Friday, July 31, 2009

Encephalon #73

Like with the Skeptics Circle, I haven't been keeping up with Encephalon (not since I last hosted it, in fact). So... Channel N hosted the 73rd edition of the carnival. Pieces to check out: The Neurocritic on whether cognitive behavioral therapy is effective, Brain Stimulant on a plan to create a computer simulation of the Drosophila brain, and Providentia on the fascinating 17th/18th century scientist Emmanuel Swedenborg.

Friday Fun: A brief history of religion

Skeptics' Circle #116

It's been quite a while since I've kept up with the Skeptics Circle, and I want to get back in the habit. So... the 116th edition of the Circle is out over at Beyond the Short Coat. Posts to check out: The Skeptical Teacher on the physics of the bed of nails and the weird birther movement, Thinking is Real on accomodationism (I don't agree with him, but it's an interesting post), The Bronze Dog on the psychology of woos (particularly recommended), and The Naked Skeptic on psychics who refuse the name.

Note: I'm hosting the next edition of the carnival, so email me your submissions by August 12th!

Google Bombing for Singh

Note: apparently, dissimenating the original article might get Singh into further legal trouble. So linking to the archived version is probably a bad idea. A good alternative is the (slightly edited) version on the Sense About Science website.

A large number of people supported Simon Singh's campaign to re-publish the article, "Beware the Spinal Trap", that the British Chiropractic Association is suing him over. The impact of this, however, is going to be somewhat limited because skeptical blogs and magazines (as far as I can tell, at least) predominantly reach already skeptical individuals. A successful Google Bomb, though, could affect far more people because it would push up skeptical information in search rankings. And what would be more delicious than having Singh's article high on the results page of a search for "chiropractic"? If that happens the BCA would well and truly have failed in silencing Singh.

So: take the word "chiropractic" and "chiropractor" and then link each of those to the following archived version of Singh's article: (I chose this website because, the broken English at the top notwithstanding, it contains the original article in full and in context). So it should look like this: chiropractic and chiropractor. Note: it's important that we all link to the same article.

As an extra, you may wish to link "British Chiropractic Association" to: (I.e. British Chiropractic Association) and "libel law" and/or "English libel law" to: (I.e. libel law and English libel law).

Thanks to Jeff Martin for pointing out it's "Spinal Trap" not "Spinal Tap".

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Beware the Spinal Trap

So I am a day late on this, but I figured I might as well join in. As many of you no doubt know, the British Chiropractic Association is suing author Simon Singh for libel for publishing an article in the Guardian criticizing it for promoting 'bogus treatments'. I agree with pretty much all of the rest of the reality-based community that this is scandalous behavior. People's lives are literally at stake in medicine, so the most rigorous, vigorous and open debate possible should take place when it comes to medical claims. We should keep libel laws out of science. (And while we're at it, the preposterously plaintiff-friendly, libel tourism inviting and anti-free speech English libel laws ought to be changed forthwith).

So I'm joining many blogs, magazines, and other media from around the world in republishing the article Singh is being sued over. May the Streisand effect do its magic and let this information be widely disseminated. I'm also following Orac in republishing the entire article, not the edited version provided by Singh's lawyers. The sentences over which Singh is being sued is in bold. Apparently, publishing the full article could land Singh in further legal trouble, so I have extremely reluctantly edited out the 'offending' sentences. The full article is still archived here.

One final note: do yourself a favor and read Ben Goldacre's fabulous column on this whole debacle.


Beware the spinal trap

Some practitioners claim it is a cure-all but research suggests chiropractic therapy can be lethal

Simon Singh
The Guardian, Saturday April 19 2008

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 the co-author of Trick or Treatment? Alternative Medicine on Trial


Thanks to Jeff Martin for pointing out it's "Spinal Trap" not "Spinal Tap".

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Quote: The ideal critical thinker

The American Philosophical Association commissioned a study in 1988 to articulate an expert consensus definition of the ideal critical thinker. The resulting report (pdf of executive summary) provided the following definition that would be hard to improve upon:
The ideal critical thinker is habitually inquisitive, well-informed, trustful of reason, open-minded, flexible, fair-minded in evaluation, honest in facing personal biases, prudent in making judgments, willing to reconsider, clear about issues, orderly in complex matters, diligent in seeking relevant information, reasonable in the selection of criteria, focused in inquiry, and persistent in seeking results which are as precise as the subject and the circumstances of inquiry permit.

African science blogrolling for July

The updated African science and skepticism blogroll for July:

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Carnival of the Africans #9

Welcome to the 9th installment of the Carnival of the Africans, the world's premiere blog carnival of sciency and skeptical goodness by Africans or about Africa.

First up this month is our previous host, Simon of Amaneunsis. He's got three great posts: the use of randomized controlled trials in social science, the importance of evidence-based sex education, and how a newspaper (gasp!) got happiness economics wrong.

subtle shift in emphasis is a great blog and, while I can't vouch for the maths, the author's post on homeopathy's silliness is just as good. Bottom line: it's nothing but water. Move on.

Michelle, The Skeptic Blacksheep, has been blogging about psychics of late: first, how these crooks claimed to be in contact with Michael Jackson soon after his death and, second, why psychics appear to have "powers". (Hint: cold reading).

Next, George Claassen of Prometheus Unbound asks: does Koos Kombuis (a well-known South African artist) believe in fairies? Alas, yes. (Sort of).

Botswana Skeptic has a consumer protection message: pyramid-schemes are bad for you. Steer clear.

Tim Beck of Reason Check (a blog new to me) has a whole bunch of interesting and worthy posts. Here I'll highlight just two: Sangomas at university (no, really) and what creationists and conspiracy theorists have in common.

Lastly, Angela of The Skeptic Detective has two posts this month about skeptical issues: a new twist in the autism-vaccination fracas and the media disseminating the views of moon hoax conspiracy nuts.

That, alas, is it! Our next edition is due out in another month and Owen over at 01 and the universe will be our host.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Fun with the Economist

The Economist has a bunch of cool recent articles, so I thought I'd link to some of them.

Richard Dawkins is not popular in some circles, indeed, he's attracted a whole host of critics or, as he puts it, "fleas". The latest is "The Selfish Genius: How Richard Dawkins Rewrote Darwin’s Legacy" by Fern Elsdon-Baker, a philosopher at Leeds University. The Economist has a good review of the book, which concludes Elsdon-Baker misses her mark. I especially liked the final paragraph:
What is left, once these attacks are dismissed, is a critique of Mr Dawkins’s proselytising atheism. It is true this wins him few converts, when a collaboration with religious moderates against the creationists might bear weightier fruit. But if his intellectual rigour forbids him making common cause with people he thinks are wrong, that perhaps only shows he is indeed the rottweiler of legend.
The Lexington column had a interesting piece about Camp Inquiry, an American summer camp for atheist / freethinking children. (If you listen to Point of Inquiry, you've no doubt heard about it before). I was somewhat surprised (though, I shouldn't have been) that the camp has been strongly condemned by fundamentalists like the nuts over at AiG. I'm always amazed how controversial teaching critical and independent thinking is.

The Economist is renowned for its dry, pithy, final sentences. Indeed, it's joked that the ability to pen such lines is more important for being hired as an Economist journalist than anything else. Anyway, I thought the closing sentence of this article on searching for Dark Matter was wonderfully crafted and apposite.

Oh. And I just can't resist linking to this review of a book on World War II. The sub-heading: "A British historian argues that Hitler lost the war for the same reason that he unleashed it—because he was a Nazi." Glorious.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Elections and faces

Alexander Todorov is the leading researcher in the fascinating and rapid-evolving field I'm doing my graduate research in -- the effects of rapid facial judgments on political elections. So I was happy to see that he (and co-author Christopher Olivola) recently wrote a popular article for Scientific American magazine summarizing this line of research. A titbit:
Although we would like to assume that voters are too sophisticated and rational to be swayed by superficial cues, the research paints a much less flattering picture. Even when it comes to electing their leaders, it seems, people are heavily influenced by the images that these politicians project (even unwittingly). In particular, politicians with facial features that make them look like they possess strong leadership qualities seem to be at an advantage, at least among some voters. (Appearing like a leader seems to be tied up with perceived competence, and is different from appearing attractive.) Research by Gabriel Lenz and Chappell Lawson at MIT shows that candidate appearances have the strongest impact on voters who possess little political knowledge and spend a lot of time in front of their television screens.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Carnival of the Africans -- call for submissions

I'm hosting the ninth installment of the Carnival of the Africans on the 28th of this month. If you're an African blogger or blog about science in or about Africa, please have a look at the guidelines and then email submissions to:

Gladwell's latest

Malcolm Gladwell has a new piece out in the New Yorker about overconfidence. He argues, in brief (and among other things), that when we become overconfident we blur the line between things we can control and things we cannot. A particularly interesting bit:
The psychologist Ellen Langer once had subjects engage in a betting game against either a self-assured, well-dressed opponent or a shy and badly dressed opponent (in Langer’s delightful phrasing, the “dapper” or the “schnook” condition), and she found that her subjects bet far more aggressively when they played against the schnook. They looked at their awkward opponent and thought, I’m better than he is. Yet the game was pure chance: all the players did was draw cards at random from a deck, and see who had the high hand. This is called the “illusion of control”: confidence spills over from areas where it may be warranted (“I’m savvier than that schnook”) to areas where it isn’t warranted at all (“and that means I’m going to draw higher cards”).
While this article certainly isn't among Gladwell's best work, it's still worth the read.

Related: Dan Ariely on how we are influenced more by confidence than by expertise. Disturbing thought, especially for scientists who are trained to be careful about their claims.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

(Relatively) Sublime Shermer

Note: a friend has brought it to my attention that I probably praised this piece too highly. Sublime is... far too strong. I still think it's a good article, but it's sublime only relative to Shermer's other work.

I'll come right out and say it: I'm not the world's biggest fan of Michael Shermer's work. While I loved his TEDTalk, I think his libertarian views are silly, I wasn't impressed by his book Why Darwin Matters, I've taken on one of his Scientific American columns at length, and so on. Shermer's most recent SciAm column, though, is just sublime very good and you should go read it. Srsly.

An excerpt:
The postmodernist belief in the relativism of truth, coupled to the clicker culture of mass media where attention spans are measured in New York minutes, leaves us with a bewildering array of truth claims packaged in infotainment units. It must be true — I saw it on television, at the movies, on the Internet. The Twilight Zone, The Outer Limits, That’s Incredible, The Sixth Sense, Poltergeist, Loose Change, Zeitgeist the Movie. Mysteries, magic, myths and monsters. The occult and the supernatural. Conspiracies and cabals. The face on Mars and aliens on Earth. Bigfoot and Loch Ness. ESP and PSI. UFOs and ETIs. JFK, RFK and MLK — alphabet conspiracies. Altered states and hypnotic regression. Remote viewing and astroprojection. Ouija boards and Tarot cards. Astrology and palm reading. Acupuncture and chiropractic. Repressed memories and false memories. Talking to the dead and listening to your inner child. Such claims are an obfuscating amalgam of theory and conjecture, reality and fantasy, nonfiction and science fiction. Cue dramatic music. Darken the backdrop. Cast a shaft of light across the host’s face. The truth is out there. I want to believe.

What I want to believe based on emotions and what I should believe based on evidence does not always coincide. And after 99 monthly columns of exploring such topics (this is Opus 100), I conclude that I’m a skeptic not because I do not want to believe but because I want to know. I believe that the truth is out there. But how can we tell the difference between what we would like to be true and what is actually true? The answer is science.

And a great quote:
If there is one thing that the history of science has taught us, it is that it is arrogant to think we now know enough to know that we cannot know.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Carnival of the Africans #8

I'm rather late on this, but the 8th installment of the Carnival of the Africans is finally out! Simon at Amaneusis has the goods... My picks: Leonie Joubert on pseudoscience warts and all, our host Amaneunsis on an important recent paper about violence and group selection, and subtle shift in emphasis on quantum bollocks.

Go, read!

Quote(s): William James and Winston Churchill on violence

Two blood-curdling (and, in my rather Hobbesian opinion, accurate) quotes about violence from Winston Churchill and William James:

"The story of the human race is war. Except for brief periods and precarious interludes there has never been peace in the world; and long before history began murderous strife was universal and unending."
– Winston Churchill
"Shall we all commit suicide?" (1924)

"We, the lineal representatives of the successful enactors of one scene of slaughter after another, must, whatever more pacific virtues we may also possess, still carry about with us ready at any moment to burst into flames, the smoldering and sinister traits of character by means of which they lived through so many massacres, harming others, but themselves unharmed."
– William James
Principles of Psychology (1890)

DS Wilson on Evolutionary Psychology and the media

David Sloan Wilson has a pretty interesting piece in the HuffPo about evolutionary psychology and its portrayal in the media. Wilson argues, among other things, that the study of human behavior from an evolutionary perspective is flourishing and rigorous, but that it is significantly more diverse than sometimes thought. Specifically, he says the term evolutionary psychology has become overly identified with the Tooby & Cosmides school of thought (the “Santa Barbara school”) which Wilson thinks is flawed in several respects. The meat:
How did the blueprint offered by Cosmides and Tooby go wrong? Let me count the ways: 1) They portrayed the mind as a collection of hundreds of special-purpose modules that evolved to solve specific problems in the EEA. 2) Their conception of the EEA was limited to the range of environments occupied by humans during their evolution as a species, which they acknowledged to be diverse. However, it did not stretch back in time to include primate, mammalian and vertebrate adaptations; nor did it stretch forward to include rapid genetic evolution since our hunter-gatherer existence. 3) They emphasized a universal human nature, or rather separate male and female natures, while minimizing the importance of adaptive genetic variation that cuts across both sexes. 4) They dismissed open-ended, domain-general psychological processes as a theoretical impossibility, creating a polarized worldview with "Evolutionary Psychology" at the positive end and "The Standard Social Science Model (SSSM)" at the negative end; 5) Their blueprint had almost nothing to say about culture as an open-ended evolutionary process that can adapt human populations to their current environments. They did not deny the possibility of transmitted culture, but they had almost nothing to say about it. Their most important point was that what seems like transmitted culture can instead be an expression of genetically programmed individual behavioral flexibility (evoked culture).
Ending on a more optimistic note:
Evolution is here to stay as a theory that can help us understand the human condition, along with the rest of the living world. With understanding comes the capacity for improvement. This is not just an idle intellectual pursuit but has consequences for the solution of real-world problems, so the sooner we can advance our understanding the better. One reason that we are just starting is because the term "evolution" became stigmatized early in the 20th century, in the same way that terms such as "sociobiology" and "evolutionary psychology" tend to become stigmatized today. This problem can be avoided by distinguishing particular schools of thought from the more general theory, so that the former can be accepted or rejected on their own merits without questioning the merits of the latter.