The Skeptical Teacher

Musings of a science teacher & skeptic in an age of woo.

Archive for July, 2009

“Beware the Spinal Trap” by Simon Singh

Posted by mattusmaximus on July 31, 2009

In the ongoing campaign to hold the British Chiropractic Association accountable for their attempts to shut down criticism by skeptics, I want to share the following with you all.  This article is copied in its entirety from the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry’s (CSI) website, with the following explanation:

On 29th July a number of magazines and websites are going to be publishing Simon Singh’s Guardian article on chiropractic from April 2008, with the part the BCA sued him for removed.

They are reprinting it, following the lead of Wilson da Silva at COSMOS magazine, because they think the public should have access to the evidence and the arguments in it that were lost when the Guardian withdrew the article after the British Chiropractic Association sued for libel.

We want as many people as possible around the world to print it or put it live on the internet at the same time to make an interesting story and prove that threatening libel or bringing a libel case against a science writer won’t necessarily shut down the debate.

Beware the Spinal Trap
by Simon Singh

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.

Posted in free inquiry, medical woo, skeptical community | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

FDA: Mercury Fillings Safe; Mercury Militia Goes Nuts

Posted by mattusmaximus on July 29, 2009

Good for the FDA!  :)  After that last blog post it’s nice to see some good news.  Of course, this research simply affirms what we (you know, the folks who follow science as applied to medicine) have known all along.  But to the “mercury militia” or other purveyors of anti-science-based “medical” nonsense, it will do little to sway them.  I can’t wait to see the backlash from the alt-med woosters on this one…


Mercury in dental fillings not risky, officials say

The U.S. government declared Tuesday that silver dental fillings contain too little mercury to harm the millions of Americans who have had cavities filled with them — including young children — and that only people allergic to mercury need to avoid them.

It was something of an about-face for the Food and Drug Administration, which last year settled a lawsuit with anti-mercury activists by posting on its Web site a precaution saying questions remained about whether the small amount of mercury vapor the fillings can release were enough to harm the developing brains of fetuses or the very young.

On Tuesday, the FDA said its final scientific review ended that concern. Still, the agency did slightly strengthen how it regulates the fillings, urging dentists to provide their patients with a government-written statement detailing the mercury controversy and what science shows.

Waiting for the alt-med “Big Government, Big Pharmaconspiracy-mongering machine to start up in… 3… 2… 1…

Anti-mercury activists accused the agency of bowing to the dental industry and said they would go back to court to try to force a change.

“FDA broke its contract and broke its word that it would put warnings for children and unborn children,” said Charles Brown of Consumers for Dental Choice. “This contemptuous attitude toward children and the unborn will not go unanswered.”

Whoops, too late.  Yup, that’s right folks, the FDA is out to kill children!  Aaagghh!!!

Give me a break… reasoning with nutbags like this is like pulling teeth.

Posted in environmental hysteria, medical woo | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Health Care Reform Hijacked: Senators Seek Coverage for Alternative “Medicine”

Posted by mattusmaximus on July 29, 2009

Sometimes I just want to bash my head into a wall… remember how recently the results of a massive federal study were published, showing conclusively that over the last decade $2.5 billion was spent studying so-called alternative medicine (i.e. quackery) with the punchline that NO cures were found?

You would think, given this huge mountain of evidence displaying the ineffectiveness of the alt-med sCAM woo, that some people in the government would reconsider funding such useless nonsense.  Think again… alt-med true believer Senator Tom Harkin of Iowa – champion of the now infamous NCCAM woo-factory – has decided to move in exactly the opposite direction, by introducing legislation which would require health insurance companies to cover sCAM woo…

Naturopathic doctors, herbal healers, mind-body specialists, and acupuncturists often have been scorned by the US medical establishment, but growing numbers of Americans are seeking such care, and now an influential group of US senators believes the time has come to embrace an array of alternative therapies.

Senator Tom Harkin, an Iowa Democrat who is a longtime supporter of nontraditional medicine, is at the forefront of the effort to win insurance coverage for such providers as part of national healthcare legislation.

“It’s time to end the discrimination against alternative healthcare practices,’’ Harkin said at a congressional hearing.

Posted in medical woo, politics | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 6 Comments »

Birther’s Continue Their Conspiracy Mongering of Obama’s Citizenship

Posted by mattusmaximus on July 27, 2009

One thing that’s true of most conspiracy theories is that they never die – they may be buried for awhile, but the hardcore true believers will insure that they don’t ever quite go away.  Case in point: the ludicrous “birther” conspiracy theory that President Obama isn’t a U.S. citizen.

Recently, new life got breathed into the birther CT because of an incident which took place a couple of weeks ago at a town hall meeting with Congressman Mike Castle (R) in Delaware.  The town hall was supposed to be about health care reform, but right in the middle of it a woman derailed the entire thing as she spewed the usual birther nonsense…

Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in conspiracy theories, politics | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 6 Comments »

SkeptiCamp: Mini-Conferences for Skeptics

Posted by mattusmaximus on July 25, 2009

While I was at The Amazing Meeting 7 – the largest gathering of skeptics on the planet – in Las Vegas a couple of weeks ago, I learned about something really cool: SkeptiCamp.  SkeptiCamp takes the idea of TAM and shrinks it down to the local level.  So if you know of bunch of skeptics living in the region near you, you can use the resources at the SkeptiCamp website to organize your own one-or-two day long mini-conference! :)

I think this is an excellent idea!  And when I return from Dragon*Con 2009 (where I’m giving a talk & participating on some panels – details to come), I plan on attempting to use SkeptiCamp’s resources to organize a mini-skeptics conference in northern Illinois.  If you are a skeptic and live in Illinois, consider joining the Illinois Skeptics – JREF on Facebook.

So there you have it, if you’ve always wanted to get together with like-minded skeptics in your neck of the woods, consider looking into SkeptiCamp.  Yet another way the Internet is helping us to organize! w00t!!! :D

Posted in skeptical community | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Whoopi Goldberg’s Comments on the Moon Landing: Amazing *Facepalm* Moment

Posted by mattusmaximus on July 24, 2009

Whoopi Goldberg on “The View” earlier this week seriously entertains some of the Moon Hoax conspiracy woo…

Who took the photos, Whoopi? It’s called a tripod…

This one’s just for you, Whoopi…

facepalm

Posted in conspiracy theories, media woo, space | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

The Physics of the Bed of Nails: No Woo Required

Posted by mattusmaximus on July 22, 2009

When I was at The Amazing Meeting 7 in Las Vegas recently, I participated in the first TAM Talent Show.  My skit focused upon a favorite physics demonstration and gave me an excellent opportunity to teach some skepticism: the Bed of Nails. Having performed this demonstration about 40-50 times throughout my teaching career, I decided it was time to take things to the big stage :)

The demonstration is simple, and dangerousIT SHOULD NOT BE ATTEMPTED WITHOUT PROPER SUPERVISION!!! In it, I lay down upon a bed of nails, have a second bed of nails placed atop my stomach & chest, have a concrete cinder block placed atop that, and – last but not least – have an assistant break the block with a 10-lb sledgehammer!  Here’s some slow motion footage of the demo at the TAM Talent Show…

Moments later, I got up off the bed of nails with no damage at all – pretty impressive stuff!  Here’s a photo of my chest seconds after the demo…

post-bed-of-nails-smash

The bed of nails has a history of woo – there are some in the martial arts community who claim that their chi or “life force” protects them from injury.  Others, such as gurus in India, claim that the only reason they are uninjured is because of the specific type of meditation they perform.  But a simple application of Occam’s Razor is all that is necessary to explain what’s going on here – and it doesn’t have anything to do with chi, mysticism, or anything supernatural.

Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in ghosts & paranormal, physics denial/woo | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 8 Comments »

Buzz Aldrin Punches Moon Hoax Conspiracy Theorist

Posted by mattusmaximus on July 20, 2009

This Youtube video is making the rounds on the Internet, so I figured that I would pass it along, mostly for the entertainment factor :)

In 2002, as part of a shameless and rather obvious publicity stunt, conspiracy nutjob & fledgling stalker Bart Sibrel ambushed the Buzz Aldrin (the second man to walk on the Moon)  and publicly defamed him in front of a film crew, thrust a bible in his face and demanded that he swear on it that he really did walk on the moon.  Then, as if that wasn’t bad enough, Sibrel called Aldrin a liar.  The 72-year old’s response to this harassment? See for yourself…

I’m not one to advocate violence, but upon seeing this footage – and Sibrel’s harassment of Aldrin – I have to admit that I gave ol’ Buzz an “atta boy!” when he socked it to Sibrel.

Just in case you know someone who may doubt we ever sent amazing men like Buzz Aldrin to the Moon, check out these websites which systematically demolish the claims of the Moon Hoax conspiracy theorists

Bad Astronomy: Fox TV and the Apollo Moon Hoax

Moon Base Clavius

Wikipedia: Apollo Moon landing hoax conspiracy theories

Face it, folks, we went to the Moon, and if we’re smart we’ll go back someday in the near future.

Posted in conspiracy theories, humor, space | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

Polls, Evolution, and Science in the 21st Century

Posted by mattusmaximus on July 20, 2009

Sometimes people wonder why I spend so much energy addressing pseudoscience, specifically creationism, in this blog.  Well, some recent news out about U.S. attitudes concerning science and specifically evolution (the linchpin of biology) spells out why it is so important to fight against the anti-scientific agenda of the creationist movement (and pseudoscience in general).

The Pew Research Center recently released a survey where the U.S. public’s views on evolutionary science were compared to those of the scientific community…

“Nearly all scientists (97%) say humans and other living things have evolved over time,” while only 61% of the public agrees, according to a new report (p. 37) from the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press. Asked which comes closer to their view, “Humans and other living things have evolved over time” or “Humans and other living things have existed in their present form since the beginning of time,” 97% of scientists responding chose the former option, as opposed to only 2% choosing the latter option; 61% of the public responding chose the former option, as opposed to 31% choosing the latter option.

Those who chose the former option were also asked whether they preferred “Humans and other living things have evolved due to natural processes such as natural selection” or “A supreme being guided the evolution of living things for the purpose of creating humans and other life in the form it exists today.” Among scientists, 87% preferred the former option and 8% preferred the latter option; among the public, 32% preferred the former option and 22% preferred the latter option. Members of the public were also asked whether scientists generally agree that humans evolved over time; 60% said yes, 28% said no.

“Views on evolution vary substantially within the general public,” the report observed (p. 38), “particularly by religion and attendance at religious services.” For example, among white evangelical Protestants responding, a majority, 57%, agreed that humans existed in their present form since the beginning of time, and among those respondents attending religious services weekly or more often, a near-majority, 49%, agreed. In contrast, among the religiously unaffiliated responding, 60% agreed that humans evolved due to natural processes. Also correlated with acceptance of evolution were youth and education.

Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

Texas Gov. Rick Perry Furthers the Creationist Agenda… Again

Posted by mattusmaximus on July 20, 2009

I’ve been waiting for the other shoe to drop in the ongoing fiasco that is the Texas State Board of Education, and it seems as if it has indeed dropped… with a resounding thud.  The fear was that Texas Gov. Rick Perry would appoint far-rightwing nutcase Cynthia Dunbar as the new chair of the BoEd, but what actually happened is that he went with someone a bit more low key but every bit as nutty, Gail Lowe.

The Texas Freedom Network is on the case…

Lowe’s record on the State Board of Education includes:

In 2004 Ms. Lowe opposed requiring that publishers obey curriculum standards and put medically accurate information about responsible pregnancy and disease prevention in new high school health textbooks.

In 2008 Ms. Lowe voted to throw out nearly three years of work by teacher writing teams on new language arts standards. Over the strenuous objections of teachers and curriculum specialists, Lowe instead voted for a standards document that the board’s far-right bloc patched together overnight and slipped under hotel doors the morning of the final vote.

In 2003 and 2009 Ms. Lowe supported dumbing down the state’s public school science curriculum by voting to include unscientific, creationist criticisms of evolution in science textbooks and curriculum standards.

Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in creationism, education, politics | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments »

 
Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 109 other followers

%d bloggers like this: