Posts Tagged 'Science'

I Had a Chance to Exercise my Skeptical Chops in Real Life the Other Night

It’s not often (in real life) that I get to use all of these skeptical tools and pearls of wisdom that I spend so much time learning about, so when I do get into this type of conversation my heart will start racing and I’ll get excited to where I have to concentrate on keeping a calm demeanor so that I don’t end up coming across as a crazed denialist!

The other night my husband had his friend over, who also happened to be one of my former high school teachers, so we sat around chatting for hours and touched on a lot of different topics. At one point in the conversation Dr. Oz (one of Oprah’s spin-off shows) came up, I guess because teachers get to watch lots of daytime TV during the summer!

I’m in no way a fan of Dr. Oz. I’ve tuned  into a few of his episodes when there’s been nothing else on, and my main reason for disliking him is the way that he talks down to the audience, as if he’s addressing a room full of kindergartners. He gives these ridiculous demonstrations that add nothing to the conversation and dumb down already easy to understand things. Medicine is such an interesting field, and the human body is so diverse and complex that it just makes him look ridiculous to me when he talks to grown adults in a way that would have bored me when I was 10.

But obviously enough people enjoy it, so to each his/her own. What also gets me goat about Dr. Oz is how he lends his credibility to alternative medicines that don’t have supporting evidence (Reiki, for example). I brought this up and that’s what sparked a discussion with my old teacher on alternative medicine.

I wouldn’t say that Teacher (that’s what I’ll call him from now on) was full on into alt med or anything, but he came across as neutral on the subject. He seems like one of those people “in the middle”, who believes in the value of using herbs to treat minor ailments but would turn to actual medicine for big things like cancer. We touched on a lot of things that seem to pop up in every online discussion on alternative medicine, so I think I’ll break it down into some of the areas we hit and what was said.

I’ll just mention that everything I was responding to Teacher with was from memory, and I’m going to write it here as it was said so it’s possible, actually it’s likely, that I was wrong about many things and welcome criticisms and feedback.

1. “The placebo effect is strong, so alternative medicine helps even if it shouldn’t really work” There is a common misconception that the placebo effect is some kind of mind over matter thing, where your brain is actually healing your body, and so doing something like acupuncture is therefore helpful, even though there’s no such thing as “chi” or “meridians” in the body. I was three glasses of wine in, so I wasn’t going to try explaining the placebo effect in detail, especially since I don’t fully understand it sober.

Instead, I talked about how things like acupuncture can be helpful for issues like infertility or back pain because just going to a practitioner, having them pay attention to you and validate your problem, and having something physical done to you can alleviate the stress that might be causing the problem. But relying on these things can get dangerous if you start relying on alt med for problems that need proper medication.

2. Confusing homeopathy with herbal medicine. There are some types of alternative medicine that are so ridiculous that they can’t possibly work, and homeopathy is one of them, but people don’t understand what it actually is and so trust that it must work for whatever reason. Teacher was definitely confusing homeopathy with herbal medicine.  I explained that homeopathy means that the active substance is diluted until there’s not even a molecule of the original substance in the solution, so there’s nothing actually in it that would have an effect.

3. Confusing proper diet with alternative medicine. I’m not really sure that this was what was happening, but at one point when we were having the discussion about using herbal medicine he brought up how cutting milk out of his diet helped him to feel better. Lots of people think of diet and nutrition as alternative medicine, maybe because pretty much every diet book out there will recommend taking some type of supplement. In fact, though, diet and the effect of different foods on the body are studied by science, and therefore perfectly in line with medicine.

4. Pharmaceutical companies are out to make a buck and want you to take medicines you don’t need, so turning to herbs is preferable. Pharmaceutical companies do plenty of shady business, but at least the drugs that they put out have standards for evidence, and will be pulled from the shelves if the drug is shown to be dangerous. With the various herbal supplements out there, they have no standards for evidence if it’s called a supplement, and there aren’t nearly as many strict controls, so you really don’t know how much of the active ingredient is contained in each pill. Not to mention many pharmaceutical companies have gotten into the supplement business, so you’re not necessarily circumventing “big pharma” when you decide to go for alternative remedies. The companies that sell those supplements and natural remedies are in the profit business too!

5. Lots of drugs were developed out of traditional healing substances, so herbal medicine must work. Sure, a lot of drugs came about because the substance used in them was traditionally used in healing the ailment. But the reason why they’re drugs now is because they were subjected to scientific testing and found to work, so the active substance was isolated or synthesized, and put into pills with specific dosages in a bottle that lays out the possible side effects. This doesn’t mean that all traditional herbal medicines work, though. Some are tested and found to do no better than placebo. There may be some out there that will be shown to work once they’re adequately tested, but I wouldn’t rely on those to medicate myself because a) possible side effects are unknown, and b) how would you know how much you need or how long you need to  take  it for if the substance has never been properly tested?

 

That was pretty much it, it was a fantastic discussion and I hope I gave Teacher (and you?) something to think about.

Sorry about the scatter-brained posting!

Enlightning Bolts – 07.05.2010 – Female Bloggers Edition

I recently posted a list of skeptical female bloggers (and websites, podcasts, etc.) and have been slowly making my way through them reading what they have to say. So I thought I would make a special Enlightning Bolts to highlight some of the posts I’ve been enjoying…

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Rachael posted a positive story about how kids’ perceptions of scientists changed after they met some scientists.

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Angie the Anti-Theist has an interesting multi-part piece on her experience with Alcoholics Anonymous. Here’s Part 1.

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Doubtful Daughter has written about how much more she questions things now that she’s not a “believer”…it might as well have been written by me!

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Apparently it’s Relocate Religious Books Month! I’ve never moved a book from its spot in the bookstore if it’s in the wrong section, I tend to think that’s just making the employees’ jobs harder, but I have mentioned to staff that certain books shouldn’t be in the Science section and gotten results. I also sometimes move Skeptic Magazine over so that it’s covering the woo-ish UFO and Biblical Archeology magazines – they’re in the same section so I don’t feel bad about doing that!

Update to Podcast Guide

Just a quick note, I’ve updated my podcast guide

Podcasts that I’ve already reviewed are:

  • The Atheist Experience
  • Irreligiosophy
  • Little Atoms
  • Point of Inquiry
  • The Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe
  • The Skeptic Zone
  • Skeptoid

Podcasts that I added today are:

  • Are We Alone
  • Monster Talk
  • The Non-Prophets

I also removed my favourite episodes from each podcast, since that’ll be changing all of the time.

Please let me know if there are any science- or skepticism-related podcasts you think I should review.

A Chart Explaining Intelligent Design

Cracked.com has a funny article about intelligent design logic, I especially love this chart:

Rachel Maddow + Basketball + Bill Nye = Win

Yesterday’s Rachel Maddow Show provided me with yet another reason to love that woman. She uses footage of amazing 3-point shots in basketball to show how something out of the ordinary doesn’t disprove the ordinary. Washington has had some snowy weather recently, and the global warming deniers are loving it because they see that as proof that global warming isn’t real. They can’t tell the difference between weather and climate.

You can watch the video here, it’s fantastic and features an interview with Bill Nye the Science Guy. But her point can be summed up in this quote, which begins around 4 minutes:

If one person wins the lottery…it does not disprove the existence of the recession. When it rains in the desert, that does not disprove the existence of the desert…If you have smoked a cigarette in your life and you are not currently suffering from lung cancer or heart disease, your existence…does not disprove the fact that smoking causes lung cancer and heart disease. The evidence we have of flight (birds, bees, airplanes, what have you) does not disprove the existence of gravity. The existence of monkeys does not disprove evolution. The existence of tadpoles does not disprove the existence of frogs.

Full court shots are hard, evolution is real, gravity is real, the recession real, deserts dry, smoking bad, frogs exist, also so do storms.

The fact that it is snowing somewhere…does not tell you any useful thing about the overall climate.

This is why we get our information about climate change from scientists, not pundits.

Applying Skeptcism to Airport Security

Skepticism is commonly applied to things like ghosts, UFOs, psychics, alternative medicine, and other pseudoscientific claims. But a recent episode of the Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe reminded me how the tools of science and skepticism can be used to figure out what works for just about anything.

Airport security has been on everyone’s mind lately with the failed underwear bomber and the new scanners that see through your clothes, so I appreciated the SGU’s interview with so-called “security guru” Bruce Schneier.

They spoke about what the evidence shows with regards to what works in airport security. I’m going to pull some highlights, but if you want to give it a listen you can download it here, or it’s episode 235 on iTunes.

Since 9/11 our trip through airport security has become plagued with rules such as limits to the size of shampoo we can carry, to having to discard your fingernail clippers, to putting your shoes through scanners. But according to Schneier these have basically been a waste of money, and the things that have proven to be effective are reinforced cockpit doors and convincing passengers to fight back. This is what stopped the underwear bomber.

Security measures that are put into effect in airports are not decided on by what evidence shows will work, but rather politics drive what’s put into place, which is driven by the stories that are told of previous terrorist attacks.

Schneier points out that we’re always fighting the last battle: “Take away guns and bombs, terrorists use box-cutters; take away box-cutters and knitting needles, they put explosives in their shoes; we screen shoes, they use liquids; we limit liquids, they put explosives in their underwear…”

He says there is a psychological need to focus on what terrorists used in the last attack, similar to the power testimonials have to drive other pseudoscientific claims. But terrorists already know what they can’t use, so the money that’s going towards things like plastic baggies for storing bottles of liquids would be better spent on intelligence, so plots can be foiled before they reach the security checkpoint.

In the interview they also spoke about the ideas being floated around that profiling people by certain criteria could help weed out terrorists, but Schneier describes how this can actually make airport security worse. If terrorists know what type of person airports are screening for (which can be deduced by flying often), they can avoid being screened by not fitting the profile.

Many people said that the underwear bomber fit the profile of a terrorist, so he would have been caught if security was screening for these characteristics, but in reality there wasn’t much about him that should have roused suspicion. For example, the fact that he paid for his ticket in cash wasn’t odd because Nigeria has a cash economy; the fact that he didn’t check his bags wasn’t anything out of the ordinary, my husband almost never checks bags when he travels; and the rumour about him buying a one-way ticket, well that was just a rumour.

Instead of profiling, Schneier says that random checking is what works best, because terrorists have no way to know whether or not they’ll get checked.

Schneier and the SGUers call current airport security “security theatre”, because really it’s only putting on the guise of good security. To optimize airport security, governments should be putting money towards intelligence.

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PZ Myers Braved Winnipeg…in January!

Yeah okay, he is from Minnesota, but still!

On Saturday night I was pleased to be able to see one of my favourite bloggers, PZ Myers of Pharyngula, speak on “the war between science and religion”, thanks to the Humanist Association of Manitoba.

Although I wasn’t sure how the topic related to Canada, American issues tend to spill over the border so it was relevant nonetheless. (The talk was recorded, but I’m not sure where or when that will be posted. I’ll post a link as soon as I find out.)

The main point that PZ was trying to get across was that atheists need to be “out”, and unafraid to talk about atheism, unafraid to criticize religion, and unafraid to criticize ideas that contradict science. I agree with him. I think that atheists are afraid to talk about their lack of beliefs for fear of offending somebody, this is certainly something I’m guilty of. I have the Out Campaign “A” on my blog, but I still have close friends and family members from whom I hide my atheism.

The conversation on beliefs really needs to be opened up. Even among atheists, there seems to be a tendency to think that we should just stay quiet and avoid causing a ruckus. But maybe it’s this tendency that makes it okay for religious people to deride atheists, and maybe it’s the fact that atheists are such a closeted group that makes them America’s least-trusted minority.

After PZ’s talk was over, I had a conversation with my mom about whether his cracker controversy was really necessary. If you don’t know the story, you can read his blog post about it here. The short version is that he desecrated a communion wafer…but really, read his version. I know that a lot of people think this whole thing was a silly exercise that accomplished nothing more than pissing off loads of Catholics. That was my first reaction. Think about it though, all he did was trash a cracker (as well as some pages from the Qur’an and the God Delusion). What he really did was demonstrate how ludicrous religious thinking can get. Some of the emails he received from angry Catholics illustrated how some people put the importance of the cracker above the importance of other human beings.

He has posted some of these emails on his blog, but one in particular that he showed at the talk really shocked me. It basically said that desecrating the wafer was worse then the holocaust or 9/11. Seriously. This is the kind of thinking that needs to be challenged publicly. PZ did something utterly harmless: he threw a few things that he didn’t hold sacred into the trash, and by doing this he was showing that not everyone was bound by superstitious beliefs. That’s something I can support.

What was your reaction to “The Great Desecration”?

Moving along…

My favourite part of lectures is pretty much always the question period, and there were a couple of questions in particular that stood out.

First, there was a local blogger (if you end up here let me know because I’d like to read your blog!) who mentioned that Canada doesn’t have any official separation of Church and state. I actually didn’t know this…I had made some lazy attempts to find out whether we had something similar to the US’s establishment clause, but came up empty. His question was did PZ think that we would benefit from making the separation of Church and state official. PZ’s answer, briefly, was no, and I agree. It might come in handy on occasion, but Canada has done great without it, compared to the US with its White House Faith-based initiatives, its national prayer breakfast, and its presidents (both the current and the previous) that can’t seem to make it through a speech without mentioning god or Jesus.

What do you think? Should Canada have an official separation of Church and state?

Second, a brave creationist showed up! His question: What do you have to say about molecules to morals? It was a weird question, but pretty much just a different wording of “can you be good without god?” PZ handled this well, and you can read the discussion on this in the comments on his blog, but how would you answer?

I’m always puzzled by this idea that we need someone (a god) to tell us what to do in order to be good. It just makes sense: if I don’t want to be harmed, I won’t do harm to other people.

Time to wrap this up…I’ll conclude by saying that I think atheists in general are moral and thoughtful people, and we should be loud and proud of our ability to think for ourselves. Cheers!

Symphony of Science – Jane Goodall

If you haven’t heard of the Symphony of Science you must must must click here now!

John Boswell, the head musician and producer behind Symphony of Science, has created (so far) 4 songs with accompanying videos that put the words of brilliant scientists like Carl Sagan and Stephen Hawking to music…with the magic of auto-tune.

I love these creations so much that I even ordered the first song, A Glorious Dawn, on vinyl (you can get them from Third Man Records, they’re only $5, and the vinyl is etched to replicate the gold record on Voyager).

Symphony of Science just unveiled its most recent creation, “The Unbroken Thread”, featuring David Attenborough, Carl Sagan, and Jane Goodall. And it’s beautiful. This one is about biology, evolution, and the complexity and diversity of life on Earth.

I particularly want to point out the part featuring Jane Goodall, and it sums up the main reason why I decided to become a vegetarian (it’s been a week today!):

There isn’t a sharp line dividing humans
from the rest of the animal kingdom
It’s a very wuzzie line

It’s a very wuzzie line,
and it’s getting wuzzier
All the time

We find animals doing things that we,
In our arrogance,
Used to think was “just human”

I hope you enjoy these songs as much as I do.

Opening up to Opposing Viewpoints

Something that I’ve been working on since losing my religion and becoming involved in the skeptical movement is striking the right balance between literature that supports my new outlook, and literature that doesn’t. If you look back at some of my earlier posts (in particular the one about the debunking skeptics website), I’m sure you’ll find examples where I refused or was hesitant to look at something that did not fit into my goal to learn based on reason and science.

It’s not that I was ever afraid of being confronted with something that would force me to change my mind, I’m not, I just felt like it would be a waste of my time. Now that I’ve settled in to skepticism and I’ve honed my critical thinking skills some more I’ve begun to realize that there is value in looking at what people who don’t share my point of view are saying.

I think that one of the worst parts about religion is that it closes people off from exposure to other points of view, and I don’t want to fall into that same trap of just ignoring or dismissing things that don’t agree with me.

So I’m going to do something about it…

I still feel that I have the most to learn from skeptics and scientists, so that is where the majority of my focus will remain, but as a way to routinely expose myself to something else, whether it be the paranormal, faith, cryptozoology, UFOs, and so on, I’m going to use podcasts.

I love podcasts, and I find that it’s the medium through which I absorb information the most effectively. So, I’m going to incorporate a variety of podcasts that hold opposing viewpoints into my regular listening schedule. I’m going to keep a list in the sidebar of podcast episodes that I plan on listening to and blogging about so I can be held accountable, and I’m going to take requests!

I just have three criteria for requests: (1) the podcast should be no longer than 30 minutes; (2) I will need examples of specific episodes you think I should listen to, rather than just naming the series; (3) the podcast episode should be dealing with one topic in particular, rather than a news show or a segmented show. If you’re not sure if the podcast you like fits those criteria, send it to me anyways and I’ll make that call.

Please send me your requests either through the contact form or in the comments on this thread.

This should be fun!

Water on the Moon – Confirmed!

lcross moonOn October 9th of this year, NASA crasheed a rocket into the surface of the moon. The impact sent a (somewhat anti-climactic) plume of debris into the LCROSS satellite so that it could read it for evidence of water.

And guess what? They found it!

There is water on the Moon, scientists stated unequivocally on Friday, and considerable amounts of it.
“Indeed yes, we found water,” Anthony Colaprete, the principal investigator for NASA’s Lunar Crater Observation and Sensing Satellite, said in a news conference.

The confirmation of scientists’ suspicions is welcome news both to future explorers who might set up home on the lunar surface and to scientists who hope that the water, in the form of ice accumulated over billions of years, could hold a record of the solar system’s history.

Science!


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