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.

Advertisements
Tagged with:

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”

Jennifer Lopez adds vocal support

Posted in Left Brain Right Brain by Skepdude on April 27, 2009

In an interview with ‘Good Morning America’ Jennifer Lopez stood up for vaccinations by talking about a new campaign and website. The website is very accomplished and features Ms Lopez talking about how to protect your baby from Whooping Cough.

The interview itself contained the following on vaccines:

She’s also raising awareness about pertussis, the potentially fatal disease better known as whooping cough.Visit www.soundsofpertussis.com to find out more about the vaccine.

Pertussis cases were virtually nonexistent in the United States after a vaccine was developed. Reported cases of whooping cough hit a low of about 1,000 in 1976. That number has been on the rise over the past 30 years, and in 2005, 25,000 cases were reported, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. According to a CDC study of the disease, Hispanic infants were particularly hard hit by the disease, though there is no clear reason why.

Read more: “Autism Blog – Jennifer Lopez adds vocal support « Left Brain/Right Brain” – http://leftbrainrightbrain.co.uk/?p=2230#ixzz0DuA7uwlz&A

READ THE REST OF THIS ENTRY AT “LEFT BRAIN RIGHT BRAIN”

Anomaly Hunting

Posted in Neurologica by Skepdude on April 27, 2009

There are numerous ways in which thought processes go astray, leading us to false conclusions, even persistent delusions. Skepticism, as an intellectual endeavor, is the study of these mental pitfalls, for a thorough understanding of them is the best way to avoid them.

Science itself is a set of methods for avoiding or minimizing errors in observation, memory, and analysis. Our instincts cannot be trusted, so we need to keep them in check with objective outcome measures, systematic observation, and rigid control of variables. In fact bias has a way of creeping into any observation and exerting powerful if subtle effects, leading to the need to completely blind scientific experiments. Good scientists have learned not to trust even themselves.

One of the most common and insidious bits of cognitive self-deception is the process of anomaly hunting. A true anomaly is something that cannot be explained by our current model of nature – it doesn’t fit into existing theories. Anomalies are therefore very useful to scientific inquiry because they point to new knowledge, the potential to deepen or extend existing theories.

For example, the orbit of Mercury could not be explained by Newtownian mechanics – it was a true anomaly. It and other anomalies hinted at the fact that Newton’s laws of motion were incomplete in a fundamental way. This recognition eventually lead to Einstein’s revolution of relativity theory.

Pseudoscientists – those pretending to do science (maybe even sincerely believing they are doing science) but who get the process profoundly wrong, use anomalies in a different way. They often engage it what we call anomaly hunting – looking for apparent anomalies. They are not, however, looking for clues to a deeper understanding of reality. They are often hunting for anomalies in service to the overarching pseudoscientific process of reverse engineering scientific conclusions.

What this means is that pseudoscience almost always works backwards – that is its primary malfunction, starting with a desired conclusion and then looking for evidence and twisting logic to support that conclusion.

With regard to anomalies the logic often works like this: “If my pet theory is true then when I look at the data I will find anomalies.” The unstated major premise of this logic is that if their pet theory were not true then they would not find anomalies. This is naive, however. Another component of this line of argument is the broad definition of anomaly.

READ THE REST OF THIS ENTRY AT “NEUROLOGICA”

Anti-vaccers: Shut your mouth!

Posted in Skepdude by Skepdude on April 26, 2009

Jenny McCarthy: Shut your mouth! Jim Carrey: Shut your mouth! Anti-vaccers: shut your hole!

Tip of the Skepticap to Podblack Cat.

Moral DNA?

Posted in Pharyngula by Skepdude on April 24, 2009

Please, someone, tell the priests to go tend to their rituals and quit pretending to ha have any understanding of reality. A new archbishop has tried to use biology to argue for his archaic moral position, and I just want to slap him.

Archbishop Timothy Dolan yesterday said advocates of gay marriage “are asking for trouble,” arguing that traditional, one-man/one-woman marriage is rooted in people’s moral DNA.

“There’s an in-built code of right and wrong that’s embedded in the human DNA,” Dolan told The Post in an exclusive, wide-ranging interview, a week after becoming the New York Archdiocese’s new leader.

“Hard-wired into us is a dictionary, and the dictionary defines marriage as between one man, one woman for life, please God, leading to the procreation of human life.

Every word an ignorant lie. There is no genetic basis for a moral code except, perhaps, in the broadest sense of intrinsic rewards for social behavior — Catholicism is not biologically heritable.

READ THE REST OF THIS ENTRY AT “PHARYNGULA”

Pinniped Evolution

Posted in Neurologica by Skepdude on April 24, 2009

The joke is getting so overused now it is becoming a cliche in skeptical circles – what happens when a paleontologist fills in a gap in the fossil record? They create two gaps, one on each side. But it is often used because it pithily exposes the intellectual buffoonery of those evolution deniers (aka creationists) who deny common descent. What is a “gap;” how big does it have to be to call into question common decent; or rather how small do the gaps have to shrink before creationists will accept common descent?

Perhaps the biggest outright lie in the creationist camp, still frequently parroted, is that there is a lack of transitional fossils in the fossil record. That is why it is important to showcase to the public the steady stream of beautiful transitional fossils that are being added to our already copious fossil record.

In the most recent issue of Nature, scientist present yet another pesky gap filled in with a transitional fossil, this one an early pinniped – which includes seals, sealions, and walruses.

The fossil is between 20-24 million years old and is dubbed Puijila darwini. Here is the technical description from the Nature article.

The new taxon retains a long tail and the proportions of its fore- and hindlimbs are more similar to those of modern terrestrial carnivores than to modern pinnipeds. Morphological traits indicative of semi-aquatic adaptation include a forelimb with a prominent deltopectoral ridge on the humerus, a posterodorsally expanded scapula, a pelvis with relatively short ilium, a shortened femur and flattened phalanges, suggestive of webbing.

What this means is that the creature was able to walk on land, was likely a carnivore, but had some early adaptations to the water, such as webbed feat. Think of an otter (it was 110 cm long) with a long tale and the teeth of a dog.  The earliest pinniped fossils come from 20-28 million years ago, about the same time as this fossil, and already have fully developed flippers.

This fossil suggests answers to several unknowns – what evolutionary path did pinnipeds take, what are their closest relatives, and where greographically did their evolution take place? This fossil suggests they evolved in the fresh waters of the arctic, as opposed to the the northwestern US, where the earliest pinniped fossils were found. This one fossil does not settle this last question, but does suggest the arctic as a viable alternative.

I can anticipate the standard creationist denial. They will argue that this fossil cannot be a direct ancestor to pinnipeds because it is as old, and not older, than the earliest pinniped fossils with fully formed flippers.  This is true, as the authors of the Nature article readily state. Most fossils will not be direct ancestors to living descendants. This is because evolutionary relationships are bushy – they are not a ladder of linear progression. A randomly discovered fossil is therefore likely to be on a side branch, not one that lead directly to species that happen to be extant.

READ THE REST OF THIS ENTRY AT “NEUROLOGICA”

Doctors criticise ‘gay treatment’

Posted in News by Skepdude on April 24, 2009

Plans to promote medical treatment for homosexuality at a religious conference have been criticised by doctors.

The event will hear from prominent American psychologist Dr Joseph Nicolosi who said he had helped many people to become heterosexual.

But the Royal College of Psychiatrists said there was no supporting evidence and such treatment could be damaging.

The two-day conference being held in central London has been organised by the church group Anglican Mainstream.

Prejudice and discrimination’

The Royal College of Psychiatrists (RCP) said there was no evidence that the treatment worked, and that it was likely to cause considerable distress.

An RCP spokesman said: “There is no sound scientific evidence that sexual orientation can be changed.

“Furthermore, so-called treatments of homosexuality create a setting in which prejudice and discrimination can flourish.”

READ THE REST OF THIS ARTICLE AT “BBC”

Tip of the skepticap to Evolved and Rational.

Tagged with: