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Archive for November, 2011

A man named Dr Burzynski believes he can treat cancer through an entirely new form of therapy.

I don’t know if this is true, but other people have been trying to find out.

Orac has previously reported on some of the reasons why most physicians doubt that Burzynski’s method is as effective as he claims. The evidence supporting his claims appears to be mostly anecdotal, and the only results he’s published are ones which nobody else has yet been able to replicate.

When someone makes a world-changing assertion like this, good scientists will want it to be checked carefully to make sure there isn’t some mistake, before they accept that it’s true. This becomes an especially acute concern when, for instance, mainstream newspapers run full-page stories about a four-year-old girl with a rare and inoperable brain cancer, for whom a multiple-celebrity-endorsed fund has been set up to get her the help she needs.

This should not be a controversial opinion: When the parents of a young girl with cancer are trying to raise hundreds of thousands of pounds to make their daughter healthy, it is the profound responsibility of everyone involved to make sure that that money’s not going to be wasted.

Sadly, Andy Lewis thinks it might be.

Even sadlier, he’s being sent obnoxious and inane libel threats as a result of his trying to help.

Someone claiming to “represent” the Burzynski Clinic (although in what capacity is unclear, as he doesn’t seem to be a lawyer) has demanded that Andy stop “defaming and libeling” his client with “factually incorrect” information. Weirdly, he doesn’t want to say what the information is.

Andy wrote back a number of times, expressing every desire to correct and amend any such errors of fact he might have made, and asking exactly what part of the blogpost in question is at issue, pointing out that anyone wishing to sue for defamation will need to express the exact wording they find objectionable. The not-lawyer responded with more threats, and a continued lack of any specifics, as well as a number of phrases like “Quackwatch, Ratbags, and the rest of you Skeptics [sic] days are numbered”, and “when I present to the juror that my client and his cancer treatment has went [sic] up against 5 Grand Juries”, which are weird and unprofessional on several levels.

This apparent representative of Burzynski appears grammatically and legally incompetent, and has received the famed “misconceived and illiberal” label from Jack of Kent. And he’s sure as hell not improving the scientific credibility of this purportedly legitimate medical facility.

Andy Lewis wrote an article, because he was concerned about the welfare of a girl, whose parents have raised considerable funds from many generous sources, and whose proposed treatment is unproved by any scientific standard and has been undergoing “trials” (in which people can be enrolled for a vast fee) since 1977 with no significant progress in publishing positive results.

The Burzynski Clinic still aren’t publishing any results for peer review in a respectable journal. But they’re making legal threats toward people who are concerned by the lack of evidence for their grandiose claims. Andy sums up the problem with this approach:

Dr Burzynski presents himself as a man of science. But, I would say to him and his associates, a man of science would welcome critical appraisal, would publish all the data he has, and allow the world to come to conclusions based on how good that evidence is. A man of science would not threaten critics and try to silence them. That is a sure and certain way that you will end up harming patients.

Such actions are typically not those of someone concerned with scientific truth but of someone concerned with protecting a multi-million pound income stream.

I’d be surprised if Burzynski takes his advice. I think we’ve already got enough representative data of how this particular clinic operates.

Also worth reading: The Twenty-First Floor, and Josephine Jones.

Edit: Something I just saw before posting this. Keir Liddle points us toward a petition for the Burzynski clinic to release their trial data. It can only help the cause of truth and public health for them to do so. It can only obfuscate the truth, and protect a profitable business that’s failing to deliver on its claims, if they keep it hidden.

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Chromosome fusion

I learned a fantastically cool thing about biology recently.

Just about everything living organism in the known universe has DNA in it, a sort of code made up of strings of tiny molecules. DNA forms into building blocks called genes, and it’s these genes which determine how the living organism in question – whether that’s a tulip, or a mosquito, or your mum – will be built.

(That’s not the fantastically cool thing. I mean, it is a fantastically cool thing, but I didn’t only just learn it.)

There are certain packets that this DNA comes bundled in, called chromosomes. Humans have 46 chromosomes, which come in 23 pairs, each of which contains a whole bunch of different genes.

Other species can have wildly different numbers of chromosomes, usually varying from around a dozen to around a hundred. The number often doesn’t have much relation to what we might consider an organism’s complexity or evolutionary advancement; there’s a type of fern plant, for instance, which has over 1,200 of them.

Anyway, what’s interesting is that chimpanzees, orangutans, and gorillas all have 48 chromosomes (24 pairs), and this is a potential problem for the idea that humans and other animals share a common ancestor. The theory of evolution states that chimps are the closest living relatives to humans, and you’ve probably heard from various sources how we share around 96% of our DNA with them. So why is our chromosome number different?

Biologists had to come up with an explanation. They guessed that, although our fairly recent common ancestor with the great apes had 24 chromosome pairs, two of those chromosomes must have fused together in the line of descent that led to modern humans, leaving just 23.

The thing that stops this from being just a desperate rationalisation to rescue a shaky theory plagued with inconsistencies, though, is a little thing we like to call science, bitches. Because they didn’t just assume that this fusing thing must have happened for the sake of preserving the theory. They went and checked. They looked for evidence.

They found it.

There are two chimpanzee chromosomes, 2A and 2B, which show clear indications of being equivalent to the two which merged in our own line of ancestry to form the human chromosome 2. The two chimp chromosomes look strikingly similar, when laid end to end, to the single human chromosome. You can see a sequence of “telomeres” in the middle of the human chromosome – those are the bits that normally come on the end of a chromosome to protect it from deteriorating, and they’ve ended up just where you’d expect if the ends of two chromosomes fused. The “centromeres” also line up perfectly – that’s the middle bit where the two copies of chromosome DNA join up.

As is observed on the Evolution Pages:

Not only is this strong evidence for a fusion event, but it is also strong evidence for common ancestry; in fact, it is hard to explain by any other mechanism.

Unless God is seriously messing with us, and going far out of his way to make it look like our genetic material is inextricably linked to that of other animals in the geologically recent past, this is one of the most profound and succinct demonstrations of the truth of evolution that I’ve met.

And remember, we might have found a conspicuous lack of these remnants of chromosome fusion. We honestly didn’t know if we were going to find what we were sure must be there, and if we didn’t, it was clear that the theory of common descent would have been in trouble. This prediction was made at a time when we had no data on whether this evolutionarily crucial evidence was actually present.

Good science often involves sticking your neck out, and accepting that there’s something wrong with your ideas if the proof you’re looking for isn’t where it should be. You don’t get that from proponents of creationism or intelligent design. There are numerous observed facts about the history of life for which they have to assume that God intervened in some way to arrange things just so – but it has to remain an assumption. They can’t then test their hypothesis by checking his day planner.

Anyway. I thought this was cool and I wanted to talk about it.

Also, Chromosome Fusion is what I’m going to call the microbiology-themed nightclub I’m opening.

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Because I should talk about this, but I’m getting tired of the -gate snowclone.

So there’s been yet another big gathering of sciencey types which I’m disappointed not to be attending. This one’s called Skepticon.

And although I’m sure there were lots of exciting conversations and presentations that went on there, most of the gossip from the weekend that’s made it as far as my RSS feed and Twitter stream has been about this one ice cream store, and a sign that was put up there:

 

 

If you can’t see the image, it’s a sign in the window of Gelato Mio stating: “Skepticon is NOT welcomed to my Christian Business“.

That’s a) illegal, and b) a real dick move. You really don’t get to flagrantly discriminate against any group of people like that, whether it’s Jews or blacks or Skepticon attendees.

So far, so uncontroversial. The guy’s a bigoted religious nut who’s so unable to handle having his beliefs questioned that he doesn’t mind breaking the law in his resulting childish tantrum. We’ve seen worse.

Then it started getting more complicated. He didn’t just stand by his raving intolerance and start shouting back at anyone who called him on his bullshit. His first apology was pretty thin, but he admits he was wrong, and acknowledges that many people from Skepticon had already been into his shop with no trouble.

Later, he offered a further apology, in a somewhat less boilerplate style. He says again that what he did was “inexcusable” and “completely wrong”, and that it was an impulsive action in a moment of poor judgment. He’d wandered down to visit the conference at some point, having genuinely no idea what it was about (he only seemed to connect the term “skeptics” with UFOs), and happened across a presentation somewhat more acutely critical of his religion than he was expecting. So he got angry and petulant and acted like kind of a dick.

This apology was thorough and unabashed. He did wrong, he’s sorry, he’s attempting to make amends.

So, skeptical community. Do we forgive him?

Aaaaand clusterfuck.

Jen says yes. Hemant says yes, even if the guy still has a problem with atheism. Buffy says yes, and that a sincere apology like this deserves credit, given how difficult they usually are. Ed Brayton says we should move on, and count the apology as a victory even if it was more of a PR move than anything else. SkepticMoney says yes. Hayley says yes, and has some harsh words for any supposedly compassionate humanist skeptics looking to “make an example” out of this local business owner.

Adam Lee says meh. JT Eberhard says no, and has no real interest in listening to any more of this guy’s efforts to appease him. PZ says fuck no and fuck you.

Personally, I’m not finding it helpful to insist that everything rest on the question of whether he should be “forgiven”. I’m going to take a cue from the Eliezer Yudkowsky playbook (one of the Skepticon speakers and increasingly a hero of mine), and taboo the word “forgive” and its derivatives, as well as variants on the phrase “accept his apology”. Without getting bogged down by the language, then, what do I think?

Is Gelato-man an irredeemable jerk? No. He lashed out stupidly in a fit of anger, but he’s apologised and admitted wrongdoing, which was by no means inevitable.

Does he sincerely feel remorse for what he did? I think so. I find it hard to imagine him writing what he did if he didn’t feel bad and get why he was out of line.

Are we all going to be his friends? Well, probably not. The fact that he has the capacity for such spite toward non-Christians at all tells us something about his character, and I don’t think he really merits a heart-warming reconciliation scene. We’re not obliged to like him, or find him a charming fellow, or deny that what he did was obnoxious and unlawful, in order not to bear a grudge in perpetuity.

Shall we move on from this incident now? Seems like a good idea. There’s nothing else it’s worth demanding or expecting from him. I think it’s all been sufficiently resolved that, should we have occasion to think of him in the future, we’d remember him as “that gelato guy” before “that bigoted asshole”.

Is it worth even making a fuss about this kind of thing in the first place? I think it can be. Being deprived of the chance for some ice cream may not be a major human rights violation, but casual discrimination against non-Christians or the non-religious is a big deal in a lot of places, not least the USA. Many State Constitutions give a pro-religious bias, to the point of denying non-believers the right to hold public office. Almost half of the country would disapprove of their child marrying an atheist, and nearly as many deem atheism completely at odds with “American society”. The amount of abuse and death threats atheists face, simply as a result of existing and speaking their mind, emphasises how important it is to publicly oppose this kind of bigotry. I wouldn’t want to see recriminations taken any further in this case, but calling out this kind of prejudice is important.

Should we try harder not to upset other Christian shop-owners in future? Not really. The offense that made this guy fly off the handle wasn’t any kind of vitriol directed at him; it was a presentation intended for the skeptics who chose to attend, and which satirised some aspects of popular religion. It’s not like everyone was getting together to hate on religious people all weekend. There was an assortment of attractions, all of which sound worthwhile, and many of which would be bound to offend large swathes of people who aren’t good at dealing with contrary opinions. Satire and mockery are an important part of, well, just about everything. This guy’s not obliged to like that we made fun of his invisible friend, and he’s not obliged to like us for it. But that’s a thing we get to do, and we’re not obliged to care about his wounded pride if he’s really that threatened by alternative viewpoints. Which I think he gets now.

Have I asked myself enough rhetorical questions for one day? Yes. Yes, I have.

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This might not be timely, but it’s a subject that just keeps coming back.

To recap: A few months ago, Rebecca Watson talked about an uncomfortable interaction she had with a guy she didn’t know in an elevator.

The complicated and diverse discussion about gender politics which ensued has been fascinating, and I mean that in a “massive car accident” sense only about 90% of the time. Part of this ensuing discussion has included a fair bit of abuse heading Rebecca’s way, some predictable, some surreal, some pretty batshit crazy. I think I’ve written about elevatorgate itself as much as I want to, but if you want to develop your own opinion further, here’s an idea for some research you could try.

Look up some blog articles and videos by people criticising Rebecca’s attitudes and actions regarding elevatorgate. Then calculate the percentage of those blogs and videos which have been made by terrible, terrible people.

This is what I find most frustrating about it all. There doesn’t have to be the preponderance of awfulness which there seems to be among people taking issue with things Rebecca has said or done. There’s room to disagree with her or object to her in a number of legitimate ways. But, for instance, Abbie Smith – who presumably wouldn’t have been blogging on ScienceBlogs for as long as she has if she hadn’t clearly demonstrated the capacity to concisely express thoughtful and intelligent views on things – doesn’t seem so interested in those.

She mostly seems interested in using the word “Twatson”. Like, a lot.

It comes up repeatedly in her blogs and comment threads, and here’s one particular instance where she explains her reasoning behind it:

Its a trip-wire, alerting me to the presence of stupid people. See, Ive found that all you have to do is lay down a funny alliteration, and stupid people fall over themselves on that point, ignoring everything else. They literally lose the ability to read and write, not to mention make cognizant points. Its not an effective teaching tool, its just funny. I do it to Creationists. I do it to HIV Deniers. I do it to anti-vaxers. And I did it here. You fell for it. *enthusiastic-clapping*

Like calling them rude names, being really patronising toward someone can be a lot of fun, but it probably won’t make them like you or think you’re worth listening to.

Personally, I do find it a bit of a struggle to keep reading through a whole blog post of what someone has to say when they throw out childish taunts at people I respect with no apparent reason. Maybe that means I’m stupid and have just fallen over. But it’s a shame, because some of Abbie’s points are worth making. The Richard Dawkins Foundation’s sponsorship of childcare for TAM attendees, for instance, is a cool thing that deserves to be noted. Her blog’s name is ERV, after its intended focus on endogenous retroviruses, and I don’t doubt I could learn all sorts of fascinating stuff if I read some of her posts on that subject more thoroughly.

But I’ve had to fight a natural inclination not to just say “Yeah, I’m done with you now” ever since she decided to be obnoxious and unkind.

She recently went on a weird tirade against Jen McCreight as well, which has been suitably picked apart over at Jen’s blog.

There’s just nothing about this approach which is a good thing, in any way. It goes beyond dissent, disagreement, dispute, disrespect. It’s a lashing-out which makes some people feel good, and allows them to dismiss any objections, by deciding ahead of time that anyone espousing civility or politeness is being obsessive and over-sensitive. It’s already been determined, beyond any inclination to question further, that indiscriminately calling Rebecca Watson a twat is fine and totally justified, and anyone who suggests otherwise is just obsequiously sucking up to her.

Let’s not keep doing that.

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This was going to be a blog post which looked at a couple of recent claims made by Mike Adams on his NaturalNews blog. It’s going to be a bit shorter than I’d planned, for reasons I’ll come to.

First, he posted recently about a recall of flu vaccines. His only source is the Daily Mail, but he’s not egregiously wrong on the basic facts. Baxter Healthcare announced a recall of 300,000 doses of its influenza vaccine Preflucel, due to safety concerns.

Where he goes wrong is in thinking that this is somehow a massive deal.

Preflucel is one of thirteen different available vaccines, and is intended specifically for people with allergies and heart conditions. It’s not a large or particularly crucial part of Europe’s vaccination program.

What led to the recall was that, in Germany, more people were reporting mild side effects from the vaccine, such as headaches, than would usually be expected. That’s it. It’s making more people feel nauseated than usual, so they’re pulling the batch just to be safe.

Mike Adams wants us to be scared that this vaccine is “so harmful that the company has decided to recall several hundred thousand doses of it and cease all further administration”. But really, what this shows is that this particular pharmaceutical corporation seem to have a reassuringly low threshold for taking a sweeping precautionary measure. They didn’t want to take the risk that we could just be seeing the first signs of a more serious problem – or possibly they just don’t want the PR nightmare of being seen to have continued selling a product with a suspected raised incidence of unwanted side effects – so, the stuff’s gone.

There’s nothing here from which to conclude any dastardly conspiracy. And at a conservative estimate, influenza kills a quarter of a million people each year. People really need vaccines for this, particularly the elderly and the chronically ill, and the path to trying to keep everyone as safe as they can be isn’t always going to go smoothly. We just have to make sure that mistakes and problems are dealt with as responsibly as they can be.

The second NaturalNews post I was going to cover was this one, but… Well, take a look at the page after page of inanity. I just don’t have the energy to go through it all.

Sigh. Sure, Mike, maybe it is time I start reading some books by David Icke. That’ll be what finally opens my eyes.

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About fourteen years ago, a Birmingham councillor was trying to find a way to market the various Christmas events going on in the city centre over the holiday period, and came up with the word “Winterval”.

Since then, certain tabloids haven’t shut up about the idea that Winterval was an attempt by the politically correct lefty brigade to ban Christmas.

By “certain tabloids”, I mean above all the Daily Mail, which has averaged more than three repetitions of this falsehood every single year since 1998 – but many other papers, including respectable broadsheets, have racked up comparable frequencies of reprinting the same rubbish.

Now, though, the Mail has printed three sentences in their Clarifications and corrections section, so everything’s been sorted out.

Except, even if the subject of Winterval is now as unambiguously settled and resolved as anyone could hope it to be, this still isn’t the most satisfying way to draw the saga to a close. Dozens of misleading and hyperbolic articles, over the course of more than a decade, have been offset by a couple of column inches. I find it unlikely that the cumulative effect they’ve had will be significantly reversed by this latest development.

Of course, I don’t want to be too harsh on the Mail for acknowledging and correcting a mistake, even if it was overdue and under-emphasised. But it’s evident how little the problem has been solved when you look at the bulk of their side of the general media conversation.

A couple of months ago, blogger Kevin Arscott pointed out to Melanie Phillips that she was repeating a long-debunked myth in her Daily Mail column. She wrote back, describing his message as being “as arrogant and ignorant as it is offensive”, and reasserted her baseless claim that the use of the seasonal marketing term Winterval was part of an effort to avoid referring to Christmas at all (even though the official descriptions of Winterval always directly referred to Christmas several times).

“Winterval buried ‘Christmas’ and replaced it in the public mind”, she wrote, which of course explains why you’ve barely heard mention of Christmas this century, outside the columns of a few intrepid tabloid journalists fighting to bring you the truth, amidst all the politically right-on Winterval talk going around.

In Melanie’s next email to Kevin, she made vague and entirely inane threats of suing him for libel.

Previous attempts to complain to the PCC about the repeated untruths being printed in this popular national paper had been unsuccessful. But the Mail’s recent decision to clarify and correct their position implies that they’re now siding with Kevin, at least on his basic point – the claim that Christmas was “renamed in various places” was, in fact, misleading and incorrect, despite Melanie’s initial objections. He’s waiting for an apology.

Oh, and the headline of the Melanie Phillips article from September, which now carries a correction as to the nature of Winterval, was: Our language is being hijacked by the Left to muzzle rational debate.

This is how successfully the tabloid media’s ability to self-regulate is currently working.

So yeah, it still kinda sticks in my craw.

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…These are a few of my favourite things.

Most religions have some very strong views about penises and vaginas and anuses and the things you are or aren’t allowed to do with them. God, they tend to agree, has a plan, in which sex plays a very particular part.

Of course, most humans are quite capable of independently discovering how much fun can be had with these bits of themselves, if you leave them alone in a room for a few minutes. A quick Google search will confirm that sex is among the most popular contact sports available in the modern world. But most of those ways of doing it are wrong.

God’s ideas of sex are very, very specific. It’s for deliberate procreation, sometimes, if you’re married, and of opposite sex, and there’s only two of you, maybe, depending on who you ask.

Animals have sex too, but they’re much more… well, animal about it. It’s all feral and bestial and carefree and irresponsible and way more fun not a suitable way for civilised folk like you and me to behave. We’re different from the animals, better than, morally responsible. We’re expected to take a totally different approach to the whole business of sex than they do.

So… Why did God choose to give humans and animals basically identical biological functions and urges, if he intended such completely different results?

He wants sex between humans to be special and sacred, we’re told, and it comes with many stipulations. It’s only permissible if it’s producing offspring to further praise his glorious name, or at least cementing the loving bond between a man and woman joined in his eyes in holy blah blah. And yet, to achieve this, we’re given basically the same process as he gave the animals, who mount and rut and fuck whenever the mood takes them.

Wouldn’t it have served God’s purpose rather better (and made it much easier for all of us to avoid straying into temptation by just wanting to have a good time) if he’d provided a different system in our case? Something which still achieves his ineffable goals for us all, but which doesn’t tempt us to act like such depraved beasts?

The way things are, it just seems like we’re closely genetically related to these depraved beasts, and have evolved our sex drive through a similar process of selection with variation that they did. And that’s surely not in God’s best interests.

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