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Yet Another Acupuncture Experiment Overblown

November 30, 2010 4 comments

Acupuncture being performed. From Wikipedia

A presentation is being given today at the 96th Scientific Assembly and Annual Meeting of the Radiological Society of North America.

A couple of media outlets have jumped on this presentation, titled “Influence of Acupuncture on Pain Modulation during Electrical Stimulation: An fMRI Study“.

The headline in the Telegraph reads: Acupuncture’s effect ‘isn’t just psychological’

In the Daily Mail it reads: Acupuncture is no placebo and does relieve pain, say scientists

The Telegraph headline is misleading, and the Daily Mail headline is just plain wrong. And, as I’ll point out, both are overstating the findings of the study, as are the scientists who performed it.

So first off, fMRI stands for Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging. It is a type of MRI scan which can determine which parts of the brain become “activated” by measuring the amount of blood flow to each part of the brain.

It is a fascinating field of study, and in a future post I will explain the physics of MRI, but for now lets just say that fMRI is (somewhat) able to tell which parts of the brain “turn on” when you do certain tasks.

So what happened in this particular study is this: the authors got 18 healthy volunteers and shocked their ankle with an electric shock to induce pain. At the same time, they imaged their brain using fMRI.

Next, they took the same 18 people, performed acupuncture on them, and then shocked their ankle again and took another fMRI of their brain.

They compare the two images, before and after the acupuncture, to see which parts of the brain light up (or don’t) to see if they could see any differences in how the brain reacts to pain stimuli with and without acupuncture.

And wouldn’t you know it? They did see a difference. Their conclusion:

Activation of brain areas involved in pain modulation was significantly reduced or modulated under acupuncture and the majority of the detected areas were not influenced by the analyzed covariate. However, left anterior insular cortex and orbitofrontal / superior frontal gyrus activation was modulated by stimulus intensity. We hypothesize that insula activation seems to be correlated to the stimulus and pain intensity while the importance of frontal activation increases during acupuncture and may be an acupuncture specific effect.

Essentially, they found that after the acupuncture, parts of the brain which control pain were not activated as strongly. Not only that, but the affective response to pain (the frontal cortex) was changed after the acupuncture as well. Pretty convincing right?

No. It’s not . First off, a similar response has been shown by Wager et al. in 2004 that placebos induce the same effect.

Second, it has also been shown that expecting pain can alter one’s response to pain. This study had the volunteers get their ankle shocked first, then they got acupuncture and had to be shocked again. They were expecting the pain, so this may have affected the results.

Third, there was no control group. A proper study should have had a placebo type of acupuncture, such as pricking the skin with toothpicks (which has been done before) or placing the needles at non-acupuncture points. Or they should have tried some other type of pain relief, like massage or relaxation prior to the second shock, to see if there was any difference.

Fourth, the study only had 18 volunteers. To make a claim that acupuncture works based on such a small group is irresponsible.

Fifth (geez, five points?!) fMRI is not easy to gather accurate conclusions from. The workings of the brain are affected by many things and brain responses can be non-localized.

I am not refuting the results of the study, only the conclusions drawn by the authors and the media. The data itself is not surprising. In fact, it is exactly what you would expect since placebos have shown similar results. But to draw the conclusion that this is an acupuncture specific effect from this data is fallacious.

Simple Writing Exercise Boosts Grades of Female Physics Students

November 29, 2010 Leave a comment

Although men and women are equal in their abilities concerning math and physics, women still seem to lag a bit when it comes to grades in the Physics classroom.

Consider the classroom of Akira Miyake from the University of Colorado. Female students got grades, on average, 10% lower than male students. A significant difference. Miyake knew that this had nothing to do with ability, so how does one fix it?

Well he tried a technique that had been shown to increase the exam scores of black students in American high schools. These students were victims of the “stereotype threat“, which is when an unfair stereotype is applied to a group to which you belong (i.e. black students do worse in school than white students). However, after utilizing a technique called “values affirmation”, the scores of the black students dramatically increased. In fact, the increase was greatest amongst the poorest students. What happened?

The technique involves a writing exercise in which the student writes a few sentences about their core values (family, religion, creativity etc.) and write why those values are important to them. The exercise takes no more than 15 minutes. This was done twice at the start of the school year, and the results show a large increase in the students scores.

So could it work for women too? Women also suffer from the unfair stereotype that they are not as good at math/physics as men. Therefore, they don’t have as much confidence and don’t do as well. It is a self-fulfilling prophecy.

But Miyake did an experiment. He divided his introductory Physics class into 2 groups, with equal amounts of males and females in each group.

At the start of the year, he asked Group 1 (the “values affirmation” group) to write about their core values and why they are important to them. He then separately asked Group 2 (the “control” group) to write about the values of someone else and why they might be important to another person. Both groups were told that this was an exercise in writing ability, not physics grades.

He then compared the results of the 2 groups with their final marks in the course, as well as how well they did on the Force and Motion Conceptual Evaluation (FMCE), which is a standardized test about basic physical principles. These were the results:

As you can see, the women’s scores increased, whereas the men’s scores remained largely unchanged.

This is quite a result. With a simple writing exercise designed to instill confidence and reduce the effect of the stereotype threat, exam scores in the class increased by an average of about 5%, and about 13% for the FMCE.

So what we find is that it’s not enough to debunk the myth that men are better than women at physics, we have to get women to believe it as well. To believe in themselves.

Why am I so interested in this issue? I have written about it a couple of times. Mainly because it frustrates me. I tutored during my time in University and many more girls asked for tutoring than guys, because they didn’t do as well. This was mainly because, in my opinion, they simply didn’t have as much self-confidence when it came to the exams.

“I’m no good at Physics, I just want to pass,” was a phrase I heard more than once.

“No, you will not just pass,” I told them, “you will do well.”

But making them believe it was tough, because of all the stereotypes they no doubt encountered through their lives. So I would tell them about these kinds of studies, how girls are just as good as guys at science/math. I even told them how I came in 3rd place in my senior year research project class. 1st and 2nd place went to two girls.

So it’s an uphill battle, but progress is being made. If I ever have a daughter, you can be damn sure she will not grow up thinking that she is not as good as guys at science or math.

Behold! The Non-Browning Apple!

November 29, 2010 Leave a comment

It’s lunch time. You take a bit of your delicious apple. A colleague asks for your opinion on something, and you forgot about your apple for a few minutes.

When you return to it, you find it has become brown and gross. You throw it away out of disgust.

But its possible this may not happen again, if a new breed of genetically modified apple which doesn’t brown gets approval for growing. A biotech company called Okanagan Specialty Fruits of Summerland (OSF), based in British Columbia, Canada, has developed the apple and believes it will be a hit. Neal Carter, president of the company said

They look like apple trees and grow like apple trees and produce apples that look like all other apples and when you cut them, they don’t turn brown. The benefit is something that can be identified just about by everybody.

He says that the new type of apple will encourage it to be packaged in salads and children’s lunches, helping lead to more healthy eating.

How does it work? Well my biology is a little rusty, but basically what happens is this:

When you pierce the skin of the apple you expose the innards to oxygen. This causes a chemical reaction to occur involving enzymes which create melanin, the same pigment in your hair and eyes, and leads to the apple turning brown.

OSF has licensed a technology from Australian researchers which stops the production of a certain enzyme, polyphenol oxidase, which causes the browning.

It will be interesting to see how this pans out, but it will be awhile. The approval process for the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service can take years.

In the meantime, there are a couple of things you can do to prevent your fruit from browning. You could drizzle some lemon juice on it, as the acid helps prevent the enzymes from turning the fruit brown. Also, you could refrigerate the fruit before eating, as the cold temperature reduces the rate of the chemical reaction which produces that nasty brown colour.

The Grey Cup: Canada’s Superbowl

November 28, 2010 Leave a comment

Well, I guess Canada’s Superbowl would be the Stanly Cup Finals, but some get pretty excited about the championship match in the Canadian Football League.

I’ll be watching the game today which is between the Saskatchewan Roughriders and the Montreal Alouettes, and I’ll be rooting for Saskatchewan.

I may have time for a science related post.  Depends how many beers I have.

What are the differences between the CFL and the NFL? A couple of the main differences are:

  1. The CFL field is 110 yards long and 65 yards wide, as opposed to 100 yards by 53 yards for the NFL.
  2. In the CFL you get only 3 downs to go 10 yards.
  3. The play clock in the CFL is 20 seconds instead of 40 seconds like in the NFL.
  4. Because of the bigger field, CFL teams have 12 players on the field instead of 11.

There are plenty of other differences  as well, but those are the main ones. What it adds up to is a much faster paced, more wide open game of football. As opposed to the NFL, which is usually tighter and more strategic.

Most CFL games tend to be close, and because of the 3 down possession and 20 second play clock, the game is not over half way through the 4th quarter. Anything can happen.

Go Riders!

Oh Sarah Palin, What Will You Say Next?

November 26, 2010 Leave a comment

Yes, she is like the Howard Stern of the political world. And there is a possibility that she will be the next president of the United States (Happy Thanksgiving 2012 *snicker*).

What has she done now? Well I’m not too concerned about her little gaffe calling North Korea our “allies”. Thats a mistake that could happen to anyone. Well, ok, maybe not anyone, but it’s not a huge deal.

No what I’m more concerned about are her views on childhood obesity. She made comments recently regarding Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move!” project.

From the Lets Move! website,

The Let’s Move! campaign, started by First Lady Michelle Obama, has an ambitious national goal of solving the challenge of childhood obesity within a generation so that children born today will reach adulthood at a healthy weight.

Over the past three decades, childhood obesity rates in America have tripled, and today, nearly one in three children in America are overweight or obese. One third of all children born in 2000 or later will suffer from diabetes at some point in their lives; many others will face chronic obesity-related health problems like heart disease, high blood pressure, cancer, and asthma.

The site provides information on nutrition and suggestions for fun physical activities and steps to maintaining a healthy lifestyle. Sounds pretty good right?

But what does Sarah Palin have to say about Michelle Obama’s campaign? In a radio interview on Wednesday she said:

Take her anti-obesity thing that she is on. She is on this kick, right. What she is telling us is she cannot trust parents to make decisions for their own children, for their own families in what we should eat.

And I know I’m going to be again criticized for bringing this up, but instead of a government thinking that they need to take over and make decisions for us according to some politician or politician’s wife priorities, just leave us alone, get off our back and allow us as individuals to exercise our own God-given rights to make our own decisions and then our country gets back on the right track.

It’s hard to know where to even start! She talks about giving parents good information about food as if it is some kind of fascist plot for the government to control its people.

I wonder, what is her stance on regulation of the nation’s water supply? Does the government have the right to tell us what we can and can’t drink? Hell, if I want to drink contaminated sewage, nay, make my child drink contaminated sewage that’s mybusiness!

Roland Martin says something similar in his opinion piece on CNN:

Libertarians and far right conservative Republicans are always talking about government intrusion into our lives, but when we look at clean water, air quality and food supply, thank God for governmental standards.

So Sarah, I know you are trying to make a name for yourself so you can make a bid at the White House in 2012, but targeting a program designed to keep kids healthy by eating proper food?

Now that’s in poor taste.

Score One For the Good Guys!

November 25, 2010 1 comment

Every so often, a victory comes along that reminds me why we do this.

Blogging about science and skepticism can be tough. You wonder “are we really making a difference?”

Yes, we are.

The anti-vax group SafeMinds.org tried to purchase ad time to show a “PSA” trying to convince people not to receive the flu shot containing any mercury-based preservatives.

Let’s not kid ourselves. This group is anti-vax, and trying to sneak their message in under the guise of being “pro-safe vaccines” as opposed to “anti-vaccines”.

There is no scientific evidence to support the claim that vaccines containing mercury are associated with health problems. Further, there is no evidence that links any adverse health effects to the fetus by administering the flu vaccine to pregnant women, as the SafeMinds ad contends.

Yet the fear mongering continues. If this ad had run, vaccination rates would have dropped. This is a large health risk and puts young children and the elderly in particular danger.

However, a glimmer of hope. AMC refused to show the ad in their theatres, as was announced by SafeMinds.org

SafeMinds was notified late yesterday afternoon that AMC Theaters has decided to block the SafeMinds Public Service Announcement (PSA) on influenza vaccines with mercury. The PSA alerts parents and pregnant women of the presence of mercury in most influenza vaccines and the ample availability of mercury-free alternatives. The CDC has declined to give a preference for the mercury-free versions, so it is important that the public is aware of its options. AMC’s advertising representative had reviewed and approved the PSA to run in AMC cinemas over the Thanksgiving weekend. A small group of vocal vaccine proponents dismissive of mercury concerns learned of the PSA and bombarded the AMC website, leading to the company’s decision to prevent its release. SafeMinds thanks its supporters who viewed the PSA and contributed to its efforts to educate the public to avoid unnecessary mercury exposure. Mercury in all forms is dangerous, especially to the developing fetus and infants, as referenced on the PSA website www.safemindsflu.org. SafeMinds will continue its mission to educate the public on this important healthcare topic.

More info on the whole situation can be found on SkepChick and Science-Based Medicine.

This is a big win for the good guys. Fear of vaccinations is a major threat to public health, particularly children. So we will continue to fight, and hopefully we will see more wins like this one.

Do Cell Phones Cause Cancer? See What a Real Expert Says

November 24, 2010 6 comments

I’ve written about the issue of cell phones and Wi-Fi and the supposed health risks associated with their use. The resounding scientific evidence shows they are perfectly safe, but the media continues to stoke fear in the public with unbalanced coverage.

When reading a news story about this sort of thing, I always wonder why they don’t ask an actual expert. The answer is that an expert would say how implausible the story is, and that they are silly for reporting it.

That doesn’t sell newspapers.

Instead, they find the one person on the fringe who maintains that there is a magical mechanism by which non-ionizing radiation can harm us. But thankfully, Phil Plait posted on his blog today something I have been looking for a long time.

I’m not a researcher (anymore). I don’t have a Ph.D, so I can tell you what I think, and I can tell you I know what I’m talking about, but I will never have as much credibility as a real university professor in physics or electrical engineering.

Enter this talk by Professor Christopher Davis from the University of Maryland’s Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering. It was given at a National Capitol Area Skeptics meeting, and posted on YouTube. It’s in 5 parts and each part is about 13 minutes long.

It is a fascinating talk and not too technical, so you don’t need a science background to understand the main points. He even touches on backscatter x-ray scanners which have been in the news quite a bit lately. Enjoy!