NTS LogoSkeptical News for 16 December 2011

Archive of previous NTS Skeptical News listings

Friday, December 16, 2011

Evolution education update: December 16, 2011

John Freshwater appeals his termination as a middle school science teacher. A county school superintendent in Kentucky blasts evolution -- and the state education commissioner replies. And the Turkish government is accused of censoring a website on evolution.


With a brief filed in Ohio's Fifth District Court of Appeals, John Freshwater is appealing a court's ruling to uphold his termination as a middle school science teacher in Mount Vernon, Ohio. It is the latest twist in a long saga that began in 2008, when a local family accused Freshwater of engaging in inappropriate religious activity -- including teaching creationism -- and sued Freshwater and the district. The Mount Vernon City School Board then voted to begin proceedings to terminate his employment. After administrative hearings that proceeded sporadically over two years, the referee presiding over the hearings issued his recommendation that the board terminate his employment with the district, and the board voted to do so in January 2011.

Freshwater challenged his termination in the Knox County Common Pleas Court on February 8, 2011. After the court found "there is clear and convincing evidence to support the Board of Education's termination of Freshwater's contract(s) for good and just cause," the Rutherford Institute, a Virginia-based conservative legal group, promptly announced its intention to appeal the decision on Freshwater's behalf. The latest brief was filed by Freshwater's attorney R. Kelly Hamilton "in conjunction with" the Rutherford Institute. It asks for a reversal of the lower court's decision, monetary damages for wrongful termination and violation of civil rights, and reinstatement of Freshwater in his teaching position.

With respect to Freshwater's teaching of creationism, which was cited in the board's resolution to terminate his employment with the district, the brief alleges, "Freshwater sought to encourage his students to differentiate between facts and theories, and to identify and discuss instances where textbook statements were subject to intellectual and scientific debate," claims, "his encouraging students to think critically about scientific theories ... cannot be rendered illegal based solely on the presumption that Freshwater's personal beliefs happen to align with one of the competing theories considered," and accuses the board's actions of constituting "an outright hostility to religion that ... violates the Establishment Clause."

For NCSE's collections of documents from the various proceedings involving Freshwater, visit:

And for NCSE's previous coverage of events in Ohio, visit:


The superintendent of the school system in Hart County, Kentucky, is complaining about the emphasis on evolution in the state's new end-of-course test for biology, according to the Lexington Herald-Leader (December 13, 2011). In a November 21, 2011, letter to state education commissioner Terry Holliday and the state board of education, Ricky D. Line expressed "deep concern about the increased emphasis on the evolution content required in the new End-of-Course Blueprint ... I find the increase is substantial and alarming." He continued, "I have a very difficult time believing that we have come to a point in education that we are teaching evolution, not the theory of evolution, as a factual occurence, while totally omitting the creation story by a God who is bigger than all of us. I do not believe in macroevolution, and I do believe in creation by our God." Line oversees six schools with about 2200 students.

Toward the end of his letter, Line posed these questions to the commissioner and board: "1. Do you consider macroevolution to be fact or theory? 2. Do you believe that macroevolution contradicts the Bible and God's hand in creation? 3. Are you personally willing to promote macroevolution as what our students should be learning as fact? 4. Do you believe it is the role of the state to mandate the teaching of macroevolution at the exclusion of other theories or beliefs?" He added, "If you don't believe in macroevolution, then please rethink what we are mandating our teachers to instill in our students. ... Stop requiring our teachers to teach, as fact, an evolution that would convince our children that they evolved from lower life forms and, therefore, have reason to discount the Bible and the faith beliefs that follow. This is not an improvement in our public education system."

In a written response to Line, Holliday explained the difference between the vernacular and the scientific uses of the word "theory," emphasized that "science is not a system of belief" and that "creation science" is not considered to be appropriate for science classrooms, remarked that evolutionary theory "is one of the foundational components of modern biology," and reviewed the treatment of evolution in Kentucky's state science standards (which received a D in Anton Mates and Louise Mead's 2009 review of the treatment of evolution in state science standards). Unsatisfied, Line told the Herald-Leader, "My argument is, do we want our children to be taught these things as facts? Personally, I don't," adding, "I don't think life on earth began as a one-celled organism. I don't think that all of us came from a common ancestor ... I don't think the Big Bang theory describes the explanation of the origin of the universe."

Holliday told the newspaper that no further response to Line was contemplated. "I think what was unclear to Ricky is that we certainly are not teaching evolution as a fact, but as a scientific theory," he said. "That's been in the program of study for a number of years." Controversy over the teaching of education in Kentucky is not new, however. Still on the books is a statute (Kentucky Revised Statutes 158.177) that authorizes teachers to teach "the theory of creation as presented in the Bible" and to "read such passages in the Bible as are deemed necessary for instruction on the theory of creation," although the Louisville Courier-Journal (January 11, 2006) reported that in a November 2005 survey of the state's 176 school districts, none was teaching or discussing "intelligent design." The most recent antievolution bill in the state, House Bill 169, died in committee in March 2011.

For the article in the Lexington Herald-Leader, visit:

For the text of KRS 158.177 (PDF), visit:

And for NCSE's previous coverage of events in Kentucky, visit:


Evolution "ranks alongside pornography and terrorism as topics that the Turkish government's controversial new Internet filtering scheme keeps out of the hands of children," according to a post on the ScienceInsider blog (December 9, 2011). The Hürriyet Daily News (December 8, 2011) reported that a website explaining evolution was blocked for children by the new filtering scheme." Users choosing the "children profile" for their internet connection are able to access "only several types of web pages such as public and educational websites," the newspaper explained.

Acknowledging that the block was subsequently lifted, ScienceInsider observed that nevertheless, "science advocates and Internet freedom activists say it's a worrying sign of the government's attitude toward evolution." Aykut Kence, a biologist at Middle East Technical University in Ankara, told the blog that the censorship "shows the mentality of people censoring the websites ... Apparently they thought that this was deleterious for kids." Kence added that the creationist websites operated under the Harun Yahya name were available "without any restriction."

For the ScienceInsider story, visit:

For the Hürriyet Daily News story, visit:

And for NCSE's previous coverage of events abroad, 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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Good money, suspect medicine


By Trine Tsouderos
McClatchy News Service
Posted: 2:00 AM December 15, 2011

CHICAGO — Thanks to a $374,000 taxpayer-funded grant, we now know that inhaling lemon and lavender scents doesn't do a lot for our ability to heal a wound. With $666,000 in federal research money, scientists examined whether distant prayer could heal AIDS. It could not.

The National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine also helped pay scientists to study whether squirting brewed coffee into someone's intestines can help treat pancreatic cancer (a $406,000 grant) and whether massage makes people with advanced cancer feel better ($1.25 million). The coffee enemas did not help. The massage did.

NCCAM also has invested in studies of various forms of energy healing, including one based on the ideas of a self-described "healer, clairvoyant and medicine woman" who says her children inspired her to learn to read auras. The cost for that was $104,000.

A small, little-known branch of the National Institutes of Health, NCCAM was launched a dozen years ago to study alternative treatments used by the public but not accepted by mainstream medicine. Since its birth, the center has spent $1.4 billion, most of it on research.

A Chicago Tribune examination of hundreds of NCCAM grants, dozens of scientific papers, 12 years of NCCAM documents and advisory council meeting minutes found that the center has spent millions of taxpayer dollars on studies with questionable grounding in science. The cancer treatment involving coffee enemas was based on an idea from the early 1900s, and patients who chose to undergo the risky regimen lived an average of just four months.

The spending comes as competition for public research money is fierce and expected to get fiercer, with funding for the NIH expected to plateau and even drop in coming years.

"Some of these treatments were just distinctly made up out of people's imaginations," said Dr. Wallace Sampson, clinical professor emeritus of medicine at Stanford University. "We don't take public money and invest it in projects that are just made up out of people's imaginations."

"Lots of good science and good scientists are going unfunded," said Dr. David Gorski, a breast cancer researcher at Wayne State University, who has been a vocal critic of NCCAM. "How can we justify wasting money on something like this when there are so many other things that are much more plausible and much more likely to result in real benefit?"

The director of the center and other advocates say it is worthwhile to use taxpayer dollars to study certain alternative treatments.

"They deserve scientific attention," said NCCAM Director Dr. Josephine Briggs, who noted that the center's $128 million annual allotment amounts to less than half a percent of the total NIH budget.

Briggs, a respected NIH researcher and physician who has headed NCCAM for nearly four years, said in an interview that she is dedicated to evidence-based medicine and that the center, under her leadership, is committed to rigorous scientific studies.

The center's recently adopted strategic plan focuses on studies of supplements and other natural products along with the effect of "mind and body" therapies like yoga, massage and acupuncture on pain and other symptoms. In fiscal years 2008-2011, NCCAM funded more than $140 million in grants involving mind and body therapies, including $33 million for pain research in fiscal 2011.

The new strategic plan "reflects real change or an evolution in our mission," Briggs said. "We are not your grandmother's NCCAM."

Studies of energy healing or distant prayer likely would not get funded by NCCAM today, she said.

Yet many mind and body treatments that are being studied, like qigong and acupuncture, also involve the purported manipulation of a universal energy or life force, sometimes called qi — metaphysical concepts unproved by science and incompatible with our modern understanding of how the body works.

In an email, Briggs wrote that it isn't necessary to invoke qi or other ancient concepts to study therapies that may benefit people with chronic pain, a significant health problem.

NCCAM's continuing interest in acupuncture comes even though many of its studies have found that acupuncture and similar therapies work no better than a sham treatment at easing symptoms like pain and fatigue.

To most scientists, that would mean the treatments are failures — drug companies cannot sell medicines that work no better than salt water or a sugar pill. But in the case of acupuncture and other mind and body medicine, the center and its supporters say it's unclear whether the benefits represent a placebo response or something more complicated.

Critics of the center say it's telling that NCCAM was conceived not by scientists clamoring to study alternative medicine, but by Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, a member of the powerful Senate subcommittee that helps oversee the NIH budget.

In a 1998 speech, Harkin described watching acupuncture and acupressure ease the pain and violent hiccups of a brother dying of thyroid cancer.

"These are things I have seen with my own eyes," said Harkin, who also lost three other siblings to cancer. "When I see things like this I ask, 'Why? Why aren't these things being researched?' "

A few months later, NCCAM was created through a dozen or so paragraphs added to a budget bill.

The center's main mission was clear: Study alternative therapies and how they could be integrated into conventional treatment.

Because of its origins and purpose, NCCAM has a duality not often found in scientific institutions.

"They are serving two very different masters," said Art Caplan, a bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania. "At the end of the day, they don't want to turn themselves into 'the institute for showing complementary and alternative medicine is bogus.' Then no one will support them who is pro-complementary and alternative medicine."

Briggs said she has not been subjected to any political pressure in her tenure.

Americans spend about $34 billion each year out of pocket on complementary and alternative therapies, according to a national survey conducted in 2007 by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The survey found that about 40 percent of American adults reported using some sort of alternative treatment in the previous year. Mostly they reported taking supplements; practicing deep breathing exercises; going to a chiropractor or osteopath for spinal manipulation; meditating; or getting massages.

Finding out through well-designed scientific studies whether these treatments work is a valuable service, said neurologist Dr. Steven DeKosky, who sits on the NCCAM advisory council and is dean of the University of Virginia medical school.

"I don't know who else would do that other than NCCAM," he said.

DeKosky headed a $36.5 million study, including $25 million from NCCAM, on ginkgo biloba, a popular supplement taken as a defense against dementia and Alzheimer's disease. DeKosky's study concluded that it did not lower the overall incidence rate of either condition in elderly people who were normal or already had mild cognitive impairment.

The Tribune found that when studying dietary supplements like ginkgo biloba, NCCAM evaluates the results in a way that is accepted within the medical research community.

It's well known that people who receive any treatment, even if it is inert or useless, are likely to report that it makes them feel better. Because scientists don't want to mistake that boost for a real treatment effect, well-designed clinical trials give some volunteers the real therapy and some a fake version of it, then compare the two groups.

NCCAM considers studies finding that a supplement does no better than a placebo to be evidence that it does not work.

In an interview with the Tribune, NCCAM director Briggs cited a recent study of the fruit extract of the saw palmetto plant, which found that men who had difficulty urinating because of enlarged prostates reported relief from both the saw palmetto and the fake supplement.

Briggs described the study as one that came back "very convincingly negative" because "it did not demonstrate any benefit over placebo."

But when looking into "mind and body" medicine, NCCAM often argues that a treatment is valuable if patients report that it helped them, even if others receiving a sham treatment said the same. According to Briggs, "most in the mind and body area have actually shown impact."

For example, the center has spent millions of dollars on studies of acupuncture, in which tiny needles are inserted shallowly into the body. NCCAM's website states that the "vital energy" called qi "can be unblocked, according to (traditional Chinese medicine), by using acupuncture at certain points on the body."

Many studies, including those funded by NCCAM, find that true acupuncture performs no better than when a person is fooled into thinking he is getting acupuncture through the use of placebos like retractable needles or even toothpicks twirled on the skin.

People often report feeling less pain or less fatigued regardless of whether they receive real or fake acupuncture, suggesting a placebo effect at work. "I totally agree, in the broadest sense, that it is an effect of context and expectation and hope on pain," Briggs said.

And yet, instead of declaring these studies convincingly negative, NCCAM is pouring more research money into acupuncture.

"The intellectual dishonesty is just astounding," said Dr. Steven Novella, a neurologist at Yale School of Medicine and a critic of NCCAM. "They are just quietly changing the question and the rules."

Acupuncture researcher Dr. Brian Berman, principal investigator for $24 million in NCCAM grants since 1999, wrote in a paper published in the New England Journal of Medicine that a 2008 analysis of acupuncture studies involving 6,000 patients with lower back pain found no significant difference between true acupuncture and sham acupuncture, though both did better than usual care.

Berman, founder of the Center for Integrative Medicine at the University of Maryland School of Medicine, recommended in the paper that a hypothetical person with lower back pain who had not responded to standard medical treatments should receive 10 to 12 acupuncture treatments in addition to usual care. That series of sessions could cost hundreds of dollars.

In an email, Berman wrote that he based his recommendation on evidence that acupuncture is relatively safe and helps people. It's unclear, he said, why true acupuncture and sham acupuncture may produce similar effects.

Both Berman and Briggs said it is difficult to design trials of complex therapies like acupuncture.

"It is generally impossible to isolate a single element," Briggs wrote in an email. "A sham control in a mind-and-body study could easily miss answering the most important question of whether the patient experiences benefit (e.g., relief of pain) from the procedure as a whole."

Physicians who work with patients in pain say they welcome any new tools, especially ones without side effects of narcotics. If that means offering a treatment that may be a placebo, so be it.

"We have lots of people out there with a problem that isn't being addressed with conventional approaches," said Seattle researcher Dr. Daniel Cherkin, who also sits on the NCCAM advisory council. "What do we do with those people? To say we shouldn't do these things because it is a placebo denies them something safe and available and works. What do we replace that with?"

Critics respond that it's not right to charge people hundreds or thousands of dollars for treatments that amount to nothing more than an elaborate placebo without telling them so.

"There is another side of the coin. It is essentially deluding somebody," said Sampson of Stanford. "In other parts of our social life, it is a crime."


In fiscal years 2002 and 2003, NCCAM helped fund a study with the National Cancer Institute of an arduous regimen for pancreatic cancer that is best known for frequent "detoxifying" coffee enemas. The study was troubled from beginning to end.

The research design pitted standard chemotherapy against a regimen developed by Dr. Nicholas Gonzalez, a New York City physician. In the study, volunteers on the Gonzalez protocol were to take dozens of supplements each day, including between 69 and 81 capsules of pancreatic enzymes; undergo twice-daily coffee enemas; maintain a strict diet; and engage in other "detoxifying" activities like "skin brushing."

There was little scientific evidence to suggest all of this would work other than a paper Gonzalez published in 1999 on a pilot study of 11 pancreatic cancer patients. Five were reported to have lived at least two years, a long time for pancreatic cancer, which usually kills swiftly.

The hypothesis behind his treatment — that pancreatic enzymes are the body's primary defense against cancer and can be used to fight it — is based on an unproven idea from the early 1900s.

"We have learned a lot since 1906 about cell transformation and how these cells change," said Dr. Mary Mulcahy, a gastroenterology medical oncologist at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine.

Meanwhile, one of the protocol's components — coffee enemas — has been linked to infections and electrolyte imbalances that can be fatal.

Despite the risks and the lack of evidence that the regimen would help patients, the taxpayer-funded study enrolled 55 volunteers with pancreatic cancer. As the project continued, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the federal Office of Human Research Protections identified problems, including issues with the subjects' consent.

Researchers published their dramatic results in 2010 in the Journal of Clinical Oncology. Patients receiving standard chemotherapy had lived an average of 14 months. The Gonzalez patients lived an average of four months, and were in significantly more pain.

But some experts questioned the study's findings, saying it lacked a clear question and had a flawed design. For example, the volunteers were allowed to pick whether they received chemotherapy or the other regimen. Originally, they were to be randomly assigned to a group, but few patients were willing to volunteer under those conditions.

Gonzalez is a critic of the project, calling it a disaster. Gonzalez, who participated in the study but didn't run it, argues that the patients in his group were sicker than those receiving chemotherapy.

"It was a waste of taxpayers' money and 10 years of our lives," Gonzalez said. "It served no one and nothing."

Dr. John Chabot, professor of clinical surgery at Columbia University, led the study and said it was worthwhile. "Identifying treatments that don't work remains valuable," he said.

As for Gonzalez's criticism, Chabot said: "Dr. Gonzalez was an active participant and strong advocate of the study until the data started to come through and begin to direct us toward a conclusion."

NCCAM's Briggs declined to talk about the study, calling it "even more ancient history" and a study that would have little chance at receiving funding from her center today. "I think our advisory council would have lots of concerns," she said. NCCAM's website contains barely any mention of it beyond a link to the paper and links to the National Cancer Institute website, which provides more information.

Today, patients continue to stream in to see Gonzalez about his cancer treatment. In the end, the study changed few minds and put volunteers at risk for little benefit to them or to the greater good — at a cost to taxpayers of $1.4 million, with $406,000 coming from NCCAM.

Critics of NCCAM say the project demonstrates how difficult it can be to study complementary and alternative medicine, and that precious research dollars could be better spent elsewhere.

"We have to be good stewards of public money for science," said Gorski, the cancer researcher. "I don't view NCCAM as being a good steward of our public money at the moment. Even if they are doing rigorous science, they are still looking at incredibly implausible things."

How we got details on questionable federal health research funding (You can look, too)


December 15, 2011|By Trine Tsouderos

On Sunday and Monday of this week, we published a series examining 12 years of spending at one of the centers at the National Institutes of Health -- the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine, also known as NCCAM.

Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa takes credit for creating NCCAM and, over the years, it has spent about $1.4 billion in taxpayer dollars -- about $1.2 billion of it on research, according to the center.

We wondered what that money was spent on, and whether it was a good investment. You can read our findings on that here.

We also highlighted one of the larger studies funded by NCCAM, in partnership with the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, and that story is here.

Examining the work of an NIH center over 12 years would have been a nearly-impossible challenge in the pre-Internet era. But today, it's much easier thanks to the NIH itself, which offers a treasure trove of information online on its excellent website, NIH RePORT.

This website was invaluable to us in reporting the story, and is a great place to spend a few hours for anybody curious about what the NIH does with its $30 billion a year. A basic guide to the site, which is expansive, can be found here.

One of the more useful parts of the website is NIH RePORTER, a searchable database of grants made by the various centers and institutes within the NIH. While not entirely complete, RePORTER offers a sense of how much is being spent on what, which universities are big winners in the competition for NIH money, etc.

For some grants, there are even links to relevant scientific papers. Create a username and passcode and you can save past searches and export data into spreadsheets – a great way to sort and sift through the data. You can find NIH RePORTER here.

It is hard to imagine how we could have done this story 30 years ago. We would have had to write to the NIH and ask for documents on grants over a decade or more, plus strategic plans, meeting minutes, budget documents, a gargantuan task for them -- and for us to sort through. The cost would have been enormous. Without computer databases, we would have had to keep track of everything on paper, a massive organizational challenge.

The NIH budget has ballooned in the last 30 years, but our ability to examine how that money is being spent has gotten much easier. And that can only be a good thing as we enter an era of contracting budgets.

What should we be spending taxpayer funds on? What isn't worth the money? It's a debate that is made possible by these tools.

-- Trine Tsouderos

It's the 21st Century, People; Kentucky Schools Might Teach Creationism


Submitted by AUSCS on Dec 15, 2011

By Simon Brown

Just when it looks like a state public school system is making progress in the teaching of evolution, creationism rears its ugly head.

A new standardized biology test scheduled to be administered to Kentucky public school students starting in the spring of 2012 would require that teachers devote significant time to teaching evolution.

Unfortunately, not everyone is on board with that plan. Hart County Schools Superintendent Ricky D. Line is waging a one-man war against emphasizing evolution. According to the Lexington Herald-Leader, Line recently wrote to the Kentucky Board of Education and state education commissioner about the impending test.

"I have a deep concern about the increased emphasis on the evolution content required," Line observed. "I have a very difficult time believing that we have come to a point...that we are teaching evolution...as a factual occurrence, while totally omitting the creation story by a God who is bigger than all of us."

To make matters worse, Education Commissioner Terry Holliday made remarks intended to assuage Line, suggesting that Kentucky has come up with some sort of compromise that allows teachers to present both evolution and creationism.

The Herald-Leader reports that Holliday insisted that Kentucky does not intend to present evolution as fact. Teachers, he suggested, are also allowed to discuss alternatives to evolution, such as creationism.

Oh, where to begin. First, evolution is a theory -- just like it's a theory that the Earth revolves around the sun.

According to the U.S. National Academy of Sciences:

"No new evidence will demonstrate that the Earth does not orbit around the sun (heliocentric theory), or that living things are not made of cells (cell theory). Like these other foundational scientific theories, the theory of evolution is supported by so many observations and confirming experiments that scientists are confident that the basic components of the theory will not be overturned by new evidence."

No one in the scientific community seriously questions the validity of evolution. Just like no one is clinging to the idea that the sun revolves around the Earth.

Second, teaching evolution alongside creationism is not an acceptable compromise because it's unconstitutional. Holliday wants to keep the peace in his state by appearing to embrace a middle ground, but all he's doing is giving in to the Religious Right at the expense of the Constitution and sound academic instruction. Creationism is a religious belief and, as such, it cannot and should not be taught in public school science classes.

The U.S. Supreme Court said as much in 1987 in the case of Edwards v. Aguillard. The court held that a Louisiana law requiring that public schools could not teach evolution unless that instruction was accompanied by creationism was unconstitutional because the law's intent was to promote something central to the teachings of certain religious denominations.

Many in the education community complain about schools that simply "teach to the test" but in Kentucky's case, the test is right on, and teachers should be sticking to it very closely.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Doug Axe: Darwinian Biology Is to Spelling as Intelligent Design Is to the Art of Writing


Evolution News & Views December 14, 2011 11:06 AM | Permalink

Looking for a good metaphor to help explain the relationship between standard Darwinian biology and the new paradigm offered by intelligent design? In a podcast at our sister site ID: The Future, "Key Figures in Intelligent Design Measure the Impact of Discovery Institute," Biologic's Doug Axe has a fine one:

You can think about it in terms of the difference between mastering spelling versus mastering the art of writing. One could be a very good speller and a miserable writer and vice versa. In one case you're looking at the micromechanics of how you put letters together to make words but in the other you are looking at higher-level principles that allow good writing to take place, the principles you have to master in order to write well.

We feel that biology has been stuck, looking at the mechanics -- like spelling -- and it really has to move to a higher level where it embraces principles, and these principles are manifestly design principles. We think that life cannot really be understood until you move to that higher level.

Listen to the rest, as David Boze interviews Dr. Axe, Guillermo Gonzalez, David Berlinski and Casey Luskin, here.

Severe Weather Alert: Dr. Jerry Coyne – Militant Atheistic Biologist – Is Blowing Very Hot Air In Chicago!


December 14, 2011 6:01 pm

Of all the new age, "militant" atheists with whom I am familiar, only P.Z. Myers seems able to out-perform Dr. Jerry Coyne, of the University of Chicago, in sheer crudeness, abrasiveness, and obnoxiousness. That is not to say that Dr. Coyne is not a hard worker. Achieving silver medal status next to P.Z. Myer's gold is no small achievement; one does not scale such heights by coasting or resting on one's laurels! In fact, judging by the time and energy Coyne seems to devote to his blog, Why Evolution is True, one wonders if his students could possibly be getting anything other than sloppy-seconds.

Recently, Jerry (yes, we're on a first name basis) lashed out (read: threw a temper tantrum) at a rather brilliant academic with whom I am friendly: Dr. David Berlinski, a mathematician, science and math writer, Senior Fellow of the Seattle-based Discovery Institute, self-proclaimed agnostic, and a well known critic of Neo-Darwinian evolutionary theory. I am not qualified to pass judgment on the substance of their disagreement, which revolves around the ability or inability of evolutionary theory to account for the organized complexity of life on our planet. However, the tone and maturity level of Dr. Coyne's screed is worth noting. Here is a sampling of what he had to say about Berlinski:

"Berlinski makes an ass of himself"

"so ignorant"

"full of lies"

"blatant misrepresentations"

"pompous and awkward"

"Do not write like this!"

"[Berlinski] apes Gould's writing style"

"the idiots at the Discovery Institute"

"Discovery Institute…reserved for only the highest Poo-Bahs of Ignorance"

"the height of stupidity"

"intellectual dishonesty"

"he's a liar" "[he's] lying again"

"pompous lucubrations"

"morons like [Berlinski]"

"deliberately lies"

"[Berlinski wants] to keep them in a state of ignorance"

While Coyne's inability to control his adolescent impulses to crudely insult his opponent – so much so that it leaves us wondering if he simply forgot to take his medication – does not necessarily invalidate his actual argument, it definitely raises some red flags. He further undermines his own credibility by describing Berlinski's prose as awkward. Anyone who has read Berlinski's books or articles – whether you agree with him or not – knows that his writing is anything but awkward. Excuse me Jerry, but if Berlinski's prose is awkward, then yours could only be described as quadriplegic. On the other hand, if Berlinski's writing is the most exquisite bottle of French Bordeaux wine, yours is a watered-down quart bottle of Ripple. I'm sure an august institution like the University of Chicago has some wonderful creative writing courses…Just do it, Jerry.

Coyne also bizarrely characterizes Berlinski as a "creationist," and a "defender" of Intelligent Design theory. In fact, he is neither. The notion that Berlinski is a "creationist" is nothing short of laughable and while "sympathetic" to ID, he is by no means an advocate of the theory, much to the chagrin of his colleagues at the Discovery Institute.

Dr. David Berlinski, a true freethinker and the object of Jerry Coyne's scorn.

Most revealing of all is Coyne's confession that he has "trouble believing" that Berlinski is really an agnostic. I find this intriguing. Why is it difficult for Coyne to believe such a thing? As far as I'm concerned, the answer is obvious. Dr. Jerry Coyne is a fanatic. A fanatic is someone who is so emotionally and psychologically bound up with their beliefs, that they are incapable of considering another point of view. The sense of reality and emotional stability of the fanatic depend entirely on protecting their beliefs from any type of serious questioning or intellectual attack. Coyne is a fanatical atheist and a fanatical Darwinist. From Coyne's psychological perspective, it is impossible for there to be flaws in evolutionary theory. It is impossible for any rational person to have doubts about evolutionary theory. The only possible reason for anyone to question Darwinian Evolution would be in order to promote their religious agenda. It's clear then, that few things could be more threatening than a brilliant agnostic (like Berlinski) raising doubts about Coyne's dearly held worldview. After all, absent the motivation of a religious agenda, perhaps the reason Berlinski claims there are holes in the theory is because there are holes in the theory. That is a little to much for Dr. Coyne to handle, hence the hysterical pushback.

We can at least be thankful that Dr. Coyne did not bring up the issue of Berlinski's Jewishness as he did with me. In early March of 2011, I incurred the "wrath of Jerry" by inspiring Rabbi Adam Jacobs, a columnist on the Algemeiner and Huffington Post, to write an article entitled "A Reasonable Argument for God's Existence." The article dealt exclusively with the issue of Origin of Life, a subject which covers about 1/3 of my book, Nonsense of a High Order: The Confused and Illusory World of the Atheist. Dr. Coyne, who describes himself as a "cultural Jew," expresses his Jewish identity by posting pictures of triple-decker pastrami sandwiches on his blogsite.

In his attack on Rabbi Jacobs and me, he attached great significance to the fact that we were Jewish. He wrote that he was "deeply saddened" that arguments like this "come from Jews," and concluded by declaring, "Rabbi Jacobs makes me ashamed to be a cultural Jew."

In light of the fact that there are far more gentiles who enjoy pastrami sandwiches than there are Jews in the entire world, it's hard to understand what exactly is so "Jewish" about deli-sandwiches. In fact, it's hard to understand why Jerry Coyne considers himself Jewish at all. I'm ashamed that he trivializes the concept of Jewish identity by reducing it to something as silly and pathetic as a pastrami sandwich. I'm also ashamed that Coyne fanatically promotes life-negating ideologies like atheism and Darwinism – which teach us that a human being is nothing more than an intelligent cockroach, and no more significant either – when the entire meaning of Jewish existence was to teach the world that every human being is created in the image of God, bestowing a nearly infinite preciousness and significance upon human life.

The argument that I put forth in my book, which Rabbi Jacobs also presented in his Huffington Post column, was that the simple reason why Origin of Life researchers are baffled in their attempts to find a naturalistic origin of life – as Noble Laureate Dr. Jack Szostak put it, "It is virtually impossible to imagine how a cell's machines…could have formed spontaneously from non-living matter," is because it is impossible for a cell's machines to have formed spontaneously from non-living matter. The notion that the functional complexity of a bacterium could be the result of an unguided process is as absurd as asserting that the sculptures on Mt. Rushmore were the result of an unguided, naturalistic process. Here is Dr. Coyne's "killer response":

"Nope, we don't yet understand how life originated on Earth, but we have good leads, and abiogenesis is a thriving field. And we may never understand how life originated on Earth, because the traces of early life have vanished…I'm pretty confident that within, say, 50 years we'll be able to create life in a laboratory under the conditions of primitive Earth, but that, too, won't tell us exactly how it did happen—only that it could."

The Talmudic Sages declare that "someone who wants to lie makes sure that his witnesses and evidence are far away." In other words, a skilled fabricator always is careful to tell a story that can never be checked out objectively or falsified…sort of like Dr. Jerry Coyne telling us that while today he has zero evidence that life could come from non-life through an unguided process, not to worry: 50 years in the future we'll have all the evidence we need. I am certain that God the Creator exists while David Berlinski is not certain at all. But on one thing we are both certain: The impotence and vacuousness of Dr. Coyne's writing and reasoning speak for themselves

If you wish to be notified when Rabbi Averick's new columns appear, send an email to moe.david@hotmail.com and simply write the word Subscribe in the subject bar. Rabbi Moshe Averick is an orthodox rabbi and author of Nonsense of a High Order: The Confused and Illusory World of the Atheist. It is available on Amazon.com and Kindle. Rabbi Averick can be reached via his website.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Disco. 'tute: Dawkins too scary for kids, too mean to miracles


Category: Creationism • Culture Wars • Policy and Politics
Posted on: December 14, 2011 2:44 AM, by Josh Rosenau

Richard Dawkins has a new book out – for kids no less – and Casey Luskin is on the case. Luskin, you'll recall is the Disco. 'tute's chief pettifogger (in the classical sense), and his tendency to work himself into uncanny heights of excitement over every new creationist argument has earned him the affectionate nickname "fainting dachshund."

Dawkins's book is about myths, how we tell stories to explain things, but that sometimes those stories aren't true, and how science offers a way to tell stories that are true, and how kids can tell the difference. It's got lovely illustrations by Dave McKean, and there's an excerpt of The Magic of Reality available at NCSE's website.

Casey has many objections, but perhaps his most entertaining charge is that the book is simply too scary even for nominal grownups like himself:

One odd aspect of the book is its apparent obsession with occult-style images. A friend and I went through The Magic of Reality and together we counted over a dozen pages with pictures of demons, devils, and the like. The one above [a dragon merging with an airplane -JR] is pretty tame compared to other stuff in the book. These aren't cute cartoony-devils -- they're probably enough to give the average kid nightmares. And I say this as someone who loves sci-fi / fantasy media and has a pretty strong stomach for this sort of thing.

Depending on your ideological leanings, right now you might be thinking either "Sweet!," or "Uh, that's a little weird." As much as I enjoy science fiction and fantasy, I'm definitely leaning toward the latter end of the spectrum. After all, if you wanted to give your kid a fun book about science, why would you want it to be full of creepy pictures of demons and devils? I'm also left wondering: Why is Dawkins apparently so obsessed with occult topics and iconography?

I had a copy of the book at hand, so I checked it out. Unless you count a drawing of a fairy godmother and some Norse and African gods, I can't see how you'd say there are demons or devils on over a dozen pages. I counted 4 pages with devils on them, and those were fairly tame. Why does Dawkins include drawings of deities and spirits from other cultures? Because he's writing a book about myths, and deities and spirits are central to most myths.

If anything, the drawings of people are scarier than the drawings of the mythic beasts. The magicians Penn and Teller are shown in the midst of their famous bullet-catching trick, with smoke still rising from the gun in Penn's hand. The Amazing Randi is shown riffling a deck of cards, with a glint in his eye that would give Old Nick shivers. But these are humans, and indeed quite friendly ones.

I don't know what science fiction Casey reads or watches, but a bit of scary imagery is par for the course. The Lord of the Rings books involve orcs and sorcery and Balrogs and elves and the Nazgûl, and a higher density of gruesome death than anything Richard Dawkins has offered.

Indeed, I'd file Casey's claim to be a science fiction/fantasy fan alongside his previous claims to love Snoop Dogg, Indiana Jones, Star Wars, etc. Not as wrong, necessarily, but as irrelevant. I'd guess his reading (and perhaps his "friend"'s) runs more in this vein:

Complaining about the "demons" in The Magic of Reality makes as much sense as attacking "satanism" in Harry Potter.

There's another aspect of Casey's essay that's worth noting, which is that he basically cuts the legs out from under Discovery Institute Senior Fellow Bill Dembski.

Casey complains that Dawkins "simply assume[s] that miracles don't happen," then quotes Dawkins:

Hume didn't come right out and say miracles are impossible. Instead he asked us to think of a miracle as an improbable event -- an event whose improbability we might estimate. The estimate doesn't have to be exact. It's enough that the improbability of a suggested miracle can be roughly placed on some sort of scale, and then compared with an alternative explanation such as hallucination or a lie.

And Casey replies:

Of course it's good advice not to simply accept without investigation every claim of a miracle. But under all other circumstances you can think of, you would consider the testimony of a sane, credible witness trustworthy. Why not about miracles too? Dawkins wants us to disregard the testimony of such a credible witness, and hold miracles to an unreasonably high standard of proof -- a standard unknown in any other human discipline of truth seeking.…

Dawkins's method similarly assumes the untruth (read: insane "improbability") of miracles before the inquiry even begins.…

"At least," the skeptic may respond, "Dawkins admits the possibility of miracles. He's just trying to be logical.'" Not so. … Dawkins's parting wisdom to kids is that it is never, under any circumstances OK to accept a miracle. Kids must adopt the faith of scientism, which always denies even the possibility that miracles or the supernatural might be real.

We'll set aside Casey's gross misdefinition of scientism to get to a more interesting slip.

Readers familiar with the work of ID creationists may see something familiar in that passage. Bill Dembski's arguments against evolution has long centered on an "explanatory filter," by which one would assume biological structures (or indeed the entire universe) were designed unless the probability of those structures coming into existence by random chance exceeded some absurd probability threshold.

Critics objected that Dembski was assuming the untruth of evolution by letting "design" be the default state, they objected that his probability arguments set an insane threshold for justifying non-supernatural explanations, and ultimately to his holding evolutionary explanations to a higher standard of proof than any other human endeavor.

The difference between those charges against Dembski and Casey's essentially identical charges against Dawkins are that Casey is wrong and Dembski's critics were (and are) right. It's good that Casey recognizes that the form of the argument is appropriate, he's just chosen the wrong target. Dembski is setting up an undemonstrated concept as the default explanation for anything, and requires extraordinary levels of evidence (so extraordinary no one has ever carried out the computations for any realistic system) before he'll accept any non-design explanation for anything.

While I disagree with much of Dawkins's theology, the issue Casey takes with Dawkins is a nonstarter. Miracles are definitionally events that would be impossible within the natural laws we all know about and operate within. It's hardly unreasonable – let alone scientism – for someone to say so, and to note that they are inherently extraordinarily rare. By granting them nonzero probability under normal conditions, Dawkins is actually granting more leeway to miracles than I – or traditional Christian theology – would do. And not to nitpick, but eyewitness testimony is notoriously unreliable, so being dubious of eyewitness claims that run counter to everything else we know is not an insult to the eyewitness, it's common sense.

At the end of the day, miracles are inevitably in the eye of the beholder. Miracles that can be put to rigorous testing have always wound up having natural explanations, and since miracles are by their nature one-time events and are (as the Catholic Encyclopedia says) "the direct opposition of the effect actually produced to the natural causes at work", there's no way to test them in any reliable way. If you believe in miracles, you believe in miracles, and you do so not because of evidence, but because of faith. Faith, as one of Casey's holy books explains, is "the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen." To demand proof that miracles are supernatural is, if not sacrilege, at least missing the point. There's a reason that the god Casey worships says to Doubting Thomas: "because thou hast seen me, thou hast believed: blessed are they that have not seen, and yet have believed."

All of which raises an important question: if the Discovery Institute wants us to believe they are a nonreligious organization dedicated purely to scientific investigation, why are they so keen on defending belief in miracles and the supernatural?

Kentucky Educator Upset State Biology Test Teaches Evolution, Omits Creationism

http://hypervocal.com/news/2011/kentucky-educator-upset-state-biology-test-teaches-evolution-omits-creationism/#13238774698562&{"message":false,"status":"educate user"}

Posted December 13th 5:18pm by HVculture

Go figure that in the state of Kentucky, which houses the infamous Creation Museum, there would be a school superintendent who has a problem with a state biology test that treats evolution as fact.

The Lexington Herald-Leader reports that Hart County Superintendent Ricky D. Line raised objections over the new state biology test in emails and letters to the state education commissioner and education board.

Line was offended the biology test omits the "creation story" that cites God as the originator of the universe.

Here's what he said: "I have a very difficult time believing that we have come to a point … that we are teaching evolution … as a factual occurrence, while totally omitting the creation story by a God who is bigger than all of us," he wrote. "My feeling is if the Commonwealth's site-based councils, school board members, superintendents and parents were questioned … one would find this teaching contradictory to the majority's belief systems."

Maybe teaching evolution is contradictory to the majority of Kentuckian's belief systems. We don't know for sure on a state-by-state basis. The most recent poll, from 2006, put America just ahead of Turkey among nations that least believe in evolution. But this seems wholly contrary to the concept of schooling, especially considering Line isn't a parent, but the lead educator in Hart County.

Terry Holliday, Kentucky's state education commissioner, said the state biology test would deal with evolution as theory, not fact; teachers in Kentucky may discuss theories of creation other than evolution, but are not required to do so. The biology teachers in Hart County complained to Line that they would have to spend a great deal of time teaching evolution to prepare students for the test.

"My argument is, do we want our children to be taught these things as facts?" Line said. "I don't think life on earth began as a one-celled organism. I don't think that all of us came from a common ancestor … I don't think the Big Bang theory describes the explanation of the origin of the universe."

As reason for changing the state's science curriculum, he argued, "that the great majority of scientists felt Pluto was a planet until a short time ago, and now they have totally changed that."

Deep breaths. Deep breaths.

Where do the sensible people of this world even begin with a story like this. It's enough to just throw your hands in the air and give up. The first problem with this story is Kentucky doesn't require the teaching of evolution as fact. Not even the state's education commissioner seems willing to take the radical stance that evolution is a biological fact. But in a biology class, there is nothing theoretical about evolution.

There's science. There's religion. There's nothing that says the two can't co-exist. Or that kids have to learn one or the other. People are certainly free to practice their religion in America however they see fit. But religious and theological classes don't teach evolution, and therefore, science classes shouldn't be required to teach Christian creationism. It really is that simple.

Line comes from a position assuming his Christian creationism myth is fact. He would never argue for teaching Egyptian creationism, Native American creationism or Islamic creationism.

Line does need a correction with regards to Pluto, by the way. The IAU didn't just announce that Pluto no longer existed or that it wasn't a planet, contrary to years of scientific knowledge. They didn't change any theories about Pluto. Instead, the IAU decided to reclassify Pluto as a dwarf planet.

Using Pluto's reclassification as a dwarf planet as justification for not teaching evolution in biology class is the most specious reasoning possible.

Even more offensive to good educators everywhere is the sad reality that America is still fighting this tired argument some 90 years after the Scopes Monkey Trial. It's just depressing, a bit appalling, and indicative of the sad state of affairs in America.

Just wait until the good superintendent finds out they is learnin' these kids that the earth is ROUND!

County school superintendent blasts evolution


December 13th, 2011 Kentucky Anti-Evolution 2011

The superintendent of the school system in Hart County, Kentucky, is complaining about the emphasis on evolution in the state's new end-of-course test for biology, according to the Lexington Herald-Leader (December 13, 2011). In a November 21, 2011, letter to state education commissioner Terry Holliday and the state board of education, Ricky D. Line expressed "deep concern about the increased emphasis on the evolution content required in the new End-of-Course Blueprint ... I find the increase is substantial and alarming." He continued, "I have a very difficult time believing that we have come to a point in education that we are teaching evolution, not the theory of evolution, as a factual occurence, while totally omitting the creation story by a God who is bigger than all of us. I do not believe in macroevolution, and I do believe in creation by our God." Line oversees six schools with about 2200 students.

Toward the end of his letter, Line posed these questions to the commissioner and board: "1. Do you consider macroevolution to be fact or theory? 2. Do you believe that macroevolution contradicts the Bible and God's hand in creation? 3. Are you personally willing to promote macroevolution as what our students should be learning as fact? 4. Do you believe it is the role of the state to mandate the teaching of macroevolution at the exclusion of other theories or beliefs?" He added, "If you don't believe in macroevolution, then please rethink what we are mandating our teachers to instill in our students. ... Stop requiring our teachers to teach, as fact, an evolution that would convince our children that they evolved from lower life forms and, therefore, have reason to discount the Bible and the faith beliefs that follow. This is not an improvement in our public education system."

In a written response to Line, Holliday explained the difference between the vernacular and the scientific uses of the word "theory," emphasized that "science is not a system of belief" and that "creation science" is not considered to be appropriate for science classrooms, remarked that evolutionary theory "is one of the foundational components of modern biology," and reviewed the treatment of evolution in Kentucky's state science standards (which received a D in Anton Mates and Louise Mead's 2009 review of the treatment of evolution in state science standards). Unsatisfied, Line told the Herald-Leader, "My argument is, do we want our children to be taught these things as facts? Personally, I don't," adding, "I don't think life on earth began as a one-celled organism. I don't think that all of us came from a common ancestor ... I don't think the Big Bang theory describes the explanation of the origin of the universe."

Holliday told the newspaper that no further response to Line was contemplated. "I think what was unclear to Ricky is that we certainly are not teaching evolution as a fact, but as a scientific theory," he said. "That's been in the program of study for a number of years." Controversy over the teaching of education in Kentucky is not new, however. Still on the books is a statute (PDF; Kentucky Revised Statutes 158.177) that authorizes teachers to teach "the theory of creation as presented in the Bible" and to "read such passages in the Bible as are deemed necessary for instruction on the theory of creation," although the Louisville Courier-Journal (January 11, 2006) reported that in a November 2005 survey of the state's 176 school districts, none was teaching or discussing "intelligent design." The most recent antievolution bill in the state, House Bill 169, died in committee in March 2011.

TACT study of chelation therapy again in spotlight


December 13, 2011 Sue Hughes

Chicago, IL - The Trial to Assess Chelation Therapy (TACT), investigating the chelation therapy ethylenediaminetetraacetic acid (EDTA) in coronary heart disease patients, is once again the subject of controversy, this time in an article published yesterday in the Chicago Tribune [1,2].

The $30 million TACT trial, sponsored by the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM) and the National Institutes of Health, was stopped in 2008 while "allegations of impropriety" were investigated. These centered on concerns over the patient-consent process. The trial was restarted in 2009.

Reviewing much of the previous controversy, the current Chicago Tribune article suggests, among other things, that there was not enough evidence suggesting benefit of chelation therapy in heart disease to justify conducting the trial and that some of the doctors involved in the trial have been in trouble with state medical boards or health departments. The article, by journalist Trine Tsouderos, also reports that two paid consultants to the trial had been convicted of federal crimes. Many of the criticisms of the trial have been reported previously, and TACT was the subject of a whole critical report published in the Medscape Journal of Medicine in 2008 [3]. Tsouderos told heartwire the current Tribune article was the second "of a series on NCCAM and was a look at one of the center's larger studies."

Lead investigator responds

In response to the Tribune article, lead TACT investigator Dr Gervasio Lamas (Mount Sinai Medical Center, Miami Beach, FL) commented to heartwire that EDTA chelation therapy has been postulated to produce a favorable effect on atherosclerotic plaque, and although evidence is limited, approximately 111 000 adults in the US used chelation therapy in 2007. "So patients are being exposed to the risks of this treatment in an uncontrolled fashion and are investing their own money in it. They deserve to know whether there is any evidence of efficacy."

In response to claims in the Tribune article that EDTA is unsafe and that this led to it being delisted by the FDA, Lamas points out that the trial is using the chelation therapy under an FDA investigational new drug (IND) application, which requires regular reports of adverse events. "Indeed, when used as directed within the guidelines of TACT, chelation therapy with EDTA has proved to be remarkably safe." He added that the trial has been the subject of a comprehensive inquiry and has been reviewed by many regulatory bodies, all of which have concluded that it should continue.

On the allegation in the Tribune article that the study misled patients regarding death as a potential side effect of chelation therapy, Lamas says: "Death can be a side effect when the therapy is delivered too quickly or in an incorrect dose. Much like Tylenol, when misused, an overdosage can have serious consequences. In the context of a tightly controlled clinical trial, we did not believe that death was a potential side effect when we developed the original consent form. . . . However, in response to a request from the Office of Human Research Protections the consent form was revised in 2009."

On the reports of misdemeanors of some of the investigators, Lamas notes that over 300 physicians have participated in the trial, "yet Ms Tsouderos focused on a small number of investigators who have had legal problems, unrelated to the trial."

Lamas also says Tsouderos's claim that the trial had difficulty enrolling patients is "misleading."

"Clinical trials—even those addressing 'mainstream' therapies—often have difficulty finding productive sites and enrolling patients. TACT has been no different in this regard."

He concludes: "Anyone who has studied the history of medicine knows that many effective mainstream therapies are derived from empirical folk remedies and that some science-based treatments prove ineffective or even harmful. As a practicing 'mainstream' cardiologist, I have no vested interest in establishing the value of chelation therapy, but I do try to keep an open mind on this issue. Since neither I nor any other TACT clinical investigators are privy to interim outcome data from TACT, we do not know how the study will turn out. Our job is not to prejudge its outcome but to maintain the safety of our participants and the scientific integrity of the study, as judged by those who review our data and practices regularly."

Alternative Tompkins: Danby healer uses sound to get clients in tune


5:35 PM, Dec. 13, 2011

Written by
Anne Marie Cummings Correspondent

Mary Boardman believes in the healing power of sound.

When faced with a health crisis in 1985, she asked herself, "Am I doing what I want if I were dying?" Since the answer was no, she left her job and went to Syracuse University to receive a degree in marriage and family therapy.

By 1988, she founded the Nature's Song Retreat Center in Danby. Slowly, she watched the marriage and therapy model of healing transform.

"Today, I meet with clients, we talk, and then they receive a sound healing session," said Boardman, adding that 20 percent of her clients are undergoing chemotherapy and radiation and receive relief from the sounds she creates.

During Boardman's $90, 90-minute sessions, she rings a crystal bowl, any one of her 42 aluminum tuning forks, or places brass Tibetan bowls on parts of her clients body before ringing them.

"It all depends on the chakra -- energy point in the human body -- that needs the most opening," Boardman said.

Bernadette Fiocca lives in Ithaca and is a licensed massage therapist with an interest in sound healing. She works with vocalization for sound healing.

"If you hum, even for a few minutes, the sound creates a vibration that resonates into the tissues of your body; it's like a sonic massage that triggers a relaxation response," she said.

A mentor of Boardman's is Jonathan Goldman, author of "Healing Sounds." He said that when we are in a state of health, "We're like an orchestra playing a wonderful 'Symphony of the Self'. But what happens if the second violin player loses his sheet music? He plays out of tune. Soon, the entire string section's playing is off. This is akin to a part of our body vibrating out of harmony; we call this a condition of disease."

But can sound modalities create a direct effect on the body, or does sound work by inducing psycho-physiological reactions to the brain?

Dr. Karl Maret is a physician and director of the Dove Health Alliance in California. "We know that tissues respond to vibrancy and sound," he said. "What's still being researched is at what specific frequency, combination of frequencies, or their unique modulation patterns."

Maret said sound healing works through the energetic system of the body, just now being researched in alternative medicine.

"Fifty years from now, sound healing will be a leading future healing modality, powerfully complementing allopathic medicine," he said.

Alternative Tompkins appears monthly in The Journal and looks at the non-traditional health, nutrition and lifestyle choices practiced by Tompkins County residents. If you have an idea for an article, send your idea to ijnews@gannett.com.

Now I've seen it all: An anti-vaccine children's book


Category: Antivaccination lunacy • Medicine
Posted on: December 14, 2011 3:00 AM, by Orac

I've been so busy writing about things like Dr. Stanislaw Burzysnki's highly exaggerated cancer claims, which have become a new favorite topic of mine despite the fact that Dr. Burzynski himself has been plying his "alternative" cancer treatments for over three decades, and one of my long time topics, the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM), that I actually missed a couple of vaccine-related posts that would normally affect me the way catnip affects cats. Also, after two days of doing even longer than the usual Orac-ian screeds, one of which required quite a bit of research, it's time for a bit of lighter fare.

And, again, the anti-vaccine movement provides.

It's always mildly embarrassing to me whenever bloggers whose usual areas of interest aren't the antivaccine movement pick up on a particularly loony bit of anti-vaccine hysteria and are all over it before I am, given that I tend to pride myself on having my finger on the pulse of the anti-vaccine movement to the point where I normally am among the first to pick up on these things. Whether or not that is, in fact, anything I should actually be proud of is, of course, another question. Very long time readers might recall that many years ago (well, more than six, to be precise), I came across a book by an anti-vaccine activist who apparently fancied himself a science fiction writer. I'm referring to the hilarious conspiracy novel The Vaccine Aliens by Wednesday, December 14, 2011dav , which tells the tale of a father whose child develops autism after (of course!) getting the MMR vaccine and then who later stumbles upon the reason why. It turns out that not only does the MMR vaccine cause autism, but that it's a plot by shape-shifting aliens to destroy the human race with vaccines. I kid you not. As I so frequently say about the loonier depths of the anti-vaccine movement, you just can't make this stuff up. At least, I can't, although apparently people like Ray Gallup can. David Icke, had he known of this novel, would have been proud.

However, camp like The Vaccine Aliens, as hilariously inept as it was, is far more amusing than it is dangerous. No one, not even anti-vaccine activists, takes it seriously, with the possible exception of David Icke, who is a crank that many other cranks like to look down upon in order to reassure themselves that, no matter how little respect they get, at least they're not as ridiculed as David Icke. What's not so amusing are books like this one, a children's book by Stephanie Messenger entitled Melanie's Marvelous Measles:

The blurb advertising the book reads:

This book takes children aged 4 - 10 years on a journey of discovering about the ineffectiveness of vaccinations, while teaching them to embrace childhood disease, heal if they get a disease, and build their immune systems naturally.

That's right. What we have here is a children's book designed to promote anti-vaccine views. Even worse, it explicitly tries to tell children to "embrace childhood disease." Yeah, I'm sure children with whooping cough who are coughing so hard that they can't catch their breath for hours on end, with haemophilus influenza type b who develop pneumonia or meningitis, with polio who develop paralysis, or with measles who develop pneumonia or subacute sclerosing panencephalitis will feel happy to "embrace childhood disease," at least those who don't end up dead, who can't embrace anything other than the grave. Too bad such diseases don't give them a chance to "build their immune system naturally." As much as people like Messenger might, The Secret-like, wish otherwise, nature doesn't listen to their fantastical thinking, and microbes that cause vaccine-preventable diseases are not swayed by their wishes.

From my perspective, sentiments like this one, which, deny it as they might, many anti-vaccine parents subscribe two, some of whom will even explicitly admit as much, strike me more than anything else as a twisted misunderstanding of evolution, in which it's "survival of the fittest" combined with a Nietzschean "that which does not kill us makes us stronger." This attitude boils down to, in essence: Screw all those other kids who suffer severe complications or even death due to vaccine-preventable diseases! If your child suffers such consequences, he must have been worthless and weak (no doubt thanks to your not using enough woo to "boost his immune system naturally), and maybe surviving a serious disease will make him stronger. Of course, as Christopher Hitchens so eloquently put it recently, the Nietzschean claim that "that which does not kill us makes us stronger" is such utter nonsense that it's hard to understand why anyone can believe it otherwise. As Hitchens points out using as an example his own esophageal cancer that is not-so-slowly killing him, there "are all too many things that could kill you, don't kill you, and then leave you considerably weaker." Several vaccine-preventable childhood illnesses certainly fall into that category. SSPE after measles, for instance.

It's also hard not to point out here that the very reason that parents of unvaccinated children can get away with not vaccinating and labor under the delusion that their children are so much healthier than vaccinated children (they aren't) is because nearly everyone else does vaccinate. Herd immunity is a wonderful thing, and many anti-vaccine parents, either knowingly or not, "hide in the herd." They might not be so blithe about the glories of vaccine-preventable diseases if they actually saw the complications diseases like the measles, pertussis, Hib, and the like, as our grandparents and great grandparents did. Or maybe they wouldn't. After all, for some of these diseases serious complications are relatively uncommon, with most children surviving the disease with no sequelae, and for those in which such complications are not, think of the "natural immunity" the survivors develop! After all, that which does not kill us makes us stronger, right?

Most of the time, no.

Beliefs that living a healthy lifestyle, getting enough exercise, and taking the right vitamins and supplements will magically render their children "naturally immune" to diseases like the measles, pertussis, Hib, and other vaccine-preventable diseases are the happy delusions (to anti-vaccinationists) that allow the author of this book, Stephanie Messenger, to proclaim things like this:

I have 3 healthy, totally unvaccinated children, who have never had a childhood disease. Unlike their vaccinated friends who have often succumb to the diseases they have been vaccinated against. I kept these children fit and well using what is provided by nature - natural foods, clean water, sunshine, clean air, exercise, adequate sleep and a loving and nurturing environment.

Confirmation bias, much, Stephanie?

Of course, clean water, sunshine, clean air, exercise, adequate sleep, and a loving and nurturing environment are all good things, as far as children's health goes. No one claims otherwise. They are not, however, enough. Messenger and her children are fortunate enough to live in a population where vaccine uptake levels are high, which is almost certainly the real reason why she's been fortunate enough that her last three children have not contracted any vaccine-preventable childhood diseases. It's been pointed out that Messenger is a friend of Meryl Dorey, founder of the rabidly anti-vaccine group, the Australian Vaccination Network and is active in the Australian anti-vaccine movement, having written a book with Dory herself entitled Vaccination roulette: experiences, risks and alternatives.

One aspect of this book that I haven't seen anyone else touch upon is Messenger's story as described on her website. To put it briefly, Messenger blames vaccines for the death of her child of a condition that isn't identified and is unclear. The death of a child is a horrible thing, something no parent should have to watch and no child should have to suffer. Unfortunately, Messenger's tragedy has led her to become an anti-vaccine activist because, searching for a reason for the death of her baby, she latched on to vaccines as the cause:

This is my journey....

I can't say I believed in vaccination. I knew nothing about it, but had it done anyway. It's what you do, right? You do what doctors and baby health clinics tell you and what your parents and the media advise you to do. Well I did it, without so much as a question or thought into it. Within moments of my son receiving his immunisations he was screaming. This continued for most of the day and when he wasn't screaming he was crying. This was unusual as he was a very happy, placid baby, who was already rolling over at 8 weeks and gooing and gahing at the first sight of his mother. The doctor told me his reactions were 'normal' and he'd be OK in a couple of days.

After the first day he had almost recovered with only some irritability and restlessness noticeable. As the weeks passed he continued to reach milestones and all appeared OK.

So notice here that Messenger's baby appears to have had a mild reaction to a vaccine that lasted a day or two, after which he recovered and continued to reach all of his milestones.

After the next round of vaccinations at four months of age, apparently her son started vomiting and having seizures, after which he began a slow deterioration that ultimately led to his death. it's a sad story, and it's hard not to sympathize with Messenger and her child, but let's not let sympathy cloud our critical thinking skills and lead us to accept her anecdote uncritically or her conclusion that vaccines killed her baby. As is the case with most anecdotes, not enough information is given to let us know what happened. No diagnosis is given, and apparently doctors couldn't come to a diagnosis. From what I could glean from Messenger's story, my first thought was whether this child had an inborn error of metabolism of some kind, several of which first manifest themselves in the form of seizures in infancy. Whether that's what Messenger's baby had or not, who knows? It might explain why physicians had a hard time diagnosing it. These sorts of disorders are rare causes of seizures and neurologic deterioration, although many of them are associated with seizures. It's certainly not clear from Messenger's story whether her baby's deterioration was cause by vaccines; confirmation bias likely clouds her memory. In any event, she is utterly convinced that vaccines killed her child:

Vaccination killed him, I have no doubt. If he crawled under the sink and drank the same poisonous concoction of heavy metals, formaldehyde, foreign proteins, multiple viruses and a host of other toxins, the emergency room would have called it poisoning. Because it was injected into his body, it's called 'a coincidence'! Funny about that, and I have since met many parents with similar stories.

She concludes:

My unvaccinated children are alive and well and my vaccinated child is dead! That's what I know and live with every day.

Against an emotional response like this, all the skeptics in the world labor in vain. It is about as unlikely that we'll ever convince Messenger that she is wrong about vaccines as it is that there is a single molecule of a homeopathic remedy being left in a 30C dilution. We can and must, however, combat her message. As sympathetic as we might be about her loss, that loss mustn't stop skeptics from combatting Messenger's spreading of anti-vaccine pseudoscience, such as claims that vaccines cause SIDS (they don't; in fact they are probably protective against it) and flagrant use of the emotional power of her story to convince parents that vaccines killed her child and therefore they should not vaccinate.

The death of a single child, whatever the cause, is a tragedy. If we want to see a lot more of these tragedies, all we have to do is to be complacent and let the vaccination rate fall too far below herd enormity.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Particle of doubt: the Higgs boson and scientific uncertainty


By John Rennie | December 13, 2011, 3:00 AM PST

This morning at 8 a.m. EST — only a couple of hours after this column is published — at one of the most awaited press conferences of 2011, two groups of physicists will announce results from experiments run on the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), the world's most powerful accelerator. They will break news on the search for a long-and-feverishly sought fundamental particle called the Higgs boson, whose discovery would help to validate the theoretical framework for much of current physics.

At the risk of making a prediction that may therefore be laughably wrong by the time you read it, I will go out onto a short, sturdy limb and guess that the scientists' observations will be intriguingly suggestive of the Higgs… but fall well short of proof that it exists. The announcement will be rife with uncertainty, caveats, and disclaimers. I'll further argue, however, that the physicists' uncertainty is a hallmark of good science, not a failure of it — a point too often lost on unscientific critics.

To be sure, a certain amount of scientific grandstanding might be going on. Sometimes scientists do report results so weak and preliminary that outsiders wonder why they bothered — and the answer is often that the scientists felt a need to keep themselves or their work visible, perhaps to protect their funding. Maybe that will be the case with these Higgs announcements; maybe not. In a sense it doesn't matter to the scientific process, though, because uncertain, preliminary results are a natural step along the road to better, firmer ones.

The weight of evidence

Over the past half century, physicists have developed a comprehensive theory known as the Standard Model to describe all the known and suspected subatomic particles and the forces that control them. Perhaps the most conspicuously unverified part of that model is the hypothetical Higgs boson, which gives rise to an energy field that lends all other particles their mass.

Interactions of the Higgs boson with other classes of subatomic particles.

In short, the Higgs is why anything weighs anything — or at least that's what most physicists have believed. More than a decade ago, using the highest-energy colliders available, they searched fruitlessly for the Higgs boson and determined that its mass had to be greater than the equivalent of 114 giga-electron volts (GeV), roughly the mass of an entire atom of the element indium. But they had no way of searching in the next higher band of possible masses — up to 140 GeV — until three years ago, when the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) completed construction of the LHC.

Informed speculation circulating in the week leading up to the announcement suggests that the research groups using two of the LHC's instruments, the CMS and the ATLAS detectors, have seen indications that might indicate a Higgs particle with a mass around 125 GeV. One such reading could be a fluke; two starts to look like independent corroboration… but major doubts remain.

And that is why my prediction that this Higgs news will be cautiously tentative is a safe bet. For starters, to rein in expectations, CERN spokespeople have already started telling some journalists that the announcement will not be definitive. (I do love a sure thing.) So the official position of CERN will be that nothing was decisively found.

During installation of the ATLAS detector. (Credit: ATLAS experiments © 2011 CERN)

It also helps that neither the CMS nor the ATLAS detector can observe the Higgs directly. Nothing can. Instead, physicists have to look for evidence of the Higgs's spontaneous decay into a shower of other particles. From those decay byproducts, they can infer the presence of the Higgs. The catch is that the physicists can't absolutely rule out the possibility that collisions between other particles didn't create those byproducts and confound the results.

But the most important reason physicists will be reluctant to celebrate too enthusiastically is that their statistical confidence in the results is probably too weak. Statisticians characterize the amount of random variation in sets of data with the measure called a standard deviation (or sigma). The normal threshold for a scientific discovery is a result that shows at least 5 sigma difference from the control or baseline, which means they can be 95 percent confident it is real. (The sigma value doesn't reflect the odds that a result is correct, only that the result is not simply a statistical fluke, like a flipped coin randomly coming up heads five times in row.)

Those informed rumors suggest that the confidence levels of the two LHC experiments may only be 2.5 or 3.5 sigma. If so, the reports are interesting but untrustworthy observations that might turn out to be completely misleading in the long run. Lots more data will be needed to raise confidence in these observations and to rule out competing explanations, and the LHC scientists will no doubt be gathering it over the next year to dispel the uncertainty.

Knowing what you know

Uncertainty is a crucial strength of science, not a weakness. It's not merely an admission of ignorance but a quantified assertion about what is known confidently and reasonably. Yet science's embrace of uncertainty drives certain critics crazy — usually ones who find themselves on the losing side of an argument against science.

The tobacco industry harped for decades on the uncertainties in the medical literature linking smoking to cancer. In the late 1990s, then-GOP political consultant Frank Luntz wrote an influential memo (later leaked) that observed the "scientific debate is closing [against us]" and recommended emphasizing uncertainty in the climate science as the strategy most likely to sway the public away from taking global warming seriously. Representatives of the Discovery Institute, an intelligent-design creationism think tank, point to holes in the fossil record and unanswered questions about the evolution of life as proof that biologists don't know what they're talking about. Activists have also clutched at straws to make cases based on uncertainty against the safety of childhood vaccinations and genetically modified foods.

Such dogmatic thinking is at odds with what makes real scientific progress possible. The physicists at CERN can speak about tentative results on the Higgs boson today because months from now, without losing credibility, they can say that additional experiments have either upheld or disproved them. In words often (though unreliably) attributed to the economist John Maynard Keynes: "When my information changes, I change my mind. What do you do, sir?"

Update (added Dec. 13, 10:00 a.m. EST): Indeed, the CERN announcements were both as excited and as tentative as expected. Here's a link to CERN's official press release on the news. A relevant quote:

Taken individually, none of these excesses is any more statistically significant than rolling a die and coming up with two sixes in a row. What is interesting is that there are multiple independent measurements pointing to the region of 124 to 126 GeV. It's far too early to say whether ATLAS and CMS have discovered the Higgs boson, but these updated results are generating a lot of interest in the particle physics community.

Hart schools chief: Evolution is viewed as fact in state test


By Jim Warren — jwarren@herald-leader.com

Posted: 12:00am on Dec 13, 2011; Modified: 12:09pm on Dec 13, 2011

Hart County's school superintendent is arguing that a new test that Kentucky high school students will take for the first time next spring will treat evolution as fact, not theory, and will require schools to teach that way.

Superintendent Ricky D. Line raised the issue in recent letters and email messages to state Education Commissioner Terry Holliday and Kentucky Board of Education members. Line wants them to reconsider the "Blueprint" for Kentucky's new end-of-course test in biology.

"I have a deep concern about the increased emphasis on the evolution content required," Line wrote. "After carefully reviewing the Blueprint, I find the increase is substantial and alarming."

Line contends that the Blueprint essentially would "require students to believe that humans ... evolved from primates such as apes and ... were not created by God."

"I have a very difficult time believing that we have come to a point ... that we are teaching evolution ... as a factual occurrence, while totally omitting the creation story by a God who is bigger than all of us," he wrote. "My feeling is if the Commonwealth's site-based councils, school board members, superintendents and parents were questioned ... one would find this teaching contradictory to the majority's belief systems."

Holliday insisted Monday that Kentucky will not be teaching evolution as fact. Currently, teachers can discuss theories of creation other than evolution but they are not required to teach them.

In an earlier response to Line, Holliday wrote that end-of-course tests are intended to reflect college and career readiness and "promote more rigor and depth in traditional courses." Educators would be doing Kentucky students a disservice by "denying them the opportunity to learn science concepts required to obtain that goal," Holliday wrote.

Line, however, said Monday that Holliday's comments didn't calm his fears.

"My argument is, do we want our children to be taught these things as facts? Personally, I don't," Line said. "I don't think life on earth began as a one-celled organism. I don't think that all of us came from a common ancestor ... I don't think the Big Bang theory describes the explanation of the origin of the universe."

The end-of-course assessments are mandated under the wide-ranging education reform passed by the 2009 Kentucky General Assembly. Students taking English II, Algebra II, U.S. history and biology will be required to take the tests, which measure what students learned in those courses.

Results from the tests will figure into individual schools' scores. Results also will count for as much as 20 percent of students' final grades in the four courses. The exams will be given for the first time in spring 2012.

The "Blueprint" to which Line refers sets out what the test in biology would cover. He said his district's science teachers have told him that they will have to devote large amounts of classroom time to evolution in order to prepare students for the test requirements.

"I asked why, and they said that a large percentage of the test is on genetics and evolution," he said.

The vast majority of scientists contend that evolution is an accepted cornerstone of modern science, and that there is no real scientific debate over the concept.

Line counters that "it's interesting that the great majority of scientists felt Pluto was a planet until a short time ago, and now they have totally changed that. There are scientists who don't believe that evolution happened."

Line also recently raised objections to the Kentucky Education Department's plan to join 19 other states in developing "Next Generation" learning standards in science.

"I am concerned with the current standards of some of these states," he said in a message to state board members. "I do not believe that our Commonwealth's parents would be in agreement with the teachings from some of these states."

Line cited New Jersey, California, Tennessee and several other states where content examples involve evolution, the Big Bang theory and the origins of life on earth.

Holliday said Monday that no other response to Line is planned now.

"I think what was unclear to Ricky is that we certainly are not teaching evolution as a fact, but as a scientific theory," he said. "That's been in the program of study for a number of years."

Holliday said he was "a little surprised" that evolution had come up as an issue now.

"It's something that kind of comes and goes," he said. "Kansas is a state that has dealt with it, and Texas has dealt with it. It's an important topic for a lot of people. But we really haven't assessed it before as we will in biology."

Reach Jim Warren at (859) 231-3255 or 1-800-950-6397 Ext. 3255.

Steve Jobs a victim of homeopathy, says expert


Last Updated: December 14, 2011

by: By Jordanna Schriever
December 13, 2011 8:39AM

ALTERNATIVE medicine is unethical, criminal and likely contributed to the death of Apple boss Steve Jobs, visiting professor Edzard Ernst says.

The world's first professor of complementary medicine was in Adelaide yesterday to speak at the Australasian Pharmaceutical Science Association conference at UniSA.

Famous for causing an uproar when, in July, he labelled Prince Charles a "snake oil salesman" for his dandelion and detox remedy, Professor Ernst yesterday spoke of the dangers of unproven complementary medicine.

"They mislead people to the point of being quite dangerous, all of this is idiotic rubbish," he said, calling for more rigorous testing of claims.

"Australia is one of the highest user groups globally. About 50 per cent of the general population use some form of complementary medicine."

While he supports evidence-based complementary medicines such as St John's wort, Professor Ernst took aim at homeopathy, aromatherapy, herbal remedies, Bach flower remedies and magnetic therapies.

He said the plethora of misinformation about homeopathy - which treats "like with like" through the dilution of elements - had contributed to deaths, likely including that of Mr Jobs, who died from pancreatic cancer in October.

"Steve Jobs delayed his operation for pancreatic cancer, for I think about a year, in favour of ultimately an unproven treatment," he said.

"Homeopathy is totally underinvestigated, look at Steve Jobs' cancer death, which is totally tragic."

The problem, he said, was the "monstrous" amount of available misinformation, and a lack of regulation and clinical testing. "They should be tested in exactly the same way which we test any other treatment," he said. "There's only one science and there is no alternative to science."

Professor Ernst said claims that these therapies worked, made without proof, were "irresponsible and criminal". He said the science did support specific therapies which were backed by evidence, such as St John's wort.

The professor was this year forced into an early retirement from Exeter University, where he set up the Complementary Medicine and Rehabilitation Department in 1993, after an earlier stoush with the Prince over a confidential report.

Creationism: It has no place in the classroom


Monday, December 12, 2011

Leicester Mercury

Lee Turnpenny discusses an unscientific view of our origins that ignores the evidence

Every now and again there re-emerges the thorny issue of whether or not creationism, the faith position which holds that all species were brought into being in their present form, should be taught in schools as an "alternative" to evolution, the scientific evidential explanation for how species arise – including us humans.

Whenever the media picks up on this scientists often adopt the stance of refusing to debate with creationists, because it plays into the "teach the controversy" trap, thus affording a non-argument undue publicity. But do advocates of free speech corner themselves when objecting to creationists being provided a public platform from which to broadcast their anti-enlightenment beliefs?

Objecting to the teaching of creationism in schools is not an affront to free expression: those who need it are at liberty to go to their respective house of worship and have it preached to them (ideally when they're old enough to decide for themselves). Neither is such objection intrinsically anti-religious: science is well practised and taught by many religious people. But a science teacher who teaches creationism in flat contradiction of evolution dismisses in a swipe the bounteous evidence from biology, palaeontology, geology, cosmology and more.

Although such "science teachers" might claim to be providing all relevant viewpoints for consequently informed minds to decide freely for themselves, they fail in their duty. Young earth creationism is entirely a faith position – and a completely potty one at that.

Creationists, who use faith as justification for refusing to make the effort to understand life's complexity, are an embarrassment to their religions. When you hear someone venture in all seriousness that humans and dinosaurs must have co-habited on this planet – because the Book of Genesis tells us so – I suggest you give them a wide berth. Their irrelevance excludes them from the (sometimes) more nuanced science vs religion debate, invoked on pragmatically important matters such as embryonic stem cell research.

And beware also the media-age attempt to blend creationism and evolution – so-called "intelligent design". This pseudoscience is the resort of those who draw on science to present an air of credibility (think advertising), and then reinvoke the "God of the Gaps" in order to attack evolutionary science.

Teaching creationism in schools is stultification of children's intellectual and critical faculties necessary to the approaching of arguments worth having. Giving creationism a platform, under the claim to "educate" or provoke "thought", falls into the trap, and potentially contributes to the undermining of evolution – and the demonising of scientists – in the public eye. It ought neither to be propagated in schools, nor propagandised in the media.

Lee Turnpenny is a biologist, who blogs on science.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Complementary and Alternative Medicine: What is it, and should we fund it?


Category: Denialism and Woo • Homeopathy • Skeptical Skepticism • Skepticism
Posted on: December 11, 2011 9:19 PM, by Greg Laden

Skeptics love to hate CAM. And often, with good reason. Alternative medicines or medical treatments, as is often pointed out, become "mainstream" when the available science suggests that they work, so it is almost axiomatic that "alternative" means "unproven" and it is probably almost always true that the kinds of things that end up as "alternatives" come from sources with poor track records. For instance, one of the most common forms of alternative medicine used over the last several decades is Extra X where X is some substance we know the body uses, and that we know a deficiency of is bad. The idea is that if something is good at a certain level, loading it on by a factor of anywhere from two or three to several hundred over the usually consumed amount must be REALLY good. If a substance is used in the body for something we like ... an immune system function, tissue repair, muscle energetics, etc. ... then consuming vast quantities of it MUST be good. And, in some cases, this turns out to be true. There are times when consuming huge quantities of potassium is medically indicated, for instance. But this does not mean that a daily intake of seven or eight hundred bananas is a good idea. It turns out that loading huge quantities of vitamins and minerals has very little or no positive effect and it can be rather harmful in some cases. (Though there may be some exceptions.)

Another source of alternative medicine is plants or other "natural" products. Over human prehistory and history, around the world, people have adopted the practice of eating one kind of plant or another (or extracts or products from those plants) for a ritual purpose, or sometimes, health related reasons. If we believe that culture is highly adaptive and that human cultures would, over the long term and on average, mainly adopt and maintain practices that work, then we would expect a lot of "natural" cures or supplements to be effective. And, it turns out that some are. However, it is also true that some of the most effective natural substances have already been incorporated into our mainstream medicine, and in some cases, subsequently replaced by improved synthetic versions of the original "natural" product. Mostly, though, human culture turns out to be a lot like chimp culture; Both humans and chimps do things that seem at first to have a certain purpose but are by and large arbitrary and non-functional in any direct sense. (There is some interesting discussion of this here.)

So, we can probably think of "Alternative Medicine" as a proving ground or sandbox for new ideas, but one that kinda sucks as a place to actually get new ideas that lead to anything. In fact, University research departments and Big Pharm have expended a fair amount of effort in examining plants and animals as sources of medicines. I don't think it is ever going to be productive to search around among, say, New Age Americans to see what they are doing to find new cures for diseases. Monitoring plant and animal use by cultures world wide is probably still worthwhile because it is interesting, but likely to also be low-yield in terms of real medicines. The systematic examination of life forms for interesting and useful molecules is probably the best way to go, until science has caught up somewhat with nature and can produce and test newly imagined molecules more effectively. And that day is coming; It will not be long before there is a new anti-biotic or psychotherapeutic drug invented by someone's screen saver.

Alternative medicines might have "Placebo effects." But I'm pretty sure I understand placebo effects and I'm pretty sure that the phrase is misused and misunderstood. Nonetheless, some people may feel better or improve more quickly from certain conditions if they carry out certain medically useless rituals. And, even if this is of only limited use, people are still going to do it. Therefore, it seems reasonable to allow for a certain amount of "Alternative Medical" research on wooish substances simply to demonstrate their safety or lack thereof. I want the NIH and the FDA to discover that this or that herbal remedy is dangerous, so people can be warned or the product regulated. But the search for effective cures among substances that we know are ineffective is a bad idea.

Having said all that, I would now like to point out that the term "CAM" has three words in it, not one. CAM does not mean what most people think it means.

Most Skeptics, when they hear the term "CAM" focus on "Alliterative" and get all skeptically thinking about that and claim that CAM is BS because acupuncture does not work, your chiropractor is a quack, and creatin does not build muscles. At the same time, people who are favorable towards CAM hear the term "CAM" and hear "Medicine" ... i.e., a thing that cures you makes you feel better, etc. Neither group is hearing the first word in the phrase: Complementary!

If you like the alternative stuff, and you take your Echinacea every morning, then you may need to be reminded that CAM is not Medicine. It is Complementary. So, for instance, the process of dialysis is not CAM, it's medicine. The practice of making a dialysis room, where someone will sit hooked up to a bunch of tubes for several hours a week, a more relaxing and less stressful place to be, is CAM. A practice that is complementary to the medicine, and maybe a good thing.

I had the opportunity a few years ago to advise a number of students in one of the country's largest CAM programs. The CAM program was designed for medical students, but undergraduates in my program pursuing individualized degrees could sometimes hook up with CAM faculty and do projects, or even an entire undergraduate degree, related to faculty interests. I want to say that all of my CAM students but one were students that I inherited when I started working in this particular degree program (which had nothing to do with the CAM department) and it was unlikely that had the program not been cut and had I continued there, that I would personally have attracted or developed very many additional CAM students. Having said that, the students I worked with were smart, industrious, and not annoying from a skeptical perspective (mostly). I was quite impressed, in fact. And, to help my fellow skeptics understand what CAM is a bit better than they may now, I want to relate a few experiences.

At one point I was asked to sit on the oral exam committee of a student graduating from the program. My main question for the student was this: "You've been in the program for several years. What sorts of things that you thought were true, or likely true, in the beginning of your time in the program that you now think differently of, and why?"

The answer was essentially this: In early days, she said, she and others thought that "Alternatives Medicine" would provide specific cures for specific things. Acupuncture would be good for pain, some herbal extract would be good for a certain infection or other disease. Now, she said, we understand that most of these things either don't work at all, or if they have a benefit, it is a more general one related to a person's sense of well being or level of stress.

In other words, what she learned after being involved in this program for a few years was pretty much what you, as a skeptic, were probably thinking as well.

Another students worked out something I mentioned above: How to make a dialysis facility less stressful. That same student, in a different project, worked on the mind-body-art problem. When someone engages in certain kinds of activity, often involved with art, one tends to go into a trance-likes state. Is this related to some of the things shamans in various cultures do? Is it in any way beneficial? What does the brain look like when this is happenings? This was an undergraduate research project linked to a couple of classes, not a PhD, so she did not answer these questions fully. But, her approach was scientific, and she learned quite a bit, and nothing homeopathic happened.

I'm not suggesting that we build more CAM centers. Rather, I'd prefer to see those useful elements of CAM that have developed over the last couple of decades become incorporated in medical practice. Having said that, I also understand that the world of standard medicine may not be a good place for such things to exist. Perhaps CAM needs to be separate, institutionally, simply so that it won't be eaten alive, gutted, re-purposed, or crushed.

And, having said that, I do think CAM funding should not be spent on testing things we know don't work. Yet, having said THAT, I do not trust the medical profession to make sound judgments in that area. There are a handful of cases of medical experts writing off things prematurely that eventually became part of standard medicine, and those cases generally demonstrate that medical researchers and physicians are often not good skeptics. They receive their knowledge from their local culture the same way Vitamin-C popping New Agers do. I mentioned Creatin above. Some years back, I looked into Creatin and found that mainstream medical experts claimed it would not do what body builders thought it would do for a particular physiological reason that made sense to me at the time. But I also found out that some medical practitioners were using large quantities of Creatin effectively in certain special cases (of heart disease) in a way that violated our assumptions of why it should not work at all. And lately, I see that the Mayo Clinic web page on Creatin suggests that maybe it does work for body building after all, though with much equivocation. I no longer uncritically accept the assurances I was given ten years ago by M.D.'s that Creatin was a useless dilatory supplement. Perhaps it is, perhaps it is not (obviously I've got to read up on this again!). What I do remember from my first look at it is this: It was stated that a "peer reviewed study" had disproved the effectiveness of Creatin in body building. I found the study and read it, and discovered that the study's results were ambiguous and the methodology sucked. Apparently, a study that confirms expectations is good enough to uncritically cite even if it is a bad study. This does not engender a high level of trust, does it?

Anyway, Elyse Anders asks about funding of CAM in a recent blog post which actually inspired the post you are reading now. She points out that some 120 million dollars or so are spent each year by NIH on CAM related research. That is around one half percent of the NIH budget, if my figures are correct. So, not much. Still, is it being well spent?

That funding is done through the National Center for Complimentary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM). So, our question would be, what does NCCAM fund, and how much of it is crazy stuff vs. possibly not crazy stuff?

Well, this is what they funded in 2011. There are 15 pages of grants, so I'm not sure how to examine or summarize this for a mere blog post. How about if I tell you about the first item on every other page as a sample?

Before you even think about commenting on this list, please remember that a list of titles and amounts is very very hard to put a meaning to. Don't criticize a research project until you've read the grant proposal or at least the summary of it (and you can find them via the link above) or you are no better than Bobby Jindal with his Earthquake Prediction Research remarks.

Having said that, I do feel a bit icky about the above randomesque sample. I was under the impression that acupuncture was total woo (am I wrong about that?). If it is, then is funding research on it merely throwing expensive bones to poorly behaved dogs? Med student behavioral science learning and teaching might be interesting. Let's look at the description of that one:

Most medical schools recognize the growing need for future practitioners to know basic aspects of behavioral health and social science, yet pervasive challenges in teaching these topics impact the effective learning of the essential skills, knowledge, and attitudes.

1) Often behavioral and social science content is not integrated with what is traditionally viewed as the "core" curriculum, causing students, and faculty to view these topics as less important than others in the curriculum.

2) The effective teaching of behavioral health skills requires small-group instruction and practice, necessitating a large number of well-trained faculty tutors. Preparing these tutors to convey the necessary knowledge and attitudes as well as the skills presents a major challenge for medical schools.

3) Preparation for the rapidly changing world of medicine necessitates that students learn more than how to perform specific skills. Students need to learn to assess the evidence for doing something in a particular way, and the underlying theory as to why it works. At UCLA there is an established, integrated curriculum in behavioral science and extensive training available for faculty teachers. Thus the primary challenge, and the one to which this proposal is directed, is to bring in competencies in the "why" as well as the "how." The overall goals of this proposal are to develop

1) curricular modules demonstrating the evidence base for behavioral sciences,

2) effective faculty development materials, and

3) valid and reliable assessment tools that illuminate the evidence base and attitudes behind the skills and knowledge we are teaching, and to

4) disseminate these materials to other medical schools.

This will be done by a Curricular Planning Committee, under the direction of Margaret Stuber, M.D. An Expert Consensus Panel of content experts from a variety of medical specialties, public health, health psychology, and medical anthropology, as well as students, consultants from RAND, the community, and other schools of medicine, will contribute a public health and research perspective to the content.

Basically, a good idea. The success and importance of such a program will all be in the execution. But I would say this is not woo.

Let's look at one of the more technical and physiological oriented ones that has to do with a "plant that can cure you": The use of Milk Thistle extract for treating Diabetic Nephropathy:

Oxidative stress and glutathione (GSH) imbalance are major contributors to the pathogenesis of diabetic nephropathy. Circulating monocytes participate to this process since these cells carry a high oxidative burden and are found in diabetic renal tissue. Current options for the treatment of oxidative stress in diabetic nephropathy are limited and only partially effective, thus interest in the development of new strategies is high. N-acetylcysteine (NAC) and the milk thistle (MTh) plant flavonolignans are nutritional supplements with complementary antioxidant properties. Both supplements are capable of neutralizing directly toxic free radicals but, more importantly, NAC is substrate for the intracellular generation of GSH and the MTh flavonolignans are inducers of many cellular enzymes participating in GSH metabolism, including GSH-reductase (GSH-R), GSH-peroxidase (GSH-Px), GSH-S-transferases (GST) and superoxide dismutase (SOD). We propose that combined oral supplementation of NAC and MTh flavonolignans will reduce proteinuria and urinary and systemic manifestations of oxidative stress and inflammation, which are characteristically observed in patients with type 2 diabetes mellitus (T2DM) and related nephropathy. We expect these effects to be achieved with minimal or no side effects, and with good patient tolerance.

To test this hypothesis, we propose a double-blind randomized, placebo-controlled, five-arm pilot study which includes a dose ranging component in patients with T2DM and established nephropathy. Intervention will consist of the individual and combined oral administration of one level of NAC and two levels of MTh flavonolignans or placebo for three months. The intervention groups are: (A) placebo; (B) NAC 600 mg BID; (C) Siliphos? 480 mg BID; (D) NAC 600 mg BID + Siliphos? 480 mg BID; and (E) NAC 600 mg BID + Siliphos? 960 mg BID. The primary outcome measure will be urinary excretion of albumin, a marker of glomerular injury. Secondary outcome measures will be alpha-1 microglobulin, a marker of tubular injury, and urinary excretion of inflammatory cytokines and C-C chemokines, i.e. markers of renal inflammation. In plasma and in peripheral blood monocytes from the same patients, we will analyze GSH content and activity of GSH metabolizing enzymes. In addition, we will analyze the plasma and urine glycoproteome, with focus on those glycoproteins serving as inflammatory cell messengers and hormones. These variables will be monitored in relation to both treatment allocation and prevalent blood and urine levels of the active treatment. Throughout the trial, we will monitor the safety and tolerability of this combination treatment.

Cool. I wonder how it came out. This is quite possibly a good example of a CAM grant, assuming that there has not already been piles of research ruling out this thistle milk stuff. Or, it could be a case of throwing bones. I would have to do a literature review to come close to making a decision on that. In theory (and as we all know, theories are just stuff we make up but don't believe) the whole point of having an NIH is to have trusted experts making these decisions.

The thing is, there are also politics at work when it comes to federal funding. Is the NIH funding useful research, training, and development or not? And, is it the role of the Skeptical Community to get involved in this sort of question?

The answer to the last question is a resounding yet provisional YES! I gave you the link. Pick a project, read the related literature, and figure out if funding that project is a valid use of funds, a bit of congressional pork, a wooish pet product of some bureaucrat, or a bone being thrown to someone. Write a blog post about it. Don't extrapolate from your one careful look to the entire program, but rather, put it in proper context. If you don't have a blog post, you can put it here as a guest post (if it is legit).

Otherwise, though, please don't be a "relieved skeptic." Elyse asked a valid question and raised important issues, and more are raised here. NCCAM is worth looking at ... critically. We should do that.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

The 'Breathtaking Inanity' of Rick Santorum and Michele Bachmann


Michael Zimmerman, Ph.D.

Founder, The Clergy Letter Project

Posted: 12/ 8/11 02:31 PM ET

Let me begin with the obvious. On so many levels, it is absolutely irrelevant what either Michele Bachmann or Rick Santorum has to say about virtually anything. With that in mind, we shouldn't care that both again weighed in on the relationship between religion and science this past week in their egotistical self-promotion in search of primary votes.

But the fact is, they both made outrageous statements and it's troubling that they believe that the extreme positions they've staked out will resonate with voters. Even more troubling is that those outrageous statements will, in fact, likely resonate with some voters.

To be fair, though, Bachman and Santorum deserve credit for what they've said. Yes, their statements are completely and totally false, but, each of them, in single, largely incoherent utterances, managed to accomplish a perfect trifecta. Their positions are fully at odds with the well-articulated opinions of America's judiciary as regularly expressed over the past 45 years, they are completely out of synch with the findings of the world's scientific community and they are remarkably disrespectful to a majority of religious individuals around the globe. Not bad for a couple of minutes of work!

Let's start with Rick Santorum's position on the teaching of creationism in public schools. In an interview with the editorial board of the Nashua Telegraph, he criticized scientists for wanting science taught in the science curriculum. Yes, you read that correctly!

Since it's all but impossible to meaningfully paraphrase his rambling position, I'll quote it in its entirety so you can form your own opinion:

There are many on the left and in the scientific community, so to speak, who are afraid of that discussion because, oh my goodness, you might mention the word, God-forbid, "God" in the classroom, or "Creator," that there may be some things that are inexplainable by nature where there may be, where it's actually better explained by a Creator, and of course we can't have that discussion. It's very interesting that you have a situation where science will only allow things in the classroom that are consistent with a non-Creator idea of how we got here, as if somehow or another that's scientific. Well maybe the science points to the fact that maybe science doesn't explain all these things. And if it does point to that, then why don't you pursue that? But you can't, because it's not science, but if science is pointing you there, how can you say it's not science? It's worth the debate.

Bachmann's position, as expressed in a visit to the University of Northern Iowa, while far clearer than Santorum's, is no less absurd. She complained that not teaching intelligent design in public school science classes represented governmental censorship. She made it clear that her views on the subject were shaped by her religious beliefs"

I do believe that God created the earth and I believe that there are issues that need to be addressed -- the Second Law of Thermodynamics, the issue of irreducible complexity, the dearth of fossil record. Those are all very real issues that should be addressed in science classes.

It's quite amazing that Bachmann would bring up the Second Law of Thermodynamics since even the most hard-core creationists have largely let that one go! The idea never gained ground in the scientific community because it was so absurd and it was completely demolished for the educated lay person 30 years ago.

What's truly troubling is that both Santorum and Bachmann imply that evolution and religion are in conflict and that students should be exposed to religion in their science classes. Santorum, at least, should know better since he claims to be a devout Roman Catholic. The Catholic Church is comfortable with evolutionary theory and as I've pointed out in the past, Santorum's decision to ignore the teachings of his own church is an act of unbridled hubris on his part.

But the issue runs deeper than that. Like all creationists, when Santorum and Bachmann promote their anti-science agenda, they are also promoting one very narrow religious agenda. And that narrow agenda marginalizes members of all other religions. It is for that reason that so many mainstream religions have taken positions diametrically opposed to what Santorum and Bachmann are promoting.

Finally, in a delicious irony, the strongest and clearest judicial ruling against intelligent design was handed down in 2005 by Judge John E. Jones III in the landmark Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School Board case. In ruling that intelligent design had no business being taught in public school science classes, Judge Jones referred to the "breathtaking inanity" of the Dover Area School Board. As he so forcefully explained, his decision was solidly based on the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and had absolutely nothing to do with governmental censorship. What makes this so wonderfully ironic is that Judge Jones, a conservative Republican, was appointed to the federal bench by President George W. Bush upon the recommendation of none other than then-Senator Rick Santorum.

It is terribly sad that people in leadership positions like Santorum and Bachmann are willing to play politics with education rather than accepting three obvious points:

  1. Evolutionary teaching has nothing to say about religion, and the leaders of most major religions understand this;
  2. Evolutionary theory is the only viable scientific theory explaining the diversity of life found on Earth and virtually every major biological society in the world has issued a statement in support of this position; and
  3. Countless U.S. courts have ruled that the First Amendment requires that creationism in all of its guises not be introduced into public school science classes.

These are not complex points. And they are not controversial points. Let's accept them and move on. In fact, I suspect that enough of us have done just that and that might, in part, explain why Santorum and Bachmann are languishing at the unpopular end of an undistinguished Republican field.

This Blogger's Books from Amazon.com

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