Episode 84: Deepak Chopra & Dr. Oz

In this episode of Life, the Universe & Everything Else, Donna Harris, Richelle McCullough, and Laura Creek Newman discuss the scientific failings of popular spiritualist and guru Deepak Chopra and “America’s Doctor” Mehmet Oz.

Life, the Universe & Everything Else is a program promoting secular humanism and scientific skepticism presented by the Winnipeg Skeptics and the Humanists, Atheists & Agnostics of Manitoba.

Links: Deepak Chopra | Dr. Oz | Last Week Tonight with John Oliver: Dr. Oz and Nutritional Supplements | What’s the Harm: Herbal Remedies | New York Times: Herbal Supplements Are Often Not What They Seem | Calgary Strep Victim’s Mother ‘Will Be Held Accountable,’ Say Police | National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine: Using Dietary Supplements Wisely | National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine: Ayurvedic Medicine | Health Canada: Natural Health Products

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Homeopathy Works

Did that title get your attention?

Oh, don’t worry. It’s total nonsense. But I figured that it might be worth distilling some thirty comments down to a couple of words.

Nonsense
Pictured: not medicine.

A few years ago, Scott Carnegie had the audacity to state (factually, I might add) that KIDS 0-9 Cough & Cold remedy is not medicine. It’s homeopathic, and it doesn’t work. But we’ve been hearing about the wonders of this remedy (and homeopathy in general) in the comments section of this article ever since. These comments aren’t likely to convince anyone of anything (unless it’s that we should follow Popular Science’s lead and simply shut down the comments section altogether), but they do sometimes present us with a teachable moment.

A recent example:

Just wondering if you have seen the new scientific studies indicating that this diluted water holds a memory, thus explaining how homeopathic medicine works? If not, then you should. You cant pick and choose which studies to preach if you are really a man of science. Science must always keep an open mind.

I am a huge skeptic of alternative medicines, due to health conditions and chronic pain. I did try this out of desperation and it seemed to work.
So I conducted a study of my own. My son was sick with a cold and on alternating days I added the 0-9 kids in his juice and the opposite days, I just gave him juice. The result? All 3 nights with kids 0-9, he slept through the night. The other 3 nights in the experiment, he woke up crying about his throat and the sniffles. No other condition/element was changed in his bedtime routine. This was my CONTROLLED study.

You do not have to believe in something for it to be real. Some remedies work for some people, other not so much. Every individual is different, remember that before you one-sidedly decide to preach to parents something doesn’t work.

While I certainly appreciate this commenter’s attitude, she must see that the trial that she conducted is hardly sufficient to conclude that KIDS 0–9 is effective. Her “trial” was not double-blind, it was conducted on a single subject in an uncontrolled environment on a condition that is known to be self-limiting, and it is (of course) subject to all manner of bias on the part of the experimenter. I’m frankly astonished that anyone would conclude that the results (such as they are: I’m not too clear what her primary and/or secondary outcome measures were supposed to be) were due to the efficacy of homeopathy, rather than bias or random chance.

If this commenter is truly open-minded on the issue (which I hope), I’m curious as to why she would choose to ignore pretty much every systematic review and meta-analysis on the subject, and instead opted to conduct her own trial with n=1. For example, a recent meta-analysis conducted by Australia’s National Health and Medical Research Council that examined the efficacy of homeopathic preparations for 68 different conditions concluded:

The available evidence is not compelling and fails to demonstrate that homeopathy is an effective treatment for any of the reported clinical conditions in humans.

That’s no evidence for efficacy for any of the conditions studied—but her “trial” trumps that evidence, of course.

As to the question of water memory: this is total nonsense. Water memory was an ad hoc justification invented by Benveniste in an effort to deflect the reasonable criticism that homeopathic remedies are typically so dilute that they do not contain a single atom of the original “remedy”. Attempts to independently replicate his research fail again and again (for example), and a team of chemists from the University of Toronto demonstrated in 2005 that water loses whatever “memory” it might have after a mere 50 femtoseconds. Additionally, Benveniste failed to provide any compelling mechanism by which a homeopathic remedy (if it did happen to somehow “remember” what its active ingredient was supposed to be, but conveniently forgot everything else it had come into contact with before and since) could heal the body using this “memory”. It is also unclear how this “water memory” could be transferred to the sugar tablets sold at your local Whole Foods—or perhaps this commenter is suggesting that we should take “sugar memory” seriously, too?

She says, “You cant [sic] pick and choose which studies to preach if you are really a man of science. Science must always keep an open mind.” I couldn’t agree more, and I think that this is the true teachable moment. It’s easy, on the Internet, to find other people who agree with you on any particular subject. If there are twenty studies on a subject with p-values of 0.05, chances are that people on either side of the issue can point to a study that confirms their preconceptions. Evidence that you’re right is, after all, just a Google search away.

What’s hard is to take science seriously and to attempt to achieve a reasonable understanding of the body of evidence on a topic. It’s a lot of work, and it is contrary to the way we typically think on a daily basis. And so I challenge everyone (this commenter is far from alone!) to demonstrate that you are open to following the evidence wherever it leads, rather simply seeking out those few, poorly conducted trials that seem to support your preconceptions.

Those interested the history and practice of homeopathy can take a look at the presentation I gave for World Homeopathy Awareness Week a few years ago. It may prove instructive.

Episode 30: To Vaccinate, or Not to Vaccinate?

Episode 30: To Vaccinate, or Not to Vaccinate?

In this episode of Life, the Universe & Everything Else, Gem Newman discusses the science (and pseudoscience) associated with vaccines with Dr. Laura Targownik, Richelle McCullough, and Laura Creek Newman.

This episode was recorded over Google+, so the audio quality is occasionally inconsistent. We’re working on correcting these issues moving forward.

Life, the Universe & Everything Else is a program promoting secular humanism and scientific skepticism presented by the Winnipeg Skeptics and the Humanists, Atheists & Agnostics of Manitoba.

Links: SkeptiCamp Winnipeg 2012 | Todd Akin and “Legitimate” Rape (Coverage on Gawker, Kirk Cameron Defends Akin, “Legitimate Rape” – A Medieval Medical Concept) | Natural births, Not C-sections, Trigger Brain-Protecting Proteins | AAP Changes Circumcision Policy (New Policy Statement, Further Details, Canadian Paediatric Society Policy) | Whooping Cough Outbreak Worst in Decades | Bad Science Watch Targets Homeopathic “Vaccines” | Natural Health Products in Canada – a History | Andrew Wakefield – an Elaborate Fraud | Brian Deer Investigates Andrew Wakefield (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3) | What Is Thimerosol? | Ethylmercury | Methylmercury | Universal Vaccine Could Eliminate Annual Flu Shots | Government Undermines Its Vaccination Message | Myths About the Seasonal Flu Vaccine | Hug Me! I’m Vaccinated | What’s the Harm?

What Are You Reading? The (Honest) Truth About Dishonesty, by Dan Ariely | The Age of Miracles, by Karen Thompson Walker | 28: Stories of AIDS in Africa, by Stephanie Nolan | Unorthodox: The Scandalous Rejection of My Hasidic Roots, by Deborah Feldman | Slaughterhouse-Five, by Kurt Vonnegut | American Gods, by Neil Gaiman | Why Are You Atheists So Angry?, by Greta Christina

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The Dangerous Truth Behind Cooked Food

Brevity is not one of my strengths. For this reason, what often begins as a minor correction or a response to a question in the comments section often becomes its own blog post (the character limits imposed by various blogging platforms also plays a role).

This is a follow-up to a post from several months ago, in which I discuss the shortcomings of an article from the hilarious TruthTheory.com: The Not-So-Dangerous Truth Behind Microwaves. Here, I respond to some criticism that I received.

This blog is no more an authority than the ones you mocked.

Excellent.

Seriously, that’s great! I’m just some beardy dude who likes science and occasionally has the opportunity to do science, but my specialty is in artificial intelligence (although recently I’ve been helping out with research in robotics and psychology). I make no claim to either authority (something that’s pretty much worthless in matters of science) or expertise (something that’s a little more relevant) in this (or any) subject. I’m trying to instill in people an appreciation for science and critical thinking generally. If you think that I want people to consider me an authority on matters scientific in any domain, either I’m not getting a properly skeptical message across (certainly debatable) or you’re not paying attention.

Firstly, lets define “harmful”: carcinogens are harmful…

Granted.

…as well as, destroying phytonutrients that the body needs to sustain itself and strengthen defenses.

I do not grant that the reduction of phytochemicals in food is harmful. Stipulating that the compounds in question are healthful, it does not stand to reason that reducing the phytochemical content of a given food is harmful unless it is also established that the subject has a deficiency.

To illustrate by example: I would not consider a carton of pasteurized orange juice to be “harmful” (although its high sugar content may be problemmatic for some), despite the fact that the pasteurization process destroys much of the vitamin C content in the juice (and not all manufacterers add supplemental vitamin C to their juices)—unless, of course, the person consuming the product were deficient in vitamin C and counting on the orange juice in this regard.

Returning to the point about carcinogenicity, I’ll remind the commenter that many common methods of cooking are implicated as cancer-causing, to some degree or other, including pan-frying, grilling, or barbecuing meat (source), smoking meats, roasting coffee beans, or even cooking with vegetable oils (source), or simply heating carbohydrate-rich food by means other than boiling (source).

This is complicated by the fact that several foods contain both compounds found to be carcinogenic and anticarcinogenic compounds.

What’s worse, these phenomena are much better established both epidemeologically and from a basic science standpoint than the carcinogenicity of some microwaved foods. So why the outcry over microwaves? If I had to hazard a guess, I’d say it’s because they’re scary and new and complicated, and people tend to distrust things that they don’t understand. Luckily, I’m under no obligation to hazard such a guess, so I won’t.

Name the evidence that would be good enough to convince you there is “proof”?

The word “proof” is in scare quotes, as though to imply I’m asking for proof. I’m not. Science doesn’t deal in “proofs”: it deals in evidence, and no level of evidence constitutes “proof” in any sense but the colloquial.

But here’s what I think would qualify as good evidence that microwaved foods are harmfully carcinogenic (for example): Replicable (and replicated), peer-reviewed studies establishing from a basic science standpoint that carcinogenic compounds are formed in foods heated or cooked in microwave ovens (and that these compounds are not formed in foods heated by other conventional methods), followed by epidemiological studies showing both statistically and clinically significant correlations between microwave use and cancer incidence.

That’s a lot to ask for, of course, but I’d be happy to give my provisional assent to the proposition if it looks like a consensus is forming in the literature. It would also help if the IARC recognised microwaved foodstuffs as even potentially carcinogenic (Group 2B); but, as it stands, microwaved foods don’t even make the list of things that the IARC can’t rule out.

Is it possible that some foods are less nutritious when microwaved? Of course! I’d say that it’s likely! But the same could be said for boiling, for frying, or for just about any other method of cooking, depending on the food.

Is it possible that some foods are carcinogenic when microwaved? Again, of course! But let’s look at the specifics, and let’s not forget (while we make sweeping generalizations), that the same is also already well established for many popular methods of cooking.

Do these admissions run contrary to my previous article on the safety of microwaves? Hardly. Even if it were (somehow) conclusively “proven” that microwaved food was harmful, that would not make the article I was critiquing “true” in any meaningful sense!

As I’ve said several times now, my problem with the original article had nothing to do with its conclusions and everything to do with the fact that it put ideology first and evidence second. It was horrendously sourced, made sweeping generalizations, got the basic science wrong, and cited as sources sites that were (to put it very mildly) disreputable and dishonest.

Bad Advice from Truther.org

The following is a guest post from Brendan Curran-Johnson, who was one of our presenters at last year’s SkeptiCamp. Here, Brendan responds to a few of the claims made in an image that’s currently circulating on Facebook, which originates from the hilarious den of conspiracy nuttery that is Truther.org.


While I certainly support people learning more about vaccines (because science and learning are awesome), avoiding vaccines has very real health consequences that affect more than just the people not taking the vaccines. In the past few years there has been a resurgance of a number of diseases that we had under control (pertussis, mumps, measles, etc.).

Most people cite the MMR/Autism connection when talking about the harms of vaccines, but the truth is that the study that is based on (the Wakefield study originally published by the Lancet) is not a valid study. The Lancet retracted it, and Wakefield was actually accused of deliberate fraud.

There certainly have been cases of drugs turning out to be harmful (thalidomide being the most obvious example), the process which the FDA and Health Canada use to screen drugs is very rigorous. The process is not perfect (no system could be 100% effective), but it is the most reliable system that anyone has come up with.

This is in stark opposition to homeopathy, which this photo advocates (kind of—marijuana and refusing prescription drugs have nothing to do with homeopathy). Alternative medicine (which is what they really are trying to advocate) suffers the problem that it has either not proven to be effective, or has been proven to not be affective (alternative medicine that has been proven to work is called medicine).

Homeopathy in specific is one of the silliest ‘medicines’ that exists. The two basic precepts of homeopathy are that like cures like (e.g., if someone is having trouble breathing, the proper medicine would be something that also restricts breathing), and that the more you dilute something, the stronger it gets. The typical dilution of homeopathic medicine is 30C. The system works as follows: take 99 parts water and 1 part ‘medicine’. That would be 1C. To make 2C, take 99 parts water and 1 part 1C ‘medicine’. The amount of dilution is 1 part per 1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000. If you were to make a sphere of water that stretched from the earth to the sun, you would add just one molocule of ‘medicine’ (that statistic is taken from Dr. Ben Goldacre’s Bad Science).

The advice being given here isn’t just wrong, its actively dangerous (also counter to point 8: avoid fear, propoganda, disinformation). Medicine is far too important a subject to allow misinformation to be spread unchallenged.


Thanks, Brendan!

Bad Science Watch to Health Canada: De-register Homeopathic Vaccines

Reprinted from Bad Science Watch.

PRESS RELEASE
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

Bad Science Watch to Health Canada: De-register Homeopathic Vaccines

Toronto, ON – Wednesday August 1st, 2012 – Today, the new Canadian science advocacy group Bad Science Watch announced plans to convince Health Canada to de-register homeopathic health products that are offered as unproven replacements for childhood vaccinations. This project will combat the anti-vaccine camps within homeopathy that offer these so-called “nosodes”; the sale of which directly contradicts Health Canada’s own efforts to promote childhood vaccinations.

Nosodes are ultra-dilute homeopathic remedies prepared using diseased tissue, such as blood, pus, and saliva, that are based on the unsupportable “like-cures-like” hypothesis where you give someone a very low dose of the offending substance to then cure or prevent the disease in question.

Homeopaths in Canada are offering these nosodes for a variety of childhood diseases, like pertussis, or whooping cough, a deadly disease that is currently afflicting more Canadian children, mostly infants, than it has in the past 50 years. The anti-vaccine messages spread by homeopaths have caused parents to needlessly question the usefulness and safety of vaccines and as a result the level of vaccination in Canadian communities has dropped to as low as 62%. A level of 80% or higher is needed to have proper protection from pertussis in the community.

“The un-scientific approach of homeopaths is a real threat to parents who just want their child to be healthy and safe,” said Jamie Williams the Executive Director of Bad Science Watch, “and Health Canada, through their approval of these products, is complicit in this message. We will show that the policy of approving nosodes is working against the best interest of public health and we demand that Health Canada review these products and have them pulled from the shelves.”

Even a cursory search of the Natural Health Products Directorate, the agency that oversees the approval of non-orthodox alternative medicine products, brings up remedies purporting to prevent or treat such diseases as measles, polio, and mumps, three diseases that can be life-threatening in children and that vaccines have been effectively suppressing for decades.

“These nosodes may not directly injure a child, as they are so dilute as to contain none of the original substance,” said Michael Kruse, chair of the board of Bad Science Watch, “but they can give a very false sense of security. The basic tenets of homeopathy contradict basic chemistry and physics and there is no good evidence for its use in the prevention or treatment of disease.”

To get involved in the promotion of good science and help stop the spread of the anti-vaccine message, please contact info@badsciencewatch.ca.

Further Reference:

Evidence for Homeopathic Medicines Guidance Document – Health Canada
http://www.hc-sc.gc.ca/dhp-mps/prodnatur/legislation/docs/ehmg-nprh-eng.php

Pertussis Outbreak in Alberta
http://www.edmontonjournal.com/opinion/fashioned+killer+puts+Alberta+children+risk/6989299/story.html

Nosodes for Major Communicable Diseases Approved for Sale by Health Canada
http://www.badsciencewatch.ca/bad-science-watch-asks-health-canada-to-stop-approving-homeopathic-vaccines/

For media enquiries, or additional information, please contact:

Jamie Williams
Executive Director
Bad Science Watch
jwilliams@badsciencewatch.ca
1-888-742-3299 x 102

Bad Science Watch
180 Danforth Avenue
Toronto, ON M3K 3P5
Tel: 1-888-742-3299
Fax: 1-888-813-3569
Email: info@badsciencewatch.ca


Bad Science Watch is an independent non-profit activist organization that provides analysis of dubious scientific claims to Canadians, our government, and the media, promotes objective critical thinking and advocates for the enforcement and strengthening of consumer protection regulation.

Bad Science Watch is funded by individual donations, and is committed to organizational transparency.

Episode 26: “Thrive”

Episode 26: “Thrive”

In this episode of Life, the Universe & Everything Else, Gem Newman, Gary Barbon, and Mark Forkheim discuss the online conspiracy film “Thrive” with Robert Shindler, Richelle McCullough, and Greg Christensen.

This episode was recorded over Google+, so the audio quality is occasionally inconsistent. Unfortunately, due to technical difficulties, Greg, Richelle, and Robert had to drop out of the show early, but Mark, Gary, and Gem soldiered on!

Life, the Universe & Everything Else is a program promoting secular humanism and scientific skepticism presented by the Winnipeg Skeptics and the Humanists, Atheists & Agnostics of Manitoba.

News Items: Bad Science Watch | Students at Quebec School Have Adverse Reaction to Hypnotist Act | Hypnosis (Wikipedia, The Skeptic’s Dictionary) | Obese Father Loses Custody of His Children | Do Atheists Have a Sexual Harassment Problem? | Freethought Blogs Roundtable (Harassment at Conferences, Why Talk About Social Justice?) | SkeptiCamp Winnipeg | Winnipeg Skeptics Anti-Harassment Policy | New NSA Docs Contradict 9/11 Claims (Salon, National Security Archive) | Prometheus: It Sucked

Addressing Some of Thrive’s Claims: Thrive | Entropy and Life | Graphical (Linear) Projection | The Flower of Life | Skeptoid on UFOs | SkeptiCamp Winnipeg: Perpetual Motion and Free Energy | The Hutchison “Effect” | The Death of Eugene Mallove (Suspects Arrested, Schaffer Enters Guilty Plea) | Interviewees Repudiate Thrive (Interviewees Distance Themselves from the Film, John Robbins Speaks Out Against Thrive) | Thrive Debunked (Index, Ancient Astronauts, Crop Circles, “False Flag” Attacks, Global Domination)

What Are You Reading? Hitch-22 | Against Intellectual Monopoly | Hegemony or Survival | Fundamentals of Computational Neuroscience | Going Solo | Singlism | Dying of the Light | John Dies at the End | Redshirts | I Am Legend | Why Are You Atheists So Angry? | Before Watchmen

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