Skepfeeds-The Best Skeptical blogs of the day

Homeopathy & Nutritionists vs Real Science!

Posted in Skepdude by Skepdude on July 23, 2009

Important Studied Page Update

Posted in Skepdude by Skepdude on April 13, 2009

Hi there. As you know I am keeping an “Important Studies” page where I will link to studies on which I base my various stances on different Alternative Medicine Modalities. I have just updated it by adding a second study/analysis to the Homeopathy section and adding a new section and a new study in the General/Multiple CAMs studies. Check them out and send me links to other studies as comments on that page. Thank you.

Why Are Americans Resistant to Science?

Posted in The Doctor Weighs In by Skepdude on March 31, 2009

This question often puzzled me. I can understand the need for a God, as an embodiment of people’s moral ideals. So the fact that our society, which views itself as based on moral principles, is fertile ground for the belief in an über-moral deity. The Brits, on the other hand, have a long history of scandalous, sometimes murderous, behaviors of their political leaders and royals. They are well-versed in their Shakespeare and, like him are cynical about assertions of moral superiority of authority figures. Is there any wonder why only a small minority of the British go to church? This could also be the reason why the most ferocious critics of religion are British. See, for instance Richard Dawkins “the God Delusion”, in which he argues that God is, well, a delusion, religion is a virus, and the U.S. has slipped back to the dark ages. If this sounds extreme, try “God is not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything” by Christopher Hitchens.

Why should a belief in a deity clash with acceptance of science? In fact, Dr. Francis Collins, a physician and scientist par excellence, is the director of the Human Genome Project. He is also deeply religious.

But consider this little nugget: In a 2005 Pew Trust poll, 42% of respondents said that they believed that humans and other animals have existed in their present form since the beginning of time, a view that denies the very existence of evolution. And in a 2008 Republican presidential debate, none of the five, or was it six, candidates raised their hands when asked whether they believed in evolution. Michelangelo%20story.jpg

This is not the only domain where people reject science: Many believe in the efficacy of unproven medical interventions; the mystical nature of out-of-body experiences; the existence of supernatural entities such as ghosts and fairies; and the legitimacy of astrology, ESP, and divination.

It all begins in childhood.

In a review titled “Childhood Origins of Adult Resistance to Science”, two Yale professors of psychology, Paul Bloom and Deena Skolnik Weisberg, posit that the winter of our ignorance began in childhood. They review evidence from developmental psychology suggesting that some resistance to scientific ideas is a human universal. This resistance stems from two general facts about children, one having to do with what they know and the other having to do with how they learn.


The most massive scientific fraud ever?

Posted in Respectful Insolence by Skepdude on March 12, 2009

Science as it is practiced today relies on a fair measure of trust. Part of the reason is that the culture of science values openness, hypothesis testing, and vigorous debate. The general assumption is that most scientists are honest and, although we all generally try to present our data in the most favorable light possible, we do not blatantly lie about it or make it up. Of course, we are also all human, and none of us is immune to the temptation to leave out that inconvenient bit of data that doesn’t fit with our hypothesis or to cherry pick the absolutely best-looking blot for use in our grant applications or scientific manuscripts. However, scientists value their reputation among other scientists, and there’s no quicker way to seriously damage one’s reputation than to engage in dodgy behavior with data, and there’s no quicker way to destroy it utterly than to “make shit up.”

True, opposing these forces are the need to “publish or perish” in order to remain funded, advance academically, and become tenured, a pressure that can be particularly intense among basic scientists, who will basically lose their jobs and very likely their academic careers if they cannot cover 50% or more of their salaries through grants. I always remember that I’m fortunate in that, even if I failed utterly to renew all my grants and burn through whatever bridge funds my university might give me, I’d be unlikely to be fired, as I could just go back to operating full time. Indeed, I’d even be likely to generate more income for my department by doing surgery than I could through research. Clinician-scientists are in general a drag on the finances of an academic department.

Despite the pressures, however, I’m still left scratching my head over this recently revealed massive scientific fraud, as reported in Anesthesiology News, the Wall Street Journal, and the New York Times. A bunch of you sent it in to me, and when that happens, I usually conclude that I’d best comment on it. First, the fraud:


The Internet has changed the nature of scientific debate

Posted in News by Skepdude on March 8, 2009

Someone who writes about hot-button issues such as vaccination, prescription drugs, complementary medicines and “health” foods such as raw milk – as has been known to happen in this column – gets a lot of interesting mail.

That people are passionate about health issues is not at all surprising. Hopefully, that will never change.

What has changed a lot over the years, however, is the nature of correspondence and the nature of scientific debate more generally.

Prior to the Internet and e-mail – a time not long ago, remarkably – people were sometimes moved to write letters in response to an article. These missives were infrequent, but usually thoughtful and thought-provoking.

Today, quality has largely given way to quantity.

Irked about something you read in the paper or online? You can fire off a vituperative missile by e-mail or in an anonymous posting on the Web.

Then you can post the article and choice comments on a listserv or blog.

Or get in your digs with Twitter tweets and have like-minded people join in on the bashing.

All of which is fine: The occasional write-in and phone-in protest campaigns of old have given way to routine flaming and viral e-mail attacks. (One thing that has not changed is that people are almost always moved to put pen to paper or thumbs to keypads when they are angry, not happy.) Feedback, no matter how relentlessly negative, is welcome – or at least it should be. Constructive criticism keeps you honest and forces you to be more precise and hone your arguments.

Sadly, though, there no longer seems to be much place for civilized disagreement, honest scientific-based dissension, on differing analyses of agreed-upon facts.

Instead of deconstructing an argument or offering up an alternative philosophy, rebuttals too often take the form of insult and character assassination.

Again, this goes with the territory: If you are going to offer up an opinion on health issues, particularly those that people hold sacred, you had better have a thick skin.


Skepquote of the day

Posted in Skepquote, Uncategorized by Skepdude on December 10, 2008

Science regularly shreds to pieces religious ideas about our cosmos: from the creation of the world to the emergence of life, and from geocentric systems to flat earth ideas*, biblical (and other religious) accounts of cosmology, creation of life, astronomy, and basic biology come in direct contrast with scientific evidence. If one accepts such evidence (as one should) then faith in the holy scriptures (and therefore the relevant omnipotent, omniscient God-writer) must be shaken -if not abandoned altogether. Otherwise, schizophrenic mechanisms have to be employed in order to accommodate both reason and supernatural irrationality in the same mind! There are of course many people accepting the scientific explanation for the emergence of life and at the same time preserving some hints of faith as a matter of tradition, culture, or something socially relevant. But to accept both Evolution and Creationism at face value sounds a bit too weird…

Journey through a burning mind.

Tagged with: ,

Consciousness, meditation and the Dalai Lama

Posted in Rationally Speaking by Skepdude on December 8, 2008


Speaking of science and religion, I got significantly annoyed by a short piece in Nature magazine by Michael Bond (13 November 2008). Bond reviews two recent books on Buddhism and science: “Mind and Life: Discussions with the Dalai Lama on the Nature of Reality,” by Pier Luigi Luisi, and “Buddhism and Science: A Guide for the Perplexed,” by Donald S. Lopez.

I keep being baffled by the fact that so many scientists think it is a cool idea to engage in absurd fits of mental acrobatics so that one can claim that religion, after all, is not in contradiction with science, and in fact can even be somewhat helpful. Granted, Buddhism certainly doesn’t have the same attitude that, say, Christianity and Islam have about science, but there still is a lot of unnecessary fluff that gets thrown around in this misguided quest for a unity between science and religion.

For instance, Bond says that “science and Buddhism seem strangely compatible … [because] to a large degree, Buddhism is a study in human development.” No, it isn’t. Certainly not in the scientific sense of “study.” Buddhism, like all mystical traditions, is about introspection, notoriously a remarkably unreliable source of “evidence.” In that sense, Buddhism is much closer to some continental philosophical traditions based on phenomenology and first-person subjectivity than to science — the quintessential third-person approach to the study of natural phenomena.

Second, Bond contends, Buddhism has an energetic “champion of science” in the current Dalai Lama. That may very well be, but of course this wasn’t the case with past Lamas, nor is there any assurance that it will continue to be with the next one. This hardly seems grounds for claiming “strange compatibility.” True, the current DL has said that if science should ever find a notion endorsed by Buddhism to be not true “then Buddhism will have to change.” It certainly sounds a heck of a lot better than the usual nonsense coming from creationists and intelligent design proponents.

But a moment’s reflection will show that this is a pretty empty statement on the Lama’s part, as much as I don’t doubt that he really meant it. What sort of Buddhist concepts could possibly be proven wrong (or right) by science? Buddhism, again like all mystic traditions, phrases its teachings in such vague language that they are simply not amenable to rational, let alone strictly empirical, analysis. Are we one with the universe? Not really, unless one means that we are made of the same basic stuff as everything else, which I don’t think is what Buddhism means. And even if it meant something like that, to claim congruence with science leads to the same anachronism committed by people who say that the atomist philosophers of ancient Greece had “anticipated” the discoveries of modern physics. No, they didn’t, they were working out of metaphysical presuppositions, did not do any mathematical or experimental work, and most certainly didn’t mean what we do by the term “atom.”

Bond goes so far as to suggest that there is an area of research where Buddhism actually has achieved more than what science has produced so far: when it comes to studying consciousness, he says, Buddhism offers “a kind of science of introspection.” It’s worth quoting Bond in full here: “Whereas cognitive science’s best guess is that consciousness is an emergent property of neuronal organization, Buddhists see it at some pure subtle level as not contingent on matter at all, but deriving instead from ‘a previous continuum of consciousness” — the Dalai Lama’s words — that transcends death and has neither beginning nor end.”

Wow. Where to begin? How about with the observation that “a science of introspection” is an oxymoron? As I mentioned above, introspection is certainly a rich kind of experience that can be cultivated for one’s own edification, but it is not and cannot be “science” because science is based on the idea of independent verification of empirical findings. Second, that consciousness is an emergent property of neuronal organization is much more than a “guess,” as serious research in neurobiology has made stunning progress in identifying specific regions of the brain that provide the material basis for specific aspects of the conscious experience. And finally, what on earth is even remotely scientific about completely unfounded and even literally meaningless claims about a “continuum of consciousness”? Continuum means adjacent, to what would consciousness be adjacent, pray?

Look, Buddhists have all the rights to believe all the fluff they want, just like anyone else. And unlike fundamentalist Christians they at least don’t pretend to teach their mysticism in science classes. But why do religionists crave so much the recognition of science, beginning with creationists themselves? (After all, they talk about “creation science,” and “intelligent design theory.”) And why do some scientists lend credence to the Dalai Lama, the Pope, and whoever else invites them for a weekend in Rome or in Dharamsala? The best that can be said about science and religion is that they have nothing to do with each other, and most certainly nothing to teach to each other. Let’s not pretend otherwise for the sake of cultural correctness.


Science and the paranormal

Posted in Skepdude by Skepdude on November 23, 2008

A few days ago I wrote an entry titled “Sacred Geometry-Sacred Nonsense?” in which I replied to an entry about sacred geometry posted at the blog “Beyond the Blog”. Me and that blog’s author, Anthony, had a nice discussion in the comments section of that entry of mine. Now Anthony has a new entry titled “The Science Gene” and I have, yet again, some issues with what Anthony has to say. On my previous entry I was told that I did not get the meaning of what he was saying, so I will read this carefully to make sure that this acuse cannot be thrown my way this time.

In his latest entry Anthony is talking about the paranormal and scientists. He says:

When it comes to this modern breed, I immediately fall into the same category as anyone else who is prepared to give the paranormal a chance.

I never expected any different. The general scientific acceptance of curiosity may work for most areas of life and the universe, but regarding the paranormal, there is a form of mental block. Simply considering the subject is enough to be discounted.

Now the term paranormal is a wide umbrella that encompasses lots of things from homeopathy and acupuncture to psychics, ESP, remote viewing, astral projections, psychic surgery etc etc. Some of these fields, especially the medical related ones such as homeopathy and acupuncture have been studied deeply by the modern science types. I am not sure if Anthony includes skeptics in the “modern breed” category. Organizations such as the James Randi Educational Foundation have been spending lots ant lots of time testing every kind of imaginable supernatural/paranormal claim. In fact Randi’s million dollar challenge remains unclaimed decades after it was instituted.

What group does Anthony think he falls under? It seems that the implication is the “ignored with a wave of the hand” group. In fact many proponents of the paranormal usually throw that sort of argument around. Oh, the scientist are too arrogant that they don’t even look into our claims, they just discount them out of hand. But is that true? Let’s look at this carefully. As I mentioned plenty of studies have been done by scientist on many paranormal/supernatural claims (and yes acupuncture with it’s chi and ying and yang nonsense is totally paranormal and so is homeopathy with its law of attraction/similarities and the dilution nonsense). Psychic abilities also have been tested extensively by the JREF.

But let’s stay on track here. By definition the paranormal/supernatural are beyond natural, they are out of this natural world. Science, also by definition, is concerned with natural explanations and does not, cannot, get involved with stuff that is supposed to be outside of nature. How do you test something when it is defined as being untestable by the tools of science? How do you test psychic abilities if psychics will rationalize (usually after the fact, after having failed miserably) that their powers wane and go away under test conditions? How do you test something which is supposed to work all the time, except when it is being tested under a controlled environment?

So can we blame scientists EVEN IF they did completely ignore supernatural explanations? It is not fair to blame them for not doing something which they cannot do right? Science test hypotheses, but the hypothesis itself has to be testable. If you define things so that they fall beyond the natural, beyond the testable then you cannot experiment with them, you cannot study them properly speaking. Some paranormal claims are of this nature 100% (GOD) whereas others are not completely this way. Therefore some are more suitable for scientific testing and some are less, depending how they are defined by their proponents.

Which takes me back to my original question, which group does Anthony feel like he’s being included with? The group that has been tested but has not been shown to work? Or the group that by it’s very own definition cannot be approached scientifically? Now if you belong to the first one, is it really a surprise that after study after study failing to even hint that such things work, scientist would say enough, I will not test the same idea anymore? Is it really unreasonable at this point to say that anyone who comes to me with the very same argument, without a new hypothesis, without new data, without some preliminary test, will not get anymore of my time? I don’t think so.

And if Anthony thinks he’s being lumped into the second group, well then in that case he’d be disqualifying himself from scientific review and the blame should not be thrown the scientist way.

Could it be down to a simple inability in them to comprehend the subject? Certainly it appears so.

That is unfair to say the least. In fact I submit that skeptics and scientists understand more of the various paranormal subjects than more people that blindly believe in them. We understand how psychics are supposed to perform their tricks. We understand how homeopathy and acupuncture are supposed to work miracles. We know how healing prayer is supposed to work. We do. But we are not convinced. If there is an inability, it is one to believe extraordinary claims based on very flimsy evidence. Yes, I confess to that inability.

Behaviour is said to be down to nature or nurture. The former is due to our genes, whilst the latter is said to be to do with our upbringing, etc. Yet I’ve recently begun writing about a third factor in this equation.

Culture could play an important part.

We exist in culture. We are labeled through our culture. Our knowledge is very much a part of our culture. Hence, culture plays an important part in our behaviour.

Now this is more of a technical gripe. Culture does play an important part, that he’s right about. But culture is not a third element. Culture is included in nurture and upbringing. I just wanted to point that out. Not a biggie but it helps to straighten everything that needs straightening I think.

But could it be that changes in culture lead, over several generations, to changes in the behavioural elements of our genetic structure?

That’s an interesting question to entertain I think, but I find it very hard to accept that some behavioral trait that is not genetic in any sense can somehow be transferred to the genes. Very very doubtful to say the least. Do we have any geneticist that read this blog that could shed some light on this area? I am in no position to say conclusively either way, but I lean towards no right now. Anthony offers another possibility:

We talk of change through the ‘meme’, but I’m suggesting here that it could be a real genetic influence, and not just a concept. In effect, what we are is not enshrined in genetic stone, but fluid. We change as our culture directs.

As with evolution generally, the culturally fittest ideas could well survive to be conditioned into the person. Hence behaviour – the cultural prevalence of the religious or scientific impulse, for instance – can be programmed into the person.

How would this programming happen? What is the mechanism being proposed? And don’t give me a supernatural explanation please.

Does this give a hint of a reason for science’s intransigence when it comes to the paranormal? I don’t know. But it should be discussed, for it suggests that the ‘natural’ bias against the paranormal is not ‘natural’ at all, but the result of a form of cultural brainwashing

Nope! Actually this possible conclusion that Anthony offers is based on a very very weak speculation (behavior that is not genetic in nature can be programed into the genes) and when the foundation is week the whole building will collapse. I understand that Anthony is not claiming that this is in fact what is happening. Nevertheless, he is offering a possible explanation about the science gene, programed via countelss cultural scientific brainwashing over the generations , which makes scientists ignore the paranormal. Very neat philosophically, but way to speculative scientifically.

So where do we go from here? Someone who thinks this hypothesis has any merit should first start with the claim about the “cultural programing” and establish that this claim is probable. When that is established, then they need to get to work on this “science gene” and identify a possible gene candidate, I guess by running genetic profiles of scientist and looking for common genes and what have you. Then, you need to devise a test to figure out if said science gene does affect attitudes towards the supernatural. That is in a nutshell the proper way of approaching this. Remember, just thinking up a hypothesis is not enough even if it seems to make sense. We could sit around discussing ideas all day long and nothing would come out of it unless we actually did the work to test them.

Indeed, it suggests that, in terms of behaviour, nothing is ‘natural’ at all. Rather, we are fluid receptors of change and ideals produced by an over-culture of our collective behaviour and ideas.

Baloney! Fight or flight is not cultural under any sense. It’s much more primitive than any human culture. Generalizations like this are very dangerous. Whenever one say nothing, or everything, they are open to all sorts of criticism as I hope I just showed here. This statement I completely disagree with.

I think I’ve figured out the differences between Anthony and I. It seems to me that it comes down to possibility and probability. It seems Anthony considers many possibilities but does not take into account the probability. What he has just described in his entry is possible, sure, but very very improbable. And scientist and skeptics look at both possibilities (hypotheses) and probabilities (experimental results) and when the probabilities remain very very low we just stop wasting time with the possibility and unless new eveidence is presented to raise the probability it makes no sense to go back over and over  to the possibility. That  is not a fault in my eyes. It is a virtue. Am I making any sense?

Beth Israel joins the Academic Woo Aggregator!

Posted in Respectful Insolence by Skepdude on October 31, 2008

I feel bad.

I realize that I’ve been completely neglecting my Academic Woo Aggregator. You remember my Academic Woo Aggregator, don’t you? It was my attempt to compile a near-definitive list of academic medical centers that had “integrated” woo into their divisions or departments of “integrative medicine” (i.e., departments of academic-sounding quackery). Perusing it, I now realize that it’s been over five months since I did a significant update to it. You just know that, given the rate of infiltration of unscientific medical practices into medical academia as seemingly respectable treatment modalities that there must be at least several new additions to this role of shame. Alas, even today, having been shamed myself by the realization of my failure to keep the list updated, I’m not going to do the full update and revamping that the Woo Aggregator cries out for. However, that doesn’t mean I can’t do a piecemeal addition here and there. That doesn’t mean I can’t point out new additions to the Woo Aggregator as they pop up, even if it takes me a while to find the time to give it the facelift it needs.

It doesn’t mean I can’t call out hospitals like Beth Israel when they fall into woo, especially when they do it in a big way for cancer patients.

The first thing to know about this degeneration of a once great academic powerhouse is that, as is the case for many centers of “complementary and alternative medicine” (CAM) or of “integrative medicine” (IM), when looking for the reason why physicians ostensibly dedicated to scientific medicine would embrace this woo, look for the financial reason. In this case, the financial incentive comes from Donna Karan, founder of the famous DKNY line of clothing. In search of her dollars, Beth Israel has turned over an entire cancer treatment floor to woo:

Medical advances sometimes happen in strange ways. Someone finds a fungus in dirty lab dishes and — eureka! — penicillin is born. Now a premier Manhattan hospital is turning a cancer-treatment floor over to a world-famous fashion designer in the hope that serendipity, science and intuition will strike again.A foundation run by Donna Karan, creator of the “seven easy pieces” philosophy of women’s wardrobes and founder of the much-imitated DKNY line of clothing, has donated $850,000 for a yearlong experiment combining Eastern and Western healing methods at Beth Israel Medical Center. Instead of just letting a celebrated donor adopt a hospital wing, renovate it and have her name embossed on a plaque, the Karan-Beth Israel project will have a celebrated donor turn a hospital into a testing ground for a trendy, medically controversial notion: that yoga, meditation and aromatherapy can enhance regimens of chemotherapy and radiation.

Whatever happened to the days when a wealthy donor would be happy just to have her name on a building or on a floor? I guess they never truly existed. However, it’s truly depressing to see a former academic powerhouse accommodate such wishes just because they’re trendy, because a wealthy donor is willing to fund them, and because, no doubt, hospital administrators perceive it as good publicity and a draw for credulous patients. I wish I could view this as merely a cynical ploy to add a spoon full of woo to make the real scientific medicine go down easier, but somehow I don’t think that’s the case. I also really, really hate it when I see the same old false dichotomy of “Eastern” versus “Western” medicine. There is no such thing as “Eastern” or “Western” medicine. As blog bud PalMD put it:

I’ll stipulate that by “Eastern and Western healing methods” they mean credulous Americans’ impression of what is done in “the East” vs. science-based medicine as it is practiced around the world (the Eastern and Western bits).


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.