Archive for the ‘Science’ Category

No sadly this isn’t a WWE match set in at “Edgefield Federal Correction Institute”, where Dawkins uses his intellectual might to pile drive Kent Hovind – young earth creationist, conspiracy theorist and criminal – into the mat.

The Greatest Show on Earth is in fact a fascinating new title from Prof. Richard Dawkins. It aims to explicate evolution in a manner that every man on the street can understand. Demonstrating complex scientific concepts with examples, diagrams, rich colour photos  and of course is his occasional no-nonsense humour, Dawkins bring evolution to a level we can all understand. A secondary role can also be found within its pages, in that it equips the reader with the tools to refute the arguments of the ID/Creationist brigade.

In opening Dawkins does a great job of explaining what is meant by the term theory in regards to the “Theory of Evolution”. The word theory in this context is often misunderstood – partially down to the fact the word theory has two different meanings.

So having taken us through a basic explanation of the term and warming us up with a brief look at; Darwin, On the Origins of Species and natural selection, Dawkins then starts to explore how natural selection and artificial selection (for example dog breeds) works and gives us some fascinating examples of each.

Over the course of thirteen chapters we are treated to many examples of evolution in practice as well as lab experiments that refute the claims of the Creationist brigade. Dawkins touches on other areas of science that back up the “Theory of Evolution” ranging from carbon dating to tree ring counting (Dendrochronology).

The book finishes with a small appendix titled “The History Deniers”. Dawkins uses this term during the title to describe those who ignore, refute or discard evidence that challenges their faith-based beliefs.

The figures detailing those who don’t accept evolution as a factual theory make for slightly worrying reading – and these are just from the EU and Turkey.

With the above in mind, Dawkins work as well as being a fascinating piece of science literature, provides those of us who read the God Delusion with  a useful tome to challenge those who refute the scientific method.

With Creationist museums in the US and Creationist Zoos in England, this book couldn’t have come at a better time.

The Greatest Show on Earth is available now in hard back from all good bookstores.

He Works in Magisterious Ways

Posted: November 3, 2009 by Tim Barclay in Religion, Science
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One area in which the so-called “new atheists” differ from what I can only assume are called “old atheists” is in their views on the possibility of harmonious co-existence between religion and science. Dawkins, Hitchens and Myers, while acknowledging that religious people can understand science and scientists can believe in God, see religious faith as either contradictory or, at worst, obstructive to good science. However, most moderate religious people, and a good number of atheists and agnostics, see no incompatibility between the two systems.

The most famous defence of the accomodationist position was made by Stephen Jay Gould in his definition of science and religion as “non-overlapping magisteria“. Science is the realm of the observable, the empirical and the testable, he claimed; religion is the domain of that which is beyond human experience. Many people, in my experience, sum this position up in something like the statement that science deals with the ‘how’ while religion deals with the ‘why’ (like answer ‘B’ on this page); scientists may be able to tell us how the Earth came to be formed and how life evolved on it, but it is to the clergy that questions about the meaning of that life ought to be addressed.

I disagree. The ‘how’ and the ‘why’ defence is an easy maxim to rattle off in lieu of an agrument, but does it really mean anything at all? Does science helpfully limit itself to the dry mechanistic explanations? And does religion respectfully keep clear of them, only to shuffle out when someone asks a more metaphysical question? Of course not.

The Bible is full of explanations of how things work and how things happened – from the beginning of the Earth to its end. How many of these explanations you may wish to write off as poetically pregnant metaphors will be decided by the particular strain of the religion you most identify with. However, with even the most modern and woolly tea-and-biscuit fuelled reading of the Bible, it is a stretch to imply that the Good Book completely steers clear of physical and biological explanations or politely holds its tongue when any other ‘how’ question is raised.

Similarly, it is only a uselessly simplistic characterisation that would suggest that science limits itself to the ‘how’ questions. The rapidly evolving and endlessly enlightening fields of psychology, neurology and genetics have given us myriad insights into ‘why’ questions that mere decades ago would have been left entirely to theologians and philosophers. In fact science is even able to study the ‘why’ of religion itself (search Pubmed for ‘religion’ and ‘brain’ for examples).

Of course it is possible for scientists to be religious or for religious people to believe in evolution or the big bang. However, this is not proof that they are mutually compatible worldviews so much as further evidence of humans’ ability to hold multiple incongruous viewpoints while coping with the resulting cognitive dissonance.

The cornerstone of science is scepticism of that for which there is no evidence. This is the reason scientists make hypotheses based on observations and then try to test those hypotheses to see whether they hold true after exhaustive efforts to falsify them. Any christian scientist (by which I mean a scientist who is religious, not a follower of Mary Baker Eddy) must either admit that they hold some parts of their life out of reach of the light of their scientific scepticism or tie themselves up in confusing knots of attempted justification and theological gymnastics.

The cornerstone of religion is faith in that for which there is no evidence, and it is for this reason that I see it as fundamentally incompatible with science. A christian (or muslim or jew etc.) who wishes to maintain their faith must approach certain questions without the genuine openmindedness that ideal science calls for.

Once again, I acknowledge that some scientists are religious and some religious people are scientists and I do not think it would be helpful to force polarisation on such people and make them choose one or the other. However, both worldviews cannot be held in one mind without the necessary compromise of one or both.

The religious scientist must protect his faith from the requisite questioning tools of his trade. The scientifically-literate believer must moderate the will, power and scope of their god so as not to to tread on the toes of what rational discovery has given us. Inconvenient as it may be, these are two almost entirely overlapping magisteria, both of which claim powers of explanation and enlightenment.

The US based Center for Inquiry has the following mission statement on it’s about page:

To oppose and supplant the mythological narratives of the past, and the dogmas of the present, the world needs an institution devoted to promoting science, reason, freedom of inquiry, and humanist values. The Center for Inquiry is that institution.

At the Center for Inquiry, we believe that evidence-based reasoning, in which humans work together to address common concerns, is critical for modern world civilization. Moreover, unlike many other institutions, we maintain that scientific methods and reasoning should be utilized in examining the claims of both pseudoscience and religion. We reject mysticism and blind faith. No topic should be placed off limits to scrutiny—certainly not fringe science and religion, which have an enormous influence on beliefs and conduct.

Based out of Amherst NY, the Center for Inquiry is responsible for publishing a number of magazines and the Point of Inquiry Podcast.

I fully recommend checking out the Podcast and the Center for Inquiry website here

The Spinal Trap

Posted: July 29, 2009 by Tim Barclay in Science
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free debateIn April 2008, Simon Singh, author of the excellent Big Bang and Trick or Treatment: Alternative Medicine on Trial, wrote an article in the Guardian demonstrating the lack of evidence for the claims made by chiropractors. He pointed out that true chiropractic did not limit itself to helping back pain, but was in fact originally created as something of a panacea that could supposedly cure all manner of diseases and disorders through spinal manipulations. He demonstrated that, despite chiropractic’s success in hiding some of its pseudo-scientific past, many practitioners still do claim, without evidence, to be able to treat conditions such as asthma and colic.

The British Chiropractic Society disliked all this talk of lacking evidence and dubious claims and promptly sued Singh for libel. Note that they did not try to disprove his claims or present the evidence for their position as any proponent of a scientific position would, but instead used the conveniently prohibitive expense of the flawed English libel laws to silence the perceived threat.

Rather unluckily for the BCA, Singh happened to be in a position that allowed him to fight the suit rather than be chilled by it, and by doing so has vastly raised the public awareness of the complaints the BCA was trying to suppress. A classic case of the Steisand effect.

Much has been written about this case around the internet, so for the full story, I would direct you here, here or here.

Sense About Science have started a campaign to have the libel laws changes so that they can’t be used to silence important scientific concerns and stifle debate. You can sign your name to show your support.

Anyway, in a show of solidarity to Simon, many blogs and magazines are today, 29th July, reprinting a version of his original Guardian piece (slightly edited to remove the specific bit that the law suit is about). So I reprint it below:

 Some practitioners claim it is a cure-all, but the research suggests chiropractic therapy has mixed results – and can even be lethal, says 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.

Simon Singh is a science writer in London and the co-author, with Edzard Ernst, of Trick or Treatment? Alternative Medicine on Trial. This is an edited version of an article published in The Guardian for which Singh is being personally sued for libel by the British Chiropractic Association.

Pseudo Scientists Podcast

Posted: July 23, 2009 by newhavenlse in Groups and organisations, Science
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For those of you looking for something to listen to whilst on your commute, you may be interested in this podcast:

Called the Pseudo Scientists it’s run by the Young Australian Skeptics and covers topical subject with plenty of mirth.

Complementary and Alternative Regulation

Posted: July 17, 2009 by Tim Barclay in Science
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The University of Central Lancashire, one of the numerous universities in David Colquhoun’sfiring line for their disregard of science in offering BScs in homeopathy and traditional Chinese medicine, has held a review of issues associated with teaching alternative medicine subjects. The report from this review has been published online here (pdf).

The review came to a pleasing conclusion, that

“the University refrains from offering any CAM courses until such disciplines have achieved statutory regulation status.”

Since homeopathy, acupuncture and Chinese herbal medicine are not subject to statutory regulation, and are unlikely to become so, this means that the teaching of these subjects, and the conferring of BScs for them, should cease.

However, despite the encouraging conclusion reached, some of the arguments that got them there were, for an academic review board, bafflingly nonsensical.

In section 4.1 on efficacy, the report states:

“The debate on the efficacy and benefits of the various CAM disciplines and what constitutes an “acceptable” evidence base for CAM treatments can be viewed as a dichotomy between two differing ways of “knowing”, linked to the principles of supposed “holism” and “reductionism” in medicine…”

A dichotomy between different ways of “knowing”? This is the sort of thing I could imagine Deepak Chopra spouting at a critic. The issue here is whether it’s worth teaching acupuncture as a science degree and therefore whether it works. How many different ways of “knowing” whether something cures patients or not can there be? Well, of course according to alternative medicine proponents, there is the reductive, simplistic and possibly evil western way (or ‘randomised controlled trial’ for short) and then there is the wholly undefined, but undoubtedly better alternative/traditional/intuitive way.

This is an oft-quoted problem with the assessment of evidence for CAM modalities – that their methods of healing are beyond the reach of science – but is there any basis for it?

Well, no. Science, and specifically the RCT, is designed to test specific, predicted effects of interventions. If homeopathy claims to make people better, then it can be tested by science.

At its most basic, the method of an RCT involves giving one load of people a particular intervention (say, a homeopathic headache pill), giving another load of people a placebo, and then counting up the number of people who still have a headache a bit later on. The group with the fewer headaches wins. Once you get beyond the potentially confusing technical language, and the definitely confusing anti-science propaganda, the controlled trial is the simplest, most intuitive and most evidently effective way of testing the efficacy of a medicine there is.

It can also be altered to take into account any details of the modality being measured. For example, homeopaths often complain that their trade isn’t amenable to this method of testing because they offer personalised treatments. The prescription of homeopathic remedies, the say, isn’t just based on the symptoms presented, but on many more diverse and esoteric personal details gleaned from a lengthy consultation. However, this element of homeopathy can easily be factored into the clinical method. Imagine a study where 100 people with mild conditions all go to the same homeopathic practitioner for a consultation exactly as they would normally. The practitioner then chooses the correct remedy for them based on whatever details they normally would, and then tells the patient to collect their personalised treatment from a desk on their way out. At the desk, 50 people are given their personal prescribed treatment and the other 50 are given identical looking sugar pills. The personalisation and consultation parts of the treatment are maintained without compromising the blinding or the randomised elements necessary for it to be a fair scientific trial.

In short, scientific testing is perfectly able to test the claims of alternative medicine, and any discussion of different ways of “knowing” is pure smoke.

Nevertheless, the UCLAN review decided that:

“conclusions from research into the efficacy of the various CAMs are outside the remit of this report.”

This is simply baffling? When deciding whether acupuncture should be taught to people who may go on to tend to patients with real illnesses, surely the first and most important question to be answered is that of efficacy. However, this accomodationist stance that we shouldn’t rock the boat by demanding of alternative practitioners the same standard of evidence for efficacy expected in real medicine is very common. Recently HolfordWatchspeculated about what would happen if nutritionists were allowed a place in the NHS alongside Registered Dietitians. While RDs could be held accountable for any unevidenced or dangerous advice, as has happened recently in the case of Katie Peck who gave dubious advice to diabetic patients, nutritionists (astrologers to dieticians’ astronomers), would be unlikely to fall under the same scrutiny.

In the end, it is good that this report concluded that unregulated modalities should not be taught, but many of the finer details of the review are, I think, a cause for concern. Not least because in tip-toeing around the difficult and important questions of evidence and efficacy, it shows that even universities are being taken in by CAM’s anti-science hand waving. Real scientists in real universities should know better. Alternative medicine is just as testable as any other medicine and therefore there is no excuse for the by-passing of questions of evidence.