Archive for November, 2011

If you’re not regularly listening to The Infinite Monkey Cage, a BBC Radio 4 show about science hosted by Robin Ince and Brian Cox, then you are an execrable excuse for a human specimen and I despise every molecule in your worthless body.

Sorry. Bit harsh. I don’t mean that. But you should listen to it, it’s really good. There’s a free podcast. Go on, try it.

The latest episode featured, among other guests, comedian Katy Brand. She wasn’t by any means anti-science, but she may have thought that the others on the show sometimes went a bit far with their ideas on science’s scope and importance. For instance, when Brian Cox described science as:

the means by which we… come to the best possible view, given the available data and the understanding of a particular issue or question,

she thought this should be amended to “the best possible scientific view”. Brian disagreed, and I’m basically on his side; when it comes to establishing the correctness of facts about the world, any view that hasn’t been reached scientifically doesn’t even seem worth considering. But Katy Brand was making a more thoughtful point than the tedious post-modern idea of science just being “one belief system among many”, all equally valid.

She told a story about someone she knew of, who’d always start the day by reading her horoscope. This person didn’t believe in any of the nonsense often put forward to justify astrology, and was well aware it was bunk, but tended to find that:

If I read my horoscope in the morning, I have a better day.

It was an entirely psychological effect, as well this person knew, but it was a real one. Katy thought that this was something which science can’t really involve itself in. Science misses the fact that “people find ways of pragmatically getting through their day… and science doesn’t have to be involved in that”.

She’s partly right. But science does have a responsibility to be involved to some extent. It is sort of obliged to point out that astrology is bunk. But the person Katy was telling this story about knows that it’s bunk. She and science are in complete accord there. If she’s not claiming anything implausibly supernatural, but is merely acting in a way she’s discovered benefits her, then rationality is completely on her side. Science isn’t going to snatch the newspaper out of her hand. Some scientists might not appreciate people’s pragmatic attempts to deal with the world at large, but science itself has no problems with it.

One of the other guests a little later brought up another point about the unique power of science to help us understand the world – it was either geneticist Steve Jones or other geneticist Paul Nurse, I’m afraid I’m not sure whose voice it was. At any rate, somebody brought up some some interesting data:

Children who are born in July and August… are worse at athletics, do less well in school, and have a higher rate of suicide than children born at other times of the year.

This is a genuine effect, and although there may be some variance and dispute over exactly what months have the greatest effect on what factors, there’s some sort of real phenomenon going on.

As the links in that paragraph explain, we have some ideas about why this might be. Primarily, it’s to do with the fixed cut-off point for being placed in a particular school year. Given that a new batch of children ascends to each new grade level once a year, the youngest in each class will be nearly a full twelve months younger than their oldest fellows. This can make a big difference to interaction among peers when you’re young, and results in some kids being disadvantaged in a number of unfair ways.

Katy Brand argued that, valid though the scientific explanation for this state of affairs may be, “it doesn’t help that individual person cope with the fact of their birth”. They might need a “different solution” to the problems they face – such as, presumably, reading their nonsense horoscopes.

The final edit of the show didn’t really respond to this in a way I found satisfying, which is why I’ve written all this and dragged you through this whole tedious escapade. The horoscope-reader Katy mentioned earlier is not at all at odds with a scientific approach, as I described. She may have been arguing that some people need to believe their horoscopes, as some kind of emotional crutch, which I don’t agree with at all. I certainly support a humane understanding of why some people might feel that way, but science still has a responsibility to improve the accuracy of our collective worldview as best it can, and calling out the bunk of astrology is a necessary part of that.

But, perhaps more importantly, I’d argue that being scientific is the most useful way we can help people who’ve been disadvantaged by, say, this birth-month school business. Because once we understand what’s going on, then we have the capacity to examine how the system can be improved, and come up with ways to effect real change.

If we guessed it was because of their star sign, and didn’t use science to work out the answer, then our ability to help make anything better for anyone is seriously impaired. If we’d kept assuming illness is caused by demonic influence, we’d have no modern medicine; it doesn’t help a sick person cope with the fact of their smallpox for science to tell them that there are these tiny invisible things called “viruses” inside them, but science can unquestionably help in a way nothing else can.

In conclusion, we should all be listening to more Radio 4. It’s quite entertaining, even if you don’t believe in Sandi Toksvig.

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The Burzynski Clinic have issued a press release, presumably in response to the recent unflattering media attention they’ve been getting.

The first thing I notice about this official statement is that the clinic’s motto on their letterhead reads: “First, Do Not [sic] Harm!”. Which is different from the one on their website, which uses the more common “Do No Harm”. This is funny.

More pertinently, they address the issue of Marc Stephens, the bizarre presumably-not-a-lawyer who’s been harassing Rhys Morgan and intimidating other bloggers while claiming to represent the Burzynski Clinic. They describe him as an “independent contractor”, and confirm that he was working on their behalf when he sent those emails.

He now “no longer has a professional relationship with the Burzynski Clinic”. But as far as mop-ups of terrible PR messes go, they seem to have turned the taps off and declared that everything’s fine, while ignoring the water sloshing about their ankles. They’re still planning on taking legal action against bloggers who they believe have made “false and defamatory” factual statements.

Also, as I write this, Marc Stephens is still listed as the “Marketing & Sponsorship” contact for the Burzynski Patient Group (a distinct organisation from the Burzynski Clinic). The extent to which the relationship has in fact been severed seems unclear.

Orac has some comments about the irrelevant or misleading nature of the purported factual misstatements that the Clinic are concerned by. But more fascinating is Jen McCreight’s analysis of the Burzynski Clinic’s publications, as cited in support of Burzynski’s antineoplaston therapy in the press release.

There’s a long list of very official-looking formal publications, which seem to be examples of solid evidence which Burzynski has found and published, despite the claims of some of his detractors. But, as Jen has uncovered, they’re little more than blustering noise.

The first paper listed was published in a journal with no impact factor at all, which bodes ill for its credibility within the overall scientific discipline. The next one was published in an alternative medical journal with poor standing among oncology journals as a whole. These aren’t grounds to discredit both papers entirely, but they highlight the need for controversial results to be reproduced and reviewed in a more mainstream journal before we put too much trust in them. The next is from a very odd journal whose role in the medical community seems hard to pin down, and whose reputation or reliability are entirely unknown.

The remainder of the list, and the majority of the “scientific articles” the Clinic chooses to offer in support of their therapy, are, according to Jen, not even from published papers. They’re all from research presentations, where any scientist has the chance to present preliminary results, before going through any kind of peer review process. So these citations all say absolutely nothing about the quackitude or otherwise of what Burzynski chose to present. They’re not of peer-reivewed studies.

Clearly, there still hasn’t been any convincing data released by Burzynski to support his claims for cancer treatment, despite clearly having a lot of data available which he’s choosing not to share in a scientifically rigorous manner.

The press release mentions Laura Hymas, who is currently on antineoplaston treatment with the clinic. They say that she’s doing well, and “her tumor is shrinking”. Whether or not there’s credible science buried somewhere in there, I hope they’re at least right about that.

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Here’s some numbers in graph form. Don’t worry, it’s not exactly overwhelming and convoluted, as economic graphs go.



Here’s what the above wiggly lines mean:

In the US, corporate profits after tax are currently a little over 10% of GDP. This is higher than they’ve been in fifty years.

Workers’ wages and salaries are currently below 44% of the GDP. This is lower than they’ve been in fifty years.

Corporate taxes, as a percentage of corporate profits, are currently at 21%. This, aside from a brief period in 2009, is lower than they’ve been in fifty years.

Providing tax cuts and boosting profits for the “job creators” is demonstrably, palpably, not an automatic boon for the majority out there, the workers, the job-doers. Corporations are doing better than ever, and the only trickle-down most people are noticing is a thin stream that smells funny.

Whenever anyone suggests that the uber-wealthy might need to chip in a little more to fix the economic crisis, there’s a wail of anguish from certain quarters about the dire consequences of “punishing success”, and how important business leaders might withdraw their job-creating magnanimity and leave us all in the lurch if we tax them any higher.

You can see where their concerns are coming from. Given the capitalist infrastructure within which corporations and wealthy individuals have little choice but to operate, I don’t think the most productive answer is to simply seize all assets owned by any companies or millionaires above some arbitrary level of maximum permissible wealth, as some people on the left seem to want to see happen. While our culture does so much to define “success” in purely financial terms, there is a danger of going too far in punishing it with efforts to redress the balance.

But look, we’re cutting programs to feed, shelter, and re-house homeless people here. If we really can’t think of any other substantial budgetary savings we could be making, if we’re so desperate to cut back on our extravagant spending that we’re getting upset at homeless people not giving their fair share to paying off our debt, then should we really still be touting swollen corporate profits and dwindling wage power as being just what the country needs to get back on track?

Source: The New York Times

(via Ed Brayton)

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If you’re someone who engages in the skeptical movement, what are the goals you hope to achieve in doing so?

I’ve been slack with my blogging lately, and I’ve had this post by Daniel Loxton bookmarked for so long that I’ve forgotten most of what I wanted to say about it. But I know I wanted to bring up the idea of being goal-oriented in one’s approach to skeptical issues.

This has been a common theme with Daniel Loxton’s posts to Skepticblog. He often urges skeptics to consider what effect the way we communicate our ideas will have on our potential audience, particularly those who don’t agree with us. He advises against using sweeping terms like “woo” to dismiss popular ideas that have no basis in reality.

The idea is that, while someone who thinks homeopathy looks like a useful treatment option might be open to learning about how ineffective it actually is, they’re less likely to listen to you if it sounds like your opening gambit is “that’s a load of horseshit and you’re an idiot for buying into it”. And, importantly, we should consider how our language might sound to someone on the other side of the issue, even if we don’t mean to insult them by curtly implying that homeopathy’s a load of horseshit.

The basic principle of basing your actions around the outcomes they’ll produce is a hard one to argue with. But sometimes the outcomes need to be considered more broadly. There was quite a backlash against the Don’t Be A Dick philosophy first described by Phil Plait last year, as many people irately defended their right to mock and satirise ideas that are unworthy of our respect.

Phil’s main argument concerned the outcomes of our actions; he asked his audience to consider how often they’d been persuaded to change their minds “because somebody got in your face, screaming, and called you an idiot”. But outcomes were also a prime consideration of those who opposed him. If we feel obliged to pussyfoot around believers’ delicate sensibilities, they said, and are never allowed to use anything as blunt as sarcasm, and have to live in fear of hurting anyone’s feelings even the slightest, then we’ll never get anything done.

The kind of confrontation Phil describes is obviously not constructive. We should certainly all aim to be more goal-oriented than to shout abuse in anyone’s face, for any reason. I know I’ve been guilty in the past of making comments with no other outcome in mind than to make myself feel better by retaliating against a perceived slight; it’s always worth looking further forward than this, or you’re in danger of simply ego-stroking with no regard for others’ perceptions of you.

But another goal worth striving for, when considering the skeptical movement more broadly, is to make sure that those skeptics who are trying to form a constructive part of a community – possibly atheists who’ve lived a sheltered religious life and are only now discovering a group of people who think like them – still feel like autonomous people, with a place to express themselves freely among like-minded folk, even in moments of frustration and anger, and who don’t feel obligated to act guardedly even among their allies for fear of being lectured about the importance of cultivating an amiable public image and being sufficiently goal-oriented.

In other words, shouting other skeptics down if they don’t constantly present a perfectly acceptable and approachable front to believers is another great way of not getting anything done.

I should clarify that that’s not how I’m characterising any of Daniel Loxton’s articles, and I’m not convinced that there’s any such pall of fear at causing offense hovering over the skeptical blogosphere as a whole. But it’s a danger that’s evident when some people are too keen that nobody should ever Be A Dick.

And in the other direction, there are some people who, if you even raise the question of how people not in agreement might respond to something, and suggest that the tone of an argument is worth considering, will damn you for making concessions to the woo-mongering idiots, and accuse you of being that most hideous of ghouls, an accommodationist. Which isn’t necessarily the case either.

Of course our actions should, ideally, only be taken with a view to the effects they will have. But I think some sort of balance between the specific details and the big picture needs to be found.

How close do you reckon I am?

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Remember that time some legitimate cancer researchers threatened to sue a 17-year-old kid who questioned the scientific credibility of their medical claims?

No, me neither.

But, after Rhys Morgan posted to his blog about the Burzynski Clinic a couple of months ago, he started getting bizarre, abusive, bullying, creepy, and borderline illiterate correspondence from the same self-professed representative of the clinic who I blogged about recently.

Partly because of Rhys’s involvement, this is no longer just a story of specialist interest. There was a minor fuss being kicked up by the skeptics who follow these things, and people like Ben Goldacre were trying to get it some wider coverage, but it was still fairly localised. It’s not anymore. It’s been retweeted by the likes of @stephenfry and @serafinowicz. It’s on BoingBoing. Thanks to Marc Stephens’s efforts to browbeat people into silence with utterly baseless talk of libel lawsuits, the internet’s pricked up its ears. The internet doesn’t take kindly to this sort of thing.

I was going to talk about the analysis of Burzynski’s published research, and the clever people who have watched and dissected the weird propaganda movie about his clinic, explaining why the very limited data available is entirely insufficient to justify the grandiose claims being made about cancer treatment.

But I don’t think I even need to go there. Given the way they’ve behaved lately, I consider myself entirely unburdened of any onus to sift through the history of their claims in a search for validity.

The guy in charge of the Burzynski Patient Group’s Marketing & Sponsorship (or someone pretending to be him) sent multiple emails to a 17-year-old blogger, harassing him into deleting from the internet every pertinent comment or remark he’d made, threatening to file a libel suit against him (despite every indication that he’s not actually a lawyer), and attached to one email photos of Rhys’s own house taken from Google Maps.

That is creepy to the point of fuck you in the ear. There is no plausible reason for acting like Marc Stephens has done if he had any coherent legal point to make, let alone a shred of scientific standing. Nothing that’s come out of the Burzynski Clinic this week – heck, nothing I’ve seen any evidence of from the last thirty years – supports the idea that there’s anything legitimate or ethically sound about the way they operate. They’re acting like morally deranged maniacs.

There’s more at the Quackometer, the Twenty-First Floor, the Sceptical Letter Writer, and the Skeptical Nurse.

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There’s a popular line about how militant Muslims fly planes into buildings, militant Christians murder doctors who provide abortions, and militant atheists write books.

It succinctly makes the point about the common double-standard in how people with different religious ideas are perceived. So long as you have some kind of faith, you can shout about it all you want, and nobody accuses you of being too aggressive, or “militant”, until you start getting physically violent or killing people. To be a militant atheist, in many cases it suffices to speak your mind.

As it turns out, some people set the bar even lower than that.

It was Thanksgiving recently in the States, and President Obama gave a speech about how this was a time to reflect on one’s good fortune. However, on this occasion he didn’t directly mention God in his message.

Conservative columnist Ben Shapiro’s verdict: militant atheist.

I find this very offensive.

The real militant atheists just aren’t getting the credit they deserve.

Seriously, if that’s all it takes to rile this idiot, how terrifying would he find Richard Dawkins, or PZ Myers? Or even me? I might not seem that scary or militant to you, but at least I actually declare a disbelief in God. All Obama did was go five minutes without mentioning him.

“Somebody ought to remind Obama that when Americans sit down around a meal today and give thanks, they give thanks to God,” said The Las Vegas Review-Journal’s columnist Sherman Frederick, according to the Christian Post. Somebody ought to remind Sherman Frederick that, as of a Gallup poll last year, around 20% of Americans don’t find religion very important in their lives, and around 25% aren’t Christian and so won’t be giving thanks to the same God as him.

It continues to be comically pitiful how much of a monopoly on our attention some Christians need before they start howling about persecution.

(via PZ)

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Health Ranger Mike Adams is still alternately hilarious and head-bangingly infuriating in his paranoid lunacy.

One of the latest articles on NaturalNews is littered with scary stories about “science” and “cures” and “vaccines” and “Terminators”. Yes, those are just some of the scare quotes available on this one page, making both mundane technology and vapid fantasy sound like a terrifying government plot to control your brain.

The headline promises a set of portents of our own imminent doom, but in the text it’s clear he’s only blathering about things which “might be used”, or “could be done”, at some indeterminate point in the future. He doesn’t cite a single source, except to link back to some of his own previous articles, and evidence that these alleged nightmare scenarios are anything more than his personal raving fantasies is entirely absent.

In some cases, he expects his readers to know exactly what to be scared of already, because they’ve been well prepped, without actually needing to explain any negative scientific impact whatsoever:

#1) Organ harvesting from genetically modified, patented pigs

Need a replacement heart or lung? No worries, mate! Monsanto will grow you a new one using a genetically modified, trans-species pig (patent pending) that was raised on GMO animal feed and subjected to organ harvesting while it was still alive in order to keep the organs “fresh.”

Are Monsanto really performing such unnatural acts? Because, if they are, that sounds like a fantastically useful advance with the potential for saving countless lives. But… pigs! Pig lungs! Inside you! Ew! Go to hell, exciting new potential method for providing transplantable organs!

At other times, he just makes shit up:

#7) Total government control over your reproduction and the genetic code of your “offspring”

Copulating with the person of your choice and producing your own “random” offspring will no longer be allowed under the scientific police state. Reproduction must be carefully controlled through licensing and regulation to make sure that no unexpected results occur.

Before having children, parents will need to apply to the government for permission to reproduce, at which point they will be genetically and cognitively profiled, then granted a reproduction classification status that must be strictly followed to avoid imprisonment.

People who show rebellious tendencies and speak out against the state will be denied reproduction “privileges.” Only the most obedient, white-skinned, do-gooder mind slaves will be granted reproduction privileges, and they will gladly copulate and raise yet more babies to be sacrificed to the state as the next generation of mind slaves.

No they won’t.

Seriously, that has screw all to do with the scary advance of science. It’s a clumsy portrait of some ultra-authoritarian dystopia with less grounding in reality than Animal Farm and none of the literary merit. You might as well scream against the popularity of footwear by saying:

Here are five innocent faces which could be kicked in by these “shoes” the government wants us all to wear. Could the next face… be yours?!

Sometimes, it almost seems like Mike Adams has some actual understanding of the value of real science; there’s a worthwhile point somewhere amidst his tirade against corporate-driven research which serves special interests ahead of public good. But what distinguishes “real scientists” in his mind is whether they toe the line of his own preferred ideology. He doesn’t have any substantial criticism of the way any particular science is performed, and his own scaremongering is based around unscientific ideas with barely the flimsiest research base to support them.

I think one of his readers who commented on that article summed up the situation best:

Shakespear: “The best laid plans of mice and men have often gone astray.”

Yes. Shakespeare was right.

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