Episode 80: Near-Death Experiences

In this episode of Life, the Universe & Everything Else, Donna Harris and Greg Christensen discuss near-death experiences (NDEs) and some of the possible psychological, physiological, and transcendental explanations for them.

Note: Shortly after this episode was recorded, we learned that Steven Novella and Sean Carroll would be participating in an Intelligence Squared debate on the resolution “Death Is Not Final”. Arguing for the resolution was Eben Alexander, author of Proof of Heaven, who was mentioned in this episode. We link to a video of the debate in the show notes.

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: Death Is Not Final (Intelligence Squared Debate) | Near-death Experiences (Wikipedia) | Heaven Is for Real | Eben Alexander | Francis Collins | Pim van Lommel | Sam Parnia | The God Helmet | International Association for Near-death Studies | Impact Factor (Wikipedia)

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Natural Remedies Never Kill?

Cross-posted from Startled Disbelief.

"Medicine" Public domain image from Wikimedia Commons.
“Medicine”
Public domain image from Wikimedia Commons.

Hey, look! Another completely absurd and almost fact-free article from syndicated columnist Dr. Ken Walker (who writes under the name W. Gifford-Jones):

“Health Canada has been raiding health-food stores, terrorizing proprietors and confiscating natural food supplements,” Dr. Zoltan Rona, an expert on natural remedies, recently told me.

Walker’s article is alt-med propaganda at its most pedestrian. He presents those who peddle “natural remedies” as embattled heroes who are being bullied by Health Canada, which is in the pocket of corporate interests. I find this especially amusing, given that Health Canada has recently been censured for its decision to loosen the licensing requirements for natural health products while bypassing important safety and efficacy checks. (A decision that heavily favours corporate interests, yes: the corporate interests of the multinational corporations who manufacture and distribute natural health products.)

It’s been a while since I’ve played Name That Logical Fallacy, but let’s see… The reader is presented with a false dichotomy in the form of a choice between corporate-controlled pharmaceutical medicine and feel-good “natural” remedies; the deaths resulting from the use of pharmaceutical interventions hint at the fallacy of the perfect solution (the government shouldn’t approve drugs that aren’t perfectly safe and perfectly effective); there’s at least one appeal to antiquity (Nattokinase “has been used for centuries” in Japan); and finally there’s Walker’s completely dishonest (or unforgivably ignorant) claim that “prescription drugs can kill, natural remedies never”: while this isn’t a fallacy, it is the false premise that lies at the very heart of the article.

Walker’s point seems to be that Health Canada should just get out of the way: if the remedy is “natural” (whatever that means) and/or has been used for a long time, its safety and efficacy are unimpeachable. Walker seems to be advocating for some sort of medical free market paradise, a deregulated Wild West of frontier medicine in which the government gives any old snake oil a free pass—snake oil, of course, being completely natural.

“Alternative” medicines can and do kill, directly and indirectly. Natural remedies often lack proper controls to prevent contamination or adulteration; herbal remedies are drugs, and their use in concert with pharmaceuticals can result in unexpected drug interactions; the dose of the active ingredient in herbal remedies is often inconsistent or highly variable (while it is precisely controlled in pharmaceuticals; that’s sort of the point); and when presented with a “natural alternative”, some patients may eschew science-based interventions (that are actually effective). If you’re looking for heart-wrenching stories of people killed as a result of so-called “natural” medicine, here are a couple hundred of them. “Alternative medicine” is most often simply an alternative to medicine.

Walker should be ashamed of himself for promoting such absurdities. But that’s nothing new.

Online Skeptical Activism: Does It Work?

The Winnipeg Skeptics is first and foremost about community: until 2010, skeptics, critical thinkers, science enthusiasts, and curmudgeons in Winnipeg didn’t really have a group to call their own, and so we created one. But many of us also care passionately about skeptical activism—and one of the easiest places to “do skepticism” is online.

In addition to our Facebook page (which you should “like”, by the way), we also have a Facebook discussion group (which we welcome anyone to join). I always enjoy engaging in critical discussions on scientific topics in the comments section of the blog, where I recently had an extended conversation about the purported dangers of radiofrequency EMF. (It’s worth noting parenthetically that “how do i start an anti wifi group” is currently one of the top web searches that leads to the Winnipeg Skeptics site.)

But one of the questions that I frequently encounter when discussing online skeptical activism is simply: Does it work?

I believe that it’s important to counter misinformation wherever and whenever we find it (especially when it seems likely that those who are misinformed may come to serious harm), and confronting pseudoscience on social media serves a valuable role. While you may not persuade those with whom you’re arguing directly (not immediately, anyway), you can prevent bystanders and passers by from being convinced by shoddy evidence, and you can help curtail the spread of bad science.

Members of the Winnipeg Skeptics are always doing battle against pseudoscience, and so I thought that I might share some of our recent social media escapades. I’ll note that a few of the snippets that I’ll present have been reordered slightly. This is because in some cases many people were posting to a thread simultaneously and responding to each other’s comments, and I’d like to present sufficient context for the discussion without forcing the reader to wade through every single comment. I’ll also link to a full screenshot of each discussion for those readers who would like to see each comment in its original context. I have also redacted the names of those participants who I don’t know to be “out” as skeptics. On the one hand, that’s sort of a shame, because there were a fair number of very solid points made and credit should go where credit is due. On the other hand, I feel that leaving these people’s names in there without permission would be rather rude.

We’ll start off with a discussion on the Little Remedies Canada Facebook page from a couple of months back. In their original post they claim that, flu season having arrived, squeezing a clove of garlic into your child’s food would give their immune system a “super boost”. (Full discussion.)

Little Remedies Canada, Image 1Little Remedies Canada, Image 2Little Remedies Canada, Image 3Little Remedies Canada, Image 4Little Remedies Canada, Image 5Little Remedies Canada, Image 6Little Remedies Canada, Image 7

Next, I’ll present a brief exchange that Richelle had with the proprietor of Calgary’s The Naked Leaf tea house, in which they slyly claim-without-actually-claiming that their tea treats high cholesterol and high blood sugar. (Full discussion.)

The Naked Leaf, Image 1The Naked Leaf, Image 2The Naked Leaf, Image 3

The response is classic: they promote nonsense, they’re called on it, and they responded with the old, “Well now, we’re not making any claims! We’re just letting other people make claims on our behalf!” (This is standard operating procedure for multilevel/network marketing schemes, incidentally.)

The last discussion that I’ll cite in detail comes from the Facebook page of Planned Parenthood Waterloo Region. At the end of last month they announced, “Planned Parenthood is proud to be hosting ‘Night with a Homeopath’ on Tuesday February 26th … [to] discuss what a homeopathic practitioner is and what they can do for us.” PPWR described the event as a great chance to learn about “alternatives to ‘modern medicine’.” The skeptical response was swift and decisive, with Rebecca Watson and members of the Winnipeg and Ottawa Skeptics spreading the word on Twitter and Facebook. (Full discussion.)

Planned Parenthood Waterloo Region, Image 1

That first comment pretty much sums it up, doesn’t it?

Planned Parenthood Waterloo Region, Image 2Planned Parenthood Waterloo Region, Image 3Planned Parenthood Waterloo Region, Image 4Planned Parenthood Waterloo Region, Image 5Planned Parenthood Waterloo Region, Image 6Planned Parenthood Waterloo Region, Image 7Planned Parenthood Waterloo Region, Image 8Planned Parenthood Waterloo Region, Image 9

All of that took place within an hour of the announcement. It seemed like Planned Parenthood Waterloo Region wasn’t going to back down, given the fact that they opened with the “you’re not being open minded” gambit, entreating us to just hear the homeopath out. But we were determined to spread this story far and wide, and just a few minutes later links to the announcement returned this:

Planned Parenthood Waterloo Region, Image 10

And this announcement followed soon after:

Planned Parenthood Waterloo Region, Image 11

How’s that for a win?

And this news came just a few days before it was announced that the Ottawa Regional Cancer Foundation had dropped notorious anti-vaccine crank Jenny McCarthy from their Bust a Move charity fundraiser in response to pressure from groups like the Ottawa Skeptics and Bad Science Watch. The #dropjenny campaign, spearheaded by the Ottawa Skeptics’ Chris Hebbern, took place almost entirely on Twitter.

So, online skeptical activism: Does it work?

It certainly seems to.

SkeptiCamp Winnipeg 2012: A Sampling Sampler

On Saturday, 29 September 2012, the Winnipeg Skeptics held their third annual SkeptiCamp event. SkeptiCamp Winnipeg is a conference for the sharing of ideas. It is free and open to the public: anyone can attend and participate! Presentations and discussions focus on science and free inquiry, and the audience is encouraged to challenge presenters to defend their ideas.

Dr. Laura Targownik is a professional gastroenterologist and health services researcher (and yes, she was already heard your colonoscopy joke). She is most interested in discussing how to improve the public’s understanding of medical issues, better living through statistics, and in improving resources for skeptical families.

SkeptiCamp is an open conference celebrating science and critical thinking. For more information please visit SkeptiCamp.org.

Science: The Good and the Bad

As you may recall, I occasionally write science articles for The Manitoban, the University of Manitoba’s student newspaper. My most recent contribution, which the editors titled “The good and the bad: A profile of Canadian non-profit Bad Science Watch”, went live while I was on vacation last week. Here’s a taste.

Bad Science Watch is a recently formed Canadian non-profit activist organization dedicated to ensuring that important societal decisions are informed by good science rather than bad. I recently had the opportunity to speak with Jamie Williams, Executive Director of Bad Science Watch, who took a few minutes out of his busy schedule to discuss the vision of the organisation and the political/social climate that led to its formation.

“Irresponsible companies and health providers are being allowed to spread misinformation and sell ineffective ‘alternatives’ to vaccines based on bad science. I and the other founding members saw a void in Canadian consumer protection and science advocacy regarding these issues. We saw a need for an independent organization with no industry ties or other conflicts of interest to campaign for all Canadians.”

You can read the full article online, or you can pick up a copy of the newspaper at your nearest University of Manitoba.

On the Importance of Vaccines

I occasionally have the pleasure of writing science articles for The Manitoban, the University of Manitoba’s student newspaper. My most recent contribution, titled “On the importance of vaccines: Not taking part puts us all at risk”, went live yesterday.

Vaccination is really important.

That may seem to you like an unusually benign assertion — not because it’s false, but because it’s so trivially and obviously true that it shouldn’t need to be said. If so, congratulations — you’re on the right side of the science.

You understand that when you receive a vaccination, you’re not just protecting yourself, you’re contributing to herd immunity by preventing yourself from becoming a vector for the disease and transmitting it to those who are too young or infirm to receive the vaccine themselves.

You can read the full article online, or you can pick up a copy of the newspaper at your nearest University of Manitoba.

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.