Episode 144: Twenty Questions

On this episode of Life, the Universe & Everything Else, Gem talks about Google’s search autocomplete feature, then Lauren, Ashlyn, Laura, and Gem answer twenty of the most popular questions suggested by Google.

Life, the Universe & Everything Else is a podcast that delves into issues of science, critical thinking, and secular humanism.

Correction: When answering the question, “Where is your liver?” Ashlyn misspoke: the liver is of course located below the diaphragm, not above it. Whoops!

Google and Autocomplete: How Google autocomplete works in Search (Google Blog) | Censorship by Google (Wikipedia) | Leaked Google research shows company grappling with censorship and free speech (The Verge) | Google to End Pentagon AI Contract, Will Remain a Defense Contractor (Tom’s Hardware)

How: Avoirdupois system (Wikipedia) | Troy weight (Wikipedia) | How to Make Slime: Our 4 Most Popular Slime Recipes (Home Science Tools) | How to Tie a Windsor Knot (Ties.com) | How to write a cover letter (Youth Central) | Hard Boiled Eggs Recipe (Food Network)

Where: Stages of transcription: initiation, elongation & termination (Khan Academy) | Archibald (Wikipedia) | Where is Xur? | History of pizza (Wikipedia)

Can: Can You Start a Sentence with "Because"? (Writer’s Digest) | Can I give my pet…? (Park Road Veterinary Clinic) | Ibuprofen Poisoning in Dogs (VCA Animal Hospital) | What Shall You Not Wear to an Indian Wedding Reception as a Guest? (Discover India) | Is it Legal to Marry Yourself? (Parry & Pfau)

Why: Rayleigh scattering (Wikipedia) | Diffuse sky radiation (Wikipedia) | Photosynthesis (Wikipedia) | Polar bear (Wikipedia) | Effects of Earlier Sea Ice Breakup on Survival and Population Size of Polar Bears in Western Hudson Bay (Journal of Wildlife Management) | Why Asparagus Makes Your Urine Smell (Smithsonian) | Benjamin Franklin’s Letter to the Royal Academy of Brussels (Early Americas Digital Archive) | Moore’s law (Wikipedia) | Why is Caillou bald? (Chouette Publishing)

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Listen: Direct Link | Apple Podcasts | Google Play | Stitcher | RSS Feed | Spotify

Episode 142: Rare Diseases

On this episode of Life, the Universe & Everything Else, Gem, Lauren, Ashlyn, and Laura discuss rare diseases and regulatory responses to them. Specific diseases discussed include diabetes insipidus, toxic shock syndrome, and the Cotard delusion.

Life, the Universe & Everything Else is a podcast that delves into issues of science, critical thinking, and secular humanism.

How Rare is Rare?: Useful Information on Rare Diseases from an EU Perspective (EU Health & Consumer Protection Directorate General) | What is a rare disease? (RareDiseaseDay.org) | Pitfalls in Canada’s Approach to Orphan Drugs (Rare Disease Review) | Rare disease (Wikipedia)

Orphan Drugs and Neglected Diseases: Neglected Diseases (WHO) | RARE Facts (Global Genes) | Rare Diseases (Genetic and Rare Diseases Information Center) | Rare disease (Wikipedia) | Neglected tropical diseases (Wikipedia)

Diabetes Insipidus: Diabetes mellitus and deafness (Wikipedia) | Diabetes insipidus (Wikipedia) | Diabetes insipidus: Symptoms and causes (Mayo Clinic) | Diabetes Insipidus (NIDDK) | Diabetes: Study proposes five types, not two (Medical News Today) | Are there actually 5 types of diabetes? (NHS)

Toxic Shock Syndrome: Everything You Know About Toxic Shock Syndrome Is Probably Wrong (Lifehacker) | The Symptoms of Toxic Shock Syndrome You Need to Know (SELF) | Killer Tampons from Outer Space or Why We Don’t Hear About Toxic Shock Syndrome Anymore (McGill University Office for Science and Society) | A Brief History of the Tampon and Who Invented It (ThoughtCo) | Toxic-Shock Researcher’s Discovery Hailed (The Washington Post) | Vaginoplasty procedures, complications and aftercare (UCSF Center of Excellence for Transgender Health) | Influence of the Normal Menstrual Cycle on Vaginal Tissue, Discharge, and Microflora (Clinical Infectious Diseases) | Toxic Shock Syndrome: Symptoms, Diagnosis, and Treatment (HealthLine)

The Cotard Delusion: Cotard Syndrome: “I’m Dead, So Why Do I Need to Eat?” (The Primary Care Companion for CNS Disorders) | What is Truth? And What is “Walking-Dead” Syndrome? (Nature’s Artful Brain Blog) | Cotard delusion (Wikipedia) | Capgras delusion (Wikipedia)

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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.

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.