Tag Archives: Skepticism

Seven Stories Of Science Gone Wrong

What, with all the attacks on science and scientist these days, we may not want to be focusing on those times when science goes off the rails and makes a huge mess of things. But, science at its best and scientists at their best, will never shy away from such things.

Dr. Paul Offit just wrote a book called Pandora’s Lab: Seven Stories of Science Gone Wrong, which not about an evil black dog that escaped from a box, but rather, seven instances when the march of scientific progress headed off a cliff rather than in the desired direction. People died. Many people died. Other bad things happened.

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Note: I interviewed Paul Offit about his book on Atheist Talk Radio. This interview will be aired on Sunday, May 28th, and will be available as a podcast. It should be HERE.
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Readers will have different reactions to, and ways to relate to, each of the seven different stories, because they are far flung and cover a great deal of time, diverse social settings, and a wide range of scientific endeavors. Some readers will get mad because he talks about DDT and Rachel Carson, though I assure you his argument is mostly reasonable (I did disagree with some parts). All readers will be amazed at the poppy plant and all it can do and has done, and astonished at the immense apparent ignorance displayed by that plant’s exploiters, from back in the early 19th century to, well, yesterday. Those interested in race and racism, the use of poison gas to kill people, will find things you didn’t know in Offit’s carefully researched histories. Also, don’t forget to take your vitamins. Or, maybe, forget to take your vitamins.

The chapter “The Great Margarine Mistake” is a great example of the very commonly screwed up interface between food science, food production and marketing, and the shaping of food preference among regular people. You know, that thing where “They tell us not to drink coffee. Then they tell us to drink coffee. They don’t know nothin'”

My biggest disagreement with Paul is over malaria. He did not incorporate an often overlooked fact about the disease into his discussion, and had he done so, may have written a somewhat different chapter. Briefly, in zones where there are two wet seasons (or one long wet season and a very short dry season) there has never really been success in curtailing malaria. In zones where there is a very long dry season but it is wet enough for part of the year for the mosquito that carries malaria to exist at least most years, malaria is relatively easy to beat down using a wide range of techniques, no one of which is supreme. So, for example, today, the distribution of malaria in South Africa, where it is not actually that common (thousands of cases in a normal year among tens of millions of people) is determined mainly by how wet the eastern wet season is, integrated with the movement into that area of people, usually refugees, who are a) infected and b) not getting medical treatment. (See this.)

Malaria was wiped out in country after country prior to the use of DDT, then the DDT came in and helped a great deal, in those relatively dry countries. But the wet countries, not so much. Indeed, in a place like Zaire, there are absolutely no reliable statistics on how common Malaria is or ever was over most of the country, but when I lived there in the 1980s, it was as common as the common cold in New Jersey, and DDT was theoretically in use. (That is a second correlation with causation: the wetter the equatorial country, the less we actually know about disease. I recall leaving the deep rain forest to visit the “city” to get hold of a few courses of leprosy medicine for a handful of people who visited our clinic who had it, where I had dinner with a guy from the UN who was on his victory lap for having wiped out leprosy in Africa.)

In some ways, Offit’s final chapter is the most interesting, the eighth chapter (combined with the Epilog) in which he does two things. One is to identify the kind of reasoning mistake, or methodological mistake, each of his seven examples exemplifies. Such as failure to pay attention to the data, or failure to pay attention to the man behind the curtain. The other is to go quickly through what may end up being similar stories of science gone wrong just starting to brew today or in recent decades, such as the long term unintended effects of widespread use of antibiotics.

A question that Offit’s book raises, indirectly, is this: When a Pandora-like box opens and some sort of monster creeps out, why did the box open to begin with? Sometimes it is jostled open, like in the case of unintended negative outcomes from the use of antibiotics. Sometimes it is opened because someone can’t resist the treasures that may be inside. Sometimes it is opened because science is an open process and must always seek knowledge etc. etc. I wonder if the recent development of an engineered polio virus (three instances), or the Spanish Flu, is an example of such. Sometimes it is opened because of (Godwin Warning!) HITLER. Seriously.

I don’t know what knowing these reasons gets us, but one possibility is this: when we find ignorance as a root cause of calamity, perhaps an appreciation of knowledge is gained. That is certainly the lesson of Offit’s review of the products of opium, their invention, intensification, deployment, and use. Apparently addiction was simply not understood at all until fairly recently, and that lack of understanding caused science, medical technology, and medical practice to do the exactly wrong thing over and over again.

And of course, lobotomies. The invention of the latter method of doing this useless and horrible procedure is something that, if put in a movie as a plot element, would kill the movie because it is not possible to suspend disbelief to the degree necessary to stay seated in the theater.

Pandora’s Lab: Seven Stories of Science Gone Wrong is a great read and a necessary addition to the bookshelf of any practicing skeptic or science enthusiast.

Paul Offit, who is a pediatrician and the inventor of a rotavirus vaccine (see this for an interesting podcast on a related topic), is the Maurice R. Hilleman Professor of Vaccinology and Professor of Pediatrics at the Perelman School of Medicine, University of Pennsylvania. He is also chief of Infectious Diseases and director of Vaccine Education at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia.

Aside from Pandra’s Lab, he also wrote Do You Believe in Magic?: Vitamins, Supplements, and All Things Natural: A Look Behind the Curtain, Deadly Choices: How the Anti-Vaccine Movement Threatens Us All, and Bad Faith: When Religious Belief Undermines Modern Medicine.

Get this book that I have a chapter in!

Karen Stollznow has edited this book: Would You Believe It?: Mysterious Tales From People You’d Least Expect, and you will find my chapter on page 112.

This is a great idea for a book. Suppose Susan Blackmore told you she had an out of body experience? Or that Don Prothero had an alien abduction story for you? Or that I claimed I had once hunted down and captured a ghost? Would you believe it??? Indeed.

You would probably be skeptical if any of the 30+ established skeptics who authored chapters in this book told you that they had a paranormal, psychic, or otherwise impossible experience. But that is what this book is full of: people who don’t believe in any of these things having these very experiences.

In some cases, the teller of the True Tale of Mystery can explain their experience as a natural phenomenon. In other cases, not, but for some reason, they still believe that what happened to them was not paranormal. Why? Well, read the chapters to find out.

Would You Believe It?: Mysterious Tales From People You’d Least Expect has a forward by James Randi, and a few of the chapters are more theory than observation. There is an afterward by James Alcock.

Has anything mysterious ever happened to you?

Experiences of this kind are more common than you think. And they happen to people you’d least expect, even notable scientists and skeptics.

This collection features personal stories and experiences of the mysterious, as told by Banachek, Susan Blackmore, Joe Nickell, Eugenie Scott, Chris French, Ken Feder, George Hrab, Brian Regal, Steve Cuno, Ray Hyman, and many others, with a foreword by James Randi and an afterword by James Alcock. These are tales about a wide range of extraordinary experiences, including ghost and UFO sightings, alien abduction, Bigfoot encounters, faith healing, séances, superstitions, coincidences, demonic possession, out-of-body-experiences, past lives, episodes of missing time and one case where time stood still. You will read about a poltergeist in a bakery, a genius baby, a haunted concert hall, a stone carving that vanishes and reappears mysteriously, a one-time palm reader, and a former Mormon missionary who once believed he healed a woman of a brain tumor.

Indeed, when Karen asked me to write a chapter for the book, and if I had any stories of this kind, several such experiences came to mind. I didn’t mention to her two UFO observations I had made as a kid (one seemingly bogus even at the time although all the adults bought it as real, the other very realistic and still a bit difficult to explain). I did have a more recent, adult-age, UFO experience that I could easily explain that I put on the initial list to consider. Also, having grown up in an old-world style religious household (not American evangelical Christian, but rather, Midlevel demonic possession poltergeisty Central European and Irish Catholic style household), I had a lot of stories handed on to me from relatives, including one harrowing story having to do with Exorcist style levitation, vomiting of green goo, and all that. And, of course, there are those non drug induced time shifting experiences and the pets that can read your mind and all that. I settled on the story about the ghost because it is the best story for the telling.

Faith-Based Pseudo-Science

A Panel at CFI’s Women in Secularism panel featuring Sarah Moglia, campus organizing communication specialist, SSA; Carrie Poppy, animal rights activist, podcast co-host of “Oh No, Ross and Carrie!”; Amy Davis Roth, artist, blogger at “Skepchick”; and Rebecca Watson, co-host of “Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe,” creator of “Skepchick“. The panel is moderated by Desiree Schell, activist, podcast host of “Skeptically Speaking

Global Warming Skepticism In Decline

There is a new Gallup poll that together with earlier data from Gallup provides some interesting information about attitudes in the US about global warming.

Earlier polls have shown increase and decrease in concern about global warming, and changes in what people think of news about climate change and the severity of the problem. Recently, there has been a shift towards greater concern which follows a low point, which, in turn, follows a period of global concern.

One question involves reading off a list of specific concerns related to global warming and asking participants to rank their concern over that issue, and then averaging the responses. This produces a graph of percentage of “worry” at higher levels that looks like this:

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According to Gallup, the breakdown underlying this graph indicates that

33% of Americans worry about global warming “a great deal,” 25% worry “a fair amount,” 20% “only a little,” and 23% “not at all.”

The take home message here is that 58% of Americans see global warming as serous while a mere 23% see it as not an issue at all. Denialists together with those who just don’t know are in a small minority. Also, 54% of Americans acknowledge that the effects of global warming have already started.

Even though a mere 23% of respondents don’t seem to think global warming is a problem, even fewer, 15%, think that it “will never happen” while 81% think that the effects of global warming have already begun or are to be expected in the future. Here’s the graph of those responses over time:

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Related to all this is the way Americans view news stories about global warming. A plurality, but a declining number, tend to see news stories as exaggerated, but the combined number who see stories as either correct or underestimated is over half. Notably, those who see stories of global warming in the news as underestimates of the severity of the problem have been increasing in number in recent years.

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Prior to a recent nadir in about 2010, over 60% of Americans recognized that there is a scientific consensus that Global warming is occurring. This number has recently risen from that recent dip to 52% nearly to it’s high point of 65% and is now as 62% and perhaps rising. Only a tiny percent responded that they think most scientists do not believe global warming is occurring.

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The number of people who understand that humans are the primary cause of global warming also underwent a dip aroun 2010, and that number is rising again to pre 2010 levels.

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And finally, a large percentage of Americans recognize that the effects of global warming will have a negative impact on their lives:

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Gallup is expected to release information on attitudes about global warming based on political orientation. The present study can be found here.

Meanwhile, we should note that the scientific consensus is much stronger than the public consensus. It looks more like this (from here):

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Using Homeopathy To Treat Intestinal Woes, Domestic Violence, and Everything

I knew this guy, can’t remember his name, who practiced a combination of naturopathy and homeopathy (they are different) along with a few other suspicious arts, back in the 1970s. Other than the white muumuu that he usually wore, I remember two things about him. I remember that a few years before I ever laid eyes on him, he drove his Volkswagen Bug to Mexico to go on a spiritual journey, and within one day hit and killed a cow, and spent six months in jail for this, and was released back into the United States at the border. And, I remember that he almost killed Joe.

I have a friend, some of you know her, who has been undergoing difficulties that involve surgury, post-operative complications, lots of pain, lots of antibiotics, frustration and though she rarely expresses this, I suspect, some fear. When I think of her these days, I think as well of Joe, and now I think of something else I’ll tell you about in a moment.

Joe was a great guy, a good friend, and I wish I had never lost track of him, but I suppose when my significant other of the day and I split, there was a certain amount of Sorting of Friends. I hear he’s doing OK these days. Joe had a strange quirk back in the day; He never liked to eat with anyone else. Part of it seemed to be that the conversation or other features of the social interaction would upset him, and it would make it hard for him to digest his food. It came out later that he really ate very very little, and could only eat tiny amounts at a time, or everything would evacuate his body as vomitus.

He knew he had some kind of digestive problem, and he was seeing someone for it. He was seeing the guy I mention above, the guy who ran into the cow with the Volkswagen Bug. He was getting a combination of naturopathic and homeopathic treatments for a condition that caused him to only be able to eat a tiny amount of food at once, and that caused all kinds of pain and some other problems.

One day Joe’s wife came home and found him laying motionless, seemingly lifeless, on the living room floor. She called an ambulance, they came and took him to the hospital. He was alive, but in a coma. After several hours of investigation, it was determined that he had succumbed to a combination of starvation and some sort of infection ultimately arising from a blockage of the intestines which had, in turn, been caused by some sort of intestinal thing. This was in the days before a lot that we now know was known. He may have had Crone’s Disease or something, we’ll probably never know. In any event, he underwent a long, multi-hour surgery to remove a big chunk of his intestines, spent several more days in the hospital, and later, was OK.

The naturopathic homeopath, the guy who killed the cow with his VW, seemed to disappear from the community just at that time. We discovered that Joe had been advised by the homeopath to not seek traditional medical advice. We learned that when Joe more strongly stated that he wanted to get the advice of a doctor, the homeopath asked him not to because he’d get in trouble with the authorities for his practice which was not exactly legal. Joe complied, then, Joe almost died.

Here’s the other thing I wanted to mention:

Claims that homeopathy treats domestic violence must be stopped, experts say

SOME Australian homeopaths claim they can treat anything from autism to deadly infections to violence, including domestic violence.

Sydney clinic Homeopathy Plus, for example, promotes the use of homeopathy for potentially fatal anaphylactic shock and post-childbirth infections and director Fran Sheffield said homeopathy can treat “excesses of human behaviour” including domestic violence.

The Australian Medical Association says it is “untested, unproven”. The National Medical Health and Research Council says it doesn’t work, and Australian Skeptics president Richard Saunders says it is “closer to witchcraft than to medicine”.

Can we just stop with this insanity, please?

(Hat tip Phil)

DJ Grothe vs. Tony Stark

I think the DJ Grothe thing has run its course. DJ issued a lengthy apology to Rebecca Watson on Skepchick. The apology has some good things in it, DJ has said some of the proper, need-to-be-said things. But as has been pointed out by both Rebecca and Stephanie (see also this) with added commentary by Jason, DJ’s comment…what it said, how it was said, what wasn’t said, to whom it was said, and to whom it was not said, among other things…underscored rather than diffused the problem. Now, he should be prepared to take the next needed steps.

Dr Phil tells us that there comes a time in many relationships for one person to be a hero. It is now time for DJ Grothe to be the hero. Pursuant to this, I give you … DJ Grothe, Joining The Avengers for a Trial Period: Continue reading DJ Grothe vs. Tony Stark

Skepticism is a cultural phenomenon

Skepticism is a cultural phenomenon. I know that many self-declared skeptics prefer to … ah … believe otherwise, or as they would perhaps say, they have deduced from pure principles using sound logic that Skepticism is rational behavior and there is nothing cultural about it. But they are wrong, and that is trivially easy to prove.

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Sarah Moglia is the event specialist for the Secular Student Alliance1 and has written an interesting piece on “Why [she doesn’t call her]self a Skeptic” in which she asserts that there are people who call themselves “Skeptic” who are not, at least sometimes, and there are those who are rather “skeptical” (as we like to define it) most of the time but don’t bother with the label. She does not name names; I’ve made the same observation and I’m not going to name names either either. But we both have had plenty of opportunity to observe, and even a practicing Skeptic would not toss aside our unattributed observations.

Unless, of course, said practicing Skeptic simply does not want to accept our shared conclusion and wishes to use the lack of naming names in favor of their argument. It’s a matter of choice, really: Believe Sarah and Greg, and maybe make a few of your own observations, or insist on clearly enumerated cases as evidence within the same blog post that makes the assertion. You can call it either way. Demand the highest level of proof or assume that well meaning observers who prefer not to name names but may have made valid observations. It’s your choice, as a skeptic, to pick one way or another.

And the fact that it is a choice is evidence that skepticism has a cultural aspect.
Continue reading Skepticism is a cultural phenomenon

The Mohawk

Paunee or Omaha Chief
This man is a Pawnee or Omaha Chief, not Mohawk.

I grew up in, or at least, very near the traditional home of the Mohawk Native Americans, who were in turn part of the Iroquois. You are most likely to have heard of the Mohawk because of their famous hair style, a strip of hair like a crest down the middle of the head, with the rest of the head shaved.

You may also know of the Mohawk because of their famous ironworking in New York City. We who grew up along the Hudson-Mohawk confluence learned of the Mohawk because it was their river, and their valley, and the stories that had been passed down told us that they were more powerful than the Algonquin, and also, the bad-ass-est of all of the tribes in the region. Well after the American Revolution and maybe even after the Civil War, Mohawk warriors were said to travel around the area being tough, engaged in tricky balance between acting as security and acting as actors for the numerous travelling “Indian Shows” and “Wild West Shows” of the day. Of course, the reality of the Mohawk Tribe and its history is far richer and more interesting than that, but here, I just want to say a word or two about their hair.

The Mohawk did not wear Mohawks, and a Mohawk is not what you might think.

JT Eberhard's Girlfriend, Michaelyn
Michaelyn will get a Mohawk if you give JT Eberhard money.

First, Native Americans who ‘shaved’ all or parts of their head usually used plucking instead of shaving. All that bald area … that hair was torn out not shaved off. Just so you know. Second, Mohawk Indians did not wear that crest thingie that is now called a “Mohawk.” They wore something more like a patch of hair near the back of their head. The Pawnee and Omaha Indians wore something more like the “Mohawk” crest. Nobody seems to mind, these days, though calling this hair style a Mohawk. I’m not certain, but I don’t think people are too overly concerned about cultural patrimony or ripoff. The Mohawk is today a respectable haircut, if you want that special fierce look, and it is cool enough that a lot of younger Mohawk have taken the tradition on as “real” either because it’s been around so long, or because it isn’t worth correcting people, or they have a rather post-modern view of it all.

But more relevant to the moment is this: The woman you see in this photograph is planning to get a Mohawk haircut, to make her look more like the dude in the painting. And she is doing it for money. Your money. JT Eberhard has the details. Michaelyn will cut her hair into a Mohawk if they can raise $1,000 cash for the upcoming SOMA Reasonfest.

Last year’s Reasonfest drew 700 people, and this year looks to be even bigger! There will be a game room for socializing and good times all around – and it won’t cost anybody a dime to get in.

However, free to get in does not mean free to produce. Putting on an event like this takes a LOT of leg work and a LOT of fundraising by the organizers – and they do it all for the benefit of this movement. Right now they’re a few thousand short of covering the event, which is where we fit in: we’re going to help them with the fundraising.

My girlfriend, Michaelyn, who is part of SOMA, will get a mohawk and dye the tips red if we can raise $1,000 in two weeks.

So click here and learn more and give a few bucks. And help turn Michaelyn fierce.