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Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Beware the Spinal Trap

Hugs and Science supports Simon Singh in his fight against the British Chiropractic Association.
In such, we also reprint his excellent article from last year here. You should read it.

For more information on Simon Singh and his fight against British libel laws, see senseaboutscience.org.uk



Beware the spinal trap
Some practitioners claim it is a cure-all, but the research suggests chiropractic therapy has mixed results - and can even be lethal, says Simon Singh.

You might be surprised to know that the founder of chiropractic therapy, Daniel David Palmer, wrote that '99% of all diseases are caused by displaced vertebrae'. In the 1860s, Palmer began to develop his theory that the spine was involved in almost every illness because the spinal cord connects the brain to the rest of the body. Therefore any misalignment could cause a problem in distant parts of the body.

In fact, Palmer's first chiropractic intervention supposedly cured a man who had been profoundly deaf for 17 years. His second treatment was equally strange, because he claimed that he treated a patient with heart trouble by correcting a displaced vertebra.

You might think that modern chiropractors restrict themselves to treating back problems, but in fact some still possess quite wacky ideas. The fundamentalists argue that they can cure anything, including helping treat children with colic, sleeping and feeding problems, frequent ear infections, asthma and prolonged crying - even though there is not a jot of evidence.

I can confidently label these assertions as utter nonsense because I have co-authored a book about alternative medicine with the world's first professor of complementary medicine, Edzard Ernst. He learned chiropractic techniques himself and used them as a doctor. This is when he began to see the need for some critical evaluation. Among other projects, he examined the evidence from 70 trials exploring the benefits of chiropractic therapy in conditions unrelated to the back. He found no evidence to suggest that chiropractors could treat any such conditions.

But what about chiropractic in the context of treating back problems? Manipulating the spine can cure some problems, but results are mixed. To be fair, conventional approaches, such as physiotherapy, also struggle to treat back problems with any consistency. Nevertheless, conventional therapy is still preferable because of the serious dangers associated with chiropractic.

In 2001, a systematic review of five studies revealed that roughly half of all chiropractic patients experience temporary adverse effects, such as pain, numbness, stiffness, dizziness and headaches. These are relatively minor effects, but the frequency is very high, and this has to be weighed against the limited benefit offered by chiropractors.

More worryingly, the hallmark technique of the chiropractor, known as high-velocity, low-amplitude thrust, carries much more significant risks. This involves pushing joints beyond their natural range of motion by applying a short, sharp force. Although this is a safe procedure for most patients, others can suffer dislocations and fractures.

Worse still, manipulation of the neck can damage the vertebral arteries, which supply blood to the brain. So-called vertebral dissection can ultimately cut off the blood supply, which in turn can lead to a stroke and even death. Because there is usually a delay between the vertebral dissection and the blockage of blood to the brain, the link between chiropractic and strokes went unnoticed for many years. Recently, however, it has been possible to identify cases where spinal manipulation has certainly been the cause of vertebral dissection.

Laurie Mathiason was a 20-year-old Canadian waitress who visited a chiropractor 21 times between 1997 and 1998 to relieve her low-back pain. On her penultimate visit she complained of stiffness in her neck. That evening she began dropping plates at the restaurant, so she returned to the chiropractor. As the chiropractor manipulated her neck, Mathiason began to cry, her eyes started to roll, she foamed at the mouth and her body began to convulse. She was rushed to hospital, slipped into a coma and died three days later. At the inquest, the coroner declared: 'Laurie died of a ruptured vertebral artery, which occurred in association with a chiropractic manipulation of the neck.'

This case is not unique. In Canada alone there have been several other women who have died after receiving chiropractic therapy, and Edzard Ernst has identified about 700 cases of serious complications among the medical literature. This should be a major concern for health officials, particularly as under-reporting will mean that the actual number of cases is much higher. If spinal manipulation were a drug with such serious adverse effects and so little demonstrable benefit, then it would almost certainly have been taken off the market.

Simon Singh is a science writer in London and the co-author, with Edzard Ernst, of Trick or Treatment? Alternative Medicine on Trial. This is an edited version of an article published in The Guardian for which Singh is being personally sued for libel by the British Chiropractic Association.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Madonna and her Magic Healer

Norway is in a Madonna-frenzy this week due to her concert here today.
Dagbladet.no does not disappoint, and brings us an interview with her Norwegian healer, Tor Arne Jensen.

Healing means to cure, I like to say "send light", that is to dress up the patient in light and love, so they will get healthy. Healing is much about resetting the body, helping it get better by starting a process.

Madonna supposedly calls Tor Arne often during the days when she has a concert in the evening, and asks him to think about her during the concert.

Madonna, you do not need this guy to get through your concerts. Healing has absolutely zero effect. Remote healing over the phone even less so.

Jensen recalls the event where he met Madonna for the first time:
He was at the backstage area of a concert last year. Given the opportunity to ask a question, he asked if she thought one can project light, look into the future, and heal. After asking the questions, he quoted "a string of words that came to him at the moment."
Apparently, those words were some stanzas from a poem which Madonna herself had written the earlier afternoon. That is when they got a connection.

Believers in Magic and the like will take this exchange very positively but we here do not believe much of it. Personally I doubt it happened like that, I know too much of how easy it is to both fabricate memories, and how easy it could be for Madonna to have shared some of her poem earlier without remembering it explicitly. That or the whole event is an exaggeration. There are many more rational plausible explanations than the Magical Connection they are postulating.

Jensen downplays how much an impact he has on Madonna's wellbeing. "She is very good at meditating and gathering light herself." He describes his own role mostly as preventing stress and discomfort before concerts.

I am somewhat at a loss of what to respond to this because it is all incredibly vague. When these people talk about "Light" i doubt they are referring to photons zipping along. (Even though that would be impressive enough in its own right if that were the case) And such it becomes mostly just a synonym for "health and happiness" or similar, and it becomes very very hard to properly nail it down for criticism or even to understand what they're going on about.

Give me some actual claims and effects to work with here! It is all too vague as expressed. I guarantee that we could replace Healer Jensen with a chimpanzee and Madonna would not notice any difference as long as she still thought that it was Jensen on the other end of the phone.

And let's not get started on the mechanics of healing over the phone...

Tor Arne Jensen, you're a quack.

Monday, July 27, 2009

In the name of balance



What I find interesting is that a little too often these days, comedians are the ones who can get the message out and mock the mockworthy. Journalists are not critical enough.

(Via: PZ)

Monday, July 20, 2009

The Eagle has Landed


As this post is published, it is exactly 40 years since Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong took their first steps on the moon.

Science did this. Well okay Science and some very hard-working, brave, and most excellent individuals. It was not homeopathy that brought us to the Moon. It was not alchemy. It was not acupuncture, not creationism, not magical energy crystals, ch'i, auras or witches. There were no ghosts in the spacecraft. Astrology was not consulted on when or whether to launch. No aliens gave us the technology needed, nor were encountered on the trip. Phrenology was not used to screen the potential astronauts and decide who went up when. The interior of the spacecraft and command centers were furnished without caring about Feng Shui.

Instead, it was all knowledge about astronomy, chemistry, electronics, biology, medicine, ballistics, newtonian physics, einsteinian phyiscs, and electromagnetism. Knowledge that has been amassed over centuries using the scientific method to weed out any errors. There were a million things that could have failed during the launch, but thanks to science being rigorous and replicable, we could put our trust in that their calculations and assumptions would be correct when put to the test.


Human endeavour, with the help of Science, put a man on the moon! We are no longer limited to staying on our own planet! When you put human ingenuity, human perseverence and human knowledge together, nothing becomes impossible. As President Kennedy said when issuing the challenge to land on the Moon: "not because they are easy, but because they are hard." And Science, together with Humanity, rose to the challenge and took it on head-first.

My thanks to everyone involved with the space program, they are all heroes. And also thanks to Science, for facilitating and allowing us to do it. I am greatly looking forward to seeing what the collaboration between the two will bring in the future.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Fad of the season: Spike mats

Norwegian newspaper Aftenposten and Swedish paper Expressen are reporting that one of the fads that everyone want to get in on this year, is lying on a spike mat for all sorts of different beneficial medical effects. This particular one was developed by a Swede who now calls himself "yogi Om Mokshananda" after a trip to the Himalayas where he of course found all sorts of Truths about the world and our bodies and Everything.

Lying on the spike mat, which has 6,000 small plastic spikes on it, is supposed to increase your blood flow, reduce headaches, reduce depression, everything you can think of really.

I suppose I can only agree with that thought. Given that acupuncture works*, this is just enough needles and pressure points to stimulate lots of acupuncture points at once. And since it has no negative side effects (no alternative treatment ever has) you can just apply as much as you like to as many points as you like. So by covering your back with needles you should hit most of them at once, and since there are only positive effects, you get it all. At least I presume that's how they operate.

The mats are now very popular in the stores, and are no doubt making their manufacturers and distributors a lot of money.

Fortunately, the articles conclude with some wise words from Swedish professor Martin Ingvar at Karolinska institute.

It's good if people feel better after using one of these mats. However, one must always take people's search for health seriously. But there is no documentation or proof that the spike mat helps against the illnesses claimed. It is unscientific. Those who market these products deserve great criticism for cashing in on silliness.
We here at Hugs and Science agree totally with Prof. Ingvar. If anyone gets an effect from these, it is from simply lying down and relaxing (as much as that is possible when lying on a spike mat) a half hour a day. These things have no basis in reality-based medicine and should not be treated as such.


--
* It doesn't work.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Media, Medicine, Magic

This article in Norwegian tabloid VG once again demonstrates the media's role in promoting nonsense and woo instead of rationality and scientific understanding. At least here in Norway, where tabloids are some of the largest media outlets around, and VG in particular, known for uncritically pandering to the lowest common denominator, happens to be the largest print newspaper in Norway.

The Norwegian article recounts the story of 16-year old Hannah Clark, who at the age of 8 months had a second heart implanted grafted onto her own, as her own heart was too weak for its task due to cardiomyopathy (deterioration of heart muscle). After ten years, the immunosuppresant drugs she was forced to take to make her body not attack the new heart, gave her cancer. The doctors reduced her immunosuppresants, but this led to trouble with the implanted heart, and they decided that their only hope was to remove the implanted heart. After they did this, Hannah's own heart recovered completely after a several-year-rest.

Fantastic? Oh yes. Magical? I don't think so. The article in VG is basically a write-up of this account by the Guardian. One can find all the turns of phrases and points in the original article. I'm sure this is fairly commonplace among the printed press, but the problem is that the article in the Guardian was actually kind of good. The journalist from VG copypasted the names of the doctors, and gave the story a completely different story, namely that of magic instead of medical interest.

Kirurgene bak inngrepet, Sir Magdi Yacoub and Victor Tsang, som beskrev helbredelsen av hjertet hennes som "magisk".


Between the two doctors' names, it even says AND.. But that is a minor point. Back to the magic. The real quote from the doctors, given by the Guardian, is:

The possibility of recovery of the heart is just like magic. A heart that was not contracting at all, after a time we put the new heart to pump next to it, and do its work. Now it is functioning normally. That is going to be very fundamental in helping people in the future.


And now we get to the interesting part. The doctor said LIKE magic. LIKE magic. Throughout the Guardian article, and this article in medicalnewstoday, the doctors keep a rational voice, emphasizing that they learned something from this unexpected recovery, and that this will prompt more research.

VG however, quote mine the doctors and combine it with a minor comment from Hannah's father that someone said she would die soon, and he replied that he would believe what he wanted.

Combining these two statements makes the supernatural recovery of Hannah complete, even though there is no inkling of those sentiments from the doctors.

Most people clicking around on VG probably do not bother to check the original sources that VG refer to (even though I admit, I probably won't read the Lancet article about her myself), and this leaves them with yet another impression that doctors are not to be trusted and more goodness is accountable to magic than scientists like to agree to.

Never mind the fact that doctors saved Hannahs life as a child and time and again by figuring out what to do more currently. Medicine is complicated, extremely complicated, and attributing recoveries to magic is not legitimate even if the doctors are still exploring the mechanisms.

I recommend a solid dose of Dr. House to all VG journalists.

Wednesday, July 08, 2009

What we're up against

I know there are biologists reading (and one writing!) this blog. Answer these, if you can! Beware, they're real stumpers, and will easily make you see the folly of your ways of trusting evolution!

Evolution Test


Students, give this test to your teachers. When they fail it, ask them why they are teaching this nonsense!

Teachers, give this test to your students if you really want them to know the truth about evolution!


1. Which evolved first, male or female?
2. How many millions of years elapsed between the first male and first female?
3. List at least 9 of the false assumptions made with radioactive dating methods.
4. Why hasn't any extinct creature re-evolved after millions of years?
5. Which came first:

...the eye,

...the eyelid,

...the eyebrow,

...the eye sockets,

...the eye muscles,

...the eye lashes,

...the tear ducts,

...the brain's interpretation of light?
6. How many millions of years between each in question 5?
7. If we all evolved from a common ancestor, why can't all the different species mate with one another and produce fertile offspring?
8. List any of the millions of creatures in just five stages of its evolution showing the progression of a new organ of any kind. When you have done this, you can collect the millions of dollars in rewards offered for proof of evolution!
9. Why is it that the very things that would prove Evolution (transitional forms) are still missing?
10. Explain why something as complex as human life could happen by chance, but something as simple as a coin must have a creator. (Show your math solution.)
11. Why aren't any fossils or coal or oil being formed today?
12. List 50 vestigial or useless organs or appendages in the human body.
13. Why hasn't anyone collected the millions of dollars in rewards for proof of evolution?
14. If life began hundreds of millions of years ago, why is the earth still under populated?
15. Why hasn't evolution duplicated all species on all continents?
I really hope that this will show the light to all you sciencey types who read here, to show you the folly of your ways.




Okay I can't handle it anymore myself. My stupidometer is off the charts. But in the interest of education, I, as a layperson who hated biology in high school, will attempt to answer the stupidity of these questions.

1. Which evolved first, male or female?
Neither. Or both. Sexual reproduction evolved at the same time in both genders. Wouldn't make much sense to have a species with only males in it. (There was likely a large overlap of time while a species could still do asexual reproduction while sexual was evolving.)

2. How many millions of years elapsed between the first male and first female?
See above.

3. List at least 9 of the false assumptions made with radioactive dating methods.
I am not familiar with any false assumptions about radiometric dating methods. Was the fact that I do not know of any, yet the quiz insists that there are, supposed to inspire doubt in my trust of radiometric dating? I tried googling to find these false assumptions but was not able to find a list.


4. Why hasn't any extinct creature re-evolved after millions of years?
If a creature goes extinct, it was because it was unfit for its environment (usually because the environment changed). Then, after extinction, another creature will rapidly fill the ecological niche that is now empty. Using an existing creature is much faster than "re-evolving" a new species.

5. Which came first:
...the eye, (1)
...the eyelid, (2)
...the eyebrow, (3)
...the eye sockets, (4)
...the eye muscles, (5)
...the eye lashes, (6)
...the tear ducts, (7)
...the brain's interpretation of light? (8)

Ah, how about that. A question about the eye. No doubt it is supposed to be an example of Irreducible Complexity, that 'What good is an eye without a socket to put it in, and what good is a socket without an eye in it?' type of circular questioning. Well, my answer is that it started with some photosensitive cells and started from that. Before it could be considered an 'Eye.' So my answer would be. 8 - 1 - 5 - 4 - 2 - 7 - 3 - 6, approximately. Many of these things are perfectly usable by themselves without the other components, so there need not be an accurate order from me. They could easily have co-evolved too, and evolution excels at taking a component that has been useful elsewhere, and repurposing it for another use.

6. How many millions of years between each in question 5?
Irrelevant. The question is only relevant if you are trying to push Irreducible Complexity, which states that each piece is useless without the rest.

7. If we all evolved from a common ancestor, why can't all the different species mate with one another and produce fertile offspring?
Because we are now different species. Different species are defined by their ability to mate and produce offspring. Even if we evolved from a common ancestor, we are now different.


8. List any of the millions of creatures in just five stages of its evolution showing the progression of a new organ of any kind. When you have done this, you can collect the millions of dollars in rewards offered for proof of evolution!
I am afraid I do not understand the question. I will have to pass on this one. Please rephrase your question in a way I can understand it and I will be happy to give it a shot. Any other readers here who understand the question?


9. Why is it that the very things that would prove Evolution (transitional forms) are still missing?
Ah, the good ol' "transitional forms" canard. This is a non-question. Every form is a transitional form, because evolution never stops. Every single fossil ever found is a transitional fossil. Every species ever lived has been in transit during its lifetime, because as soon as a creature has an offspring, its offspring will be slightly different.

10. Explain why something as complex as human life could happen by chance, but something as simple as a coin must have a creator. (Show your math solution.)
My math? I didn't sign up for maths! But okay, I'll take your bait. Here's the math version: The probability of any event happening, that has already happened, is 1.

The simple answer is that human life (or any species' life, no need to single out humans) did not happen purely by chance. Evolution by natural selection is non-random, although the mutations themselves are. Also a coin is not simple, it was designed with a specific purpose in mind and with specific criteria for how it should be. Humans were not.


11. Why aren't any fossils or coal or oil being formed today?
Coal and oil still are being formed. It just takes a while.
Fossils can theoretically still get formed, takes a while there too, but humans have turned the earth into an environment not very suited for fossilization.

12. List 50 vestigial or useless organs or appendages in the human body.
List 50 useless organs? I can't even list 50 organs we have! Is the goal of this question the implied idea that if evolution is true, we should have lots of useless organs that are no longer needed? So that since I can't list many of them therefore the whole premise of evolution is false? Hardly. I only need to list one, as an example: The tail bone.

13. Why hasn't anyone collected the millions of dollars in rewards for proof of evolution?
I was not aware that there were such rewards. The only one I am aware of is Kent Hovind's prize for proving evolution, which, since it is offered by Kent Hovind, will never be successfully claimed no matter how well documented evolution might become.

14. If life began hundreds of millions of years ago, why is the earth still under populated?
I was not aware that we were underpopulated. Earth is teeming with life! Everywhere you look, there's life! Life has managed to expand to the highest mountaintops and the deepest oceans. It's astounding how successful life has been on Earth!

15. Why hasn't evolution duplicated all species on all continents?
The answer has two reasons: One, because the different continents have different environments, thus excerting different selection pressures on the creatures to make species more suited to each environment. The second reason is, that for each environment, there can be more than one species suited to living in it, thus given two parallel environments, if you start evolution from square 1 in both at the same time, they might end up with different results.



Did I pass your test? My point in doing this was not to humor the creators of this by taking them seriously. Don't. Their arguments hold no water, and they need not be taken seriously. My reason for doing this was that anyone can and should see the errors in these reasonings. Please keep in mind that I consider myself a layperson when it comes to biology and evolution. I am open to the idea that I might have made an error or three in some of my answers, but that in no way invalidates the premise: Evolution is true.


(Link gotten from: PZ)

Monday, July 06, 2009

Irrational discounts

Imagine you are going shopping. (We all love that!)

This week, you are going to buy a new refrigerator (or something else equally big and expensive). You go to the appliance store and find a nice fridge which would be just lovely for your kitchen. You inquire about the price and learn that it is 10 000,- NOK for the unit. You are also told that if you wait until friday, there will be a sale and it will be reduced with 50 NOK, putting the price at 9 950,- NOK.

"Pah," you think, "It's only 50 kroner, that's not much," and you buy it today, not waiting until friday.

Later on, to celebrate your big purchase, you want to buy a new pair of shoes. At the shoe store you find a nice pair, and they are cheap too, costing only 200 kroner. The shoe store too is planning a sale on friday, you are told. On friday, the shoes will be reduced in price to 150 kroner. You think, "That's a good deal," and wait until Friday to buy your shoes.

Why is this? The savings would be the exact same total amount (50 kroner) but when applied to a very expensive item it does not feel as as big a discount as when applied to the shoes. Our brain thinks in percentages in that case. But in doing so it makes us irrational. If you are willing to wait until friday to save 50 kroner on some shoes, you should also be willing to wait until friday to save 50 kroner on a refrigerator. The net savings is the same.

But we don't. Remember the next time you get into that situation yourself: You are being irrational.

Update: Okay, irrational-ish. There are some exceptions and caveats which was kindly mentioned in the comments.