Skepfeeds-The Best Skeptical blogs of the day

On the status of science in society

Posted in Shirley Who by Skepdude on May 29, 2009


As the daughter of two scientists, it never occurred to me growing up that science as a profession or a method of inquiry could be controversial. How else were we to discover life-saving treatments, develop better technologies, or advance our understanding of the natural world? I took for granted the fact that science is the foundation of modern civilization and makes improved standards of living for more people possible.

My recent forays into blogging, however, have shown me that nearly everything is debated, even things that should not even seem debatable. Evolution is one of them, and, apparently, so is vaccination. My open letter to Oprah sparked an unexpected flurry of responses from many scientists, parents, and concerned citizens, giving me a taste of the kind of “discussions” people have on issues near and dear to them. I realized that people on both sides genuinely care about improving health, but also that productive conversation is elusive when the assumptions and objects of trust are different.

Needless to say, I trust those who use the scientific method to probe and learn about the world. Science is an iterative cycle in which we observe phenomena, make testable hypotheses concerning the phenomena, devise experiments to test these hypotheses, evaluate and draw conclusions from the results using rigorous statistical analysis, and form new hypotheses based on our improved understanding. The experiments, including controls, should be devised to help ensure that 1) the procedures we’re using to gather data are doing what they’re supposed to be doing, and 2) other hypotheses or explanations aren’t responsible for the outcome we observe.

There is inherent uncertainty built into this process – for one thing, we can’t definitively rule out all other possibilities because there are, in theory, infinitely many possibilities (but only a few that are reasonable). Then there is the fact that science can never disprove anything, it can only collect evidence supporting a hypothesis or not. If twenty independent and methodologically sound studies all produce the same finding and no other studies show the opposite, we are confident that the finding is accurate. But all it would take is a few studies (again, independent and sound) showing the opposite to make us modify our confidence. As more studies accumulate, the weight of the evidence usually tilts definitively towards one side or the other, and this – the accumulation of evidence – is what should form the basis for technology development, policy, and future science.


Dead baby’s parents ignored advice: QC

Posted in News by Skepdude on May 5, 2009

THE parents of a nine-month-old girl who died from septicemia were responsible for their baby’s death because they shunned conventional medical treatment for her eczema in favour of homeopathic remedies, a court heard yesterday.

A homeopath, Thomas Sam, 42, and his wife, Manju Sam, 36, are standing trial in the NSW Supreme Court charged with manslaughter by gross criminal negligence after they allegedly resisted the advice of nurses and a doctor to send her to a skin specialist.

Instead Gloria Thomas, who was born in perfect health in July 2001, allegedly died with malnutrition and eczema so severe that her skin broke every time her parents removed her clothes and nappy.

The Crown prosecutor, Mark Tedeschi, QC, told the court they sat on this advice for two months and then saw a general practitioner who was so concerned by her condition that he told them to see a skin specialist immediately. But again, they demurred.

On the few occasions that they did follow conventional medical advice, Gloria would improve, but they would soon revert to homeopathic remedies and she would continue to deteriorate.

Thomas Sam’s sister allegedly “pleaded” with him to send Gloria to a conventional medical practitioner. He allegedly replied: “I’m not able to do that.”


Skepdude says – for an overview of the disease and it’s treatments check out

Why good medicine requires materialism

Posted in Denialism by Skepdude on October 30, 2008


I don’t like to repost, but Steve Novella has some great pieces up right now, and this is directly related. –PalMD

s I’ve clearly demonstrated in earlier posts, I’m no philosopher. But I am a doctor, and, I believe, a good one at that, and I find some of this talk about “non-materialist” perspectives in science to be frankly disturbing, and not a little dangerous.

To catch you up on things, consider reading one of Steve Novella’s best posts ever over at Neurologica. While you are there, you can also follow his debate with neurosurgeon Michael Egnor, the latest guru of mind-body dualism.

To sum up (remember, IANAP), most of us science-y types hold to a materialist view of reality, that is, reality is all there is. This reality is susceptible to the investigations of science. Non-materialists and mind-body dualists hold that there is also a “non-material” reality. What exactly this might be, and how one might observe or measure it is never specified. Instead, they usually use a god-of-the-gaps argument, whereby any gaps in scientific understanding are automatically ascribed to the supernatural. The proof of the supernatural is stated is a lack of disproof of the supernatural.

Personally, I have no problem with people believing in God, Satan, fairies, or the Flying Spaghetti Monster (may we all be touched by His Noodley Appendages). What I have a problem with is people applying these beliefs to science and medicine.

Non-scientific medical practices, such as homeopathy, faith-healing, and reiki state various claims of efficacy and of mechanism of action. They can never prove these, but ask us to take their word, and the word of their clients. Once again, if someone takes communion and feels closer to their God, it’s none of my business. But if someone is claiming to affect the health of an individual by invoking supernatural powers, this is immoral and harmful

The point is simple: if reiki manipulates unseen, unmeasurable forces by unseen and unmeasurable means, creating solely subjective individual results, then reiki (and practices like it) is completely irrelevant to health. What matters in medicine is results, and results that cannot be observed and measured do not, for all practical purposes, exist.

We can measure the effect of beta blockers on a population of heart attack survivors. We can compare the number of subsequent heart attacks in those who do and do not receive the drug. We can come up with a scientifically valid explanation for the results, and we can replicate them.

None of the cult medicine practices that are so popular can do this. Their effects are either unmeasurable by definition (show me a qi), or when we try to measure the results of their application, results in aggregate are no better than by chance alone.

In all this discussion about naturopathy over the last week or so, what has been left out is that it doesn’t matter if naturopaths consider what they do to be “medicine-plus”—the plus is irrelevant because it cannot be measured or observed reliably. Unless and until it can, forget the “plus”. It’s only a dream.


Hubris, Thy Name Is Jenny McCarthy

Posted in Neurologica by Skepdude on October 2, 2008

There are many words I could attach to the dangerous freakshow that is Jenny McCarthy – self-made advocate for the pseudoscientific notion that there is a link between vaccines and autism: deluded, self-righteous, irrational, the Mayor of Wooville, etc. But I am always interested in the process that gets people to their profound confusion. I believe at the core of Jenny McCarthy’s tragic crusade is an utter lack of humility.

Her lack of humility also seems consistent with someone who has never risen to a level of competence, let alone mastery, in any intellectual discipline. Those who have understand on some level the value of excellence and expertise, and the gulf that separates superficial public knowledge (or what has been called in the internet age, the University of Google knowledge) from a functional depth of understanding.

This brings to mind yet another word that could apply to McCarthy – sophomoric. She has garnered just enough knowledge to think she knows what she is talking about, but not enough to appreciate the depths of her own ignorance.


University announces review of woo

Posted in improbable science by Skepdude on September 4, 2008

After the announcement that the University of Central Lancashire (Uclan) was suspending its homeopathy “BSc” course, it seems that their vice chancellor has listened to the pressure, both internal and external, to stop bringing his university into disrepute.

An internal review of all their courses in alternative medicine was announced shortly after the course  closure.   Congratulations to Malcolm McVicar for grasping the nettle at last.  Let’s hope other universities follow his example soon.

I have acquired, indirectly, a copy of the announcement of the welcome news.


University abandons homeopathy “degree”

Posted in improbable science by Skepdude on August 27, 2008

The first major victory in the battle for the integrity of universities seems to have been won. This email was sent by Kate Chatfield who is module leader for the “BSc” in homeopathic medicine at the University of Central Lancashire (UCLAN).

from Kate Chatfield…

Dear All,

It’s a sad day for us here at UCLan because we have taken the decision not to run a first year this year due to low recruitment. The course will be put ‘on hold’ for this year and next until we see what happens with the general climate. Fortunately our masters course is thriving and we have been asked to focus upon this
area and homeopathy research for the time being.


A ghoul descends upon Christina Applegate’s “maimed” body

Posted in Respectful Insolence by Skepdude on August 25, 2008

This is getting to be nauseatingly frequent.

As my blog bud Mark Hoofnagle pointed out, the hard-core “alternative medicine” mavens, in particular that despicable promoter of quackery and distrust of scientific medicine who runs one of the two or three largest repositories of antiscience and quackery in existence, Mike Adams, seem to have decided that a lovely new tactic would be to descend upon every celebrity death or battle with serious disease, ghoul-like, and blame their deaths or suffering on conventional medicine rather than disease. Both PalMD and I noted this particularly vile tactic applied to the recent death of former White House Press Secretary Tony Snow, and Adams has done the same thing in response to the deaths of Tim Russert (whose death he blamed on the heart medications Russert was taking), Heath Ledger, and Bernie Mac as well. Oddly enough, the ghoul appears not to have descended upon the corpse of Isaac Hayes yet, even though every indication is that Hayes, having suffered a stroke a while back, died of another stroke. Maybe it’s because Hayes was a prominent Scientologist, and even Adams is afraid of messing with the Church of Scientology. Maybe it’s because, before his turning to Scientology, Hayes was so über-cool that even Adams fears messing with his memory. Who knows?

Last week, it turned out that Mike Adams, at least, doesn’t even need to have a dead celebrity as an excuse to torture science. All he needs is a celebrity with cancer who decided to pursue science-based therapy. This time around, in response to Christina Applegate’s battle with breast cancer and decision to undergo bilateral mastectomies, Adams has published yet another of his spittle-flecked screeds, this time charmingly entitled Christina Applegate Maimed by Surgeons with Double Mastectomy Following Breast Cancer Diagnosis. This article is yet more indication that Mike Adams is about as low as they come. The word “scum” is too good for him. Just check out how his article starts out:


Another Open Letter to Jenny McCarthy

Posted in Denialism by Skepdude on August 25, 2008


Dear Jenny,

Thank you! Thankyouthankyou thank YOU!

You see, my medical education had a few gaps. I was unfortunate enough to do my training during the last couple of decades, which means I never saw measles, pertussis, polio, and many other vaccine-preventable diseases.

Well, last year, I saw three cases of pertussis! Sweet! And it looks like, if I play my cards right, I may get to see some measles.

It’s not that I don’t know anything about measles. I mean, I’ve read Hippocrates, Rhazes, Osler, and all the other ancients. But to see the real thing, to experience the real fear, well, you just can’t buy that kind of education. I’ve never been able to experience the fear that my little girl–who loves to swim— might bring polio home from the lake. How am I supposed to relate to my older patients if I don’t know that fear?

If I were in charge of awards for medical education, I’d give you one. But, alas, I’m not. I guess we’ll have to find some other way to honor all your hard work, education, and expertise. I mean, my four years of undergrad, 4 years of medical school, and 3 years of residency can’t hold a candle to your experience as a Mommy Warrior. I wish we could just bottle that. Or perhaps isolate it in northern Idaho.

Anyway, if you’re on google doing research for your next cult, I have a few suggestions. First, try to find one with UFOs. UFOs are kinda cool. Second, find one that makes you cut off all your ties to the outside world. As much as I’d miss the educational opportunities of your public appearances, I’ll find a way to make up for it.

So thanks, and good luck! Keep up the personal growth! Move on to the next issue!



Measles Outbreak – Thanks, Jenny

Posted in Neurologica by Skepdude on August 22, 2008

The CDC yesterday updated their report on recent cases of measles. In 2000, thanks to the aggressive vaccination program, measles was declared eradicated from the US. There continued to be on average 63 cases per year from 2001-2007 due to imported cases from outside the US. To ironically quote Jim Carrey from the aptly titled, A Series of Unfortunate Events – “Then the unthinkable happened.”

The anti-vaccination movement was given a boost by actress Jenny McCarthy, who was convinced that vaccines were responsible for her son’s apparent autism. She was later joined in her crusade by her boyfriend, Jim Carrey. The movement had already been gaining some traction over false fears that thimerosal in vaccines (although mostly removed by 2002) was linked to autism. Such fears had already caused a drop in vaccination rates in the UK with subsequent measles outbreaks. Now these irrational fears were coming to the US, helped along by scientifically-illiterate pretty-people.


The Big Bang is Science. Transcendent Sex is Not.

Posted in Memoirs of a Skepchick by Skepdude on July 20, 2008


No GravatarVia Fark, I stumbled across this ridiculous article from some vacant sex columnist for Fox News. And before I go any further, could there possibly be a less appealing job than sex columist for Fox News? I mean, god forbid if she should mention condoms, or abortion, or anything kinkier than doggy style.

Okay, anyway, Yvonne K. Fullbright is a very good example of the basic fact that having a lot of schooling does not necessarily make a person an intelligent critical thinker. Wikipedia says she “has a Ph.D. from New York University, a Master’s in Human Sexuality Education from the University of Pennsylvania, and Bachelor’s degrees in psychology and sociology from Penn State University.” Despite that impressive (and probably quite pricey) education, Fullbright recently wrote a piece on Huffington Post buying into the ridiculous media-created fear-mongering about the HPV vaccine (here’s a good rebuttal Jen linked to in the Quickies a while back).

Fullbright doesn’t stop there, though — a few days ago she promoted a completely made-up paranormal sex myth called “transcendent sex” that appears to be the invention of a woman named Dr. Jenny Wade, who just so happens to be selling a book on the topic. Ta-da! Let’s look at this fine piece of journalism a little more closely, shall we? What follows is a line-by-line breakdown of how to be a bad journalist.

Some people actually supersede the state of climax and reach a state of transcendent sex.

“Some people” is a fun trick to use when you have no actual evidence to support your premise. “Some people say that Yvonne Fullbright eats the souls of orphan children!” See? It’s easy and fun.

Such lovemaking is said to involve a divine force, and is regarded as a path to a higher consciousness. It has been known to change one’s views on sex and spirituality.

Fun Size Snicker Brains

Fun Size Snicker Brains

“Is said” and “has been known” is another trick like “some people” to help you when you’re making stuff up. That’s why “some people” consider use of the passive voice to be shoddy journalism — you’re hiding the person or thing doing the action, which the reader needs in order to figure out whether you’re full of crap or not. Like this: “It is said that Yvonne Fullbright has dozens of Fun Size Snickers bars where most people keep a brain.”

Yet this mystical, spiritual sexual experience is one of the best kept sex secrets around.

(Because it does not exist.)

Why isn’t it well-known? Recognized by the likes of Deepak Chopra, such meaningful experiences are nothing new.

Deepak Chopra recognizes it? Why, that’s fantastic! If only Paris Hilton would appear on Oprah to talk about it, then we’d have all the greatest minds of science together in agreement that transcendent sex is a Fact.

Lovers have had them since ancient times.

I saw it painted on a cave wall once.

Still, people who have experienced them are afraid of being called crazy or getting mocked.

Mocked, or properly medicated. Whichever.

You can’t really blame them. Many would find it far-fetched to hear that their friend, brother or co-worker was transported to another realm during sex last night.

Far-fetched? “Many would find it far-fetched” to hear about their brother’s supernatural orgasm? So you’re sitting around Christmas dinner with your extended family, and during a lull in the conversation your brother grins sheepishly, holds his wife’s hand, and announces, “Last night Hillary and I made sweet sweet intercourse, and when I orgasmed I felt my soul leave my body and travel across the Universe to bond with an energy source that had evolved beyond what any of us could possibly imagine. Eventually my soul returned to my body, which was by then covered in ejaculate and tears. Pass the cranberry sauce, please?” Yes. “Far-fetched” is the first adjective that would spring to my mind.

The closest I’ve ever come to such a spontaneous, divine experience involved my life-force energy shooting up from the base of my spine during an orgasm. It happened when I was with my ex-lover and I found myself blissfully lost in a purplish-turned-white light that went beyond my body. The feelings were beyond description. Saying it was amazing doesn’t do it justice. But from what I understand, my story can be trumped by even more ecstatic experiences.

Eta Carinae Nebula

Hi, that’s called an intense orgasm combined with made-up words that mean nothing, like “life-force energy.” One time I came so hard I saw the Eta Carinae Nebula. Yeah, that’s right. My astrophysical sex story trumps your transcendent sex story. Win.

People who have been swept into transcendent ecstasy, according to developmental psychologist Dr. Jenny Wade, have reported: — Seeing visions; — Feeling heat, light and energy waves throughout the body;

Okay, I’m with you so far . . .

— Reliving past lives;

Whoooa there. Once again, let’s turn to the Hypothetical Situation Generator to see how this sort of thing might play out in real life: You’re in bed with your loved one, who you have just sent to sexytown. He’s yelling, “Oh god. Oh god! OH . . . Zeus?” Then he demands (in Greek) that you bring him a few succulent slave boys to continue pleasuring him. Scary!

— Seeing the face of God;

Which one?

— Paranormal powers;

Which ones? Who? Where? Is this how Sylvia Browne got her powers?

— Being visited by gods;

Not the capital-G God from before?

— Feeling possessed by spirits;

Sexy spirits.

— Working with natural forces;

I’ve read that sentence fragment seven times and I still have no idea what it means, even in a stupid paranormal sense. Can anyone help me here? I don’t even know how to further mock this, it’s that incoherent.

— Nothingness, whiteness, pure bliss; — One with everything – there is no “me” or time; — A lack of sensory channels;

Is that last one supposed to mean a lack of sensory input? Right. That’s called an orgasm. Good work, Sex Detective.

— Time travel;

I see a promising premise for Back to the Future IV.

— Enlightenment.

I’m skeptical that one can achieve enlightenment just by having an orgasm, but I am willing to keep testing this scientifically for the rest of my life. Can you believe there are still six stupid, pointless paragraphs left to this article? Ugh.

What invites transcendent sex? While many equate it to a religious experience, you don’t need to be a person of faith to experience the sacred, transformational power of sex. You don’t need to be a Tantric practitioner or be specially trained in sexuality or transcendent sex. You don’t need to be striving for orgasm. You don’t necessarily have to be making love.

Wow, so for all that talk about transcendent sex, you don’t actually have to be having sex, and it can even happen to atheists. I could just be walking down the street and BAM, crazy paranormal orgasm. I am now terrified of achieving this magical thing in a really inappropriate place, like a job interview or tea with someone’s grandmother.

It can happen to anyone at anytime. It does not involve drug use. It should be pointed out, though, that while people have had transcendent episodes during casual sexual liaisons, these intense events tend to be triggered in a more loving context. Wade estimates that as many as one in eight individuals has had a transcendent episode.

Oh good, a real scientific estimate that I’m sure comes from a real scientific study. One in eight! Fabulous! So, Skepchick gets about 5,000 readers a day, which means that about 625 of you have had transcendent orgams. THAT means that at least a few of you have paranormal powers you got through sex, and at least a few of you have “worked with natural forces,” so you should definitely be able to explain that one to me.

While this path to soulful realization seems too good to be true, experts in this area warn that there are hazards. Individuals have reported being overwhelmed by intimacy or seeking out dangerous liaisons in desiring more.

Dirty Sex Gnome

Oh noes! It’s not all orgasms and bonding with life energies, say “experts.” Who are these experts? Fullbright refuses to reveal her sources, but I have my suspicions (gnomes).

In being transported to this altered, super-dreamlike state, know that things may be nonsensical. You will likely lose all sense of reality. You may not recognize your lover or feel like yourself. The experience can be destabilizing. You may be sick afterward from the intensity.

Oh my god, Yvonne K. Fullbright is having a transcendent orgasm RIGHT NOW!

Despite its potential drawbacks, the healing, profound impact of transcendent sex has the potential for long-term effects. It can result in releasing shame and guilt around sex. It can help one to heal from sexual trauma and abuse. It can lead to a healthier life. If you’re interested in learning more, Wade’s “Transcendent Sex” promises cautious guidance on this spiritual awakening. I don’t know about you, but I plan to check it out.

You plan to check it out? What? This entire article was written based upon the stupidity tumbling out of one woman’s imagination, and you haven’t even actually read that woman’s book? Seriously, how can a person go through so many years of education and yet learn so little? It’s amazing, really, in a very sad way. My conclusion: screw (figuratively) Yvonne K. Fullbright. If you want to read an intelligent, skeptical sex columnist, it’s best to stick with Dan Savage.