Expelled (again)

As a follow-up to the last post, by now, most of you havve heard of the P.Z. Meyers/Expelled debacle, so I'll spare you the details.

The latest episode of The Skeptic's Guide to the Universe had an always-entertaining guest on, evolution-activist, (though I doubt she would refer to herself in such terms), Eugiene Scott to discuss the recent events, and she asked a favor of all the listeners. She asked that those of us who blog in the name of skepticism, to please post a link to her new site, Expelled Exposed. And I'm only too happy to do my (meagre) part.

Wouldn't it be great if these liars and charletans were truly outed for the crooks that they are?


The most wonderful story I've heard all week. Great work, PZ!

Astronomy, over easy.

I recently read Phil Plait's 2002 book, "Bad Astronomy", and it inspired me to do this:

I gotta hand it to Dr. Phil (Plait....I'm sure he gets the Dr. Phil joke alot and hates it a little more each time)...He sure knows how to make astronomy fun. As a kid, I had two scientific interests: Astronomy and Dinosaurs (real original, eh?). I devoured every book I could get my hands on (I still have a particularly great astronomy book for kids by National Geographic called Our Universe, my edition published in 1988, just before Voyager 2 was about to pass by Neptune). I'm not usually apt to quote the Bible, but I'm able to simply because Captain Picard did once, and I think it applies, "When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things." I grew up, became a professional musician, business operator, student, and even a professional wrestler (I'm not making this up....my name was "Happy Hour" Seamus O'Leary). Science became tougher for me, as the interest in science and math was beaten out of me by terrible teachers and a culture which taught me to be ashamed of the sciences. Then I embraced the humanities, all but forgetting my childhood interest in the stars.
The skeptic community is very amiable to the findings of science, and astronomy creeps its head in there quite often. This prompted me to take a more adult look at astronomy (you know, like how the ring nebula looks like a vagina, and the horsehead nebula looks like a wang, and the crab nebula....well, I'll leave that to you), and tried to wrap my head around more complex concepts like black holes, relativity, and quantum mechanics. Phil Plait has been instrumental in speeding up that process: he makes difficult concepts simple, and he does it with the witty flair of a seasoned humourist (and no, I don't mean sprinkling Dave Barry with a pinch of oregano....*ba-dum-ching!*).
So if you're like me, and at some point in your childhood you were ever stirred by looking up at the stars, or you tried to imagine the fantastic distances just to the end of our solar system, I HIGHLY recomend you order Phil's book, and frequent his website, http://www.badastronomy.com/. (and no, I'm not getting paid a dime to schill here....no one even asked me to do say this.....besides, he doesn't need me to pimp his wares for him....hopefully).
One more thing, balancing eggs does take a while, but it is strangely enough, VERY rewarding...like finally beating Kintaro on Extra Hard.

On naturopathy...

The problem of Naturopathy

As a skeptic, I’m aware that this topic has been covered to death. But the mitigating factor is that this is a new blog, and I need some more content. So here is a little bit about Naturopathy.

We’ve all heard variations on the same theme: we can’t take modern medications because modern medication has been approved by the FDA, which is in turn in the pocket of that monolithic boogey-man: ‘Big Pharma’. Big Pharma doesn’t want anyone to be cured of any diseases because they won’t make money off of healthy people, so they engineer drugs to treat, not to cure, while at the same time create a chemical dependency on said drug. Also, the extra ingredients in these drugs cause multiple side-effects, which in turn, require more drugs from the evil Big Pharma, and the cycle continues. If only there was some way to break free of this cycle….
Natural remedies! Yes! The ancient cultures of some older society with a different colour of skin have been using natural remedies since time immemorial; therefore there MUST be some value there! Surely, if I can substitute my medications prescribed by my doctor (who is also in the pocket of Big Pharma) with natural remedies, then I can wean myself away from the toxins….whatever toxins are. They’ve been used by the ancients: therefore they work. Big Pharma is evil, therefore anything not made by Big Pharma works. It’s natural, therefore it works.

But I, and a mountain of scientific studies, are here to point out the logical and factual flaws in this story. Lets take it step by step:
1) Big Pharma:
Yes, the pharmaceutical industry is one of the most politically well-connected and influential lobbies in the world. Yes, they do some pretty freaking’ evil shit (especially with regards to the state of HIV/AIDS medication in Africa and intellectual property rights as determined by the WTO). Yes, they make more money than you or I could possibly imagine. BUT, this by itself is insufficient evidence for collusion and conspiracy with regards to naturopathy. The idea that big pharma would rather treat than cure diseases like ALS and cancer is ludicrous. Can you imagine how much money and good press a company would make if they owned the patent that cured cancer? That patent would be worth TRILLIONS, as the drugs would be sought for at any price across the world by companies and governments desperate to ease the astronomical cost of health care. It’s one thing to presume that companies aren’t actively researching a cure for cancer, but its even more ridiculous to suggest that they already have the cure, and are keeping it locked away. This is conspiracy theory thinking, and as anyone who knows a thing or two about conspiracies, is that they don’t stay secret for long….Bill Clinton couldn’t keep his blow jobs secret, and only 4 people knew about that. Eliot Spitzer was recently outed for running a prostitute ring in NYC. The amount of scientists and technicians necessary to find a cure for any form of cancer (and there are many forms, to be sure) would be astronomical….someone would spill the beans…and then that company would be left to explain why they kept the cure for cancer a secret. They’d be finished….probably have to go to jail for medical negligence causing death….as lawsuits would pile up from citizens, companies, governments and NGO’s from across the world.

Moreover, if you think that Big Pharma has no interest in the naturopathic way, you truly are fooling yourself. These people are business mega-geniuses, and they know how to make money. The research is crystal-clear: people are buying supplementary medicine/herbal remedies in the billions of dollars….there is money to be made, and the pharmaceutical companies are falling over each other trying to buy up the smaller naturopathic companies.

2) The Chemical Makeup of the Drugs/the Natural way:
Advocates (I would almost call them ‘fans’) of the naturopathic modality often cite the chemical purity of supplementary medicines. As if to suggest that because it’s natural, it’s somehow better, after all, most drugs are derived from natural sources. While this is true, this thinking betrays an ignorance of the process by which drugs are manufactured in the first place. Firstly, almost all our drugs have some root (no pun intended) in traditional/natural sources. For example, chewing on a willow branch was used by Native Americans to cure a headache. But they didn’t know WHY it cured a headache (presumably they believed in some spiritual connection with nature and the gods….in other words: magic). The scientific method is a method which takes that willow branch, and isolating its component chemicals. Once this is done, trial and error testing is done on each chemical and combinations of chemicals to figure out why it cures the headache. After a lengthy process, they find ASA (Acetylsalicylic Acid), which is the chemical that is the foundation of Aspirin (and aspirin-like products). They then can extract the ASA, purify it, and provide just that chemical…in a pill. It is the purified form of the healing properties of that willow branch. Since it is purified, we can be sure of it’s chemical consistency, its sanitation (do you really want to be chewing on a branch that might be crawling with bacteria and bird-shit?) and above all, its efficacy. Science works.

In addition, we hear all the time about how wise and “in touch with nature” some ancient civilization or another was….that they really knew their way around the forest and could best use it to better their lives. I don’t know where this idea came from. It’s a logical fallacy known as the Argument from Antiquity: it’s old, therefore it’s better. Yeah, they may have known a lot about how to use all the parts of the deer, but they also had an average life expectancy of about 35 years. It wasn’t uncommon for them to die of maladies like the common cold, diarrhea, or bronchitis. Yeah, real knowledgeable. Where did all this wisdom go then? Oh right….it was suppressed by Big Pharma….I forgot. It’s too bad things like electron microscopes, FMRI scanners, X-Rays, and urinalysis can’t hold a candle to a shaman blowing smoke over a pot and rubbing its contents on a buffalo-wound while asking the gods to heal. But I guess I’m just part of the conspiracy.

One more point on the Natural issue….you know what else is natural? Gravel, Bird-shit and Arsenic. Just because it’s ‘natural’ doesn’t at all mean its going to help you. You know what is not natural? The Asthma medication I use which has been keeping me alive since 1985 when I was first diagnosed (back then before asthma became all trendy and popular….I’m an asthmatic purist….now it seems like EVERYONE has some type of asthma…..fakers!).
Anyway, its getting late and the more I think about this the angrier I get. I’ll write more in the future about naturopathy’s retarded cousin, Homeopathy. But for now I have to get to bed.

Gary Gygax, founder creator of Dungeons and Dragons, passed away recently. Lots of nerds have written about it already, so odds are, this is nothing new to you.

the math-based comic, xkcd did a great tribute. See it here, and laugh. If you didn't laugh, you didn't get it. And you never will.


Finally, some local science-news I can sink my teeth into.

A meteor streaked through the sky in the Georgian Bay area (my old stomping grounds) and University of Western Ontario astronomers strongly suspect that there may even be some bits of meteorite laying around near Parry Sound (I went to a summer Jazz Camp there when I was 16.....its a beautiful area and full of Jazz...but only in the summer). They even managed to snap a video of it! I've asked my parents to follow the local news releases closely....so hopefully I can give a better, local take on the story.

Secondly, the Royal Ontario Museum (or ROM) has opened up a new Darwin-themed exhibit! The exhibit will be on until August 4th, but if you're in the Toronto area (which most of us in Ontario south of North Bay are pretty much in the Toronto-Sphere anyway), you should rush there and check it out....My logic works this way: if the majority of the people who see the exhibit see it within the first month of its opening, then that would send a message that people want more Darwin/evolution. It's perfect logic, trust me. And I watch Star Trek, so I should know.

Just recently I was contemplating (more like internal-bitching) how difficult it can be for someone interested in more skeptical-related fields of science if they don't live near, or is financially prohibitive to travel to New England (home of The Skeptic's Guide to the Universe folk, which you should all listen to!), Florida (home of the James Randi Educational Foundation, the mecca of the non-religious), or Las Vegas (typical venue of The Amaz!ng Meeting, and the best chance to see Penn and Teller). But once in a while, Ontario gets its occasional comeuppance.

The Adventures of Links

I've been a little regretful for not updating this new skeptic blog-o-mine. The problem is time; I'm finishing up my degree and very little time is on my hands to indulge in this extra-cirricular activity (although I realize that's no excuse). This afternoon I was thinking that there simply hasn't been that much skeptical news lately. Aside from some astronomical events, which I refer readers to the Bad Astronomer for better coverage, there wasn't all that much happening....and literally, as I thought that, I saw this story while flipping through the channels on CNN.

Bad for vaccinnes, good for me for having some content.

The supposed vaccine-autism link has been done to death over the last 6 years. So without getting into too deep a history lesson, here is a rough (very) primer: the anti-vaccination crowd (not their term for themselves, obviously) has been claiming for years that the MMR (Mumps-Measles-Rubela) vaccine causes autism in children because of thimerisol, an ethyl-mercury-based preservative. Mercury IS indeed a toxin, but as with most toxins, its always a matter of dosage, and the dose of mercury in a thimerisol shot is about the same as eating a big slab of large mouth bass. Aside from the science clearly showing that there is no mercury-autism link, in 2002 the U.S. government decided to remove thimerisol from the MMR vaccine as a precuation. Several of the loudest anti-vaccination people then declared that they would clearly see the rates of autism diagnosis fall....they didn't. In fact, they rose. (this rise in autism may not be a true rise in autism, but an artifact of increased reporting, as well as a larger umbrella to define what autism is, thanks to a greater understanding of the disease...in any case, the rates certainly did NOT decline). As an aside, removing thimerisol meant that the shelf-life of the MMR vaccine was reduced by orders of magnitude, meaning they can only sit on the shelf for a few weeks, as opposed to a few years, prohibiting any vaccine stockpiling to add up in the case of an epidemic....thanks anti-vaccination crowd.....dicks.

The U.S. government has a fund to provide compensation to individuals who have been harmed by getting vaccinations. This makes sense because vaccines are a public health measure, mandatory for anyone wishing to participate in public life (attend public schools, work for any level of government). However, vaccines are not without their risks, and they CAN on occasion cause harm (not autism, mind you, but other disorders and diseases can be caused by a variety of reasons). On a case-by-case basis, the directors of this fund analyze individual claims and distribute funds accordingly. So far, just over 4900 individuals have joined into a group-claim, claiming that the MMR vaccine caused their children to become autistic. So far, no one has recieved any funds for this claim because the science simply opposes their viewpoint. Autism is one of the medical buzz-words these days, and thanks to reputable scientists like Robert F. Kennedy Jr. and Jenna McCarthy (the one who made herself famous by eating her boogers on MTV) have helped to increase this public perception that doctors simply don't listen the mothers, don't care about mothers, and purporting the scientific value of the "mommy instinct".
In the words of Dr. Steven Novella, "I'm sorry, but your mommy instinct doesn't trump ton-of-science".

Well, today's story, http://www.newscientist.com/article/mg19726464.100-autism-payout-reignites-vaccine-controversy.html, was about an individual who WAS awarded money on the basis of the MMR vaccine causing autism. It is vitally important to qualify this. Doctors and researchers are noting that the autism's link the vaccine was by incident, by by design: the girl who was made autistic by the vaccine was in such a medically precarious state that if she didn't get autism from the vaccine today, the next day she might have gotten it from getting a cold, cutting her finger on a rusty nail, or from a dog-bite. She was petering on the edge already, and it may has well have been any other medical push-factor. I think this fits well in the bounds of awarding money since, technically speaking, the vaccine DID cause autism...but not for the reasons the anti-vaccination bloggers are screaming about.

Since this debate was on the wane lately, this news story will certainly re-ignite the ignorance. This is really scary to me because imagine if more people are awarded money that don't fit this unique case? Imagine if science is not enough to prove that there is no vaccine-autism link, what company is going to want to make vaccines if its such a liability??? I can only hope that true science will continue to penetrate, and that feel-good science of the "mommy-instinct" stays out of the realm of medical research.

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