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Survey: Americans don’t know much about religion

Posted in News by Skepdude on September 28, 2010

READ THE FULL ARTICLE AT THE WASHINGTON POST

A new survey of Americans’ knowledge of religion found that atheists, agnostics, Jews and Mormons outperformed Protestants and Roman Catholics in answering questions about major religions, while many respondents could not correctly give the most basic tenets of their own faiths.

Forty-five percent of Roman Catholics who participated in the study didn’t know that, according to church teaching, the bread and wine used in Holy Communion is not just a symbol, but becomes the body and blood of Christ.

More than half of Protestants could not identify Martin Luther as the person who inspired the Protestant Reformation. And about four in 10 Jews did not know that Maimonides, one of the greatest rabbis and intellectuals in history, was Jewish.

The survey released Tuesday by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life aimed to test a broad range of religious knowledge, including understanding of the Bible, core teachings of different faiths and major figures in religious history. The U.S. is one of the most religious countries in the developed world, especially compared to largely secular Western Europe, but faith leaders and educators have long lamented that Americans still know relatively little about religion.

Respondents to the survey were asked 32 questions with a range of difficulty, including whether they could name the Islamic holy book and the first book of the Bible, or say what century the Mormon religion was founded. On average, participants in the survey answered correctly overall for half of the survey questions.

Atheists and agnostics scored highest, with an average of 21 correct answers, while Jews and Mormons followed with about 20 accurate responses. Protestants overall averaged 16 correct answers, while Catholics followed with a score of about 15.

READ THE FULL ARTICLE AT THE WASHINGTON POST

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Acupuncture Not Effective in Stroke Recovery, Study Finds

Posted in News by Skepdude on September 28, 2010

READ THE FULL ARTICLE AT SCIENCE DAILY

Acupuncture does not appear to aid in stroke recovery, according to a new study published in CMAJ (Canadian Medical Association Journal).

Acupuncture is often used to supplement traditional stroke rehabilitation, although its effectiveness is uncertain. It is necessary to have evidence of effectiveness from rigorous randomized clinical trials to recommend routine therapeutic use.

This study, perhaps the most comprehensive to date as it includes trials published in English language and Asian journals, was a systematic review conducted by researchers in South Korea and the United Kingdom. They included 10 studies (out of a potential 664) with a total of 711 patients who had had strokes.

“Few randomized, sham-controlled trials have tested the effectiveness of acupuncture during stroke rehabilitation,” writes Dr. Edzard Ernst, Peninsula Medical School, Exeter, England with coauthors. “The majority of the existing studies do not suggest that acupuncture is effective.” They note that the only two studies showing positive effect were highly biased and had poor reporting which made them less reliable that the others included.

The authors conclude that “the evidence from rigorous studies testing the effectiveness of acupuncture during stroke rehabilitation is negative.”

READ THE FULL ARTICLE AT SCIENCE DAILY

Read the full study for yourself

Interpretation: Our meta-analyses of data from rigorous randomized sham-controlled trials did not show a positive effect of acupuncture as a treatment for functional recovery after stroke.

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Aspartame – Truth vs Fiction

Posted in Science Based Medicine by Skepdude on September 15, 2010

READ THE FULL ARTICLE AT SCIENCE-BASED MEDICINE

If you believe everything you read on the internet, then is seems that a chemical found in thousands of products is causing an epidemic of severe neurological and systemic diseases, like multiple sclerosis and lupus. The FDA, the companies that make the product, and the “medical industrial complex” all know about the dangers of this chemical but are hiding the truth from the public in order to protect corporate profits and avoid the pesky paper work that would accompany the truth being revealed. The only glimmer of hope is a dedicated band of bloggers and anonymous e-mail chain letter authors who aren’t afraid to speak the truth. Armed with the latest anecdotal evidence, unverified speculation, and scientifically implausible claims, they have been tirelessly ranting about the evils of this chemical for years. Undeterred by the countless published studies manufactured by the food cartel that show this chemical is safe, they continue to protect the public by spreading baseless fear and hysteria.

Hopefully, you don’t believe everything you read on the internet, and you don’t get your science news from e-mail SPAM, where the above scenario is a common theme. While there are many manifestations of this type of urban legend, I am speaking specifically about aspartame – an artificial sweetener used since the early 1980s. The notion that aspartame is unsafe has been circulating almost since it first appeared, and like rumors and misinformation have a tendency to do, fears surrounding aspartame have taken on a life of their own.

I am frequently asked my opinion about the safety of aspartame. Nutritionists often council to avoid the sweetener, citing unverified claims that it is unsafe. I was recently sent a chain letter warning that aspartame causes MS (which of course can be cured by simply avoiding aspartame), and Snopes informs me that this particular letter first appeared in 1998.

There are also hundreds of websites dedicated to smearing this much abused food additive. One site, run by Dr. Janet Starr Hull (she has a doctorate in Nutrition), responds to the latest report of aspartame’s safety by writing:

I will never accept the news of aspartame safety. I think it is a “business” decision to discredit/discount the research results that aspartame DOES cause cancer, major nerve disorders, birth defects, and brain imbalances. Think about it – can you imagine the chaos that will occur when the truth of aspartame dangers is accredited. The FDA has known about the dangers, the corporations have known about the dangers, and the medical community (if it is really worth anything) has known about the dangers.

The statement that “nothing will ever convince me” is a huge red flag that someone is defending an ideological position, one immune to evidence or reason. Admittedly, in context it could be a clumsy statement that something is very unlikely. It would be very difficult to convince me that the earth is flat – I’m really saying that the existence evidence is overwhelming that the earth is not flat. But that is not what Dr. Hull is saying. She is specifically saying that she will dismiss any evidence that is contrary to her belief that aspartame is not safe on the a-priori basis that such disconfirming evidence is part of a vast conspiracy.

Of course, Dr. Hull also sells an aspartame detox kit, which might lead a cynical person to conclude that she cares more about selling alternative health products and stoking her sales with some unreasonable fear than about scientific evidence.

What evidence does she have for such a conspiracy? The argument from final consequences logical fallacy – big industry wouldn’t want it. It’s also not very plausible. Products get pulled from the market all the time when new evidence suggests they are not safe. Also, the final safety net for the consumer is legal liability. Class action law suits have bankrupted companies, even when the underlying claims were false. Imagine if they were true. Look how much the tobacco industry has had to fork over.

Now I am not arguing that corporations are all good corporate citizens or wouldn’t dream of sweeping some inconvenient evidence under the carpet. But I am saying that a decades long conspiracy among industry, federal regulatory agencies, the medical community, and multiple research institutions and individual researchers – all under the nose of the press and lawyers looking for big class-action suits – is implausible in the extreme. I am also arguing that we should fairly assess all the evidence, not just cherry pick the evidence we like and dismiss the rest out of hand.

What does the evidence say about aspartame? A recent published review of all available evidence, including hundreds of studies, concluded:

The studies provide no evidence to support an association between aspartame and cancer in any tissue. The weight of existing evidence is that aspartame is safe at current levels of consumption as a nonnutritive sweetener.

Multiple reviews, going back to 1985, conclude the same thing. Since this latest review there have been more studies, in various countries (how big is this conspiracy?), showing no link between aspartame and brain cancer, and a lack of correlation between artificial sweeteners and gastric, pancreatic, and endometrial cancers.

READ THE FULL ARTICLE AT SCIENCE-BASED MEDICINE

Further Thoughts on the Ethics of Skepticism

Posted in SkepticBlog by Skepdude on September 10, 2010

READ THE FULL ENTRY AT SKEPTICBLOG

My recent post “The War Over ‘Nice’” (describing the blogosphere’s reaction to Phil Plait’s “Don’t Be a Dick” speech) has topped out at more than 200 comments. That’s a lot by Skepticblog’s standards. In addition, many further responses have reached me through Twitter, blog posts, email, and direct conversation.

I’m not quite sure how to feel about all that. Certainly I expected some controversy. (After all, I was writing about a controversy.) But quite a few of the critical responses take up a theme that seems… well, kind of strange to me. Many readers appear to object (some strenuously) to the very ideas of discussing best practices, seeking evidence of efficacy for skeptical outreach, matching strategies to goals, or encouraging some methods over others. Some seem to express anger that a discussion of best practices would be attempted at all.

No Right or Wrong Way?

The milder forms of these objections run along these lines:

  • “Everyone should do their own thing.”
  • “Skepticism needs all kinds of approaches.”
  • “There’s no right or wrong way to do skepticism.”
  • “Why are we wasting time on these abstract meta-conversations?”

In a few cases, this laissez faire theme rings sort of hollow. (It seems to me that some who make this argument themselves promote certain approaches over others.) Let’s leave that aside.

More critical, in my opinion, is the implication that skeptical research and communication happens in an ethical vacuum. That just isn’t true. Indeed, it is dangerous for a field which promotes and attacks medical treatments, accuses people of crimes, opines about law enforcement practices, offers consumer advice, and undertakes educational projects to pretend that it is free from ethical implications — or obligations.

Before we talk about that, let’s first get this out of the way. No, there is no monolithic “one true way to do skepticism.” No, the skeptical world does not break down to nice skeptics who get everything right, and mean skeptics who get everything wrong. (I’m reminded of a quote: “If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being.”) No one has all the answers. Certainly I don’t, and neither does Phil Plait. Nor has anyone actually proposed a uniform, lockstep approach to skepticism. (No one has any ability to enforce such a thing, in any event.)

However, none of that implies that all approaches to skepticism are equally valid, useful, or good. As in other fields, various skeptical practices do more or less good, cause greater or lesser harm, or generate various combinations of both at the same time. For that reason, skeptics should strive to find ways to talk seriously about the practices and the ethics of our field. Skepticism has blossomed into something that touches a lot of lives — and yet it is an emerging field, only starting to come into its potential. We need to be able to talk about that potential, and about the pitfalls too.

Professional Ethics

READ THE FULL ENTRY AT SKEPTICBLOG

Recently on Vaccine Central

Posted in Skepdude by Skepdude on September 9, 2010

As many of you may know, my main focus has switched to my Vaccine Central blog. Here is a sampling of some of the latest entries I posted there:

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