavior should have alerted someone early on — data are primary.

And now, the denouement:

Diederik Stapel was suspended from his position at Tilburg University in the Netherlands in September after three junior researchers reported that they suspected scientific misconduct in his work. Soon after being confronted with the accusations, Stapel reportedly told university officials that some of his papers contained falsified data. The university launched an investigation, as did the University of Groningen and the University of Amsterdam, where Stapel had worked previously. The Tilburg commission today released an interim report (in Dutch), which includes preliminary results from all three investigations. The investigators found "several dozens of publications" in which fictitious data has been used. Fourteen of the 21 Ph.D. theses Stapel supervised are also tainted, the committee concluded.

Stapel has made a comment. I don't think he understands what he has done at all.

Stapel initially cooperated with the investigation by identifying fraudulent publications, but stopped because he said he was not physically or emotionally able to continue, says Levelt. In a statement, translated from Dutch, that is appended to the report, Stapel says: "I have made mistakes, but I was and am honestly concerned with the field of social psychology. I therefore regret the pain that I have caused others." Nature was unable to contact Stapel for comment.

No, he was not honestly concerned with the field of social psychology. If he actually cared about what the evidence told him about the world, he wouldn't have made it up. He was honestly concerned with the selfish goal of making a name for himself, nothing else.

He'll never be trusted in any field of science ever again. He's going to have to look for a new career…maybe theology, where making up data is a way of life.

I get email


Category: Creationism
Posted on: November 3, 2011 2:11 PM, by PZ Myers

Did someone rattle the monkey cage recently? I have been getting a sudden wave of email from defenders of Kent Hovind, which is not good. Of all the creationists, Hovind spawns the most illiterate, incomprehensible mess; I think you have to be of very low intelligence to find anything at all appealing in that guy.

Anyway, here are two examples. I'd kind of like to be game-fully employed — does that mean I just sit around all day playing games? Because I suppose that could be fun.

Your assessment of Kent Hovind

You are an arrogant jackass. Your pompousness is only exceeded by your stupendous idiocracy. The fact that you are game fully employed is proof that we were created and it was obviously not survival of the fittest. If there were any true justice in this country, you would be the one sitting in jail. Hey ape-man, go back and crawl under the rock from witch you came and do the world a favor...

Have a wonderful day

This next one is just weird. He spelled my name right, but misspelled Hovind's, which is a first. He's also very confused — I think he has the impression I'm a Hovind supporter.

Kent hovend

as much as I love Kent hovend I have to say he is guilty
any one who has listened to any of his video's has seen him say don't pay your tax's
I don't if he did not say that in his video's they would have left him alone
however there is a good part he get's a captive ears that need to here what he has to say
we have copied his videos & passed them around
any one that watched them loves them
he makes it easy to understand
keeps it light [ funny ]
none of it is boring unlike most all church's most guys drift off
in to never never land our wife's have to nudge us
where no one that watch's Kent never drift's off ever

if he get's out some day he will maybe in a few years
tell him not to talk about tax's for or not just shut up about it
he can do more good out than in jail
on the good side when he gets out he will have a new set of suckers to
debate the old one retire or die off
hes still a young man & he has his son's to take over
yes I did signed your paper to get him out
about a year ago
remember it is better to use a little honey to get them on your side than to
make them pissed off & wont talk to him any more
yes I know its not as much fun hahahhaha

Those are the strange line breaks in the original. I get the feeling he was trying to write a poem.

The Limits of Magical Thinking


Friday, October 28, 2011

Probably the most-written sentence (or some variation of it) around the globe these last few weeks is: "Steve Jobs changed our world."

No argument here (disclosure: I am a big fan, owning five Apple products, from computers to an iPad). Though once derided as a narrow visionary and maker of niche computers for artists and academics, he and his products now dominate and are emulated throughout the technology marketplace and beyond. The successes of Jobs and Apple cannot simply be measured in market share and capitalization. Indeed, Jobs' vision seamlessly married design style with technological substance, making computer products as much a work of art as a catalyst for imagination and ideas. He brought the science fiction of Asimov and Roddenberry to life, and for that, his tragically shortened life will be remembered for a long time to come.

But not all of Steve Jobs' decisions were good ones. While many have learned from his technological visions and business acumen, his decisions around his own health also hold important lessons for us all.

Diagnosed in October 2003 with an islet cell or pancreatic neuroendocrine tumor — a rare pancreatic cancer that can be cured if it is found early and is amenable to surgical removal — Jobs spurned the best medical advice and the pleas of his family and friends to pursue his own path. He sought out, according to Walter Isaacson's new biography, a hodgepodge of alternative therapies including a diet of carrot and fruit juices, acupuncture, herbal remedies, and even the advice of a psychic.

Nine months after his initial diagnosis, his tumor was found to have grown and spread. But it was too late. His cancer was now incurable, and we are all sadly familiar with his slow decline. According to Dr. Steven Cohen, chief of Gastrointestinal Medical Oncology at Fox Chase Cancer Center, it is "conceivable" that if a patient with a malignant islet cell tumor "had a localized and resectable cancer, waiting nine months could make the difference between cure and not being cured."

Why would someone whose vision of life embraced technology fully, and who had every medical resource in the world at his disposal, reject a technology that might have saved him? Jobs is quoted in his biography as saying that he "didn't want them to open up my body, so I tried to see if a few other things would work." A friend believed that Jobs had "such a strong desire for the world to be a certain way that he wills it to be that way." This magical thinking might have worked in his world of computers, but for his health, as one friend mournfully considered, "reality is unforgiving."

Jobs' decision follows several larger social trends in the United States. Among them are a general loss of faith in and diminution of expertise (just look at the 24 hour news cycle to see who is considered an expert and/or authority these days), and the decline of medical and scientific authority, even to the point where doctors, researchers, and their ideas are treated with outright hostility (the Daily Show did a great piece on this earlier in the week).

In the wake of these transformations, complementary and alternative medicine — a broad category that includes herbal medicines, acupuncture, massage, megavitamins, self-help groups, folk remedies, energy healing, chiropractics, and homeopathy -- has exploded in popularity in Western societies. The most recent available data, from 2007, show that annual out-of-pocket spending on them in the United States was nearly $34 billion.

Dr. Paul Offit, chief of infectious diseases at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, is currently writing a book on the history of alternative medicine. He ascribes its rise to the more individualized approach and to the way it fits into the popular obsession with the "all-natural." Medicine, with its pharmaceuticals, radiation, and chemotherapies, is now somehow seen as unnatural. Despite his mainstream medicine credentials, Offit believes that there is a place for alternative medicine, especially in understanding the mind-body connection and in eliciting an immune response driven by the placebo effect.

But he identifies three issues to be aware of:

What lessons does it hold for public health? Well, for starters, public health education has failed when large swaths of the public become wary of science and medicine. The anti-vaccine movement, with its misbegotten claims of vaccine dangers, embodies this problem.

Second, alternative and complementary practices and products need better government regulation and oversight. Currently, many practices fall outside of regulatory purview. Manufacturers of dietary supplements, for example, including vitamins and herbs, do not have to prove safety and efficacy of their products before marketing them. The Food and Drug Administration and Federal Trade Commission do monitor the products – but only after they are being sold. Contrary to the anti-regulation fervor currently in vogue in certain political circles, government regulations are supposed to protect citizens from each other (in this case, those selling snake oil remedies) and from ourselves (so we make better decisions on our own behalf; think of seatbelt and antismoking laws).

Let's hope that Steve Jobs' inspirational life and legacy not only enable us to think differently about technology, but also remind us that decisions about our health should not be left to magical thinking.

Saturday, November 05, 2011

Clueless at the Clergy Letter Project


David Klinghoffer November 4, 2011 4:24 PM | Permalink

Michael Zimmerman of the pro-Darwin Clergy Letter Project revisits the old "Science and Religion: At War or Peace?" theme with an article at HuffPost asserting that peace is "breaking out" between the old combatants and anyway, rightly considered, there was never a war between Science and Religion in the first place. He then lays into Discovery Institute in a paragraph the likes of which -- well, we've read its likes many, many times before. He allows that, of course, there remain pockets of resistance to enlightenment:

Yes, there are religious leaders who proclaim that their religious teachings dictate their scientific beliefs. Fundamentalists who adhere dogmatically to a specific interpretation of ancient texts and demand that those bizarre interpretations be taught in science classes fall into this category. Who does he mean by this?

Fundamentalists like those at the Discovery Institute who promote a redefinition of science to include the supernatural...fall into this category. But these people and organizations, as loud and as well funded as they are, do not represent the vast majority of religious individuals. When we conflate these two dramatically different groups and assume they have the same motives and intellectual underpinnings, we're making a huge mistake and missing an opportunity for enhanced understanding.Now that is a passage of prose rich in grotesque errors and misconceptions. There's nothing in intelligent design that redefines science -- it merely asks that the definition not be reformulated to arbitrarily exclude precisely those explanations of natural phenomena that best fit the data.

For a gentleman who's professionally committed to activism in the evolution debate, Zimmerman doesn't seem to have followed the players very carefully at all. Folks at Discovery Institute "proclaim that their religious teachings dictate their scientific beliefs"? We are "fundamentalists who adhere dogmatically to a specific interpretation of ancient texts and demand that those bizarre interpretations be taught in science classes"?

Where? When? Who at DI has every "proclaimed" such a thing? I don't work with "fundamentalists," unless Zimmerman wants to use that term simply to designate people he doesn't like. What "specific interpretation of ancient texts" are involved in observing, as intelligent design does, that nature bears sign of purpose and design? When did anyone at Discovery Institute ever "demand" that even that modest proposition be taught in any public-school classroom? Never. For all the links you need on this, go look at our post from a couple days ago responding to a similar grossly uninformed account from a journalist at New Scientist magazine.

What about Zimmerman's suggestion that Darwin-doubting views including intelligent design "do not represent the vast majority of religious individuals"? In fact, according to Zogby polling, ID is the view held by the majority of individuals in America, religious or otherwise, period.

But this whole tedious "Science v. Religion" trope misses the point. It does so almost every time a Darwinist tries to address it. The real question of interest isn't whether religion can live comfortably with science but whether religion can live comfortably with scientific ideas that are in error, fallacious not as religion but as science. On my own Wikipedia bio, a typical moron's stew of truths and falsehoods, we have this sentence, citing somebody called Larry Yudelson: "Yudelson has responded, in a piece directed at Klinghoffer, that rabbinical Judaism has accepted evolutionary theory for more than a century, and that Judaism has never rejected science."

What about German racist evolutionary-eugenic "science," the prestige view in that country hardly more than seventy years ago and that helped inspire the destruction of six million Jews? It was considered "science" at the time. Obviously, whether we're talking about Judaism or any other faith, to say that a religion embraces "science" must be followed by the question of whether members of the faith seek to distinguish true from false science, or do they simply go along with whatever their culture deems "scientific"? If the latter, it's not a very smart religion, is it.

You really have to wonder whether folks like Michael Zimmerman give any thought at all to what they write. Among the items of evidence he offers for his thesis, there's this:

The US National Academy of Sciences, probably the most prestigious scientific honorary organization in the world, published a book in 2008 entitled "Science, Evolution, and Creationism." The book couldn't have been any clearer about the conflict between religion and science: "Attempts to pit science and religion against each other create controversy where none needs to exist."But the same organization, the National Academy of Sciences, has a membership composed almost exclusively of atheists and agnostics (65.3% and 29.1% respectively, for a total of 94.4%, as John West noted in Darwin Day in America; the figure is as of 1998). Never mind what the scientists at NAS say in official proclamations intended to sooth the gullible. Their own stated views regarding their beliefs tell you all you need to know about how comfortably current scientific orthodoxy, or certain key tenets of it, can sit alongside traditional faith.

But the same organization, the National Academy of Sciences, has a membership composed almost exclusively of atheists and agnostics (65.3% and 29.1% respectively, for a total of 94.4%, as John West noted in Darwin Day in America; the figure is as of 1998). Never mind what the scientists at NAS say in official proclamations intended to sooth the gullible. Their own stated views regarding their beliefs tell you all you need to know about how comfortably current scientific orthodoxy, or certain key tenets of it, can sit alongside traditional faith.

A feminist embarrassment


Category: Creationism • Equality • History
Posted on: November 1, 2011 2:04 PM, by PZ Myers

I cringed reading this woman's lament that evolutionary biology is responsible for the oppression of women, starting with Darwin. It's one long colossal failure of logic.

The argument has some genuinely true facts embedded in it, which then get spun out into a series of false conclusions. It is true that the Victorian gentlemen who formulated and expanded upon the theory of evolution tended to be 19th century chauvinists who made up stories about the inferiority of the feminine mind, and Darwin was right among them. It is also true that there are contemporary biologists who still make up similar stories and engage in blatant retrofitting of the data to rationalize sexism or racism (Satoshi Kanazawa comes to mind as one of the most egregious examples).

But don't confuse cause and effect! Sexism predated evolutionary theory, and is a product of the wider culture. And creationism, most obviously, is extremely sexist, with its predefined gender roles and gender-based assignment of blame for the entirety of our wicked nature. To single out a late 19th century scientific theory and accuse it of promoting a deplorable cultural attitude that was both present before the theory was discovered, and present to an even greater degree in the individuals who strongly opposed the theory, is ridiculous in the extreme, and embarrassingly stupid.

But I'm not done. The entirety of the edifice of her logic is built on exactly one essay, one attack on evolution, by one guy. And that guy is the rabid squirrel of creationism, Jerry Bergman.

Bergman is so awful, so incompetent, so dishonest, that citing him in any way in support of your position (let alone allowing his lying slander of Darwin be the sole source) instantly discredits anything you might say. It says you have no discernment or capability of critical evaluation of your sources.

I'm sorry to say that the taint of incompetence has now also spread to Loretta Kemsley.

Christian group rebuts evolution for 30 years


According to recent poll, only 22 percent of post-graduates believe in creationism.

By Jeff Hargarten 2011 / 11 / 03

Twice a week Ore Phillips sets up shop at the University of Minnesota's Coffman Union to spread his message on where humans came from.

Phillips is the president of Maranatha Christian Fellowship — a student group promoting creationism to students on campus. For decades, the group, which is celebrating its 30th anniversary this year, has worked to spread its message at one of the largest scientific research institutions in the country.

As students progress through their college careers, religious beliefs change drastically, according to a 2010 Gallup poll. The polls showed only 22 percent of postgraduates nationally believe in creationism, compared to 47 percent of high school students.

Phillips believes it's up to him and his group to maintain students' faith in creationism throughout college. The volume of information about evolution compared to that about creationism on campus, he said, can overwhelm the beliefs of students.

"We like to get the discussion going," said Grant Buse, Maranatha's adviser and a University graduate, adding he wanted "students to openly consider alternatives to evolutionary theory."

The topic of creationism versus evolution is a "very popular" one among students, Buse said.

Maranatha uses grant money to periodically hold seminars at Coffman with guests who speak about challenges to evolutionary theory.

Hundreds of students — skeptics and supporters alike — attend these seminars and drag group discussions on for hours into the night, Buse said.

"A lot of secularists and atheists attend to debate us," he said.

The initial student reactions to creationism and intelligent design are often negative, Buse said, but discussions usually progress into constructive debate — something he welcomes.

"We want to give students a fighting chance to see another side," Phillips said.

Most Mondays and Thursdays, Maranatha has an information table set up in Coffman where students visit to talk about evolutionary theory and creationism.

The group's flyers, some detailing alternative views on the history of the dinosaurs and creationist challenges to evolution, are popularly requested both by students who find them "silly" and those who are genuinely interested, Buse said.

Buse doesn't want to see creationism taught in the science classroom since he views that as a place meant exclusively for "empirical evidence," but he does support teaching the "scientific challenges" to aspects of evolutionary theory on campus.

"How did we all get here? Where does that answer lead us? These questions are fair to ask," he said.

He sees professors and science instructors as marching in "lockstep" on evolutionary theory and wants to bring alternative views to the campus outside the classroom.

"It's an important discussion," he said.

Phillips said it's difficult to discuss creationism in science classes, since few students are bold enough to respectfully challenge a professor in class and also because the subject is rarely addressed.

"Coming from a creationist perspective, there's not a lot of tolerance for any kind of challenge [against evolution] whatsoever," he said.

The University's College of Biological Sciences includes creationism and intelligent design into its curriculum — both in introductory science courses and entire classes dedicated to the subject. The classes focus on the history of the concept and its scientific rebuttals.

But other student groups — like Campus Atheists, Skeptics and Humanists — frequently sponsor debates on topics related to science and religion, and some members have attended Maranatha seminars to engage in discussion.

"They attempt to promote biblical literalism at a well-respected research university by cloaking [creationism] in scientific-sounding words," said Chelsea Du Fresne, co-chair of CASH.

"The scientific community here does not feel obliged to give them a second glance," she said.

Mayor Bloomberg says White House candidates must believe in evolution, global warming


Says 'mind-boggling' some candidates don't believe science

BY Erin Einhorn & Alison Gendar

Thursday, November 3 2011, 5:19 PM

'We have presidential candidates who don't believe in science,' Bloomberg said

Belief in science should be a no-brainer, especially for anyone running for President, Mayor Bloomberg groused Thursday.

The mayor used an international economic forum at Columbia University to pop off against any candidates who doubt the science behind hot-button political topics such as evolution and global warming.

"We have presidential candidates who don't believe in science," Bloomberg said, without singling out dubious Republican candidates directly.

"I mean, just think about it, can you imagine a company of any size in the world where the CEO said 'oh I don't believe in science' and that person surviving to the end of that day? Are you kidding me? It's mind-boggling!"

Bloomberg grew coy when asked which candidate he was talking about.

"I don't know," he said. "You can check the presidential candidates' speeches… I don't have time to go do it but all their speeches, everything they said."

Only one GOP contender - former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman - has come out full force saying he believes in science.

"To be clear, I believe in evolution and trust scientists on global warming. Call me crazy," he wrote on Twitter. He later attacked Rick Perry on "This Week" when he said, "The minute that the Republican Party becomes the anti-science party - we have a huge problem."

Republican front-runner Mitt Romney has also stood up for evolution in the past, refusing to denounce it, as other candidates did, during a 2007 debate.

The reality is that the Republican presidential slate is full of candidates who doubt evidence that rising world temperature is "unequivocal," as the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration recently noted.

Texas Gov. Rick Perry has said he just doesn't buy it - and thinks the scientists pushing the idea were motivated by greed, not facts.

"There are a substantial number of scientists who have manipulated data so that they will have dollars rolling into their projects," Perry told a New Hampshire business breakfast in August.

Pizza baron Herman Cain said much the same thing.

"I don't believe global warming is real," he told CBS in June. "Do we have climate change? Yes. Is it a crisis? No."

Cain said there's no reason for panic. "The real science doesn't say that we have any major crisis or threat when it comes to climate change."

Rep. Michele Bachmann, who in April voted for a House bill that prevents further regulation of greenhouse gases, told a crowd in August: "I think all these issues have to be settled on the base of real science, not manufactured science."

Sen. Rick Santorum said the earth's warming and cooling is caused by a laundry list of things: El Nino, La Nina, sunspots and moisture in the air.

"The idea that man through the production of CO2 which is a trace gas in the atmosphere and the manmade part of that trace gas is itself a trace gas is somehow responsible for climate change is, I think, just patently absurd," he told radio talk show host Rush Limbaugh in June.

Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich earned some of his political stripes helping a 2008 commercial against climate change.

Rep. Ron Paul was quoted in a 2007 interview that "I think some of it [global warming] is related to human activities, but I don't think there's a conclusion yet."

But by a 2009 Fox interview, Paul said "the greatest hoax I think that has been around for many, many years if not hundreds of years has been, this hoax on the environment and global warming."

Romney, while serving as Massachusetts governor, introduced in 2004 a statewide Climate Protection Plan, billed as "an initial step in a coordinated effort to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases."

But as recently as Sept. 28, Romney told a New Hampshire town hall meeting "The planet is probably getting warmer. I think we're experiencing warming. That's No. 1. No. 2, I believe that we contribute some portion of that. No. 3, I don't know how much. It could be a lot, it could be a little."

Evidence schmevidence


Jacqueline Vance
November 04, 2011

Why are Western doctors so resistant to complementary alternative medicine and supplementation? When you mention this, no matter how evidence-based, they look at you as if you just said, "Hey, let's get a naked, chanting shaman in here waving clucking chickens over your patient's head."

Yes, I know those two don't go together … I'm just saying how they look at you.

I feel like saying, "Um, hello, are you aware that the Institute of Medicine of the National Academy of Sciences and the Bravewell Collaborative recently convened a summit on Integrative Medicine and the Health of the Public?"

And that the summit looked critically at the evolution of integrative medicine — which is a holistic approach to healthcare that uses the best of conventional and alternative therapies such as acupuncture, Reiki and advanced nutritional (nutraceutical) remedies.

The conclusion is that many of these therapies are scientifically proven to be medically and cost effective. Yes, scientifically documented and not in Witch Doctor's Weekly, either!

So why do we nurses need to be advocates for complementary and alternative medicine? Let's break it down "Nurse Jackie" style … (This means I'm about to get really "real" again.)

A report by the Commonwealth fund, "Quality of Health Care in the United States" looked at the state of healthcare in our nation and showed some pretty serious gaps, particularly in preventive care. Big deal, right? Uh-uh, because we wind up spending a lot of money (way too much) "after the fact."

Did you know that in 2009, $2.5 trillion (or 16.5% of the U.S. Gross National Product) was spent on healthcare … and of that, 95 cents of every dollar was spent on treating a disease after it occurred? (Source: CMS data base)

And most of that money was spent on treating chronic diseases, such as heart disease and type II diabetes, which by the way are preventable and even reversible. Yup, I'm not making this stuff up. (It would be waaaay funnier if I were!)

Many healthcare practitioners don't tend to think of breakthroughs in medicine such as nutraceuticals. Some people have a hard time believing giving nutraceuticals can be as powerful as drugs. But they really can be and in many instances, they're even more powerful because they can prevent the problem in the first place

So why the resistance? Well, in reality, our "health-care" system is a "disease-reactive" system. Nurses are at an advantage here over doctors because we are trained on health and wellness while doctors are trained on sickness.

I've asked this question of wellness versus sickness to dozens of doctors. Almost all tell me they are generally trained under the presumption that when someone gets "sick," they were well to begin with but most likely they aren't (young or old so this applies to you, too, kids)!

Ask a doctor to take 100 patients' vitamin D levels and I can pretty much guarantee that 98 of them are way below therapeutic level and 1 of the 2 that is in range is someone who lies naked outside at noon every day for a half hour. Hey, their 25(OH)D level is great … they'll just get skin cancer!

OK, so maybe there are doctors out there who will agree that nutrition is important in prevention, but so many are suspicious about supplements. But "eating well" isn't necessarily going to get us where we need to be.

To be honest, gang, unless you are supplementing with good non-synthetic advanced nutritional supplements, you're not "well." Even if you live at Whole Foods, you're not going to be nutritionally sound. It's a couple of weeks from harvest to shelf. Do you grow your own? Great, except that in this country we have depleted so many nutrients from our soils, and our ground soil is so exposed to pollutants, it's just not as nutritious as what our grandparents grew.

Do you microwave your food? Fabulous little invention, right? Except now all you have is empty calories because you've nuked out all nutritious content. So eating healthy isn't as easy as it sounds.

But "Dr. X" will say, "Show me the clinical trial." Well, I can show you. For example, you can find major meta-analyses on coenzyme Q 10 (Co-Q 10) being beneficial to the heart, brain, kidneys and other tissues and show that it is low in persons with chronic diseases such as heart conditions, muscular dystrophies, Parkinson's disease, cancer, diabetes and with persons on statins (statins just suck out whatever Co-Q 10 you have left in your body) and that supplementation improves these conditions in various ways.

I can show you peer-reviewed journal evidence on the benefits of stabilized rice bran (SRB) on chronic diseases such as diabetes, high cholesterol, liver abnormalities, irritable bowel disease, inflammatory bowel disease, and cardiovascular disease. I can show you that SRB is one of the most potent and accessible sources of a complex mix of phytonutrients, beta-sitosterols and antioxidants and because of that, it has been shown to enhance the immune function.

We can look at studies on Methylsulfonylmethane (MSM), a natural Cox2 inhibitor that does not have the side effects of the synthetic ones and that are used clinically to treat pain in conditions such as osteoarthritis, scleroderma, fibromyalgia, lupus erythematosus, and stress injuries-repetitive type.

We can talk for hours about good liquid non-synthetic vitamins and minerals (no need for mega doses when it's pure sources) and their benefits. But, many of these studies are in journals such as the Journal of Alternative Medicine, the Journal of Medicinal Plants Research, American Journal of Nutrition, Journal of Nutritional Biochemistry, Journal of Herbal Pharmacotherapy, etc.

I can show you all of this and it will still be met with major skepticism. I just don't get it. This isn't snake oil!

But there are studies in journals the average doctor would recognize, such as the International Journal of Immunopharmacology, Atherosclerosis, International Journal of Molecular Medicine, and the Journal Human Hypertension (and no chicken-wielding shamans!)

And just wait until you see the new research being conducted relating micronutrient deficiencies in nursing home patients with comorbid problems. Your residents need selenium, copper, iron, zinc, iodine, phosphorus, magnesium, plus liquid protein amino acids, and just check out what the vitamin B supplementation does.

Oh, and Flintstones chewables DO NOT COUNT! But how many docs pooh-pooh multivitamin-multimineral supplementation? OK, so blind stubbornness upsets me.

But do you know how much we could help our residents by advocating for good evidence-based supplementation with nutraceuticals? Think about it: boosting the immune system; decreasing constipation; lowering LDL and triglycerids; lowering blood pressure; lowering risk of stroke; stabilizing blood sugar; enhancing cognition, energy and stamina; decreasing pain; improving function; all while getting rid of that nine-or-more meds problem while getting people healthy and saving precious Medicare dollars. I've seen this work.

OK, I'm climbing down off of my soapbox for now. But — and I know I sound like Joan Rivers here — can we talk? Seriously.

Just keeping it real,

Nurse Jackie

The Real Nurse Jackie is written by Jacqueline Vance, RNC, CDONA/LTC — a real life long-term care nurse who is also the director of clinical affairs for the American Medical Directors Association. A nationally respected nurse educator and past national LTC Nurse Administrator of the Year, she also is an accomplished stand-up comedienne. She has not starred in her own national television series — yet.

Quacks react to Andrew Weil's proposed board certification in woo


Category: Alternative medicine • Medicine • Quackery
Posted on: November 4, 2011 9:00 AM, by Orac

About a month ago, I discussed a rather disturbing development, namely the initiative by Dr. Andrew Weil to set up something he was going to call the American Board of Integrative Medicine, all for the purpose of creating a system of board certification for physicians practicing "integrative medicine" (IM), or, as I prefer to call them, physicians who like to integrate pseudoscience with their science, quackery with their medicine. At the time, I referred to it as a board certification in woo. Was I harsh? Yes. Accurate? Also yes. Unfortunately, many medical centers, both academic and community, are hopping on the IM bandwagon while more and more medical schools are "integrating" pseudoscience into their curricula. While one might expect Josephine Briggs of the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM) to be cozy with IM, depressingly, even the current director of the National Institutes of Health, Francis Collins, seems to have fallen into the trap.

As was admitted by Dr. Weil and his colleagues, this decision to create a board certification in IM was a huge about-face in that Weil had always argued that IM should be infused into all specialties of medicine. What happened, of course, is that once again marketing won out over idealism. Dr. Weil was concerned that there were lots of physicians and practitioners out there claiming to practice "integrative" medicine, many of whom had no qualifications in the field. At this point, the wag in me can't resist pointing out that, given that IM "integrates" pseudoscience with science and that there really are no standards, scientific or otherwise, to guide IM practitioners (mainly because so much of IM is rank pseudoscience), why would this matter? The answer, again, comes down to branding and turf protection.

All of this is why seeing the reactions to Dr. Weil's initiative from members of the "complementary and alternative medicine" (CAM) and IM community is very instructive. Fortunately, John Weeks of the Integrator Blog has come through again, quoting over twenty different people, including physicians, naturopaths, chiropractors, journalists, and other IM practitioners in an article entitled, appropriately enough, Integrator Forum: 20 Voices on Weil/U. Arizona and the American Board of Integrative Medicine.

Uncharacteristically (for Orac, of course), I'll cut to the chase and tell you the results before I show you some of the quotes (with, of course, my own translation of what the IM-speak really means). I predict that these quotes will amuse you to no end; so I'll save them for a little bit. To cut to the chase, I'll simply tell you that physicians practicing IM appear (mostly) to love what Dr. Weil is doing. All other practitioners (chiropractors, naturopaths, etc.) appear to hate it. Of course, that's not a big surprise given that Weil's plan would in essence cut out all non-physician IM practitioners from being able to call themselves "integrative physicians" or, at the very least, to relegate them to a lower, non-board-certified rung in the practice hierarchy, which, I suspect, was the point all along. Andrew Weil wants IM to be "respectable," and to him it will only become so if the riff-raff (i.e., to him, the non-physicians) are excluded.

A typical reaction from MDs can be found from doctors like Patrick Massey, MD, PhD, the medical director for complementary and alternative medicine for the Alexian Brothers Hospital Network. (Remind me never to use an Alexian Brothers-affiliated hospital; I had no idea they were so woo-infused.) Dr. Massey, a graduate of Dr. Weil's IM residency, is very happy:

Certification is a topic that is long overdue.

Integrative medicine is a complex area of medicine that incorporates many aspects of traditional and nontraditional medicine: formal education is important. Considering how many people are blending medicine on their own, it is important for them to have qualified physicians to make sure they are not doing anything dangerous.

It cannot be done by primary care physicians. They are barely able to keep abreast of the recommendations for diabetes, HTN and CAD. Integrative medicine is not remotely in their sphere of expertise, nor the expertise of PAs and NPs, unless specifically trained in integrative medicine.

Again, one wonders what science-based standards exist to guide IM practitioners. I've asked the question before many times: When do you choose acupuncture versus, say, homeopathy? Or will IM practitioners who are MDs finally admit that homeopathy is nothing more than pure quackery with no basis in basic or clinical science but a huge basis in prescientific magical beliefs? Or how do you know what herb you should use? Or when is chiropractic more appropriate than other therapies? They don't know. There's no real science behind many of the modalities that fall under the rubric of IM. As I've pointed out before, they make it up as they go along.

One physician, Richard "Buz" Cooper, MD, pointed out something that, quite frankly, hadn't occurred to me before but should have:

This is just one more of example of Weil's entrepreneurial reach. It will enhance his 1,000 hour costly and profitable training program. He is pursuing it through a rump group, the American Board of PHYSICIAN Specialties [ABPS], which "certifies" a few marginal specialties (e.g., urgent care), rather than through the American Board of MEDICAL Specialties [ABMS], the recognized authority, which certifies legitimate specialties and which apparently has turned down the idea of certifying Weil's Integrative Medicine. Tainting the emerging discipline of Integrative Medicine with 'Weil's Entrepreneurism' will push it in the wrong direction and be a disservice to generations of patients.

You know, I really should have thought of this one myself when I wrote my first post on this issue. Dr. Cooper makes a devastatingly accurate point about how Dr. Weil has chosen to seek board certification for IM through a less-than-respected board, namely the American Board of Physician Specialties. It's very obvious that the ABMS wouldn't be interested in Dr. Weil's plan; so he looked elsewhere. Weeks, ever the Weil apologist, criticizes Dr. Cooper for "personalizing" his commentary against Dr. Weil. While this is to some extent a legitimate point, it's also legitimate to point out that Dr. Weil's residency program in IM would become a whole lot more desirable, both to graduating medical students and, more importantly, to the medical schools and residency programs to which Weil franchises his program, if IM became more respected as a specialty and especially if there were a real board certification in the specialty. (The two, of course, often go together.) Moreover, there's more to personal interest than just money. Weil is an ideologue who wants to spread his "faith" of IM to as many people as possible. Indeed, Weeks basically admits this in response to Dr. Cooper when he points out, "He is investing in something that may swell the historic importance of his work. Big egos are often associated with good things. Who isn't seeking to have more rather than less positive impact?" And IM is lucrative, as are Weil's many, many other business interests related to IM.

Interestingly, and perhaps not surprisingly, those most vociferously opposed to Dr. Weil's program were all chiropractors. I say "not surprisingly" because of the history of battles between chiropractic and the American Medical Association. For example. chiropractor Lou Sportelli comments:

Look at the Medical board of this proposed group, I care not who they are, but what they know. It will take a lot of convincing to get me to believe that this is nothing more than the old medical model at work in three stages.

The AMA was notorious for doing this to any thing that was not allopathic. This is their modus operandi and they had been successful with it until folks got wise.

Dr. Weil and his new idea are not so novel, but are highly suspect. Sounds like a lot of hype and no substance

Chiropractor James Winterstein:

[This is] an interesting move on their part. Down deep, I fear it is more of the same - dominance at all costs - in a circumstance over which they have had little control (the interest by the public in alternative medicine). Now, they form a specialty and take it [over]. I hate to say it, but I think that is a likely probability. We have already seen them work toward usurping our 'tools.' I don't like the sound of this, John.

Chiropractor and homeopath Nancy Gahles:

You KNOW [the MDs] will get the juice because they are the REAL doctors. The ones you can trust. What do they even study to make them 'integrative'? Homeopathy? NO. Functional medicine...betcha! Little nutraceutical is now the new Big Pharma. Please tell me I am dead off base here, please!

My comment is that this looks like a duck, walks like a duck and acts like a duck: co-opting integrative healthcare, calling it integrative MEDICINE and creating a Board Specialty will identify integrative healthcare with medical doctors and they will own it, be reimbursed for it and thereby drive consumers to use them only as they will get insurance for it.

One notes that Gahles is described as someone who "has been the modern leader in pushing the field of homeopathy into the nation's health policy dialogue" as the president of the National Center for Homeopathy. I never thought I'd be in partial agreement with a homeopath, but what Gahles says is more or less what I said in my previous post when I pointed out that Weil's desire to infuse all medical specialties with his woo apparently can't stand up to the cold, hard reality of how medicine is really practiced in this country. I've also pointed out that excluding the real woo, such as homeopathy, from IM is but a tiny first step in trying to make the specialty into something respectable.

Perhaps the most amusing retort from a chiropractor comes from Stephen Marini. Unfortunately, it's not amusing because it's a devastating criticism of Andrew Weil and the concept of board certification for IM. It's unintentionally hilarious because...well, just read for yourself how he describes himself as "a vitalist trained in classical science and conventional medicine" who appreciates "the role of energy/information on an individual's health and healing processes." Also note that the link to information on Marini used by Weeks comes from an entry on that repository of all pseudoscience and conspiracy theories Whale.to and that Marini is on the board of directors for the International Chiropractic Pediatric Association (ICPA). With that background, you can truly appreciate Marini's criticism of Dr. Weil after putting it into its proper context:

The concept of a medical specialty in integrative medicine is inherently contradictory. The paradigm of conventional medicine is reductionistic, hierarchical, & mutually exclusive to other paradigms of health and healing. So to ponder the concept of such a medical doctor would require drastic changes on a medical, anthropologic, sociologic, political levels etc.....

What is needed within a complementary system is a new species of health care provider that can appropriately triage a patient with regard to Era 1, Era 2 & Era 3 health care components.

If Era III reminds you of this, you will be forgiven. So what does Marini mean by "Era 3"? Apparently this:

Era I Medicine: Allopathic Therapies. Paradigm: CHEMISTRY - STRUCTURE - FUNCTION

ERA II Medicine: Holistic/Holoenergetic Therapies. Paradigm: ENERGY - CHEMISTRY - STRUCTURE - FUNCTION

ERA III Medicine: Intercessory Therapies. Paradigm: UNIFIED - ENERGY - CHEMISTRY - STRUCTURE - FUNCTION FIELDS

I say this in particular because following another link from the Whale.to entry on Marini leads to a statement that Marini provided to Jochim Shafer, who apparently wrote a book entitled The Trial of the Medical Mafia, in which Marini states bluntly that there " is no credible scientific evidence to negate the hypothesis that vaccines cause immediate or delayed damage to the immune and nervous systems of children resulting in a rise in auto-immune and neurological disorders including asthma, learning disabilities, hyperactivity, autism, chronic fatigue syndrome, lupus, diabetes, epilepsy, multiple sclerosis, Guillain-Barre Syndrome, and other diseases." He concludes that the "universal compulsory vaccination of all healthy children should be halted."

You know, I think I'll stick with Era 1 medicine, thank you very much, particularly if in Era 3 medicine I have to rely in intercessory therapies and am not allowed to vaccinate children against infectious disease. After all, intercessory prayer has been shown more than once not to work, and vaccines have arguably saved more lives than all other science-based medical interventions combined. Say what you will about Andrew Weil (and we at SBM have certainly said a lot), I've never perceived him as being anti-vaccine. Marini clearly is.

In the five weeks or so since I wrote the first installment about Dr. Weil's initiative to develop a board certification for IM, I've thought a bit about what the intent might be and what the consequences might come to be. The more I think about this, the more I think that the chiropractors and naturopaths who don't like the plan are probably perceiving it quite correctly. It is a dagger aimed right at their hearts, and it is MDs who are holding the hilt. Dr. Weil's denials notwithstanding, led by Dr. Weil, the pro-woo physician contingent is trying to make sure that no non-physician specialty can claim to be "integrative physicians." It's a big deal, too. If you don't believe just how much it matters to non-physician CAM/IM practitioners to be able to claim the title "physician," read this revealing article by John Weeks himself.

As I said before, this in and of itself might not be that bad a thing in that many of the practitioners being targeted base their practices on nothing more than prescientific vitalism tarted up with science-y-sounding language. Certainly acupuncturists, chiropractors, homeopaths, and, yes, naturopaths do this. Making it harder for them to practice their non-science-based placebo medicine is probably a good thing, as would be increasing the scientific rigor of what passes for "integrative medicine" now.

Unfortunately, I don't see that happening. What I do see happening is that, like the Thing in John Carpenter's famous 1982 movie of the same name, Weil will try to kill off the non-physician "integrative" practitioners but after doing so he will take on their appearance, just as the monster in The Thing took on the appearance of the people it killed. (Hey, it's Halloween; I had to pick a horror movie metaphor.) In doing so, he will then permanently infect the entire body of academic medicine with the virus that is IM. At least, that is his plan. He has, after all, said as much.