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Cause & Effect: The CFI Newsletter - No. 99

Center for Inquiry News - Wed, 02/07/2018 - 10:16am

Cause & Effect is the biweekly newsletter of the Center for Inquiry community, covering the wide range of work that you help make possible. Become a member today!

 

The Top Stories

Committee for Skeptical Inquiry Elects Six New Fellows

To be elected into a group that includes (or has included) such luminaries as Isaac Asimov, Francis Crick, Jill Tarter, Eugenie Scott, Bill Nye, Neil deGrasse Tyson, Ann Druyan, and Carl Sagan is no small accomplishment, and six new scientists, scholars, and communicators have been elected to do just that. Six new fellows have been elected to the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry, a program of the Center for Inquiry.

CSI fellows are elected for their distinguished service to science and skepticism, serving as advisors to CSI and its magazine, Skeptical Inquirer, and are invited to share their expertise and advice on the program’s issues and projects. Fellows are nominated and elected by CSI’s twelve-member Executive Council, and elections take place every several years.

This latest class of Fellows, elected at the end of 2017, are ready to be announced, and they include a mentalist, an expert on mass delusions, a “guerilla skeptic,” a GMO scientist, the editor of a UK skeptics’ magazine, and one of the world’s most respected climate scientists:

  • Banachek (aka Steve Shaw), a professional magician and mentalist who has collaborated with James Randi, Criss Angel, and Penn and Teller, has performed on over 225 TV episodes and over 300 radio programs. He directed the James Randi Educational Foundation’s Million Dollar Challenge, has been the International Magicians Society Mentalist of the year and twice been APCA College Entertainer of the year.
  • Robert Bartholomew, introduced to Cause & Effect readers in December, is a sociologist and investigative journalist, currently teaching history at Botany College in Auckland, New Zealand. He has earned the respect of the skeptic community through his sociological studies on mass hysteria, moral panics, social delusions, folklore, and the paranormal. He is the author of many books, including American Hauntings: True Stories Behind Hollywood’s Scariest Movies (2015, with CSI’s Joe Nickell), Mass Hysteria in Schools: A Worldwide History Since 1566 (2014), The Martians Have Landed: A History of Media-Driven Panics and Hoaxes (2012, with CSI’s Benjamin Radford), and the forthcoming American Intolerance: Our Dark History of Demonizing Immigrants (2018), among many others.
  • Kevin Folta is professor and chairman of the Horticultural Sciences Department at the University of Florida, is a leading voice for the evidence-based risks and benefits of genetic engineering in crops and medicine, and a defender against misinformation in food, farming, and other areas of science. He led the project to sequence the strawberry genome; trains scientists, students, farmers, and others in science communication; and hosts the evidence-based podcast Talking Biotech.
  • Susan Gerbic is founder and leader of the Guerrilla Skepticism on Wikipedia (GSoW) project (as well as the most comprehensive interviewer of CSICon speakers). The GSoW project has made a major contribution to the skeptic movement by ensuring that skepticism-related Wikipedia articles on topics, claims, and individual scientists/skeptics are accurate, thorough, and well cited. She has recruited and trained a large international group of Wikipedia editors knowledgeable about scientific skepticism and skeptical topics. She is also cofounder of Monterey County Skeptics and a frequent contributor to Skeptical Inquirer.
  • Deborah Hyde is a folklorist, cultural anthropologist, and editor in chief of the UK-based magazine The Skeptic. She writes and lectures extensively about superstition, cryptozoology, religion, and belief in the paranormal with special regard to the folklore, psychology, and sociology behind these phenomena. She introduced the Ockham Awards to reward successful skeptical activism and recently added the “Rusty Razor” award for the worst bit of pseudoscience of the year (won by Goop, of course). These awards have become a standard part of the QED annual conference in Manchester, U.K., and attract a great deal of media attention.
  • Michael E. Mann is Distinguished Professor of Atmospheric Sciences and director of the Earth Systems Sciences Center at the Pennsylvania State University. He is likely best known for introducing the visual conceptualization of the progress of climate change with the famous “hockey stick” chart, for which he has become a prime target of science deniers. He is the author of more than 200 peer-reviewed and edited publications, as well as author of three books: The Madhouse Effect (2016, with cartoonist Tom Toles), The Hockey Stick and the Climate Wars (2012), and Dire Predictions: Understanding Global Warming (2008). He has been a contributor to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) assessments of climate science. He is a fellow of the American Meteorological Society, the American Geophysical Union, and the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

Congratulations and welcome to our new fellows! The full list of CSI fellows can be found on the inside cover of each issue of Skeptical Inquirer and on the CSI website.

 

TIES Launches First Online Workshops

The Teacher Institute for Evolutionary Science (TIES) is a truly groundbreaking program, providing middle school science teachers with the training and resources they need to feel confident and fully informed when teaching evolution, helping to spark a love of science in students. Now with thirty-five presenters, TIES has held seventy-five training workshops for middle school teachers in thirty-one states and provides free educational resources on its website. But for all the teachers who have benefited from the program so far, not everyone can be in the same place at the same time.

Last week, TIES took a huge step toward making this invaluable program available to teachers regardless of geography with the first of its online training workshops. The first webinar, “Evolution for Educators,” provided science teachers, homeschooling parents, and other curious participants with some of the most up-to-date concepts of natural selection, common ancestry, and diversity in order for them to confidently cover the topics in their classrooms and fulfill their curriculum requirements. It was facilitated by TIES Director Bertha Vazquez, herself a Miami-area middle school science teacher, who was recently honored with the Evolution Education Award by the National Association of Biology Teachers.

The next evening, TIES presented a special webinar featuring Michael Ryan, Clark Hubbs Regents Professor in Zoology at the University of Texas, Austin, and author of A Taste for the Beautiful: Evolution by Attraction. Just in time for Valentine’s Day, Dr. Ryan discussed the astonishing story of how the female brain drives the evolution of beauty in animals and humans.

Initial feedback on these two online sessions has been extremely positive. Stay tuned because this is just the beginning.

 

CFI Highlights on the Web

In The Atlantic, Isabel Fattal reports on the development of the new atheism studies program at the University of Miami—brought into existence by freethinking philanthropist Louis Appignani—to be chaired by current Notre Dame philosophy of science professor Anjan Chakravartty.

Eugenie Scott’s full CSICon 2017 talk is now up on Reasonable Talk, CFI’s video series featuring the best presentations from CFI events, in which she discusses why it is that people disregard science and facts when they challenge their existing beliefs.

Also on Reasonable Talk, veteran skeptic Joe Schwarcz, director of McGill University’s Office for Science and Society, talks about four decades of experiences from his life and the moments that led him to become the celebrated skeptic and science communicator we know today.

At CFI’s Free Thinking blog, Benjamin Radford explains the many, many things that are wrong with the attempts made by the “ghost hunters” on the Discovery Channel’s Ghost Lab to get a recording of Wild Bill Hickok’s restless spirit.

Great new video and articles at CSICOP.org:

  • Jonathan Jarry from the McGill Office for Science and Society brings two new video interviews with speakers from CSICon 2017 in Las Vegas:
    • Eugenie Scott discusses public attitudes toward science and what skeptics can do to improve the situation.
    • Alison Bernstein, a professor of translational science and molecular medicine, is one of the reality-based parents featured in the new Science Moms documentary, and she talks about the ways mothers are targeted with pseudoscience that preys on their fears.

  • Stuart Vyse looks back on the work of the transformative psychologist William James, whose fascination with the spiritual lead him to research the claims of psychics and a search for a “third way” between belief and skepticism.
  • For Skeptical Briefs, Sharon Hill dismantles the “sciencey-sounding” concept known as “stone tape theory,” in which the bedrock of a building is said to “record” the spiritual energy of hauntings or traumatic events. (Perhaps William James would have liked to have looked into this.)
  • Joe Nickell investigates the claims of a “witch’s grave” in Tallahassee, and he really has no patience for the slandering of a dead woman’s memory. “Everything we know of Bessie Graham speaks of the tragically brief life of a very good woman.”
  • Plus, Buffalo Rising touts the February 7 appearance of Joe as he headlines the University at Buffalo’s Science & Art Cabaret, discussing his investigations of the paranormal.

And of course, you can keep up with news relevant to skeptics and seculars every weekday with The Morning Heresy.


Upcoming CFI Events

CFI Austin


CFI Indiana

  • February 10: 8th Annual Civic Day with CFI’s Nick Little, Terri Jett from the ACLU of Indiana, Rima Shahid of Women4Change Indiana, and many more.
  • March 18: The first of a three-part event celebrating the 200th anniversary of Mary Shelley’s original novel Frankenstein.
  • March 27: Discussion on Frankenstein and today’s technologies such as artificial intelligence, cloning, and genetic modification. Panelists include Indiana University health and humanities professor Emily Beckman, Saint Louis University ethics professor Jason Aberl, and Rufus Cochran of the Indiana Science Communication and Education Foundation.


CFI Michigan


CFI Portland

  • February 11: CFI Portland board member and biologist Jon Peters speaks at the Southminster Presbyterian Church about the evolution of whales for Darwin Day.

CFI Tampa Bay

  • February 24: Experts at the Museum of Science & Industry (MOSI) guide an exploration of the stars in a SkyWatch event.


CFI Western New York

 

Thank you!

 

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Cause & Effect: The Center for Inquiry Newsletter is edited by Paul Fidalgo, Center for Inquiry communications director. 

The Center for Inquiry (CFI) is a nonprofit educational, advocacy, and research organization headquartered in Amherst, New York, with executive offices in Washington, D.C. It is also home to both the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry, the Council for Secular Humanism, and the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason & Science. The mission of CFI is to foster a secular society based on science, reason, freedom of inquiry, and humanist values. Visit CFI on the web at www.centerforinquiry.net. 

 

Categories: , Skeptic

eSkeptic for February 7, 2018

Skeptic.com feed - Wed, 02/07/2018 - 12:00am

In this week’s eSkeptic:

SCIENCE SALON # 18 Dr. Carol Tavris talks with Dr. Michael Shermer about his new book Heavens on Earth: The Scientific Search for the Afterlife, Immortality, and Utopia

In his most ambitious work yet—a scientific exploration into humanity’s obsession with the afterlife and quest for immortality—bestselling author and skeptic, Michael Shermer, sets out to discover what drives humans’ belief in life after death, focusing on recent scientific attempts to achieve immortality along with utopian attempts to create heaven on earth.

For millennia, religions have concocted numerous manifestations of heaven and the afterlife, and though no one has ever returned from such a place to report what it is really like—or that it even exists—today science and technology are being used to try to make it happen in our lifetime. From radical life extension to cryonic suspension to mind uploading, Shermer considers how realistic these attempts are from a proper skeptical perspective.

Heavens on Earth concludes with an uplifting paean to purpose and progress and how we can live well in the here-and-now, whether or not there is a hereafter.

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SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN “SKEPTIC” COLUMN FOR FEBRUARY 2018 Alvy’s Error and the Meaning of Life: Science Reveals Our Deepest Purpose

In a flashback scene in the 1977 film Annie Hall, Woody Allen’s character Alvy Singer is a depressed young boy who won’t do his homework because, as he explains to his doctor: “The universe is expanding…. Well, the universe is everything, and if it’s expanding, someday it will break apart, and that will be the end of everything.” His exasperated mother upbraids the youth: “What has the universe got to do with it?! You’re here in Brooklyn. Brooklyn is not expanding!”

Call it “Alvy’s Error”: assessing the purpose of something at the wrong level of analysis. The level at which we should assess our actions is the human timescale of days, weeks, months and years—our life span of fourscore plus or minus 10—not the billions of years of the cosmic calendar. It is a mistake made by theologians when arguing that without a source external to our world to vouchsafe morality and meaning, nothing really matters.

One of the most prominent theologians of our time, William Lane Craig, committed Alvy’s Error in a 2009 debate at Columbia University with Yale University philosopher Shelly Kagan when he pronounced: “On a naturalistic worldview, everything is ultimately destined to destruction in the heat death of the universe. As the universe expands, it grows colder and colder as its energy is used up. Eventually all the stars will burn out, all matter will collapse into dead stars and black holes, there will be no life, no heat, no light—only the corpses of dead stars and galaxies expanding into endless darkness. In light of that end, it’s hard for me to understand how our moral choices have any sort of significance. There’s no moral accountability. The universe is neither better nor worse for what we do. Our moral lives become vacuous because they don’t have that kind of cosmic significance.” […]

Read the complete column

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A NEW STORY How Aron Ra Became a Card-Carrying Skeptic

Aron Ra is an atheist activist, science communicator, former president of the Atheist Alliance of America, and the host of the Ra-Men Podcast. Become a Card-Carrying Skeptic by telling us your story.

Hear Aron’s story

Do “violent” video games pose “as big a health risk as alcohol and drug abuse” and are they “ruining the youth of America”? In this week’s eSkeptic, Terence Hines reviews Moral Combat: Why the War on Violent Video Games Is Wrong, by Patrick M. Markey and Christopher J. Ferguson.

Virtual Violence

a review by Terence Hines

Video games, especially so-called “violent” games, are the latest in a long string of new entertainment media to be accused of “ruining the youth of America.” Video games as the cause of all sorts of societal ills have been preceded by dime novels, comic books, violent TV shows, and movies and songs with sexy or racy lyrics. In 2002, Gerard Jones published Killing Monsters: Why Children Need Fantasy, Super Heroes, and Make-Believe Violence (Basic Books), the first book, as far as I know, to critically examine the hysteria over alleged effects of make-believe violence in the media on children. It focused on all media, not just video games, and concluded that such media posed no threat.

Since Jones’ 2002 book, video games, especially violent video games (hereinafter VVGs), have been the focus of worry that VVGs lead to adolescent violence, even school shootings (think Columbine), and are as addictive and dangerous as drugs. Markey and Ferguson show in their new book Moral Combat that not only are video games, even the violent first-person shooter games, innocent of the charges made against them, video games can and do have positive influences on their players. The authors begin with a brief history of video games and other supposedly harmful media. For example, psychiatrist Fredric Wertham, a crusader against comic books, believed that comics caused juvenile delinquency and that Batman and Robin encouraged homosexuality. His 1954 book Seduction of the Innocent (Rinehart) was an important part of the crusade against comics. It turns out that Wertham “overstated and potentially even fabricated much of his data” (p. 32) that he used to castigate comics.

The crusade against video games is a moral panic akin to that seen in the panic over ritual satanic child abuse.

Markey and Ferguson argue, correctly in my view, that the crusade against video games is a moral panic akin to that seen in the panic over ritual satanic child abuse. Throughout the book they make the interesting point that the crusade is led by those who have little familiarity with the video games they attack, the gamers involved, or the gaming culture that has grown up around the games. They note that the researchers who do research aimed at showing the games’ deleterious effects are largely older individuals who have little knowledge of the gamers or contact with the gamers. […]

Read the complete review

Categories: Critical Thinking, Skeptic

Virtual Violence

Skeptic.com feed - Tue, 02/06/2018 - 11:00am

Video games, especially so-called “violent” games, are the latest in a long string of new entertainment media to be accused of “ruining the youth of America.” Video games as the cause of all sorts of societal ills have been preceded by dime novels, comic books, violent TV shows, and movies and songs with sexy or racy lyrics. In 2002, Gerard Jones published Killing Monsters: Why Children Need Fantasy, Super Heroes, and Make-Believe Violence (Basic Books), the first book, as far as I know, to critically examine the hysteria over alleged effects of make-believe violence in the media on children. It focused on all media, not just video games, and concluded that such media posed no threat.

Since Jones’ 2002 book, video games, especially violent video games (hereinafter VVGs), have been the focus of worry that VVGs lead to adolescent violence, even school shootings (think Columbine), and are as addictive and dangerous as drugs. Markey and Ferguson show in their new book Moral Combat that not only are video games, even the violent first-person shooter games, innocent of the charges made against them, video games can and do have positive influences on their players. The authors begin with a brief history of video games and other supposedly harmful media. For example, psychiatrist Fredric Wertham, a crusader against comic books, believed that comics caused juvenile delinquency and that Batman and Robin encouraged homosexuality. His 1954 book Seduction of the Innocent (Rinehart) was an important part of the crusade against comics. It turns out that Wertham “overstated and potentially even fabricated much of his data” (p. 32) that he used to castigate comics.

The crusade against video games is a moral panic akin to that seen in the panic over ritual satanic child abuse.

Markey and Ferguson argue, correctly in my view, that the crusade against video games is a moral panic akin to that seen in the panic over ritual satanic child abuse. Throughout the book they make the interesting point that the crusade is led by those who have little familiarity with the video games they attack, the gamers involved, or the gaming culture that has grown up around the games. They note that the researchers who do research aimed at showing the games’ deleterious effects are largely older individuals who have little knowledge of the gamers or contact with the gamers.

The anti-game moral panic has been heavily fueled by laboratory studies that purport to show that playing VVGs leads to increased aggressive behaviors. It was these studies that led to condemnation of the games by such organizations as the American Psychological Association. The APA group that wrote the condemnation of games was packed with anti-game researchers who evaluated their own research. Certainly nothing could be fairer!

The research on which the condemnation was based was shoddy. The laboratory conditions under which games’ effects were tested were very different from playing in the real world. Typically, gamers played a game new to them for a short period of time. They were then given some test of aggressiveness. As gamers know, playing a new game can be frustrating at first. When other studies controlled for the frustration effects, the so-called aggression effects went away. I say “so-called” because the measures of aggression were, to say the least, unrealistic. Subjects who played games were “more likely to expose others to loud, irritating noises, report feeling more hostile on a questionnaire, give longer prison sentences to hypothetical criminals” or, my personal favorite, “give hot sauce to people who do not like spicy food” (p. 54). Happily, the great popularity of VVGs seems not to have resulted in a rash of miscreants sneaking around surreptitiously putting hot sauce in innocent peoples’ meals. I’m so relieved!

By far the most serious charge against VVGs is that they are involved in school shootings, the worst being the 2012 slaughter of 20 children by Adam Lanza. At least one uninformed initial comment from law enforcement held that Lanza thought that carrying out the shooting would be like accumulating points in a VVG. In fact, Lanza did play a video game with what might be called obsessive interest. But it wasn’t a violent one; it was a dance game, Dance, Dance Revolution, in which the player gets points for being a better dancer. The reality of the relationship between VVGs and school shooters is the exact opposite of the school shooter stereotype. School shooters are much less likely to have been involved in VVGs than normal, non-shooters. Nonetheless, this stereotype has been ensconced in lists of “warning signs” of possible school violence.

The finding that shooters are less likely than others to play VVGs leads naturally to the question of why this is so. After all, if shooters are alienated loners and game players are also loners, shouldn’t shooters be game players? The answer to this seeming contradiction is that game players are far from the social isolates that older observers and non-gamers perceive them to be. Certainly, there are those individuals that live in their mother’s basement playing games all day. But they are the exception. Especially as gaming has become more popular, it has evolved into a much more social activity in which multiple gamers can play together. The authors describe research that shows “that most games are played in very functional social networks and are in fact social outlets for the people who play them” (p. 174) and that “particularly young people use video games to develop and maintain friendships” (p. 175). A quick Google search showed that there are numerous video game clubs (called meetups) and on-line newsletters for and about games and gamers. This sounds to me very much more social than that very socially approved hobby that I spend a good deal of time (and money) on—stamp collecting.

As if school shooters weren’t bad enough, video games are also said to be addictive, like a drug, even releasing quantities of dopamine when gamers play. In an outburst of hysteria typical of moral panics, on July 8, 2014 the British newspaper The Sun stated that video games were “as big a health risk as alcohol and drug abuse.” Does playing video games release dopamine? Of course it does. So does any other fun and pleasurable pastime. But the amount of dopamine released in gaming is dwarfed by that released by drugs. Drug addiction is qualitatively and quantitively different from game playing.

Having said that, do some gamers spend too much time and money on their games? Of course they do. And that can be a problem. But compare gaming to stamp collecting, as I did above. I’ve collected stamps since I was in grade school, as many did then. I spent a great deal of time playing and working with my stamps, and I was a bit of a loner for it. I know adults who fit the loner profile. I knew of children and adults who stole to support the philatelic habit. And I’m sure I get a nice squirt of dopamine in my nucleus accumbens when I finally obtain a desired stamp for my collection. And yet, during the heyday of stamp collecting, no one condemned it as a dire threat to the youth of America.

This article appeared in Skeptic magazine 22.4
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If games have no real negative consequences for the great majority of players, do they have any benefits? The answer here is yes. I noted above that modern gaming is a very social activity. It may help bring individuals who would otherwise be loners out of their shell and help them learn to interact with others as they engage in an enjoyable social activity. As to claims that game playing has beneficial cognitive effects for the young and the elderly, the evidence is less clear. My read is that there is some data showing that game playing may improve motor coordination, which is nice. As to claims that brain-training games can improve cognitive function in the aged or even slow down Alzheimer’s Disease, not only do these claims lack any evidential support, there is much evidence that they are false. It is true that playing a specific game makes you much better on that specific game, but there is little or no transfer of learning to other situations. The entire brain training industry is selling electronic snake oil.

Moral Combat presents a thorough and well-referenced look at the actual effects of video games. The writing is never pedantic and is often humorous. It is an enjoyable and informative read. In the end, it is clear that video games, violent or otherwise, don’t need to have large beneficial effects to justify their existence and use. They just need to be harmless fun, which they are.

About the Author

Dr. Terence Hines is a cognitive neuroscientist and professor at the Psychology Department, Pace University, Pleasantville, NY and adjunct professor of neurology at New York Medical College in Valhalla, NY. His research focuses on paranormal belief, the cognitive representation of numbers and, when he has time, the nature of bilingual memory. He is the author of Pseudoscience and the Paranormal. He received his undergraduate education at Duke University and his Ph.D. from the University of Oregon. When not cogitating about brain stuff, he transforms into a student of how data from local postal activity of the 19th century in the US can illuminate the economic history of that time period.

Categories: Critical Thinking, Skeptic

Mindfulness No Better Than Watching TV

neurologicablog Feed - Tue, 02/06/2018 - 5:14am

A recent systematic review and meta-analysis of the effects of mindfulness meditation on prosocial behavior found, essentially, that there is no evidence that it works. I find these results entirely unsurprising, and they yet again highlight the need for rigorous research before concluding that a phenomenon is real.

As I discussed recently on SBM, mindfulness meditation is the practice of sitting quietly, focusing inward and on the present, and avoiding mind wandering or daydreaming. The recent review I discussed on SBM found that the research into mindfulness, however, does not use a uniform or operationalized definition. That is critical to good science – you need to carefully define something before you can do research on it.

It is especially important to specifically define a concept in order to do research into the question of whether or not the phenomenon is real. If your question is, “Does X exist,” you better have a very specific definition of what X is. Otherwise it is easy to misinterpret the evidence, or to wiggle out of evidence that X does not exist.

The best example of this in medicine is acupuncture. Acupuncture is defined as sticking thin needles into acupuncture points – except when research shows that it does not matter where or even if you stick the needles, then acupuncture can be something else, which is vaguely defined.

Once you have a specific definition, with clearly identified variables, then you can study if those variables which constitute the phenomenon in question have a specific effect. For mindfulness – what is the effect of relaxation, introspection, or avoiding daydreaming? Does mindfulness differ from other methods of achieving these same effects? Perhaps mindfulness is nothing more than relaxation, or perhaps any perceived effect comes from being distracted for a time from the stresses of your life.

In other words, mindfulness may not be a real distinct thing, but just one method of achieving other more fundamental states, such as relaxation. This is what appears to be the case, based on years of research, in which case proponents should claim, “Mindfulness is an effective method of relaxation, which can have benefits,” not “Mindfulness is a unique phenomenon with specific and unique benefits.”

Does this matter? Absolutely. It is almost guaranteed that when I post an article such as this someone will say, “Who cares, as long as it works.” But this is an unscientific attitude. In science, the details do matter. We need to know what is really real, because it affects how we implement interventions and how further scientific research proceeds.

Using acupuncture as an example again – if the sticking of the needles adds no specific effect or value, and all the benefit derives from the interaction with the acupuncturists (which is what the research clearly shows), then we can dispense with the needles. The needles are invasive and come with risk. Further, we don’t need to speculate about the mechanism of benefit from sticking people with needles, because there is no mechanism. We can shift our focus to the real phenomenon – a subjective effect from a positive therapeutic interaction.

With mindfulness, because there is nothing invasive, the situation is the same, if less obvious. If, as the recent review shows, watching nature documentaries are as effective as mindfulness, then you can simply turn on the TV, learn something about nature, and get all the apparent benefit of meditation. You also don’t have to spend hundreds of dollars on that mindfulness course. We can further stop wasting our time researching a scientific dead end.

Let’s get back to the recent review to see those details. What the researchers found when they reviewed the literature on prosocial behavior is that the research did not establish that mindfulness had any specific benefit. First, we need to define prosocial behavior more specifically. The authors write:

Five types of social behaviours were identified: compassion, empathy, aggression, connectedness and prejudice. Although we found a moderate increase in prosociality following meditation, further analysis indicated that this effect was qualified by two factors: type of prosociality and methodological quality. Meditation interventions had an effect on compassion and empathy, but not on aggression, connectedness or prejudice.

That’s important to know for research, but not really the most interesting finding of the research. They also found:

We further found that compassion levels only increased under two conditions: when the teacher in the meditation intervention was a co-author in the published study; and when the study employed a passive (waiting list) control group but not an active one.

So studies were only moderately positive when one of the study authors were teaching the subjects meditation. This suggests that researcher bias is at work.

Perhaps more importantly, however, is the fact that there was only a measured effect when there was a waiting list control, meaning there is an unblinded comparison where the subjects had no intervention. When the control was “active”, meaning the control group had some intervention, then there was no effect. This intervention could simply be watching a nature documentary. This one fact alone means the research is negative. Everything else is interesting, but doesn’t really matter.

The meta-lesson here is that this kind of analysis of the entire literature on a specific scientific question is necessary before you can come to any reliable conclusion about efficacy. If you want to know if an alleged phenomenon is real, you need rigorous research in which variables are clearly defined and adequately controlled for. Further, you need positive results with a clinically significant (adequate signal to noise ratio), statistically significant, and independently replicated effect.  Until you get to that threshold, you are likely just dealing with researcher bias, p-hacking, publication bias, and loose methodology creating the illusion of a positive effect.

With some alleged phenomena, however, we never get to the threshold of acceptance. The research just goes around in circles chasing its tale. This is true of acupuncture research, mindfulness meditation, ESP, homeopathy, and essentially all the familiar pseudosciences. All we get are excuses, hyping of preliminary research, cherry picking positive studies, and personal attacks against skeptics who would dare to question the alleged phenomenon. In medicine we also get the, “Who cares, as long as it works.” This, of course, misses the point that the alleged treatment doesn’t really work, it is all an illusion.

Another defensive response is to claim, “Well, that is not the real claims being made for X. It’s really about this other thing over here.” This kind of response, however, is usually just part of a dance of avoidance. “They didn’t study real astrology.” “That is not the real reason to fear GMOs.”

But this approach, which often is just motivated reasoning, further misses the point that the person making the claim has the burden of proof. It’s not on me to prove with high quality research that mindfulness doesn’t work for every possible claim made for it. Proponents have to adequately demonstrate that it does work for a specific claim, and they haven’t. Scientists will then conclude, “The research does not justify rejecting the null hypothesis.” This is technically true, as is appropriate in scientific discourse. When communicating to the public, however, it makes it seem like we don’t really know the answer.

At some point (and where this point is admittedly requires judgement, which includes an evaluation of plausibility) a lack of evidence can be treated as, “OK, this probably doesn’t work.” At the very least, we can conclude that this is a scientific dead end.

There is also an asymmetry in the media. A systematic review like this, concluding that the evidence is inadequate to support a conclusion that mindfulness is effective in promoting prosocial behavior, just doesn’t get that much play. However, a crappy preliminary study with poor methodology and brimming with bias and p-hacking, which shows an apparent tiny effect, will be promoted in the media as proving that mindfulness works magic. Rarely will such studies be put into the context of the entire literature.

Media and marketing forces tend to lead to an adoption of new ideas long before they are adequately demonstrated. Then once they are embedded in the culture and the popular consciousness, they are hard to eradicate. The public ends up believing a lot of stuff that is simply not true. Then when skeptics or scientists point out that the research was never adequate to conclude the phenomenon is real, and now after 20 years or so we can more clearly say it probably isn’t, they seem out of touch. Everyone already knows that antioxidants are great for you, never mind that the research shows they have no benefit.

We can now probably add mindfulness to the list. I was never impressed with the research, and the claims always seemed poorly defined. Now, we have multiple systematic reviews which show essentially that. We may not be at the point where the concept can be completely abandoned, but we are at least getting close. The most parsimonious interpretation of the science at this point is that mindfulness is just a ritualized form of relaxation, with no specific benefit beyond that. If you enjoy it and find it useful, fine. If you prefer watching Blue Earth II, then I’m with you. Just don’t spend hundreds of dollars on courses, tapes, or seminars because you bought the hype.

Categories: Skeptic

Skeptoid #609: Were There Irish Slaves in America?

Skeptoid Feed - Mon, 02/05/2018 - 4:00pm
Online articles claiming the first slaves in the Americas were white are fictional and racially motivated.
Categories: Critical Thinking, Skeptic

Neuro-Quantum Entanglement Pseudoscience

neurologicablog Feed - Mon, 02/05/2018 - 5:06am

On the Canadian Entrepreneur show, Dragon’s Den, the dragons were given a demonstration of a clip (that’s right, a small metal clip like you would use to hold papers together or put in your hair) that the creator claimed would improve your balance, strength, and health through the power of “quantum entanglement.” The clips, called Neuro Connect, were “developed” by a chiropractor and his partner. The Dragons fell for it, amazed by the demonstrations, and invested $100,000 for a 30% share.

The show aired, giving a huge boost to the company’s sales. However, the way the show works, even when the Dragons make a deal on camera, the deal is contingent on them doing due diligence for confirmation. When they did they found that there were serious scientific objections to the claims being made by company selling the clips, NeuroReset Inc. The deal was off.

But this did not stop the show from airing. The public did not get the benefit of their due diligence – they protected themselves, but completely threw their audience under the snake oil bus.  Canadian news outlet CBC contacted the producer to get their response:

Executive producer Tracie Tighe was asked what responsibility the show has to protect consumers from products that make false or outlandish claims.

“The entertainment value of this first meeting is what appeals to our viewers and is the pillar of success for this reality format,” she said in an email. “The pitchers sign extensive releases/agreements and they are required to confirm their business proposals comply with all applicable legislation.”

Typical – in other words, we don’t care if we are deceiving our audience. We hold ourselves to no responsibility. We will air the Dragons fawning over a product we now know is bogus and where they backed out of the deal without giving our audience this information, because it is entertaining (i.e, it makes us money). So the producers of Dragon’s Den are snake oil salesman also.

The Neuro Connect clip itself is just a recycled scam. This is the Q-bracelet, the power band, the Goop stickers all over again. The formula is now well established. Take any small cheap piece of plastic, rubber, or metal. Give it an exotic name or one that implies a claim or a mechanism. Then claim that by wearing the doodad you will have more energy, better balance, improved strength, or that great catch-all term, “wellness.”

How does this miracle little thingamabob work? Science, or something. Energy, bla bla, vibrations, bla bla, magnetic quantum phase inverters bullshit, bla bla.

That is really it. Anyone can be the next energy doodad entrepreneur. Just find a factory in China that can make small plastic widgets really cheap and print your custom log on it, and that make up some formulaic BS about energy, and that is apparently enough to fool (at least for a while) allegedly expert investors.

To really sell it all you need is knowledge of a few simple parlor tricks. Here is NeuroReset demonstrating the parlor trick to sell their snake oil. Here is Richard Saunders in 2012 exposing the same exact parlor trick.

There are a few similar parlor tricks that have done a lot of heavy lifting helping snake oil salesman make their sale. The one in the videos is an old “applied kinesiology” trick that has been used in many contexts. You have the mark hold up their arms to the side. Then you push on the arm so show how weak they are. Give them the quantum entanglement whatever, and then when you push they are stronger – you can’t break them. However, small changes in where and how you push make all the difference.

There are other tricks where you have people rotate to see how flexible they are – they always rotate a bit further on the second try, and when they have a target to beat (when they are using the magical device).

And of course this is a great example of using the latest scientific knowledge to dazzle a scientifically illiterate audience. There is simply no way that a Canadian chiropractor has unlocked the potential of quantum entanglement. It’s a fair bet he does not even understand what quantum entanglement really is, or how we experimentally know it exists. He has no explanation for what is actually happening, or how he managed to exploit quantum entanglement in a little metal clip (I’m sure the physicists of the world are fascinated).

And when confronted with this he gives the same answer that most snake oil peddlers give:

“Can you criticize me for no peer reviewed studies? Absolutely,” he said. “We’re helping too many people, which is why I’m standing up for it.”

That right – I am too busy curing people to bother with conducting rigorous studies. This is a giant red flag for a scam.

Regulatory agencies are trying to do their job:

In an email, Health Canada said it’s investigating potential additional claims for two other Neuro Connect products. The agency said appropriate action will be taken if it finds compliance issues.

Sure, but this is just a game of whack-a-mole. There is an asymmetry here in which it is far too easy to mass produce these snake oil scams, which then takes far too much time and resources for a government agency to investigate. By the time they do, the company has made their money and moved onto the next scam.

Categories: Skeptic

The Skeptics Guide #656 - Feb 3 2018

Skeptics Guide to the Universe Feed - Sat, 02/03/2018 - 8:00am
Interview with Brian Dunning and Emery Emery; News Items: Portable DNA Sequencing, Alternative Treatment for Bears, Acoustic Tractor Beam, Super Blue Blood Moon; Who's That Noisy; Your Questions and E-mails: Driverless Cars; Science or Fiction
Categories: Skeptic

Carbon Capture

neurologicablog Feed - Fri, 02/02/2018 - 5:15am

Hopefully it’s not news to you that the Earth is warming due to human release of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases. A number of studies have assessed the scientific consensus on anthropogenic global warming (AGW), with results clustering around 97%. Overwhelmingly, most climate scientists have looked at the data and concluded that AGW is happening.

Climate scientists have gone beyond just establishing that AGW is happening. They are trying to quantify it and project the trend lines into the future. This type of effort is always fraught with uncertainty, with the error bars increasing with greater time into the future. However, we can take a 95% confidence interval and make reasonable extrapolations of what is likely to happen.

Recognizing this uncertainty, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has concluded that we should keep post-industrial warming to less than two degrees Celcius if we want to avoid serious effects of climate change. Given that as the goal, they can then determine how much more carbon would need to be released to cause this amount of warming. This can be used to determine how much we need to decrease future carbon emissions.

Primarily those with an ideological or financial stake in denying this solid consensus focus on the uncertainty. But that is folly. Phil Plait has a good analogy – if 97% of the world’s astronomers were in agreement that there was a 95% chance of an asteroid hitting the Earth in 2050, would you be listening to the 3% of dissenters? If NASA and other experts were mostly saying that it will take 20 years to develop the technology to deflect the asteroid, and the earlier we do it the more effective our attempts will be, do you think it would be prudent to argue for waiting a couple of decades to see what happens? Maybe the asteroid is not as big as they say. Maybe it will hit in a remote area and not do that much damage. It may cost less to fix the damage than divert the asteroid. Asteroids deliver useful metals to the Earth’s surface, so this could be a good thing. Don’t listen to the asteroid hysterics. The motivated reasoning is transparent.

Denial aside, we are now getting to the point that simple math is constraining our options. We have to reduce our carbon release quickly in order to avoid the 2 degree C warming. We can argue about how quickly, but we are actually just arguing about how long it will take for the worst outcomes to be manifest. It is not a question of if, but of when. We can hope for the best outcome, but should plan on the 95% confidence interval.

Those same scientists, however, are saying essentially that it is highly unlikely we will be able to reduce CO2 emissions quickly enough. We will certainly not do it if current trends continue – the math just does not work. Still we need to do everything we can – increase energy efficiency, shift to renewable energy, and reduce fossil fuel use.

Another option is carbon capture – remove carbon from the atmosphere to offset the new carbon being released. Here the IPCC has a dilemma. They have charted all possible pathways to avoid the 2 degrees warming, and they have concluded that essentially we cannot do it through reduction of emissions alone. In the second half of the 21st century we will need to remove a significant amount of carbon from the atmosphere, about 12 billion tons per year, or a third of the current rate of release.

However by focusing on carbon capture they worry that people will see such technologies as the ultimate solution, and therefore we don’t have to worry about reducing carbon release. So now they are also emphasizing that carbon capture will not be enough. We need to do both – reduce emissions and carbon capture.

This is where another layer of thinking comes in – techno-optimism. There are those who argue that we will technology our way out of this dilemma. Renewable energy technology will advance and replace dirty old energy technology. We will also develop high-tech carbon capture technology and take care of all that extra carbon. I am sympathetic toward this attitude, but I also agree that we cannot rely on technological advances we haven’t made yet. These are always hard to predict. Again – hope for the best, but prepare for the worst. We can’t just assume that in 30 years we will develop a technology to deflect the asteroid.

But what is the state of carbon capture? One approach is essentially to use plants, specifically trees. Trees are natural carbon capture devices. There are already efforts ad reforestation, and to reduce deforestation, and they should continue. But this will not really address the problem. There isn’t enough land to simply plant trees to capture carbon, and trying to use lots of land for this approach will likely be counterproductive.

There is on company, Climeworks, that uses artificial filters to capture carbon. They have one factory that currently captures 1000 tons of carbon per year. If you remember from above, we would need about 12 million of these to reach our goal. That is why the IPCC is now saying we cannot rely on this technology alone. How much space would all that carbon capture require?

The company calculated how many shipping container-sized units would be needed to capture 1% of global emissions; the answer was 750,000.

So again, multiply that by about 30 for what we would need.

The technology works by using fans to blow air over filters which capture carbon dioxide. When the filters are full they can be heated to release the carbon in solid form. That solid carbon can be buried or used for industrial use – you can combine it with hydrogen to make plastics or fuel, for example.

It seems that some such technology will be necessary to reach our goal of limiting warming to 2 degrees C. This technology at least works, but it is primitive. It seems prudent to encourage development of this technology. One way to do that is to put a price on carbon. I agree with those who argue that this makes sense and is fair, since releasing carbon has a cost to the world, those who release the carbon should share in that cost. They could, however, offset that cost by also building carbon capture facilities, or buying carbon credits from those who do.

Make a carbon capture industry cost effective, and it is likely the technology will advance an be adopted. Then we might technology our way out of this.

While I remain hopeful, maybe even optimistic, I realize that the math currently looks bad. We cannot get complacent. Now really is the time to shift to renewable energy, to focus on energy efficiency, and to put a proper and fair price on carbon to encourage a carbon capture industry. This is a win win – we will end up with a better energy infrastructure, and a better environment.

Categories: Skeptic

A Case of Brain Death

neurologicablog Feed - Thu, 02/01/2018 - 5:19am

The New Yorker magazine’s latest issue features an article about the sad story of Jahi McMath. Jahi was a 13 year old girl who four years ago underwent a routine tonsillectomy to treat severe snoring and breathing problems. Unfortunately the surgery was complicated by severe bleeding post-op, leading eventually to a cardiac arrest. After a sustained effort at resuscitation the doctors did manage to get her heart working, but by that time her brain was severely damaged by lack of oxygen. She was declared clinically brain dead.

This is not where the story ends, however. Since then the family has refused to accept the diagnosis of brain death, prompting a prolonged conflict with the hospital. Eventually Jahi was removed by the family to an undisclosed hospital in New Jersey, and ultimately discharged to home care, where she remains.

I have had several questions about the story, and I will try to add some insight, with the caveat that I have no direct knowledge of the medical facts of the case beyond what is reported in the New Yorker article and elsewhere. I have not examined her, spoken directly to anyone involved in her care, or reviewed medical records. But there is a lot of information in the public domain and I can speak to that information, as far as it is accurate.

There are several layers to this story. There is a legal layer, as the family is suing the hospital for malpractice. I will not address that aspect of the case. There is the neurological layer – what is brain death and is this girl dead? There is also a personal and cultural layer here in terms of the family’s reaction. Let me start with some thoughts on this.

I will first say that I completely sympathize with the family. Of course it is horrible and tragic to lose a healthy 13 year-old child to a routine surgical procedure gone horribly wrong. I understand their anger, frustration, and grief. In addition, the family (again, according to public reporting) has lost trust in the hospital and in the system. They are African American and feel that there is an aspect of discrimination in how Jahi was treated. The mother, Nailah, is quoted in the New Yorker article:

Nailah, who worked in contractor sales at Home Depot, said, “No one was listening to us, and I can’t prove it, but I really feel in my heart: if Jahi was a little white girl, I feel we would have gotten a little more help and attention.”

This is an extra layer of tragedy in the case – the family was meant to feel as if an element of racism played a part in Jahi’s outcome. I have encountered this myself numerous times, sometimes with some legitimacy, but often (from my perspective) when no racism was present. I can’t speak to the state of mind of any of the caregivers in Jahi’s case. But the reality is that her family lived with enough racism in society that it affected their ability to trust the system.

Allowing your child to go under the knife requires a tremendous amount of trust. Further, medical care can often feel impersonal, and can be intimidating when scary things are happening that you do not fully understand because you are not an expert yourself. When that trust, and that feeling of lack of control, is paired with a horrible outcome, it is natural to feel betrayed.

Those feelings, in the context of a minority family, appears to be driving this case to a significant degree. Now those same doctors are telling the family that Jahi, who looks alive, is actually dead. They don’t want to let Jahi down again by trusting those same doctors.

Unfortunately, when there is a critical break down of trust like this in a complex case, we don’t really have a good mechanism for resolving any conflict. Doctors and hospitals usually defer to the family as much as possible, giving them time to process their grief, having family meetings, calling in other experts to weigh in, etc. None of this was enough, however. It also seems that the family has dug in their heels, and may now be too invested in their belief that Jahi is alive to let her go.

This leads us back to the neurological layer of this story. The New Yorker article framed their piece as a question – what is the definition of life. There is a legitimate question in there, but I don’t think it is actually that controversial outside of certain religious sects.

Obviously, when someone stops breathing and their heart irreversibly stops beating they can be declared dead. For a time, however, the cells in their body are not dead. There is a window when someone may be dead, but it is not necessarily impossible to resuscitate them. Doctors use their judgement when deciding to stop attempts at resuscitation. Part of that judgement is how much brain damage may have resulted from the prolonged arrest. There is no point in getting a heart beating again if the brain is dead or almost dead.

For this reason the medical and legal concept of brain death was developed. You can also declare someone dead even if their heart is beating if a thorough examination clearly indicates that there is zero brain function. Not only the higher parts of the brain, but the brain stem and the brain reflexes must also have no function. You can still have spinal cord reflexes, however, and still be considered brain dead. You can also demonstrate the complete absence of brain wave activity, or the complete absence of blood flow to the brain.

In Jahi’s case, a neurological exam specifically designed to test for any flicker of brain activity was consistent with brain death. Further, a blood flow scan showed no blood flow to the brain. She was declared brain dead, and is legally a corpse (to be blunt). That is why the family moved her to New Jersey, which is one of only two states that recognize religious objections to the notion of brain death.

This is where we now get some complexity, although I honestly don’t think it changes the situation. Dr. Alan Shewmon got involved with the case – he is a neurologist who objects of ideological and religious grounds to the notion of brain death. He reviewed video of Jahi and concluded there is evidence in the video of brain activity, therefore she is not dead.

Essentially, Jahi occasionally twitches her fingers or toes. These are almost certainly spinal reflexes, and not inconsistent with brain death. Nailah, her mother, believes that Jahi is responding to verbal commands. She will tell her to move a finger, and then sometime later Jahi will move a finger. If it’s not the right finger Nailah will say, “Not that one” until she twitches the correct finger.

This is also very common – family members tend to overinterpret random movements as if they are deliberate. Shewmon believes that the movements are more accurate than can be explained by random chance, but I am doubtful. Further, he may not be accounting for selection bias in the videos he is being shown.

There is good reason to believe that Jahi simply cannot be following verbal commands. The New Yorker reports:

On the scans, Machado observed that Jahi’s brain stem was nearly destroyed. The nerve fibres that connect the brain’s right and left hemispheres were barely recognizable. But large areas of her cerebrum, which mediates consciousness, language, and voluntary movements, were structurally intact.

There are two things to note here. This study apparently does show some remnant of brain tissue. If there were zero blood flow the brain would be entirely gone by now. So there is likely a small amount of residual blood flow, too little to show up on the prior scan, that is keeping some brain tissue alive. However, that does not mean that this remnant is functioning at all.

But perhaps more important is the fact that the brain stem is “nearly destroyed.” The brain stem is necessary for a person to be conscious. Even if your entire cortex were intact and unharmed, without a brain stem you would be in a permanent coma, without the ability to generate wakeful consciousness.

Further, without a brain stem there is no way for auditory signals to get to the brain. Jahi cannot hear, and therefore cannot respond to verbal commands. Therefore the video evidence of her finger twitching is not evidence of consciousness.

There is perhaps a legitimate discussion to be had about whether or not the remnants of brain tissue mean Jahi is truly completely brain dead or not. But in my opinion, this is a distinction without a difference. She is clinically brain dead, and any remnant is irrelevant. She is not aware of her own existence. Without a brain stem she cannot be conscious. It is sad to say, but there is no functional difference from Jahi’s perspective between being fully dead and whatever flicker of brain activity may plausibly remain. It is effectively nothing.

The family may be beyond the trust necessary to accept this reality. They also appear to be enabled in their denial by Shewmon, who has an agenda of his own.

Meanwhile millions of health care dollars have been spent maintaining this poor dead girl’s body, with no end in sight. The family remains in a limbo of denial. The other child in the family must live in the shadow of their dead sister, who absorbs much of the family’s time and resources. Legal expenses are also piling up. The entire saga furthers a narrative of distrust. It is a tragedy from beginning to end.

Categories: Skeptic

eSkeptic for January 31, 2018

Skeptic.com feed - Wed, 01/31/2018 - 12:00am

In this week’s eSkeptic:

A NEW STORY! How Michael Shermer Became a
Card-Carrying Skeptic

Dr. Michael Shermer is the Publisher of Skeptic magazine, a monthly columnist for Scientific American, and a Presidential Fellow at Chapman University where he teaches Skepticism 101. He is the author of Why People Believe Weird Things, Why Darwin Matters, The Science of Good and Evil, and The Moral Arc. His latest book is Heavens on Earth: The Scientific Search for the Afterlife, Immortality & Utopia.

Hear Michael’s story

TELL US YOUR STORY!

Tell us your story and become a card-carrying skeptic! Thank you for being a part of our first 25 years. We look forward to seeing you over the next 25. —SKEPTIC

Become a Card-Carrying Skeptic

Magic: Spiritualism and Theosophy
MONSTERTALK EPISODE 148

The 19th century saw the rise of a variety of secret and secretive movements. Free Masons, Spiritualists, Theosophy and Esoteric Orders give rise to a variety of mystic-themed groups whose influence lurks under the mainstream themes of the 19th century. In this episode of MonsterTalk, we talk with religious studies scholar John Crow about the birth of these movements and how they influenced 19th (and 20th) century thought.

Listen to episode 148

Read the episode notes

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John Crow

Get the MonsterTalk Podcast App and enjoy the science show about monsters on your handheld devices! Available for iOS, Android, and Windows. Subscribe to MonsterTalk for free on iTunes.

pH diets, alkaline water, urine pH tests, pseudoscience and bogus cancer cures abound. In this week’s eSkeptic, Harriet Hall, M.D. combats the plague of pH misinformation by distinguishing pHacts from pHiction. (This column appeared in Skeptic magazine issue 22.2 in 2017.)

pH Mythology:
Separating pHacts from pHiction

by Harriet Hall, M.D.

The internet is a cornucopia of facts, some true and some “alternative” (in other words, lies). One topic that is particularly plagued by misinformation is pH. People are restricting their diet, buying alkaline water, testing their urine with pH test strips, and buying into bogus cancer cures, all on the basis of false pseudoscientific claims. Going back to basics will help us distinguish pHacts from pHiction.

A Quick Primer: pH 101

Click image to enlarge

pH stands for potential of hydrogen. It is a logarithmic scale from 0 to 14 that measures the concentration of hydrogen ions. Water is neutral at pH 7; solutions with a pH less than 7 are acidic; solutions with a pH greater than 7 are basic, or alkaline. Logarithmic means the units represent 10-fold differences: pH 4 indicates 10 times as many hydrogen ions as pH 5. The pH of blood is maintained within a narrow range of 7.34–7.45 by a process known as acid-base homeostasis. Deviations are quickly corrected by compensatory mechanisms in the lungs and kidneys. The pH of stomach acid is 1.5–3.5, human skin 4.7, cerebrospinal fluid 7.5, and pancreas secretions 8.1. None of these are affected by the composition of the diet. The pH of urine can range from 4.6 to 8.0; it changes as the kidneys re-establish homeostasis after an acid or alkaline load. The pH of urine does not reflect the pH in blood or anywhere else in the body.

The Acid/Alkaline: Theory of Disease

This theory claims that too much acidity in the body causes disease, and that eating alkaline foods and drinking alkaline water will improve health. People are encouraged to test the pH of their urine to monitor their acid/alkaline balance. On Quackwatch, Dr. Gabe Mirkin explained that the acid/alkaline theory of disease is nonsense because dietary modification cannot change the acidity of any part of the body except the urine. He says, “If you hear someone say that your body is too acidic and you should use their product to make it more alkaline, you would be wise not to believe anything else the person tells you.”1

An herbalist offered a rebuttal, explaining that while the urine pH is not the same as blood pH, health is affected by small changes in blood pH within the normal range, and the urine pH is a good indicator of how hard your body is having to work to maintain homeostasis and how much stress that is putting on the body’s reserves.2 He claims that being on the low side of the normal blood pH range is unhealthy. There isn’t a shred of evidence to support those claims.

The Alkaline Diet

The alkaline diet leaps wildly to false conclusions from a simple fact: certain foods produce acid ash. In order to buffer the additional acid load, they say the body pulls out alkaline-rich minerals like calcium, phosphorus, and magnesium from the bones, teeth and organs. They say this leads to osteoporosis and fatigue, and compromises our immune system, making us vulnerable to viruses and disease. Avoiding acid foods will make the urine more alkaline, and people with alkaline urine are said to have a reduced risk of osteoporosis, cancer, and heart disease. The alkaline diet is said to facilitate weight loss and increase energy. It is even used to treat cancer. Proponents offer testimonials and cite cherry-picked studies that seem to support their beliefs. However, systematic analyses of all the published scientific studies have determined that the evidence does not support the acid/alkaline theory of disease, so it should be dismissed as pseudoscience. […]

Read the full article

Categories: Critical Thinking, Skeptic

pH Mythology: Separating pHacts from pHiction

Skeptic.com feed - Wed, 01/31/2018 - 12:00am

The internet is a cornucopia of facts, some true and some “alternative” (in other words, lies). One topic that is particularly plagued by misinformation is pH. People are restricting their diet, buying alkaline water, testing their urine with pH test strips, and buying into bogus cancer cures, all on the basis of false pseudoscientific claims. Going back to basics will help us distinguish pHacts from pHiction.

A Quick Primer: pH 101

Click image to enlarge

pH stands for potential of hydrogen. It is a logarithmic scale from 0 to 14 that measures the concentration of hydrogen ions. Water is neutral at pH 7; solutions with a pH less than 7 are acidic; solutions with a pH greater than 7 are basic, or alkaline. Logarithmic means the units represent 10-fold differences: pH 4 indicates 10 times as many hydrogen ions as pH 5. The pH of blood is maintained within a narrow range of 7.34–7.45 by a process known as acid-base homeostasis. Deviations are quickly corrected by compensatory mechanisms in the lungs and kidneys. The pH of stomach acid is 1.5–3.5, human skin 4.7, cerebrospinal fluid 7.5, and pancreas secretions 8.1. None of these are affected by the composition of the diet. The pH of urine can range from 4.6 to 8.0; it changes as the kidneys re-establish homeostasis after an acid or alkaline load. The pH of urine does not reflect the pH in blood or anywhere else in the body.

The Acid/Alkaline: Theory of Disease

This theory claims that too much acidity in the body causes disease, and that eating alkaline foods and drinking alkaline water will improve health. People are encouraged to test the pH of their urine to monitor their acid/alkaline balance. On Quackwatch, Dr. Gabe Mirkin explained that the acid/alkaline theory of disease is nonsense because dietary modification cannot change the acidity of any part of the body except the urine. He says, “If you hear someone say that your body is too acidic and you should use their product to make it more alkaline, you would be wise not to believe anything else the person tells you.”1

An herbalist offered a rebuttal, explaining that while the urine pH is not the same as blood pH, health is affected by small changes in blood pH within the normal range, and the urine pH is a good indicator of how hard your body is having to work to maintain homeostasis and how much stress that is putting on the body’s reserves.2 He claims that being on the low side of the normal blood pH range is unhealthy. There isn’t a shred of evidence to support those claims.

The Alkaline Diet

The alkaline diet leaps wildly to false conclusions from a simple fact: certain foods produce acid ash. In order to buffer the additional acid load, they say the body pulls out alkaline-rich minerals like calcium, phosphorus, and magnesium from the bones, teeth and organs. They say this leads to osteoporosis and fatigue, and compromises our immune system, making us vulnerable to viruses and disease. Avoiding acid foods will make the urine more alkaline, and people with alkaline urine are said to have a reduced risk of osteoporosis, cancer, and heart disease. The alkaline diet is said to facilitate weight loss and increase energy. It is even used to treat cancer. Proponents offer testimonials and cite cherry-picked studies that seem to support their beliefs. However, systematic analyses of all the published scientific studies have determined that the evidence does not support the acid/alkaline theory of disease, so it should be dismissed as pseudoscience.

Alkaline promoting foods include most fruits and vegetables, soybeans, tofu, some nuts, seeds and legumes. Acid promoting foods to be avoided include dairy, meat, fish, most grains, fast foods, and processed foods. The top ten villains are: lard, peanut butter, cranberries, white pasta and bread, beef, corn oil, pork, potatoes, beer and hard liquor, and butter. There is reason to worry that advice to avoid all dairy, meat, fish, and grains might result in poor nutrition for some.

Alkaline Water

You can buy alkaline water or make your own. It is said to detoxify (a meaningless alternative medicine buzzword), hydrate (all water hydrates), oxygenate and act as an antioxidant (these are opposite effects: how could it do both?), change your body’s pH (no, it doesn’t), and enhance the immune system (based on the ridiculous claim that acidic foods cause the body’s cells to suffocate, break down and die, and this suffocation weakens the systems that support the immune system). Alkaline water is also said to help you lose weight, prevent diabetes, and cure psoriasis. None of these claims are supported by any scientific evidence. You can pay anywhere from 3.1 cents to $1.36 per ounce for alkaline water; even the least expensive products are a waste of money.

The Bob Wright Protocol

This protocol uses 11.5 pH water made with a Kangen machine. In this view, cancer is caused by microbes; there are many of these microbes in every cancer cell. They excrete highly acidic waste products called mycotoxins. When the microbes are killed, the cancer cells revert to normal cells. Killing them too quickly or too slowly are both counterproductive, and the Bob Wright protocol is designed to kill them at the optimum rate.3 I don’t think I need to point out how monumentally silly all that is.

Robert O. Young

All this nonsense about pH is more than just a harmless fad. Here’s where it gets really scary. Robert O. Young is a naturopath and author of the “pH Miracle” series of books. He says acid is the cause of all disease, alkalinization is the cure for everything, and there is no such thing as a cancer cell. Cancer surgeon and researcher Dr. David Gorski has debunked those ideas handily on the Science-Based Medicine blog.4 And on Quackwatch, Stephen Barrett has taken a critical look at “Dr.” Robert Young’s theories and credentials.5

Young appeared on the Oprah Winfrey Show claiming to have cured a woman named Kim Tinkham of breast cancer. She died of breast cancer not long after she appeared on Oprah and told the world that she was cured. A number of other cancer patients have died under Young’s care.

It gets worse. A recent BBC News report was titled “The dying officer treated for cancer with baking soda.”6 A British army officer, Naima Houder-Mohammed, was treated conventionally for breast cancer, but it recurred and her condition was so serious she was offered end-of-life care. Grasping at any straw of hope, she found Dr. Young on the internet. They began an e-mail correspondence, and he offered her an 8–12 week treatment program at his “pH Miracle Ranch” in California, at a cost of $3000 a day. Naima’s family used their savings, ran fund-raising events, and got funding from a charity to cover her expenses. The treatment involved IV infusions of sodium bicarbonate (baking soda). After three months at the Ranch, she got worse and was hospitalized. She flew back to the UK where she died at the age of 27. She was going to die anyway, but Young gave her false hope and billed her and her family $77,000 for treatments that were based on pseudoscience and couldn’t possibly work. He even insisted that she wire the funds to his office before she came to his Ranch.

Young told the BBC reporters, “All sickness and disease can be prevented by managing the delicate pH balance of the fluids of the body.” And “when your blood becomes acidic, something weird happens, and your blood cells transform into bacteria—a phenomenon he calls pleomorphism— thereby resulting in a diseased state.” And “Germs are nothing more than the biological transformation of animal, human or plant matter. They’re born out of that.” The BBC reporters called this “post-truth.” “Dangerous nonsense” would be a better descriptor.

When the BBC asked if he felt remorse, Young answered, “I don’t have remorse because of the thousands if not millions of people that have been helped through the [alkaline diet] programme.”

This column appeared in Skeptic magazine issue 22.2 in 2017. Order this issue.

Young has been prosecuted three times. The first time, he pleaded guilty to one misdemeanor charge of attempted practice of medicine without a license; the charges were dismissed under a plea deal. In 2001 he was charged with a felony for telling a cancer patient to stop her chemotherapy and use his “Super Greens” product instead. The charges were dropped because the prosecutor didn’t think there were enough angry victims to get a conviction. In 2014, Young was arrested and charged with multiple counts of grand theft and practicing medicine without a license. Six cancer patients named in the complaint had died, but their survivors could testify that Young had claimed he could cure their cancer. The court found that he was not a medical doctor and had purchased his Ph.D. from a diploma mill.7 He is currently facing a three-year prison sentence for two counts of practicing medicine without a license, and he will be retried on six charges of fraud after the original jury deadlocked. He is also being sued for fraud by a woman who claims her treatable stage I cancer progressed to stage IV because she followed his advice instead of accepting conventional treatment.8

A basic understanding of physiology and acid-base balance and what constitutes scientific evidence is enough to dismiss the misinformation about pH—basic understanding that obviously a lot of people lack. That’s a sad commentary on our educational system, and it’s an even sadder commentary on our justice system, which allowed Young to harm so many people before it acted, and then acted so inadequately.

About the Authors

Dr. Harriet Hall, MD, the SkepDoc, is a retired family physician and Air Force Colonel living in Puyallup, WA. She writes about alternative medicine, pseudoscience, quackery, and critical thinking. She is a contributing editor to both Skeptic and Skeptical Inquirer, an advisor to the Quackwatch website, and an editor of sciencebasedmedicine.org, where she writes an article every Tuesday. She is author of Women Aren’t Supposed to Fly: The Memoirs of a Female Flight Surgeon. Her website is SkepDoc.info.

References
  1. http://bit.ly/2j2DQja
  2. http://bit.ly/2le3RgB
  3. http://bit.ly/2mv5l6j
  4. http://bit.ly/2maoo4y
  5. http://bit.ly/2lAthRs
  6. http://bbc.in/2iFxINn
  7. http://bit.ly/2mGNyWu
  8. http://bit.ly/2lYdHjK
Categories: Critical Thinking, Skeptic

Doubtful News phase out

The Doubtful News Feed - Tue, 01/30/2018 - 3:07pm
Doubtful News will be downsizing and moving to a new server next month. The DN database has over 7000 posts. The content is archived at the Wayback Machine. Many of our most accessed and important posts will be migrated to the new server and retain the original URL but most of the content will be…
Categories: Skeptic

Gattaca

neurologicablog Feed - Tue, 01/30/2018 - 5:16am

The Human Genome Project was started in 1990 and completed in 2003. It took 13 years, multiple labs around the world, and hundreds of millions of dollars to sequence the human genome – this was more than two years ahead of schedule and millions of dollars under budget.

The reason for exceeding expectations is that the technology for sequence the genome was not static – it progressed throughout the project. DNA contains a code of four letters, the nucleotides indicated by the letters G, T, A, and C. This four-letter alphabet creates 64 different three-letter words, which code for different amino acids or operations that control the conversion of the code into proteins. Sequencing the genome essentially consists of discovering the order of these four letters in the string of a DNA molecule.

In 1997 the movie Gattaca, right in the middle of the genome project, portrayed the near future in which a cheek swab would rapidly yield an individual’s genome. It turns out this is not far fetched at all – we are almost living in Gattaca’s near future, at least in terms of sequencing technology. Scientists have just published a report of the nanopore device, which is a hand-held device capable of sequencing an individual’s genome.

This represents one of the greatest technological advancements in our time – the improvement by orders of magnitude the ability to cheaply and quickly read an entire human genome. The company who makes the device, Oxford Nanopore, claims that the small handheld sequencer, the MinION, can sequence 10-20 Gb per 48 hours (a Gb is a gigabasepair, or billion letters in the genome). In the published study the MinION was used to sequence 91.2 Gb of data to complete the sequence:

The final assembled genome was 2,867 million bases in size, covering 85.8% of the reference. Assembly accuracy, after incorporating complementary short-read sequencing data, exceeded 99.8%.

The device costs $1000. So in a couple decades sequencing a genome went from hundreds of millions of dollars to 1000 dollars, that’s at least five orders of magnitude. Sequencing has also gone from 13 years to a few days (shorter if a larger version of the nanopore is used). They also make the SmidgION, which is even smaller and attaches to a smart phone.

The advantages for research are obvious. With rapid and cheap sequencing technology we can sequence the genomes of many plants and animals. This allows us to study evolutionary relationships, to identify new species, and to “barcode” plant species. Medical applications are also obvious – we can identify genetic diseases in individuals, and researchers can more easily locate specific genes that cause or predispose to certain diseases. There are now over 2,000 tests available for human genetic diseases.

There are also some applications which may not be immediately obvious. For example, researchers can track the spread of an infectious disease more easily if they can trace how strains mutate as they spread. This was done to track the latest ebola outbreak, for example.

The Human Genome Project, in addition to being an example of extremely rapidly progressing technology, is also an example of overhype. It was often overpromised in popular coverage of the project that once we sequenced the genome, there would rapidly be numerous medical applications.  Diseases would start falling one by one. Fifteen years later, this hype has not been realized, although it is starting to be. This is partly because being able to sequence the genome is only one piece to the puzzle. We also have to know what all those genes we are sequencing do.

This has led to the proteome project – the effort to map which proteins all those genes code for. We also have to know what the proteins do, how they are regulated, and what goes wrong in specific diseases.

What the genome project has done, however, is made all this later research faster and cheaper. But still, this kind of research takes years and decades. What often happens is that scientific and technological advances are met with unrealistic hype. However, wait 20 years and the hype eventually becomes a reality (sometimes – I’m still waiting for my flying car). We may be getting close to that situation with the human genome, especially now that CRISPR has given us the technology to rapidly and cheaply alter that genome.

What about the abuses of this technology that was the focus of the movie Gattaca? In the film rapid sequencing was used to identify those who were genetically fit (valids) and separate them from the unfit (invalids). This created a social caste system based on genetics. The situation was also tied to the idea of guided vs unguided conception – having children and just throwing the genetic dice, or guiding conception by choosing the best genes for your children.

While I don’t think it will play out as in the movie, these ideas are not far fetched. Superior genes will likely become one more bit of social and biological capital that the wealthy will be able to transfer to their children. The ability to remove genetic diseases, and even reduce genetic predisposition to disease, is overall a good thing. This technology can lead to a healthier population, and perhaps even reduce health care costs by eliminating expensive lifelong illness. It may even be cost effective for society to pay for such genetic treatments for everyone, rather than assume the health care costs of the otherwise avoided illness.

There are too many variables to predict how this will play out, but it is not too early to start thinking about possible applications of this technology and how it should be regulated. Like many of our advanced technologies, it can be a great thing, but it can also be abused or lead to unintended consequences. The rate at which such technologies are advancing is also both a boon and a challenge. It doesn’t give us much time to adapt to the advancements.

Categories: Skeptic

Skeptoid #608: Palm Oil Facts and Fiction

Skeptoid Feed - Mon, 01/29/2018 - 4:00pm
Is it a medical miracle, an environmental disaster, both, or neither?
Categories: Critical Thinking, Skeptic

Shameless Organic Fearmongering

neurologicablog Feed - Mon, 01/29/2018 - 4:58am

I and others have long pointed out that anti-GMO fearmongering was largely created by the organic food lobby as a way of smearing their competitors. The strategy is simple – scare people way from genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and offer organic products as a non-GMO alternative. This is nothing new in advertising, create a fear and then offer your product as a safe haven.

A recent video posted by Stonyfield Organic makes the connection between anti-GMO fearmongering and buying organic explicit, as the screen capture shows.

There are many problems with this short video, not the least of which is that they use young girls to parrot their anti-science. Clearly not aiming for subtlety, the first girl declares that GMOs are “monstrous.” To apparently explain what she means, the second girl says that, “They take a gene from a fish and put it into a tomato.”

No, “they” don’t.

The “fishmato” has been a persistent myth of the anti-GMO lobby. It is both untrue, and unscientific even if it were true. The myth comes from the fact that in the 90’s there were experiments on putting a fish gene into a tomato in order to make it frost tolerant. The tomato was never marketed. In fact, at present there are no GMO tomatoes on the market.

But even if it were – so what? This is a perfect representation of the “frankenfood” strategy of the anti-GMO lobby. Fish and tomatoes, just like people and bananas, already share about 60% of our genes. There is nothing that makes a fish gene a fish gene, other than the fact that it is in a fish. They won’t make tomatoes have scales or taste fishy.

The reason the fishmato myth will not die, however, is because it is a useful way to manipulate people by triggering a vague sense of disgust.

This also represents the false dichotomy at the core of organic anti-GMO propaganda. In their narrative, food is divided into two clear groups. The first group is natural and wholesome. The second group – GMOs – are unnatural and scary. This division is a fiction.

In reality almost all food consumed by humans has been significantly modified using a range of methods. There is no clear dividing line between “GMO” and not “GMO”. If you want clear distinctions, you will have to delve deeper into specific methods.

Some equate GMOs with transgenic modification – inserting a gene from a distant species. However, that is just one form of genetic modification, and as I pointed out there is nothing inherently risky or unnatural about it. It even happens all the time in nature through horizontal gene transfer.

But there are a host of other methods, including forced hybridiation, mutation farming using radiation or chemicals that mutate seeds, and biotechnology that does not involve a transgene, such as using genes from related species, or just removing, silencing, or altering an existing gene.

In the organic anti-GMO narrative, however, there is a bright line in which mutation farming using radiation is natural and wholesome, and silencing a gene makes food “monstrous.”

An interesting wrinkle to the story of the Stonyfield video is that there was a significant backlash against the video in the comments. This is a good sign, showing that exposing the lies of the anti-GMO lobby is getting some traction.

Stonyfield responded by doubling down on their intellectual dishonesty – they deleted many of the critical comments claiming they were from “trolls.” Yet some of those deleted comments were from scientists with a publicly verifiable identity.

Dismissing (and deleting) critical comments as trolls is the equivalent of reflexively yelling, “Fake news” at any facts or opinions you don’t like.

They then tripled-down on their dubious behavior by claiming that they used an (undisclosed) database of fake names to locate the troll comments. Right.

In their open letter defending all this, Stonyfield digs themselves even deeper into anti-GMO propaganda. They explicitly equate GMOs with use of herbicides because that is what the current majoriy of GMO crops are for (herbicide tolerance). But this is irrelevant to the GMO debate, because GMOs (an arbitrary category) are essentially the result of a range of technologies, and cannot be equated to one specific application, even if it is currently the most common.

Further, they conveniently buy into anti-glyphosate fearmongering. Glyphosate is actually a relatively safe herbicide, with no credible link to cancer. This strategy also brings up the fact that organic farming can and often does use pesticides, as long as they are deemed “natural”, and many of them are far more toxic than glyphosate.

They then have the gall to call for labeling as if they are pro-transparency and people have the right to be informed, all the while misinforming the public about GMOs and organic farming.

They further link to anti-GMO propaganda sites as if they are credible or independent scientific sources. Meanwhile, actual scientific organizations have all come down on the side of the safety of GMOs.

This one little video is a microcosm of all the problems with using a false narrative and fearmongering in order to market pseudoscience, and how to exploit social media to forward that narrative and dismiss your critics.

At least Stonyfield was incompetent enough in their execution to make this strategy obvious. Hopefully in the end this will further expose the lies of the anti-GMO organic lobby.

Categories: Skeptic

The Skeptics Guide #655 - Jan 27 2018

Skeptics Guide to the Universe Feed - Sat, 01/27/2018 - 8:00am
Interview with Richard Saunders; What's the Word: Altricial; News Items: CES 2018, Space Lasers, Rainbow Dinosaur; Your Questions and E-mails: Denying Depression; Science or Fiction
Categories: Skeptic

Cause & Effect: The CFI Newsletter - No. 98

Center for Inquiry News - Wed, 01/24/2018 - 7:57am


Cause & Effect is the biweekly newsletter of the Center for Inquiry community, covering the wide range of work that you help make possible. Become a member today!

The Top Stories

The Atlantic Magazine Profiles CFI’s Secular Rescue

This week, The Atlantic introduced the world to a Center for Inquiry program that exemplifies our commitment to free inquiry and humanist values: Secular Rescue.

As we have seen far too many times, to be an outspoken atheist in certain parts of the world is to put your life at risk. With Secular Rescue, we assist freethinking writers and activists whose lives are in danger by helping them relocate to safety. Dozens of individuals have been saved through Secular Rescue, relocated from countries such as Bangladesh, Pakistan, and Iraq, and now living safely and free to continue to shine the light of reason.

Writing for The Atlantic, David Robson spoke to CFI staff, academics and experts, and most importantly, one of the people who has been helped by Secular Rescue, the remarkable Lubna Yaseen. Targeted for her defiance of religion and the subjugation of women, militants in her conservative Iraq community threatened her life. “I disappeared—I left everything. I had to be always on the run, changing places and disguises,” she told The Atlantic. “I couldn’t feel anything except that I would end up being killed.”

Writes Robson, “Yaseen would still be at risk if it weren’t for the actions of Secular Rescue.”

Lubna goes into greater depth about her journey in her piece for Free Inquiry, “Resisting Radical Islam: My Escape to Freedom,” now available free online.

In the Atlantic article, Robyn Blumner, president and CEO of CFI, likens Secular Rescue to “an underground railroad for atheists,” from which the piece derives its title. Robyn acknowledges the inherent challenge in rallying support to the cause of saving atheists. “Part of the problem is that people don’t like atheists and it’s hard to protect a group you don’t like.”

Read the whole article here, and share it with your friends and social networks. Hopefully, it will awaken many more people to this crisis, and they will recognize that this kind of violence and persecution toward any group is unacceptable. Whether you like them or not.

 

HHS “Religious Freedom Division” Is a Health and Human Disservice

In Donald Trump’s version of the Environmental Protection Agency, administrator Scott Pruitt sees to it that the agency does anything but protect the environment. It follows, then, that the Trump Administration would find a way to make it so that the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) takes steps to prevent humans from receiving health services, and as is so often the case, the magic words used to justify this reversal are “religious liberty.”

Last week, it was reported that the HHS’s Office of Civil Rights would create a “Conscience and Religious Freedom Division,” which will defend the religious privilege of health care providers who claim their beliefs conflict with particular procedures or categories of care, including but not limited to abortions and sex-reassignment surgery. Instead of protecting the civil rights of people to receive health care, this division will protect the civil rights of beliefs in order to stop people from receiving health care.

CFI Director of Government Affairs Jason Lemieux said in our statement that this office represents “an abdication of the department’s vital responsibility to the health of all Americans, placing the dogmatic beliefs of a few above the health and lives of the people they serve.”

Nick Little, CFI’s vice president and legal counsel, said, “Religious beliefs do not need the protection of the HHS and its Civil Rights Division. It is Americans’ fundamental civil right to safe and secular health care that needs the protection of the HHS.”

 

A New Season of Reason with Reasonable Talk

CFI’s Reasonable Talk, our video series showcasing the best of CFI’s conferences and events, is back for a fifth season, starting with three great talks from CSICon 2017 in Las Vegas.

First, academic psychologist Rob Brotherton delves into the mind of the conspiracy theorist, exploring what has only recently been learned about “suspicious minds” and how all of us might be wired to believe in them.

Britt Marie Hermes is a former naturopath who is now a whistleblower against the unscientific, unregulated, and unsafe practices of the naturopathic profession. As Hermes explains, while many naturopathic doctors (NDs) practice without any kind of licensure, it’s the officially sanctioned NDs that may be the most dangerous.

The genetic engineering of plants and animals can address some of the most pressing problems faced by people all over the world, providing food and medicine through sustainable means. But as we learn from Kevin Folta, this needs to be communicated to the broader public in order to tamp down the irrational and destructive fears people have of the dreaded acronym “GMO.”

You can also check out video interviews with both Hermes and Folta from CSICon by the McGill Office for Science and Society.

 

CFI Highlights on the Web

Robert E. Bartholomew, a new fellow of the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry, writes a special report on the recent Senate hearing on an alleged “sonic attack” in Cuba. Despite the doubts of some of the senators, Bartholomew cautions against blanket dismissal. Of those who claim to have experienced the attack, he says, “most are normal, healthy people who are experiencing a collective stress reaction.”

At the CFI Free Thinking blog, Benjamin Radford checks out an attempt to revive the “Blue Whale Suicide Game” conspiracy theory, and looks at the various ways people try to explain away the baffling contradictory statements emitted regularly by President Trump.

From the Joe Nickell snake oil collection, we have Celerina, a cure-all based on cocaine, which, interestingly, was not too far off from the original form of Coca-Cola, “The Ideal Nerve and Brain Tonic.” Plus, Joe reviews The Greatest Showman, the film based on the life of P.T. Barnum.

An antiabortion group at Oxford holding an event on the impact of abortion on men rescinded invitations from two speakers, one of whom was none other than Vincent Rue, the right-wing fixer behind many cases of manufactured and pseudoscientific “expert testimony” in U.S. abortion court cases. Oxford outlet Cherwell quotes CFI’s Nick Little about what is so problematic about this fellow, and Rue himself seems to know who’s got his number, citing “the Dawkins Foundations’ accusations.”

And of course, you can keep up with news relevant to skeptics and seculars every weekday with The Morning Heresy.


Upcoming CFI Events

CFI Austin

  • February 10: Darwin Day 2018 with keynote presentations, kids’ science activities, and more.


CFI Indiana

  • February 10: 8th Annual Civic Day with CFI’s Nick Little, Terri Jett from the ACLU of Indiana, Rima Shahid of Women4Change Indiana, and many more.


CFI Michigan


CFI Tampa Bay

 

Thank you!

 

Everything we do at CFI is made possible by you and your support. Let’s keep working together for science, reason, and secular values. Donate today!

Fortnightly updates not enough? Of course they’re not.

       •  Follow CFI on Twitter.

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Cause & Effect: The Center for Inquiry Newsletter is edited by Paul Fidalgo, Center for Inquiry communications director. 

The Center for Inquiry (CFI) is a nonprofit educational, advocacy, and research organization headquartered in Amherst, New York, with executive offices in Washington, D.C. It is also home to both the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry, the Council for Secular Humanism, and the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason & Science. The mission of CFI is to foster a secular society based on science, reason, freedom of inquiry, and humanist values. Visit CFI on the web at www.centerforinquiry.net. 

 

Categories: , Skeptic

Psychology’s Unhealed Wound

Skeptic.com feed - Wed, 01/24/2018 - 12:00am

Imagine 20 years ago that you bandaged up a deep wound, and now you peel back the bandages to find that only part of the wound had healed and that, in fact, a raging infection persists. That is analogous to the situation that Mark Pendergrast describes in Memory Warp.

In the early 1990s one of psychology’s most important debates arose between some psychologists who argued that the recovery of repressed memories was valid, and skeptical researchers who thought they were confabulations. The theory of repressed memory, first proposed by Sigmund Freud in 1895, states that traumatic events are often so threatening to the psyche that the mind encapsulates them, rendering them inaccessible for years, only to be recalled later in a safer environment (for example, a therapist’s office).

Many experimental memory researchers, such as David Holmes and Elizabeth Loftus, argued that there is no credible scientific evidence for repressed memory. A growing band of psychology researchers became suspicious that some practitioners were actually creating false abuse memories in clients.

It was a bitter and personal argument at times, but thankfully all seemed to calm down to a degree around the turn of the century—the ameliorative bandages seemed to be working. An American Psychology Association committee came to an uneasy compromise on the issue. Related high profile court cases seemed to decrease in number—those where psychotherapy clients would sue parents, clients would retract their memories and sue therapists, or parents of clients would sue therapists. Multimillion-dollar verdicts against psychotherapists made most counselors far more cautious about seeking to unearth purportedly repressed abuse memories.

Many in the beleaguered profession heaved a sigh of relief when the story faded away—and coverage in newspapers and television documentaries dwindled. However, a 2014 Psychological Science article found that many practicing psychologists, even mainstream ones, tended to believe in repressed memories more so than do researchers, and that the vast majority of the public still believes in the theory. Perhaps psychology’s largest wound has not in fact healed.

In Memory Warp, his unflinchingly bold new book, Mark Pendergrast warns that repressed memory recovery, and accompanying memory distortions, are still a major problem in contemporary society. The book is essential reading for all because it offers valuable protection from the most damaging of psychology’s modern practices. In Memory Warp, Pendergrast articulately and thoroughly explains the history and the dangers of therapies that uncover purportedly repressed memories of trauma. He meticulously describes past and current research and explains how beliefs in repressed memories still predominate in today’s society. For example, he provides evidence refuting the claims of The Keepers, a documentary released on Netflix in 2017 involving the case of a murdered Catholic nun and a priest accused of sexual abuse, which he argues has fallaciously re-enforced a belief in repressed memories in households across the nation.

The book consists of nine chapters. In Chapters 1–3, the reader is given an overview of how an increasing realization of the horror of real incest led to the practice of repressed memory therapy and how individuals became victims of false memories of childhood sexual abuse. His second chapter is a virtual master class in how human memory actually works, while the third explores hypnosis, panic attacks, dream interpretation, and other methods for creating a belief in recovered abuse memories. Chapter 4 goes into detail about how the multiple personality diagnosis and belief in satanic cults were politicized by therapists, and how the power of suggestion makes an individual more prone to developing false memories. The fifth chapter recaps the related day care sex abuse hysteria cases. In Chapter 6, Pendergrast explores the history of mistaken psychological beliefs, from the Great Witch Craze to Charcot, Freud, and the origins of the beliefs of multiple personality diagnosis and repressed memories. In Chapters 7–8, he provides the reader with cultural contexts and “religious” cult-like views that have allowed for the rise and continued belief in repressed memories. In Chapter 9, Pendergrast gives his final summary, providing good evidence that the belief in repressed memories is still prevalent in society, and that the practice of repressed memory therapy continues. He provides recommended legal and organizational changes that could possibly fix the issue. He ends by giving advice to torn families and therapists.

Pendergrast, an independent scholar and science writer, explains how the pseudoscientific fad of repressed memory recovery has impacted millions of families throughout the world. By his account, the rise in recovered memories of childhood sexual abuse stemmed largely from the publication of pseudoscientific books, most notably The Courage to Heal, by Ellen Bass and Laura Davis (first published in 1988, with the most recent edition in 2008). These authors, he argues, created a whole new generation of followers who believed that children who were sexually abused often repressed their memories. Pendergrast presents a convincing argument that these authors, and others writing similar material, inspired widespread echoing of such ideas in television shows, research articles, books, and national and international organizations. He makes an elegant argument that repressed memories of abuse are impossible and implausible.

Pendergrast presents remarkable insights that we have not read elsewhere. As just one of many examples, he discusses how late-19th century Austrian culture molded Freud’s work. Pendergrast relates how, in part, the problematic sexual attitudes and behaviors towards children of that culture led to Freud’s theories. Pendergrast argues this era gave rise to the theory of repressed memory of underage sexual activity or conflict, and to subsequent malpractice that has shaped some modern therapeutic theories and practices.

Child sexual abuse is a real and disturbing problem in society that is well worth more research, discussion, and corrective measures. Nevertheless, it is also an important matter to discuss false memories and accusations that can arise from flawed therapeutic and interviewing methods. Pendergrast provides an unbelievable transcript of such a case where a social worker used persistent suggestion towards a child that they were sexually abused (p. 221).

Pendergrast argues that some clinicians have brought about heartbreaking devastation by using suggestive therapy techniques, politicizing their agendas, and popularizing a new terminology, such as the push for multiple personality disorder (now known as dissociative identity disorder) to be included in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders in 1980. He posits that this is one way that clinicians and researchers who support the theory of repressed memory continue to push their flawed beliefs. Their argument is that childhood sexual abuse can give rise to different personalities within one individual as some sort of coping mechanism. Pendergrast maintains that these therapists actually lead their patient into such a belief through suggestive techniques such as hypnosis.

Order the book from Amazon

Religion has also had some influence on the misguided belief of repressed memories. During the 1970s some Christian psychologists brought their religious beliefs about the threat of satanic influence into their psychological practices. In one example, Pendergrast describes how a woman began to see a Christian psychologist for therapy and consequently developed what appears to be false memory of abuse by her father, then disowned her parents and became dependent on her therapist. She then began to recall being a victim of a purported satanic cult. This example is not an isolated case: many books claimed that these satanic cults existed in the shadows of society for the sole purpose of degrading and sexually abusing children for ritualistic purposes. There is no evidence that such satanic cults exist or ever existed.

Overall, Pendergrast demonstrates how belief in the existence of repressed memories, and the corresponding practice, has come at a great cost. Many families have been destroyed by recovered therapy practices with millions of people coming to believe that they had repressed memories of childhood sexual abuse. The worst transgression, Pendergrast argues, is the destruction of families in pursuit of a biased agenda—rather than allowing sound empirical research to guide them.

This book is a must read for lay-persons, but especially for all those entering the field of psychology, law, or social work. Of particular benefit would be the next generation of therapists who have not been exposed to the story of repressed memory malpractice that arose in previous decades but continues today. The book provides a history lesson on the pseudoscience that has plagued the field of psychology, specifically in the belief that inaccessible unconscious and traumatic memories can be recalled as exact representations of the past. Pendergrast eloquently criticizes that position and uses years of extensive research on the topic to offer a comprehensive picture. When there is accumulating evidence refuting your position, one must be willing to accept the supported evidence, in the name of good science and the public good.

Order the book from Amazon

Finally, in 2017 Mark Pendergrast published two related books to Memory Warp. The Repressed Memory Epidemic: How It Happened and What We Need to Learn from It (Springer, 628 pages, $139) is an academic textbook version with chapter abstracts and discussion questions, and an appendix with Pendergrast’s verbatim interviews with therapists, “survivors,” the accused, and retractors conducted in the early 1990s. These interviews, along with full endnotes and bibliography, are also available for download.

About the Authors

Mario E. Herrera is a doctoral student in cognitive psychology at the University of Southern Mississippi, were he focuses on false memory and memory for emotions. He earned his Bachelors of Arts degree in Psychology from California State University, Northridge.

Lawrence Patihis is a socio-cognitive tenure-track Assistant Professor at the University of Southern Mississippi. He received a doctorate from the University of California, Irvine, where he was advised by the memory researchers Elizabeth Loftus and Linda Levine.

Categories: Critical Thinking, Skeptic

eSkeptic for January 24, 2018

Skeptic.com feed - Wed, 01/24/2018 - 12:00am

In this week’s eSkeptic:

SCIENCE SALON # 17 Caltech Theoretical Physicist and Nobel Laureate, Dr. Kip Thorne, in conversation with Dr. Michael Shermer

Kip S. Thorne (photo by Bengt Nyman from Vaxholm, Sweden (Kip S. Thorne EM1B8790) [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Join us for what promises to be one of the deepest and most profound conversations we’ve had in our Science Salon series as Dr. Thorne reflects on his life and career in theoretical physics, his pursuit of the detection of the long-elusive gravitational waves through the LIGO detector, his relationship and bet with Stephen Hawking, how he came to consult on Carl Sagan’s Contact and Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar, his curious work on black holes, wormholes, and time travel, and what it’s like to go to Stockholm to receive the Nobel Prize.

Discussion in the main lecture hall at the École de Physique des Houches (Les Houches Physics School), 1972. From left, Yuval Ne’eman, Bryce DeWitt, Kip Thorne. (Photo by A. T. Service (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons.)

Reserve your seat(s) online or by calling 1-626-794-3119. Online reservation closes Sunday February 18, 2017 at 11am PDT.

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NEW REVIEWS & MEDIA INTERVIEWS Heavens on Earth: The Scientific Search for the Afterlife, Immortality, and Utopia

In his most ambitious work yet—a scientific exploration into humanity’s obsession with the afterlife and quest for immortality—bestselling author and skeptic, Michael Shermer, sets out to discover what drives humans’ belief in life after death, focusing on recent scientific attempts to achieve immortality along with utopian attempts to create heaven on earth. Check out what people are saying about the book…

SCIENCE
Faulty religious reasoning and sloppy secular arguments about the afterlife earn a skeptic’s side-eye
by Paula Quinon
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THE NEW YORK TIMES
The Quest for Immortality, Rebooted
by Maria Konnikova
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THE NEW YORK POST
Scientists could one day make humans immortal
by Larry Getlen
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KIRKUS
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ST. LOUIS POST-DISPATCH
The pull of ‘heaven’: Even some atheists believe in afterlife
by Repps Hudson Special to the Post-Dispatch
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INTERVIEW
Jordan B Peterson Interviews Michael
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HOW DO WE FIX IT? PODCAST
The Dangers of Utopia
by Richard Davies & Jim Meigs
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NPR AirTalk
The big sleep and beyond: What’s behind our fascination with the afterlife
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In this week’s eSkeptic, Mario E. Herrera and Lawrence Patihis review Mark Pendergrast’s new book: Memory Warp: How the Myth of Repressed Memory Arose and Refuses to Die.

Psychology’s Unhealed Wound

by Mario E. Herrera & Lawrence Patihis

Imagine 20 years ago that you bandaged up a deep wound, and now you peel back the bandages to find that only part of the wound had healed and that, in fact, a raging infection persists. That is analogous to the situation that Mark Pendergrast describes in Memory Warp.

In the early 1990s one of psychology’s most important debates arose between some psychologists who argued that the recovery of repressed memories was valid, and skeptical researchers who thought they were confabulations. The theory of repressed memory, first proposed by Sigmund Freud in 1895, states that traumatic events are often so threatening to the psyche that the mind encapsulates them, rendering them inaccessible for years, only to be recalled later in a safer environment (for example, a therapist’s office).

Many experimental memory researchers, such as David Holmes and Elizabeth Loftus, argued that there is no credible scientific evidence for repressed memory. A growing band of psychology researchers became suspicious that some practitioners were actually creating false abuse memories in clients.

It was a bitter and personal argument at times, but thankfully all seemed to calm down to a degree around the turn of the century—the ameliorative bandages seemed to be working. An American Psychology Association committee came to an uneasy compromise on the issue. Related high profile court cases seemed to decrease in number—those where psychotherapy clients would sue parents, clients would retract their memories and sue therapists, or parents of clients would sue therapists. Multimillion-dollar verdicts against psychotherapists made most counselors far more cautious about seeking to unearth purportedly repressed abuse memories. […]

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Categories: Critical Thinking, Skeptic

Skeptoid #607: Do Lobsters Feel Pain?

Skeptoid Feed - Mon, 01/22/2018 - 4:00pm
What the science says on whether we need to change the way we eat crustaceans.
Categories: Critical Thinking, Skeptic

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