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Posts Tagged ‘Skeptic’

Measles Outbreak Hospitalizes Four Children

March 31, 2011 1 comment

Yes, and it could have been prevented.

The outbreak happened in the Twin Cities area of Minneapolis. Since measles immunization is highly effective at preventing measles, how is it a that an outbreak like this could have occurred?

According to the Minnesota Department of Health, a recent outbreak of measles in the Twin Cities area was caused in part by former doctor and medical researcher Andrew Wakefield’s influential but fraudulent study suggesting a connection between child vaccination and autism.

So why weren’t the children vaccinated?

Several of the parents informed the Health Department they had avoided the mumps, measles, and rubella (MMR) vaccine out of concerns their children would be at risk of autism.

If you read this blog at all (or any other skeptic blog, for that matter) you know this already. But once more, with feeling…

VACCINES DO NOT CAUSE AUTISM

Not only has Wakefield’s original study been shown be of poor quality, it has also been alleged to be fraudulent. Many larger studies have shown absolutely no correlation between vaccines and autism.

None. Zero. Nada. Zilch. Nil.

Ok, I’m starting to get worked up. It happens when I talk about vaccines especially.

Why? Well usually when a scientist’s outlandish claims get debunked it is an “I told you so!” situation.

But when children (or anyone) get hurt or hospitalized as a result of those outlandish claims, it becomes a “Bang your head against the wall because this could have been prevented” situation.

Maybe we could call this a “Wakefield” situation; a “When Are Kids Ever going to Forgive us for letting Idiots Endanger their Lives with Debunked science” situation.

The reality is starting to set in, as Dr. William Schaffner, chair of the Department of Preventive Medicine at Vanderbilt University, lays out:

Hospitalizations and deaths have occurred—all preventable, had the children been immunized. In the U.S., some parents withhold vaccines; others stretch out the vaccination schedule, leaving children susceptible to disease for longer than they should.

I don’t know if the damage caused by that original Wakefield paper will ever be fully undone. But that doesn’t mean we can’t try to undo as much as possible.

The Globe and Mail Fails Again

March 21, 2011 Leave a comment

The Globe continues its descent from decent reporting to tabloid-like fear mongering. The culprit this time is a completely unskeptical article containing a condensed interview with Paul Connet, “a U.S. academic and public-health advocate”. He has recently penned a book called ‘The Case Against Fluoride’.

The article is available here, but I was so disappointed with the article’s lack of counter evidence or even discussion, that I feel the need to provide such commentary here. Let’s look at a few of the questions that were asked:

Before you became involved in this issue, you were skeptical that fluoride was harmful and thought critics of the practice were misguided. What changed your mind?

There were two things. The first was that fluoride interfered with hydrogen bonds, which are common in proteins and other important molecules in our bodies. That sent alarm bells ringing through my head. The second was that the level in mothers’ milk was incredibly low. When you see what nature’s take on it is, which is don’t give the baby much fluoride, then I felt this doesn’t make any sense to add it to water.

Hydrogen bonding is a form of attraction between the positive hydrogen atom and an electronegative atom. Connet is referring to a paper written in 1981 in the Journal of the American Chemical Society. The paper found that hydrogen bonds are quite strong in a fluoride-amide solution and that this may affect proteins. Amides also appear in proteins, and he believes that this will have some kind of biological effect. I have not found, however, any papers finding that this effect can be extended to fluoride detrimentally affecting human proteins in vivo. In fact, it is fluoride’s effect on hydrogen bonding that may be part of the reason it is beneficial to tooth enamel.

His second reason for fearing fluoride just seems silly. It’s not in breast milk therefore we should not use it? This just flat-out doesn’t make sense. We have evolved to a point where we can use medicine and vaccines to improve our health beyond that which has naturally occurred through evolution. To deprive an infant of these advantages because they are not in mother’s milk is ridiculous.

In the case of fluoridation, the water supply is being used as a drug-delivery mechanism to treat a medical condition. Why is this wrong, in your view?

It violates people’s right to informed consent, which has always been the strongest argument against fluoridation. We’ve never done it with other drugs. Since fluoridation began in 1945, not one other substance has been added to the water to address a health concern. You shouldn’t use the water supply to deliver medication, for obvious reasons. You can’t control the dose. You can’t control who will get it. There is no individual supervision. The whole practice doesn’t make sense from a medical point of view.

True, we have never use water to deliver other drugs. But we have in salt. Iodised salt was introduced in the United States in 1924 to help prevent goiters and iodine deficiency. I don’t hear anyone complaining about the lack of goiters.

Dose control is a noble concern, but not relevant. So long as the fluoride concentration is controlled and tested regularly (about 0.5 to 1 mg/L), it would take an unfeasible amount of water ingestion to even have a chance of causing any detrimental health effects.

The right to informed consent is actually the one argument I think has merit. However, people are always informed if fluoride is added to their water supply and do have the option to get a water filter to remove the majority of it if they wish.

The first U.S. fluoridation trial began in the mid-1940s. Would fluoridation pass a modern, drug-style clinical trial or risk assessment?

There is no way on planet Earth that you could get fluoridation through today. It’s only because it’s been an inherited practice and so much credibility is at stake for the medical community that keeps it going.

This is just flat-out wrong. Studies on the effect of fluoride have never stopped and continue to be updated. The consensus remains the same: fluoride is an effective and safe means of preventing dental caries.

What are the health dangers from fluoridation?

I think we’re going to pay a huge price. I’m convinced, based on animal studies, clinical trials and epidemiological studies, that drinking fluoridated water for a whole lifetime will increase your risk of arthritis and also increase your risk of hip fractures, which is very serious in the elderly. The reason for these problems is that half the fluoride people ingest is stored in the bone. We may also have a problem with it lowering the IQ of children. There are 23 studies from four countries that have found a possible association between drinking naturally fluoridated water and lower IQ in children.

Regions which have artificially fluoridated water, that is, water in which the fluoride concentration is controlled, show no significant correlation between arthritis or hip fractures. The statement that “half the fluoride ingested is stored in the bone” is not necessarily true. 75-90% of ingested fluoride is absorbed and in adults about 60% of absorbed fluoride is retained. Connet’s concern about the IQ of children comes from studies of naturally fluoridated water, that is, water which does not have the fluoride added by the city, but comes from natural sources or fluoride pollution. These naturally fluoridated waters supplies usually have much, much higher concentrations of fluoride than artificially fluoridated sources.

A lot of these concerns are based on flimsy evidence and straw man arguments. There are however, a couple of things I do actually agree with:

1. Naturally fluoridated water supplies are a problem because the concentration are too high and may cause adverse health effects. However, this concern should not be unfairly extended to artificially fluoridated water supplies.

2. The argument about informed consent is a valid one. But if you don’t want fluoride in your water because of this reason, don’t argue it based on health effects; argue it based on an informed consent platform.

Oh and one more thing. I am actually worried about the fluoride in MY water supply. The reason is because Calgary has voted to remove it.

I will definitely be making sure there is fluoride in my toothpaste.

Pseudoscience and the Japan Earthquake

March 11, 2011 3 comments

Japan has suffered from a major natural disaster, and my thoughts are with all those who have lost family members and friends because of this terrible event.

Which is why I’m sickened to see that one of Canada’s national newspapers, The Globe and Mail, has an article today entitled “Japan Tsunami: Was ‘Supermoon’ to Blame?”

Here’s the deal. The moon orbits the Earth in an ellipse. When it is furthest from the Earth (about 405,000 km) it is called apogee and when it is closest to the Earth (about 355,000 km) it is called perigee . This time is special, however, because the moon will actually be closer than it has been in 18 years…by 2 percent.

So some astrologers and other dead-heads are claiming that it was the moon that caused the Japan earthquake.

This is complete and utter bullplop. BULLPLOP!

Phil Plait of course wrote about this on his blog as well. So tidal forces caused by the moon are extremely weak, and even though the moon will be slightly closer to the Earth at perigee, they are not powerful enough to affect the Earth in any way other than the sea tides moving in and out. There is no correlation between major earthquakes and moon phases.

And guess what? The so-called ‘supermoon’ won’t happen until March 19. The moon was 400,000 km away when the earthquake happened, which is actually farther than it usually is on average (about 384,000 km).

I give The Globe and Mail a hard time quite often, but it is only because they deserve it. Peddling this nonsense in the wake of a major disaster like this is extremely disheartening and shows poor journalistic integrity.

 

The Journal of Cosmology Strikes Back

March 11, 2011 Leave a comment

So the Journal of Cosmology (JoC) has written a response to the criticisms of Richard Hoover’s paper claiming to have found fossilized alien bacteria in a meteorite.

They begin by stating that they are, indeed, a prestigious scientific journal.

The Journal of Cosmology is a Prestigious Scientific Journal

I dunno, but if you have to say that you are prestigious, then you probably aren’t. It’s kind of like Milhouse Van Houten saying that his mom thinks he is cool, or Ron Burgandy arguing his importance by stating he has “many leather-bound books”.

The paper itself has been very heavily criticized. Scientists at the Lunar and Planetary Science Conference this year in Texas, regard it as “a dubious controversy that will do science little good”.

Meteoriticist Edward Anders, retired from the University of Chicago in Illinois stated in Science that

Despite [Hoover’s] generous sprinkling of fancy names, these structures are in a morphological no man’s land,

The blogosphere is responding in a similar fashion (including yours truly), with the consensus being that these claims are at best premature, and at worst they are outright bogus.

So in light of the large number of scientists showing doubt over the quality of Hoover’s research, the JoC felt it was necessary to respond directly to its critics. The title of their response is “Have the Terrorists Won?”

Umm…WHAT!?

You are comparing legitimate scientific criticism to terrorist attacks!? I’m already starting to feel sick, but let’s go further.

Only a few crackpots and charlatans have denounced the Hoover study…Tremendous efforts have been made to shout down the truth, and the same crackpots, self-promoters, liars, and failures, are quoted repeatedly in the media. However, where is the evidence the Hoover study is not accurate?

To paraphrase, the JoC is saying “prove to us its NOT true!” It is becoming abundantly clear that the editors of the JoC are hell-bent on believing this paper and are not willing to listen to any one else’s opinions.

Following the publication of Richard Hoover’s paper, what ensued could be likened to a rein [sic] of terror, a witch hunt, an inquisition designed to crush all discussion of his findings. There were even calls to “hang” Richard Hoover. Three hundred years ago, they would have burned us all at the stake.

Can you say “melodramatic”? The discussions on the legitimacy of Hoover’s work are somehow similar to a reign of terror or the with trials of the 16th to 18th centuries?

The silence is deafening. What prominent scientist would dare to publicly support Hoover’s findings, when they know that raving lunatics will be unleashed to destroy their reputation?

How can science advance in this country if NASA and the media promotes frothing-at the-mouth-attacks on legitimate scientists and scientific periodicals who dare to publish new discoveries or new ideas?

The Journal of Cosmology sought to promote science and scientific debate, but the scientific community is too frightened and terrorized to speak up.

It took courage to publish the Hoover discoveries. The Journal of Cosmology will continue to publish great theories and new discoveries.

The terrorists and the lunatic fringe have lost.

These sound more like the ravings of a conspiracy theorist than the commentary of a “prestigious” journal editor.

Their use of the historical references  in which the scientific consensus was proved wrong is the kind of faulty logic that many proponents of pseudoscience fall victim to. How many times have you heard the anti-vaxxers say that “tobacco was once considered safe”? That doesn’t mean vaccines cause autism, and just because there have been times in the past when scientists were proved wrong, doesn’t mean that every article published in the JoC is right.

Calling those who oppose your views “raving lunatics” and “frothing-at-the-mouth attacks” does not improve the JoC’s credibility, and only shows that they are set to believe this paper, whether we like it or not.

If I may channel the great Ron Burgandy once again: “Stay classy JoC. Stay classy.”

 

Alien Bacteria *Possibly* Discovered in Meteorite: UPDATE

March 6, 2011 5 comments

Filament structures found in the Orgueil meteorite - Dr. Riccardo Guerrero / Journal of Cosmology

So by now you’ve probably all heard about Dr. Richard Hoover, the NASA scientist who possibly has discovered alien bacteria in meteorites. Now that I’ve had a chance to read the paper itself and the opinions of some researchers more closely related to the fields of astronomy and, more importantly, biology, I want to give you a better idea of what this paper is saying.

Let’s start off with the journal itself, the Journal of Cosmology. It is a journal published entirely online, though it is technically peer-reviewed. However, the journal has been known to encourage the publishing of fringe ideas and scientists that jump the gun on certain conclusions about their data.

Take for example the supposed giant planet in the Oort cloud which was discussed last month. The paper was met with scorn and skepticism from a large group of scientists, including Phil Plait. A news article by Gabriel Beck on the Journal of Cosmology homepage had said this in response to the criticism:

The torches and pitchforks crowd, led by astronomer-wannabe Phil Plait claims its not so. But then, Plait’s most famous discovery was finding one of his old socks when it went missing after a spin in his dryer.

Not exactly a scientifically sound argument, nor something you would expect to read from a credible scientist reasonably discussing a paper. So the Journal of Cosmology is not impressing me, particularly since I love Phil Plait and actually try to model the style of this blog after his. In addition, there is nothing wrong with being skeptical about ANY finding. If your research is sound, then it should be able to stand up to the highest level of scrutiny and you shouldn’t get defensive.

But Beck’s pettiness aside, this does not discount Dr. Hoover’s research out of hand, so let’s look at the actual paper.

Essentially, the paper looks at two carbonaceous meteorites, named after the places they landed: Ivuna and Orgueil. Both meteorites were witnessed as they fell to the ground, and later recovered.

The meteorites were imaged using an electron microscope and the images examined. What Hoover found was that some of the images showed strange “filaments” in the structure of the meteorite. Upon further inspection, the filaments seemed to correspond with the general shape and size of certain species of bacteria.

Hoover believes that the filaments were not the result of contamination of Earthly bacteria after the meteorite landed because there was a definite lack of nitrogen in the samples. This is because nitrogen fixation is an essential part of the life cycle of “Earth-based” bacteria, and the level of nitrogen in the sample should be detectable for several thousand years. Since we know the dates on which these meteorites landed, the lack of nitrogen within the sample was evidence that the filaments were in the meteorite prior to it landing on the surface of the Earth.

In one of the meteorites (Orgueil) Hoover found structures within the filaments that resembled “heterocysts”, which are specialized cells used to fix nitrogen. Hoover says that

…the detection of heterocysts provides clear and convincing evidence that the filaments are not only unambiguously biological but that they belong to one of these two orders of cyanobacteria…

Another point Hoover makes is that the Orgueil meteorite is composed of certain minerals that dissolve when exposed to water. Since we know the meteorite landed in 1864, and that cyanobacteria generally require the presence of water to live, he suggests

that none of the Orgueil samples could have ever been submerged in pools of liquid water needed to sustain the growth of large photoautotrophic cyanobacteria and required for the formation of benthic cyanobacterial mats since the meteorite arrived on Earth. Many of the filaments shown in the figures are clearly embedded in the meteorite rock matrix. Consequently, it is concluded that the Orgueil filaments cannot logically be interpreted as representing filamentous cyanobacteria that invaded the meteorite after its arrival. They are therefore interpreted as the indigenous remains of microfossils that were present in the meteorite rock matrix when the meteorite entered the Earth’s atmosphere.

Those are the basic arguments. The paper then extends its assumptions far beyond the scope of the research to discuss how this finding could be indicative of life on comets or on Europa.

So as you have probably already gathered, there are some serious problems here. My biggest problem of the paper is that it is not quantitative. How many images in total did you take? How many filaments in total did you find? How many of them exhibit shapes resembling heterocysts? If there was a colony of bacteria in the meteorite, how many of these fossilized remains should we expect to see and how many of them should have structures resembling heterocysts?

I also have a problem with heterocyst structures themselves. Does it makes sense that a bacterium that is not from Earth would have a structure similar to what Earth-based bacteria use to fix nitrogen?

I will concede that these are strange structures in the meteorites. But given the huge diversity of bacteria, doesn’t it seem like it would be quite easy to take any structure that is remotely filament-like and match it with some type of bacteria?

The answers to these questions are not given. This could be because some of them are difficult questions with complicated answers, which is fair, but they do not seem to be addressed at all.

It comes down to the fact that Hoover is comparing filament structures in a meteorite to the shapes and sizes of certain bacteria on Earth. He is then making two conclusions:

  • That the filaments were there prior to the meteor entering the Earth’s atmosphere and
  • That the filaments were caused by the fossilization of bacteria.

Consequently, there are 3 possibilities:

  1. Hoover is correct that these are fossilized bacteria of a non-Earth origin.
  2. The filaments were caused by bacteria contamination from Earth and the lack of nitrogen could be explained by something else.
  3. The filaments were caused by something other than bacteria, before or after the meteorite landed on the Earth’s surface.

Frankly, even though Hoover gives a few arguments as to why he thinks the filaments were caused by alien bacteria, I think possibilities 2 and 3 are much more likely. Simply because Hoover cannot come up with another explanation for the lack of nitrogen or the presence of what look like heterocysts does not warrant the conclusion that these are fossilized extraterrestrial bacteria. That is a huge leap and it is an extremely premature assertion.

But it is still early so we will see what the experts end up saying. PZ Myers already weighed in with his opinion in a blog post called “Did Scientists Discover Bacteria in Meteorites?”:

No.

No, no, no. No no no no no no no no.

No, no.

No.

He is chalking this one up to a glorified case of pareidolia.

In the end, it again comes down to “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.”

The claim is extraordinary. The evidence, unfortunately, is not.

Just How Dilute are Homeopathic Remedies?

March 4, 2011 Leave a comment

Homeopathy operates on a principle that the more dilute a “remedy”, the more potent it becomes.

Homeopathy makes no sense, and it doesn’t work, but people still cling to it even though it is simply an over glorified placebo effect.

Many homeopathic remedies are diluted to the point that not a single molecule of the original ingredient remains. Just HOW dilute is this?

Steve D wrote a post called “Putting Homeopathy in Perspective” and uses a very pretty visual: Felicia Day.

For example, one such homeopathic dilution is called 3C, which means the remedy was diluted to 1 part in 100, 3 times. This is approximately the number of Felicias in the world who are Felicia Day:

The post is really quite awesome and very well illustrates how ridiculous homeopathy is. Especially since some homeopathic remedies go up to 200C! To have even a single molecule of the original substance still in a sample of a 200C dilution, you would need a sample the size of not only our ENTIRE UNIVERSE, but

100 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000

ADDITIONAL UNIVERSES! (Thats 10320 in scientific notation).

It boggles the mind.

How To Build Your Own Energy Balance Product

March 1, 2011 Leave a comment

Sport enhancement products are big business. Even if they don’t work.

Take for example products like Power Balance or Q-Ray, which are designed to work with your body’s “energy field” to increase balance and performance.

The Power Balance bracelets contain holograms. Their FAQ page describes how they work:

The thin polyester film hologram is programmed through a proprietary process, which is designed to mimic Eastern philosophies that have been around for hundreds of years.

Convinced? You shouldn’t be, because they don’t work. Even Power Balance released a statement in Australia noting that there is no scientific evidence to corroborate any of their claims. (Which is probably why their website now states that “there is no assurance it can work for everyone.”)

So how do they become so successful? Check out this promotional video:

My favourite part is when he says it only has to be “within 1-3 inches of your body’s energy field”. The amount of woo makes my head spin!

They will actually perform their balance test at trade shows etc, and you know what? It actually works! But not because of the holograms.

Its simple physics, as explained in by Rhett Allain of Wired here in quantitative physics calculations, or explained visually in the following video demonstration:

It all has to do with what direction you push on the subjects arm. It is not noticeable to the subject, but the person doing the pushing knows exactly what they are doing. Nothing at all to do with the bracelet (or crown, in this case).

So there you go. Now you can make your own energy bracelet or hat or shoe or under-pantaloons and get rich!