Skepfeeds-The Best Skeptical blogs of the day

Best Skeptical Podcast episode ever?

Posted in Skepdude by Skepdude on April 28, 2009

You can make up your own mind, but Brian Dunning has come pretty damn close to earning that title with Skeptoid 150 – Screwed! Simply brilliant and entertaining as hell.

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Things More Likely to Save You From Swine Flu Than Homeopathy

Posted in The Rogues Gallery by Skepdude on April 28, 2009

(x-posted on Skepchick!)

  1. Private island
  2. Gas mask
  3. Real medicine
  4. Aliens
  5. Mace
  6. Jesus (note: only if you’re in a Stephen King novel)
  7. Superman
  8. Your own immune system

A short recap for those stumbling upon Skepchick for the first time: homeopathy is nothing more than regular water, shaken up and packaged in boxes covered in lies and sold to people who don’t know any better. For a more thorough overview, see this post.

Mark, an official Friend of Skepchick, tweeted us a link to this ridiculous site trying to sell homeopathic remedies by capitalizing on the world’s panicked reaction to outbreaks of swine flu. Here are some highlights (bolding mine):

It is important for those more at risk to seek professional help from their homeopath, GP or health practitioner now. Constitutional treatment is the best way for anyone to strengthen the immune system and Helios would recommend consulting a homoeopath.

Sorry, no. Just . . . no. If you are “more at risk” to have a deadly infectious virus, like you just got back from a pig-licking tour of Mexico* where you were repeatedly sneezed on, then you should see a real medical professional. Homeopaths do not necessarily have medical degrees and all they can do is give you sugar water and then maybe contract swine flu from you and then you can die in one another’s arms, just like Romeo and Juliet only stupider, which is really saying something.

At present we do not have a nosode, i.e.a remedy made from the disease material. However, we do have existing remedies which have been used successfully over many years to treat all stages of flu. These are safe for everyone from babies to the elderly.

Man I am so hoping they manage to get their hot little hands on a vial of swine flu so they can bust that sucker open and dilute the crap out of it until they have their extra special magic water, which they can then drink to cure the swine flu they just gave themselves.

READ THE REST OF THIS ENTRY AT “THE ROGUES GALLERY”

Is Richard Dawkins really that naive?

Posted in Rationally Speaking by Skepdude on April 28, 2009

CLICK HERE TO GO TO THE ORIGINAL ENTRY AT “RATIONALLY SPEAKING”

Richard Dawkins doesn’t usually strike me as being naive, but one has to wonder when Dawkins abandons himself to the following sort of writing about his favorite topic these days, the incompatibility between science and religion, on his web site:

“If they’ve [the creationists] been told that there’s an incompatibility between religion and evolution, well, let’s convince them of evolution, and we’re there! Because after all, we’ve got the evidence. … I suspect that most of our regular readers here would agree that ridicule, of a humorous nature, is likely to be more effective than the sort of snuggling-up and head-patting that Jerry [Coyne] is attacking. I lately started to think that we need to go further: go beyond humorous ridicule, sharpen our barbs to a point where they really hurt. …You might say that two can play at that game. Suppose the religious start treating us with naked contempt, how would we like it? I think the answer is that there is a real asymmetry here. We have so much more to be contemptuous about! And we are so much better at it. We have scathingly witty spokesmen of the calibre of Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harris. Who have the faith-heads got, by comparison? Ann Coulter is about as good as it gets. We can’t lose!”

Oh, really? There is so much wrong with these few sentences that a whole book could be written about them, but since I am no Stephen Gould (who was famous for being able to magically turn a short essay into a book length manuscript, provided the right economic incentives), a blog post will have to do. First, though, some background. Dawkins is commenting on a recent essay by evolutionary biologist Jerry Coyne, who in turn was criticizing Eugenie Scott and her National Center for Science Education. While both Dawkins and Coyne profess admiration and respect for Scott and her organization (and so do I, for the record), they are upset by what they see as an “accommodationist” stance on the question of science and religion.

Scott — who is an atheist — has repeatedly said that one cannot claim that science requires atheism because atheism is a philosophical position, not a scientific one. She leverages the standard distinction between philosophical and methodological naturalism: if you are a scientist you have to be a methodological naturalist (i.e., assume for operative purposes that nature and natural laws are all that there is); but this doesn’t commit you to the stronger position of philosophical naturalism (i.e., to the claim that there really isn’t anything outside of nature and its laws). Years ago, when I first met Genie Scott, I had a Dawkins-like problem with this. I saw the distinction as sophistic hair splitting, and told her so (she was my guest for one of the annual Darwin Day events at the University of Tennessee). Then I started taking philosophy courses, understood what she was saying, and found it irrefutable. I sent her an email apologizing for my earlier obtusity.

That said, both Genie and I do recognize that science is one of the strongest arguments for philosophical naturalism, and I suspect that in her case, as in mine, a pretty big reason for why we are atheists is because of our understanding of science. Still, the philosophical/methodological distinction is both philosophically valid and pragmatically useful, since it doesn’t serve the purposes of either science or education to fuel an antagonism between a small minority of atheistic scientists and 90% of the world’s population (those taxpayers, on whose good will the existence of science and the stipends of most of said scientists depend).

Jerry Coyne, however (with whom I often disagree, especially on scientific matters), does have a point that Scott and the NCSE should address: if the National Center for Science Education claims neutrality with respect to the relationship between science and religion, then why — as Coyne observes — do they list on their web site (under “recommended books”) a plethora of obviously biased books on the subject? Why does the NCSE feel ok to endorse the vacuous writings (as it pertains to the alleged compatibility between science and religion) by pro-religion scientists like Francis Collins, Ken Miller, and Simon Conway Morris, to name a few? Either these books should be ignored, or the NCSE should also recommend the (equally questionable) works of Dawkins, Hitchens, Harris and so on. Either science can neither prove or disprove gods, or it can, the philosophical/methodological distinction cuts both ways. Genie, what’s up?

Now back to Dawkins. As we have seen, he claims that we would be better off being on the offensive against religionists, because we’ve got the evidence. Oh yes, and because Christopher Hitchens is a better rhetorician than Ann Coulter (though he doesn’t look half as good, unfortunately). The latter is certainly true, but to pick on Coulter is to stack the deck much too obviously on one’s side. The real problem is that, pace Dawkins, evidence has nothing to do with it, because this isn’t a scientific debate. Look, even the most outrageous version of young earth creationism cannot be scientifically falsified. Wanna try? Consider the following: if there is any obvious evidence of the fact that evolution has occurred, it ought to be the impressive and worldwide consistent fossil record. Moreover, using the geological column as a way to date events during the history of the earth predates Darwin (i.e., it was invented by creationists), and we keep discovering new intermediate fossils further documenting evolution every year.

But a staunch creationist will argue (I know this from personal experience) that god simply orchestrated the whole appearance of fossils and intermediate forms to test our faith. As stunning and nonsensical as this “theory” may be, it makes the creationist completely and utterly impervious to evidence: the more evidence you bring up, the more he feels validated in his faith, because faith is belief regardless or despite the evidence. Now Dawkins will say that these people are irrational ignoramuses, and they certainly are. But that misses the point entirely: the lowly creationist has just given the mighty evolutionist a humbling (if unconscious) lesson in philosophy by showing that evidence simply does not enter the debate. If evidence is out, then we are left with sheer rhetorical force. But there too, atheists are easily outmatched: Coulter notwithstanding, there are armies of professionally trained preachers out there who will trump Hitchens — in the eyes of their constituencies at least — even when the latter is perfectly sober. And the important keyword here is “constituency,” since these are the very same people that turn around and elect a creationist board of education, causing endless headaches to Scott and collaborators, headaches that are not in the least helped by Dawkins-style posturing.

And really, look at Dawkins’ prescription here. According to him we should be even more “contemptuous” than the religious fanatics are; we should “really hurt” with our “sharp barbs”; we “can’t lose” because truth is clearly on our side. One almost gets the feeling that if Dawkins had the resources of the Inquisition at his disposal he might just use them in the name of scientific Truth (a philosophical oxymoron, by the way). Thanks for the public relations disaster, Dick!

What are we to do, then? First, learning some good philosophy wouldn’t hurt the likes of Dawkins a bit. That way they would finally appreciate that Genie’s position is not just a matter of pragmatism, and it has nothing to do with intellectual cowardice. Second, and more importantly, we really need to turn to psychology and sociology, the sciences that tell us how and when people change their minds. If we want a cultural change, we need to understand how cultures change. And by the way, let us remember that scientists are most certainly not immune to the same problem of walking around with a mind a bit less open than one would hope. Dawkins may like to think that science is about free inquiry that inevitably leads to people accepting new discoveries and renouncing old ideas based on the weight of evidence and rationality. If so, he hasn’t practiced science in a while (indeed, he hasn’t). As physicist Max Plank aptly said: “A new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it.” Analogously with creationism: changing minds is a painstaking, largely unrewarding, capillary job, which the National Center for Science Education does superbly. Dawkins & co. should simply get out of the way and let them do their work.

[Note: I became aware of this latest much ado about nothing debate through a fairly well balanced post by Paul Fidalgo at the DC Secularism Examiner, where you will find additional quotations from the various parties involved.]

CLICK HERE TO GO TO THE ORIGINAL ENTRY AT “RATIONALLY SPEAKING”

Acupuncture for IVF Revisited – More Tooth Fairy Science?

Posted in Science Based Medicine by Skepdude on April 28, 2009

I read this Reuters Health article on MedlinePlus, and then I read the study the article referred to (The impact of acupuncture on in vitro fertilization) and now my head hurts. The study found that acupuncture was not effective in increasing the pregnancy rate (PR) during in vitro fertilization (IVF). As quoted on MedlinePlus, the lead author, Alice Domar, seems to blame her patients (the presumably poor quality of their embryos) rather than acupuncture for the lack of success, and then she recommends using acupuncture even if it doesn’t work. That was bad enough, but “poor quality embryos” is a hypothesis that was actually tested and rejected in the study itself. Has Domar forgotten?

The headline of the MedlinePlus article says “acupuncture doesn’t boost IVF success for all” – suggesting that it boosts success for some? Then the first sentence says the study suggested that acupuncture doesn’t work, period. But wait…

The lead researcher says acupuncture may not have worked in her study because, unlike past research, her investigation wasn’t limited to women who had good quality embryos available for transfer. “I’m wondering if my sample was just not a good sample, in that most of the patients in my study were probably not the best-prognosis patients,”
Domar and her team say the most likely explanation for the lack of an acupuncture effect in their study was the fact that they included many women who didn’t have good quality embryos available for transfer. While acupuncture may help a woman become pregnant after the transfer of a healthy embryo, the researcher noted in an interview, it can’t repair an embryo with chromosomal defects or other abnormalities.

Hold the boat!! In the Discussion section of the paper itself, Domar et al point out that previous research has included mostly patients with good quality embryos. They ask if perhaps acupuncture only works for good quality embryos? They test that hypothesis by separately analyzing the subjects in this study who had good quality embryos. There was no increase in PR with acupuncture in this sub-group; the results were the same as for the entire sample.

This study not only had an objective endpoint (pregnancy) but it also had several subjective psychological endpoints (optimism, confidence, and anxiety as measured by perceived relaxation). The women who received acupuncture felt more relaxed and enjoyed the IVF procedure more, the researchers found. They were also more optimistic about getting pregnant, but not more confident that they would get pregnant.”

Despite the results of my own study, I still recommend acupuncture to women going through IVF because there’s no downside,” Domar added, aside from the $150 an acupuncturist would typically charge — a small fraction of the $12,000 to $14,000 couples typically spent on a single round of IVF.

It seems to me this translates as: Acupuncture works. It didn’t work in this study, but that can’t be the fault of acupuncture, because acupuncture works. So it must be the fault of the patients for producing poor quality embryos, (our data don’t support that hypothesis, but let’s just ignore that). Acupuncture is harmless and people like it, so let’s use it on every patient whether it works or not. Patients will have to pay $150 extra, but I’m willing to decide for them that the expense is worth it. What?!

READ THE REST OF THIS ENTRY AT “SCIENCE BASED MEDICINE”