Escape to Reality

The Humanist Association of Manitoba and the Winnipeg Skeptics were joint sponsors of an informational booth at the Red River Exhibition that ran 17–26 June 2011. Surrounded as we were by booths from the Gideons, the Winnipeg League for Life, the Church of Scientology, and folks hawking knock-off Power Balance wristbands, we called the booth “Escape to Reality”.

I spent a fair portion of my free time over the last week staffing the booth (along with the indefatigable and demonstrably more dedicated Donna Harris and others), and generally had a lot of fun. We even got a shout-out from PZ, which is always appreciated. We had many enjoyable conversations with believers and skeptics of all stripes.

Donna, Laura, and I chatted at length with a few creationists, who were apparently offended that one of our signs put “Young Earth Creationism” in the same evidential category as “The Easter Bunny”. When pressed, they could provide no positive evidence for their position, and seemed to forget several of their own talking points. Apparently there are no beneficial mutations, evolution cannot add information to the genome, and Darwinism predicts that species will just get stronger, smarter, and better over time, while we’re clearly just getting sicker and sicker.

When I tried to explain that evolution only predicts increasing adaptation to the species’ environment, I was smugly informed that I did not understand evolution. When I tried to explain precisely how mutations can add “information” in a genetic sequence, bringing up insertions, deletions, transpositions, and point mutations, I was met with blank stares. I pulled out a sheet of paper and wrote out some codons (ATG CTG TAG…), changing or crossing out letters to illustrate the replication or replacement of one or more nucleotides.

“I’m going to stop you there,” one of the creationists said. “What are all those letters supposed to mean?”

Sorry, I thought, my mistake. I assumed that because you so arrogantly asserted that mutations were incapable of adding new information to a genome, you were at least passingly familiar with what “information” means in the context of genetics. I decided to cut my losses and move on.

There were times that they stumbled over their own talking points, which I found amusing. For example, they brought up Mount St. Helens several times, but couldn’t seem to remember why it was so important for their case. I reminded them that Steven Austin had rock from a new lava flow at Mount St. Helens dated, and the potassium-argon dating showed the rock to be hundreds of thousands of years old—unfortunately, it is well established that Austin (either knowingly or in ignorance) used the incorrect radiometric dating methods. The various types of radiometric dating are accurate for varying (and overlapping) ranges of time. They are validated not only against each other, but also by other dating methods, such as dendrochronology, which uses tree rings.

Wait a second, it says here that God created humanity, not Darwin...

Of course, the creationists weren’t the only people we met whose beliefs took a sharp right turn when confronted with reality. A young woman who seemed very interested in our booth asked me, “Do you guys believe in energy?” “Sure!” I said. “Energy is the capacity of a system to perform work.” She seemed a little nonplussed by this. “No,” she said. “How we’re all connected by energy. It’s all about science. There’s this movie you should see…” “Ah!” I said. “You’re talking about What the Bleep Do We Know?.” And then I told her, as gently as I could, precisely what I thought of that particular quantum fantasy film.

We spent much of our time at the Ex promoting SkeptiCamp Winnipeg, which is coming up on September 17th at Aqua Books, and the MASH Film Festival, on August 14th at the Park Theatre. Both events garnered a lot of interest.

We also did a few demonstrations. I’m told that the fellow hawking “Energy Balance” bracelets ($30 rubber bands—with “ions”!) threatened to call security on Ashlyn as she calmly explained to his marks how all of his tricks could easily be faked. Hypothetically, of course. She wasn’t calling him a fraud. It’s all about the consumer protection, folks! (Richard Saunders explains the tricks here.)

On Thursday night, Scott and I went to get “stress tests” at the Dianetics booth run by the Church of Scientology. There, we were asked personal questions while we held tin cans connected to a volt meter. I found that if you squeezed the cans, the needle would jump, which led to some amusing shenanigans.

Pictured: Science.

There, we learned that L. Ron Hubbard had apparently been both a renowned physicist and a research psychologist. “Through his research,” I was told, “he discovered that humans are spiritual beings.” Fascinating! We were told that Scientologists were first responders in Haiti and Japan. “Oh,” I said, “that’s great! How did they help?” I was informed that these “first responders” were trained in Touch Assist, a form of energy healing.

The recruiters told Scott and I that one of the greatest boons that Dianetics has to offer is increased mental discipline and help to those who suffer from mental illness. “You know how Einstein said that you only use this much of your brain?” my recruiter said, holding her hands about an inch apart. “Well, with Dianetics…” She spread her arms wide, presumably indicating that Dianetics would allow me to meet my intellectual potential.

“So Dianetics is about mental health,” I said slowly. “That’s exactly right,” she told me.

“Oh,” I said. “Like psychiatry.”

She stared at me as though I’d slapped her. Recovering quickly, she launched into a conspiracy-mongering diatribe about drug dependency and the Big Psychiatry smear campaign against the Church of Scientology. Scientologist successfully trolled. I’m such a bastard.

My favourite quotation of the night: “Dianetics is a science. It’s like gravity. You can’t disprove it.” Fact.

A big thank-you to everyone who helped out with planning and staffing the booth, and to those who stopped by for a chat!

Non-believer? We need your help!

“The Non-Believers’ Beliefs – A Short Film”

If you identify as atheist, agnostic, non-theist, or non-believer of some fashion, then we want to talk to you! We are looking for non-believers that we can interview for a short film about what they do believe, and why; where do you get your morality and ethics from? What do you value?

Co-Producers Scott Carnegie and Gem Newman of the Winnipeg Skeptics are making this film which will premiere at the M.A.S.H. (Manitoba Atheists, Skeptics, and Humanists) Film Festival at the Park Theatre on August 14th.

If you are interested in being a part of this project, please contact Gem Newman (spurll@gmail.com) with your name, email address, phone number (cell preferred), and availability for the months of June and July; if you will be away on holidays please indicate the dates so that we can arrange schedules.

Do you want Dr. Oz to appear on the SGU?

Cross-posted from Startled Disbelief.

Dr. Steven Novella, clinical academic neurologist at Yale, executive editor of the Science-Based Medicine blog, senior fellow of the James Randi Educational Foundation, host of The Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe podcast, and all around badass, recently appeared on Dr. Oz’s daytime soap opera. You can find the segment, in three easy-to-swallow 5-minute segments, here: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3.

If you want to read Dr. Novella’s take on the experience, you can do so here.

Surprisingly, the editing seemed very fair and Steve came out sounding eminently reasonable.

But the main problem with the show was unavoidable: Dr. Oz controlled the format, and Dr. Novella was only given brief periods in which he could respond to direct questions posed by the host. For example, I was annoyed that while Dr. Novella specifically called out that there is a large body of evidence that these therapies don’t work, Dr. Oz insisted on responding as if he’d said that there isn’t any evidence that the therapies do work.

And so, Dr. Novella has invited Dr. Oz to appear on the SGU to continue the discussion. Phil Plait put the call out on twitter, and is asking everyone who’s interested to encourage Dr. Oz to take some time to continue the dialogue.

Here is my contribution:

Dear Dr. Oz & team.

First off, many thanks for featuring Dr. Steven Novella on Tuesday’s episode. Unfortunately, the limitations of the format prevented a more free-form discussion on the merits of alternative medicine. Dr. Novella has invited Dr. Oz to appear on The Skeptics Guide to the Universe (http://theness.com/neurologicablog/?p=3184), the most popular Science Podcast on iTunes, and winner of best science podcast in the podcast awards two years running.

I’d really love to hear a longer discussion, where Drs. Oz and Novella can have more time to clearly express their ideas! I hope that Dr. Oz considers the benefit that he could have if he reached out to the skeptical community in such a manner.

Many thanks.

Gem Newman
Winnipeg, MB, Canada

Do you have two minutes? Spend it encouraging Dr. Oz to continue the discussion on the Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe. You can do so at http://www.doctoroz.com/contact.

Winnipeg Skeptics Overdose on Nonsense

The 10:23 Campaign took place this weekend, with events in seven Canadian cities and on every continent worldwide—and I mean every continent: I’m told that there was even participation at one of the Antarctic research stations! [Edit: Here’s the link!]

In Winnipeg, we had a modest turnout of ten skeptics; we had a few cancellations due to illness, despite event co-organiser Leslie Saunders’ assurances that there would be copious quantities of Oscillococcinum available. Go figure.

When we arrived at Memorial Park, directly north of the Manitoba Legislative Building, we discovered that the snow was knee- (and in some cases, waist-) deep. Luckily Douglas had a shovel in his trunk, and Robert and I took it in turns to clear a path to our chosen area.

Richelle and Leslie with homeopathic moonshine, diluted to a very potent 60C.

Leslie supplied us all with “homeopathic moonshine”, and Robert and Richelle were kind enough to furnish everyone with some hot coffee (thankfully, not diluted to homeopathic quantities). It was a balmy –2°C, but while the weather was mild the added warmth of the hot beverages was much appreciated. That, and I’m a coffee addict.

Douglas and Nathan with two varieties of homeopathic sleeping pills.

When 10:23 came around, the overdose began. Douglas and Nathan both downed bottles of homeopathic sleeping pills. Half an hour later, they were not even drowsy, although Nathan took his with a Monster Energy Drink: it was obviously this dangerous combination of uppers and downers that kept him going for the rest of the event.

I chose to take a 30C preparation of ignatia amara, a remedy that is meant to treat “intense grief, bereavement, and emotional shock”—and, if I’m reading this reference site correctly, also “shrivelled” genitals and “the plague”.

I down my bottle of ignatia amara, which is supposed to contain a deadly cocktail of strychnine and brucine.

Although we hadn’t received responses to any of our media solicitations, we did have a fellow from CTV who showed up after the main event. Several of us were still chatting, and we were more than happy to do another overdose for the camera. Apparently we got some CTV News screen-time, which I missed. (But who watches the news?) You can find a very brief write-up of the story here.

Gem Newman, founder of the local group Winnipeg Skeptics, said that the protest was to put pressure on pharmacists and healthcare providers to ensure that products sold as medical treatments are effective.

That’s actually a very fair summary of our position. I’m impressed! This isn’t about telling people that they can’t take homeopathic nostrums if they so desire—it’s about raising awareness and educating the public so that they can make an informed choice.

Of course, the obligatory false balance was also present:

Kumar Belgaumkar, a homeopathic medicine practitioner with the Winnipeg Homeopathic Clinic, said that while consuming excessive pills during the staged overdose wasn’t dangerous, it also isn’t a scientific test of homeopathic medicine.

Homeopathic medicine has been practiced for over 200 years and has been proven in a clinical setting, he said.

Of course. It was never meant to be a “scientific test of homeopathic medicine”. Those have been done, and, contrary to Mr. Belgaumkar’s assertion, they show that homeopathy has no effect beyond placebo.* And I presume that you noted his worthless appeal to antiquity?

Let’s move on.

After the event, I was contacted by Rob Drinkwater, a reporter for the Canadian Press, and he conducted a telephone interview with me. I also put him in touch with Michael Kruse and Jonathan Abrams, who organised the Toronto and Ottawa demonstrations.

When the Canadian Press story eventually hit the news sites, I was disappointed by the factual inaccuracies it contained. Even after I walked Mr. Drinkwater through the homeopathic process and explained that the preparations (despite their labels) contained nothing but sugar and lactose, the story implied that the “remedies” were herbal in nature.

Skeptics of homeopathic medicine have downed entire bottles of the remedies at demonstrations in several Canadian cities in an effort to prove the concoctions don’t work.

Gem Newman, who consumed a whole bottle of St. John’s Wort at an event in Winnipeg, says the capsules were mostly comprised of sugar and water and didn’t affect him.

Again, we weren’t trying to “prove the concoctions don’t work”: we’re trying to raise public awareness of this fact. The scientific legwork has already been done, but public perception of these nostrums is lagging behind.

Nitpick Warning: I did not consume a bottle of St. John’s Wort! I did not even consume something labelled St. John’s Wort. I was planning to take hypericum perforatum myself, but its claims to cure puncture wounds, crushed fingers, and lockjaw made it popular enough that I gave it away to another enthusiastic skeptic.

But that’s irrelevant, because no one actually got any hypericum. Taking a whole bottle of actual hypericum could be extremely dangerous, potentially resulting in liver failure. The capsules weren’t “mostly comprised of sugar and water”—they were entirely comprised of sugar and lactose!

So, the lesson here is that dealing with the media is a recipe for frustration.

On a lighter note, did anyone else notice that “Drinkwater” has to be the greatest possible name for a reporter doing a story on homeopathy ever?

In the interest of avoiding facepalms, I suggest steering clear of the comments section on the Winnipeg Free Press site. It’s full of the standard “Big Pharma” conspiracy-mongering, naturalistic fallacies, appeals to consumer freedom, anti-vaccine kookery, and simple misunderstandings of what homeopathy actually is. The comments probably shouldn’t be taken as representative, however: the alt. med. crowd is really good at mobilizing the troops.

IMO, the people who pulled this little media stunt are big pharma insiders out to discredit natural medicine. It’s all part of the plan to remove natural products from the shelves… they don’t even deny it.

Exactly right! Because the only way someone could possibly disagree with you is if they were paid off.

Even so, there were some glimmers of hope. My wife went through the comments and picked out some winners.

Good and innocent people (though not many smart people) quite often die from taking homeopathic remedies instead of medicine. THIS is the issue. You need not bow down to big pharma, but don’t bow down to homeopathy either. It’s so much dumber.

Many, perhaps most “remedies” contain not a single molecule of the active “ingredient” (it’s not an ingredient if there isn’t any of it present, DUH!) because they are diluted by a factor of 10 to the power of 60 (that’s a 1 with SIXTY zeroes after it!). Further claims are even more ridiculous than that one – that the remaining dilutant (usually water or alcohol) retains an “impression” of the diluted substance (which is no long even present). This is, unfortunately, in opposition to all known science.

Big pharma will stop at nothing. [Homeopaths] will stop at even less. Do your own research, and remember that keeping an open mind includes being open to the idea that homeopathy may not be good for you. Weigh the evidence, especially if you or a loved one are ill, even more especially if it is a serious illness that is known to be curable or treatable by other methods than homeopathy.

And how about this one, responding to some anti-vax claims?

People used to die of pneumonia, whooping cough and the COMMON COLD in outrageous numbers but improvements in our understanding of modern medicine (including sanitation) have improved survivabilty of disease. The best that homeopathy can give you is improved hydration.

I believe that this one was posted by Richelle, and it nicely sums up our position:

We don’t want to take away people’s rights to free choice. What we do want to see is people be aware of what they’re throwing their money away on. It is a scam. Imagine if a “Big Pharma” company swapped out their drugs for something that didn’t work, had been proven not to work, and sold it for a jacked up price to an innocent public!

This whole campaign is about choice: it’s about informed choice. As things stand, it’s incredibly difficult for people to make informed choices, because misinformation abounds. This is easily illustrated by the fact that neither the reporter nor the commenters seem to understand that homeopathy ≠ herbal remedies.

And finally…

[Homeopathy] is every bit as valid as horoscopes and healing crystals! I can’t understand how these people can protest such important treatments.

I don’t care if that’s Poe or not: it’s pure WIN!

Homeopathy: there’s nothing in it.

I just want to finish up with a brief note about placebos. Someone suggested on Facebook today that even if homeopathy is nothing but placebo, placebos have been proven to work.

This is not true.

Placebo is “effective” in roughly 30% of cases, and only for symptoms with a high psychological overlay (e.g., pain or nausea), and it isn’t clear whether people are perceiving less pain or if they are simply reporting less pain. Objective outcomes are not affected by placebo.

When placebos seem to affect objective outcomes, this effect occurs in the form of regression to the mean (when symptoms are at their worst, they tend to improve a little). When a patient seems to get better, it can also be due to the natural history of the disease (many diseases—colds, flus, etc.—get better on their own). Throw in a little confirmation bias for good measure, and the “placebo effect” isn’t much of an effect at all.

Many folks think that it’s “mind over matter”. It isn’t. Placebos aren’t used because they work, they’re used because they’re necessary to maintain blinding procedures in clinical trials, which prevents bias in patient, practitioner, and analyst. (But don’t take my word for it! For more information from an actual medical doctor and infectious disease specialist, see episode 5 of QuackCast.)

And don’t forget: with real medicines you get a placebo effect on top of a real medical intervention. Bonus!

I probably should have prefaced this with “TL; DR”. Ah, well.


* From the conclusion of a recent systematic review of 110 placebo-controlled trials: “when analyses were restricted to large trials of higher quality there was no convincing evidence that homeopathy was superior to placebo.”

Source: A. Shang, K. Huwiler-Muntener, L. Nartey, P. Juni, S. Dorig, J.A. Sterne, et al. “Are the clinical effects of homoeopathy placebo effects? Comparative study of placebo-controlled trials of homoeopathy and allopathy”. Lancet, volume 366 (2005).