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The hardening hypothesis for smoking – but does the evidence point to “softening” in NZ?

SciBlogs - Mon, 2016-08-22 15:06
By Prof Richard Edwards The hardening hypothesis suggests that as smoking prevalence declines, the remaining smokers will be the more addicted ones who are less likely to quit. But does the NZ evidence support this? This blog considers these issues and explores the potential implications for achieving NZ’s Smokefree 2025 goal. The ‘hardening hypothesis’ emerged […] The post The hardening hypothesis for smoking – but does the evidence point to “softening” in NZ? appeared first on Sciblogs.

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Categories: The Local Blogosphere

Sloths aren’t lazy – their slowness is a survival skill

SciBlogs - Mon, 2016-08-22 13:02
By Becky Cliffe, Swansea University Conventional wisdom has it that sloths are simple, lazy creatures that do very little other than sleep all day. Even the very name “sloth” in most languages translates as some version of “lazy”. It seems astonishing that such an animal survives in the wild at all. In 1749, French naturalist Georges […] The post Sloths aren’t lazy – their slowness is a survival skill appeared first on Sciblogs.

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Categories: The Local Blogosphere

An Inventory of Citizen Science

SciBlogs - Mon, 2016-08-22 10:17
The New Zealand Landcare Trust has launched ‘An Inventory of Citizen Science in New Zealand‘ to understand what’s happening in the citizen science space. The inventory, written by Dr. Monica Peters, includes a range of projects studying everything from children monitoring long-tailed bats, to patrolling beaches for dead seabirds and monitoring local streams. “We wanted to create […] The post An Inventory of Citizen Science appeared first on Sciblogs.

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Categories: The Local Blogosphere

Sunday Seascape 21 August

SciBlogs - Mon, 2016-08-22 10:07
Sunday is my time for seascape photography. Sometimes it’s hard to figure out where the weekend goes.  But by Sunday afternoon it was time to visit a beach and absorb some of that lovely, NZ fresh air.  The cool weather means we have practically no heat haze at the moment.  That produces a nice clarity […] The post Sunday Seascape 21 August appeared first on Sciblogs.

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Categories: The Local Blogosphere

It’s the Skepchick Sundaylies! Refugee Nation, Naked Trump, Singing Your Love for Calculus, and more!

Skepchick - Mon, 2016-08-22 05:30

Sunday Funny: Resting Geek Face. (via Wondermark)

Teen Skepchick

Awesome Sauce Music Friday: I Love Calculus
The Joan Jett/math crossover you didn’t know you needed.

Mad Art Lab

Make It Stranger
Stranger Things meets typography to make the perfect nostalgia storm.

Do You Have a Flag?
The Olympics put a spotlight on refugee athletes, and now they have a flag and anthem of their own.

The Naked Trump
Jim explains the problems with those naked Trump statues that have been popping up.

Grounded Parents

Citation Needed
Green Party candidate Jill Stein has implied that the FDA can’t be trusted. Topher is going to need your sources, Dr. Stein.

Depression Through the Generations
Bethany explores a study of depression a 30 year, four generation study.

Weekend Reads: 3D Clitoris, Watership Down, and Olympic Heroes as Superheroes
Lou keeps you up to date on the best reads on the internet.

Featured image credit: Scott Akerman via Flickr

The Skeptic Zone #409 - 21.August.2016

The Skeptic Zone - Sun, 2016-08-21 19:09



Heidi Robertson



The Raw Skeptic Report

This week Heidi Robertson has another report from the recent Brisbane Skepticamp. She chats to Enrique Bustamante and learns about the real Dunning Kruger effect.





Maynard's Spooky Action..

Maynard and Richard head for the Australian Museum to perfrom the Mystery Investigators show as part in Sceince Week. Maynard also chats to Catherine Beehag, the manager of the festival and Alison from the University of Technology.





Skeptics Dinner Meeting with Lyne Kelly - 24th September



Categories: Skeptical Radio

“Filtering” out fluoride

Open Parachute - Sun, 2016-08-21 17:04

Systems for removing fluoide from tap water can cost less than $300

Many anti-fluoride campaigners and their sympathisers use “filters” to remove fluoride from their tap water. Despite this, they will often claim the procedure is “too expensive” for the ordinary person – or that it is ineffective.

Fluoride Free Nelson (FFN) combined both reasons in this exchange on their Facebook page.

But she is wrong on both counts. Suitable water filters can be relatively cheap (just do an on-line search  to check this out) and they just do not work by filtering out particles. The argument that fluoride “is so small most filters do not remove it at all” is naive. FFN does not understand how these systems work and her advice is completely unreliable.

Firstly, The word “filter” is commonly used but is technically not correct for “filters” that remove fluoride. Filtration is usually understood to involve removing particulate matter, and not soluble ions. The actual mechanism of fluoride removal is not by filtration of particles.

Yes, some “filters” do not work with fluoride – because they are not intended to. Activated charcoal is great for removing organic matter and tastes – but is not mean to remove anions like fluoride.

Apart from distillation, there are three ways for the ordinary consumer to remove fluoride and similar anions from tap water – anion exchange, surface adsorption and reverse osmosis. Here is a brief description of each method but readers can also refer to a useful local report:

National Fluoride Information Service (2012). Household water treatment systems for fluoride removal.

Anion exchange

This involves attraction of negatively charged anions like fluoride by positively charged surfaces. Water is passed through a bed of anion exchange material which has positive charges on its surface balanced by negatively charged anions like chloride (Cl–) or hydroxide (OH–).

Anion exchange particle. Positive surface charges are balanced by negatively charged ions.

Anions like fluoride in the tap water replace the existing charge-balancing anions on the exchanger. For example:

Fluoride anion in tap water replace chloride anions on the surface of the anion exchanger.

Of course, these anion exchange cartridges eventually become saturated with fluoride or other anions being removed, and their efficiency drops. They are then replaced or recharged by flushing with the proper salt solution.

Surface adsorption

Interaction of fluoride anions and anion exchangers is basically a physical electrostatic one. But some filters rely on a chemical interaction where the fluoride anion reacts with the surface to form a chemical bond. Absorbents like bone char and alumina are common.

Bone char is made from cow bones and is a high surface area, porous calcium phosphate (apatite) providing active calcium for reaction with fluoride. Alumina provides a surface containing active aluminium which reacts with fluoride.

The chemical reactions occurring at the surface of these materials are of the form:


Schematic of a water filter using alumina. Source: National Fluoridation Information Service.

The efficiency of both the anion exchange and surface adsorption methods can be improved by the way the filter is set up, the use of pre-filters, etc. And by regular recharging or replacement of cartridges.

Reverse osmosis

This relies on the ability of certain semi-permeable membranes to allow transport of water molecules but not ions like fluoride. So much for the naive concept that fluoride anions are too small to be filtered out of water.

It gets its name from the phenomena of osmosis which is probably familiar to most school children. Remember the experiment where pure water would pass through a membrane into a solution of sugar or salt – but water from the sugar or salt solution could not pass through into the pure water.

A semi-permeable membrane is a membrane that only allows through molecules of a certain size or smaller. The cell membranes of plants and animals are semi-permeable membranes, they let water molecules pass through while keeping out salts. Image credit: Solar-Powered Desalination Plants.

That creates an osmotic pressure. Reverse osmosis involves applying pressure to the sugar or salt solution (or whatever solution needs purifying). This causes pure water to flow through the membrane and the contaminants to stay behind providing a way of removing ions and molecules from the original water.

This schematic animation shows how reverse osmosis works in practice – although the membranes are rolled into cylinders to provide a greater surface area and increased efficiency.

Image credit: Reverse Osmosis Works

Consumers can use either of these methods to remove fluoride from tap water if they choose. While the equipment varies in price and sophistication, like any household appliance, relatively cheap systems are available.

These do work – just beware of claims made about low efficiency as often measurements are made with inappropriate “filters” like activated charcoal, or on systems that have been used for a time and need recharging.

That “freedom of choice” we keep hearing about is available and it is relatively cheap.

Similar articles

Categories: The Local Blogosphere

The Skeptics Guide #580 - Aug 20 2016

The Skeptics Guide to the Universe - Sun, 2016-08-21 04:00
Interview with Fraser Cain; Forgotten Superheroes of Science: Janet Rowley; News Items: Chemtrails, Supar Hyperactivity, Augmented Reality and Cognitive Load, Fifth Force; Who's that Noisy; What's the Word: Flocculation; Science or Fiction
Categories: Skeptical Radio

Global Quickies: Women in Stadiums, Period Taboos in Sports, and Hair Salons Help Family Planning

Skepchick - Sun, 2016-08-21 03:00

“A gag order has been placed on a Jordanian writer who was arrested for posting a cartoon deemed offensive to Islam. […]The cartoon depicts God in paradise, being treated as a servant by an Arab man, who is in bed with two women and asking for wine.”

“A French court has refused to release a 68-year-old woman pardoned for murdering her husband after nearly 50 years of rape and violent, sparking a public outcry with some describing the ruling as “incomprehensible”.”

“On August 13, Lima became the site of a massive demonstration against the systemic gender-based violence of recent decades. More than 50,000 Peruvians, mainly women, swarmed the streets of the city in an unprecedented march in which they called for justice for the many Peruvian women who are habitual victims of gender violence, or worse, of judicial negligence.”

“A Swimmer’s ‘Period’ Comment Breaks Taboos In Sports — And In China. Fu Yuanhui, a Chinese swimmer at the Rio Olympics, made headlines this week for telling the world she was on her period.”

EGYPT (From Donna)
“Eight female Egyptian presenters told to lose weight or lose Jobs.”

“The German Interior Minister, Thomas de Maiziere, has called for a partial ban on the burka, a day after saying a full ban might not be constitutional.”

“The decision by a handful of French mayors to ban the Islamic burkini swimsuit has divided the country and shocked its neighbours, with critics seeing the prohibitions as profoundly discriminatory.”

“Olympic security personnel questioned a female Iranian volleyball fan when she showed up for a match holding a large sign and wearing a T-shirt that said “Let Iranian Women Enter Their Stadiums.””

“Guinea is set to expand its use of hair salons to promote urban family planning beyond the capital, even introducing it to tailors’ shops”

“Women’s rights groups, lawyers and doctors have condemned Turkey’s decision to introduce a mandatory chemical castration programme for convicted sex offenders, arguing the treatment does not address the underlying reasons for widespread violence against women, and that bodily punishment will instead lead to increased abuse.”

“Gibraltar took a decisive step toward recognizing same-sex marriage on Monday when its government announced a draft bill to modify the British Overseas Territory’s Civil Marriage Act. The bill will now go before parliament, which will approve the change to the law in six-weeks, as required by the Constitution.”


Featured image: #NiUnaMenos (not one less), art by Diana Solis for Peru’s march against gender violence







Quickies: Oxygenating maxi pads, negging women in sports, and spitfires

Skepchick - Sat, 2016-08-20 01:48

Communicating Risk and Certainty

NeuroLogica - Sat, 2016-08-20 00:11

A recent article in the Guardian discusses how scientists and experts should communicate risk and certainty to the public. The author, Jack Stilgoe, makes some good points, but unfortunately frames it as part of a defense of Jill Stein:

She said that there were ‘real questions’ about the dangers of vaccines, that GM foods have ‘not been proven safe’ and that ‘more more research is needed’ on the risks of electromagnetic fields.

As with climate change, it is tempting to claim that the science is certain, the evidence is clear and the debate should move on. Things are rarely so black-and-white. In politics, the facts don’t speak for themselves, so it falls to experts to make sense of the shades of grey.

Stilgoe is speaking of a dilemma faced by experts and science communicators when dealing with political or ideological opinions that diverge from the scientific consensus. The real dilemma is that if we communicate the science in technically accurate detail, it seems as if we are equivocating and those on the anti-science side will unfairly exploit this to exaggerate the uncertainty. If we gloss over the uncertainty to emphasize the bottom line, then the anti-science side will unfairly exploit that to say we are engaged in a cover-up and are being uncritical.

It is a no-win scenario, which is often the case when dealing with those who put ideology above science and reason. They aren’t playing fair, which can give them a rhetorical advantage over someone honestly trying to be fair.

It is also a lot easier to create and exploit doubt and confusion, than to give a thorough understanding of a complex topic.

Stilgoe concludes:

Expert groups are often relied upon by politicians to tidy up the facts on contentious issues. It rarely works. People don’t like being patronised with easy answers where there are none to find. With mobile phones, a group of experts took a different approach. They instead admitted that there are uncertainties and trusted in citizens’ ability to navigate them. When it comes to climate change, Wi-Fi, GM crops, vaccines and mobile phones, there will always be scientific grey areas. If experts want to regain their credibility, they urgently need to find ways to talk about them.

I agree with this basic approach, but would emphasize different points. I also seem to disagree with him regarding how uncertain we are about the topics he uses as examples.

The solution to the dilemma, in my opinion, is that the scientific community, science communicators, journalists, and government experts need to develop a common language with the public for communicating about risk. Right now there is confusion.

For example, Stilgoe writes:

In 2011, the International Agency for Research on Cancer classified mobile phone EMFs as a ‘possible human carcinogen’ (placing them alongside bacon and almost every other enjoyable food).

What does “possible human carcinogen” actually mean in terms of the scientific evidence? The IARC even admits:

Perhaps not surprisingly, based on how hard it can be to test these candidate carcinogens, most are listed as being of probable, possible, or unknown risk. Only a little over 100 are classified as “carcinogenic to humans.”

Even worse, the classification says nothing about dose. To get a good idea of how confusing, even to the point of being worthless in terms of public communication, just follow the link above to the list of known and probable carcinogens. Alcohol is a known carcinogen, yet people consume it on a regular basis without fear. Formaldehyde is also listed, without noting dose. There is natural formaldehyde in our bodies, and in many foods we eat. It is often pointed out that pears have more formaldehyde in them than vaccines, but the fact that this is listed as a known carcinogen is great fodder for anti-vaccine fear mongering.

Hot beverages and red meat are also listed. If you go down to “possible carcinogen” then you start to include things like caffeine.

This categorization may accurately reflect the scientific research in some way, but it does not communicate useful information to the public. In fact, it creates confusion. It doesn’t tell people how to stay healthy or minimize their risk.

We live in a complex world and are generally overwhelmed with information. What people want and need is an “executive summary” – what’s the bottom line? What people want to know are categories like: tiny theoretical risk, don’t worry about it; safe for everyday use; minimize exposure at all costs; safe in small doses but avoid excess, etc.

This goes beyond safety and carcinogens, of course. For climate change, for example, of course we are not 100% certain, the science is not over, there are unanswered questions and remaining uncertainty. There always will be. But the bottom line is – there is a solid scientific consensus that burning fossil fuels is warming the climate with potentially costly and unwanted (possibly even catastrophic) outcomes. If we want to avoid these probable outcomes we will need to start reducing our overall CO2 release now.

With vaccines the bottom line is – vaccines have a long history of both scientific evidence and clinical use demonstrating that they provide orders of magnitude more benefit than risk. There is no credible link to autism, and serious negative outcomes are extremely rare. Seriously, getting vaccinated is a no-brainer positive health intervention. (You may notice the difference between this and Jill Stein’s bottom line that “real questions” remain about the safety of vaccines.)

You can give an accurate overview of the science of a technology or substance without using unjustified words or phrases, like the “science is settled” or “zero risk.” Even if you think saying something like the “science is settled” is justified, that phrase is now a dog whistle to science deniers and is therefore counterproductive.

Make no mistake, effectively communicating science like this is very tricky, and it is a two-way street. I try to be as careful as I can be in discussing these controversial topics, and accurately reflecting the science while simultaneously communicating the proper bottom line. This often means putting things into their proper context.

I don’t think there is any one algorithm for communicating science that cuts through all the complexity. However, in certain situations when classification systems are used, they should be crafted with meaningful communication in mind. The “probable” or “possible” carcinogen categorization, in my opinion, is horrible and generates tremendous confusion and potential for anti-science exploitation.

Regarding Stilgoe’s article, he failed, in my opinion, to defend Stein’s statements. Just because the science is not absolute, because it is never absolute, that does not mean Stein’s exploitation of the usual scientific uncertainty was justified or appropriate. She pandered to the anti-vaccine, anti-GMO, and anti-technology crowd with phrases meant to convey sympathy to their anti-science positions.

She was exploiting scientific complexity and poor communication for ideological purposes.



Chelation for Autism - Putting the Cart before the Unicorn

JREF - Mon, 2013-12-02 02:00

Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a challenging neurological condition characterized by difficulty with social interaction and communication. As the name implies, it occurs across a wide spectrum from barely detectable to debilitating. ASD is usually diagnosed by 3 years old, but studies have found that signs are often present as early as six months old.

It is understandable that parents of children with ASD are eager for effective treatments and feel obligated to do their best for their children by leaving no stone unturned. This is not, however, always the best approach in medicine. Some stones can cause harm and are best left unturned.  

There is a cottage industry of so-called "biomedical" treatments for ASD - they treat ASD as a biological disease that can be cured or at least significantly ameliorated. This conflicts with the current scientific consensus regarding ASD, that it is a neurodevelopmental disorder (a result of brain wiring), and not an active disease. Legitimate interventions focus on improving function. Critics of biomedical treatments (myself included) argue that such treatments are unscientific, exploit parental desperation, and even victimize children with ASD.

A recent systematic review looks at one popular biomedical treatment for ASD, chelation therapy. The idea here is that autism is caused by, or significantly worsened by, the presence of toxic heavy metals, such as mercury, in the body. This is often tied to the claim that vaccines are the source of the heavy metal poisoning and therefore are linked to autism (a claim that has been soundly refuted by the evidence).  

Chelation therapy is a legitimate treatment for real heavy metal poisoning. Chelating agents can be given orally or intravenously, they bind to heavy metals and help the body excrete them. In this regard they work well - after receiving chelating agents the body will excrete heavy metals.  

Chelation therapy, however, has been a popular target for the fringe. For decades a persistent but tiny minority of physicians have believed that chelation therapy is an effective treatment for vascular disease, despite the fact that the evidence has refuted this claim on both basic science and clinical grounds.

One has to wonder if the fact that chelation therapy is an expensive procedure and has to be given multiple times is a factor in its popularity on the fringe.  

In any case - at best chelation therapy can be considered experimental for autism. This raises issues regarding the ethics of giving experimental treatments, ethics which have been thoroughly explored.  

First, experimental treatments should not be offered instead of proven therapies. In other words, they are not a justification for withholding standard of care treatment. In cases where such treatments are not available or insufficient, however, resorting to experimental treatments is reasonable.  

Experimental treatments, however, should be reasonably justified by existing evidence. There should be good reason to believe that such treatments are likely to be safe and effective, often stated as - they are more likely to produce benefit than harm.  

When researchers are applying for grants and permission to perform human medical experimentation, they have to provide data to support this conclusion. If they cannot do so, then the experiment is considered unethical and likely will not get approved. The threshold does vary depending on the situation. For terminal illnesses without effective treatment we are willing to dip deeper into speculative treatments (so-called "compassionate" use).  

It is also generally accepted that experimental treatments should be given, whenever possible, in the context of a clinical study, so that we can learn whether or not the treatment is effective. This also assures that proper informed consent will be given, and further means that patients will be given proper follow up and will not be charged for experimental treatments.  

In every regard chelation therapy for ASD fails. The treatment is based on the hypothesis that heavy metal poisoning causes or contributes significantly to ASD. The evidence does not support this conclusion; however, and in fact it is reasonable to say that this hypothesis has already been rejected by existing evidence. Further it is often given outside of the context of a proper clinical trial.  

The new systematic review looks at five clinical studies of the effectiveness of chelation therapy for ASD. They found that four of the five studies had mixed results, while the fifth had positive results. All the studies, however, suffered from fatal methodological flaws (they were weak, poorly designed studies), and therefore collectively they do not provide evidence to support the use of chelation therapy for ASD.  

Despite this, about 7% of parents of children with ASD have tried chelation therapy. The review also warns that chelation therapy is not without direct risk. The lead author is quoted as saying:

"The chemical substances used in chelation treatment have a myriad of potentially serious side effects such as fever, vomiting, hypertension, hypotension, cardiac arrhythmias and hypocalcaemia, which can cause cardiac arrest," said Tonya N. Davis, Ph.D., assistant professor of educational psychology in Baylor's School of Education and co-author of the study.  


Offering chelation therapy for ASD is a basic violation of medical ethics. If the treatment is considered experimental (which is generous) then it should only be given as part of a well-designed clinical trial. Existing trials, however, are anything but well designed.  

But calling chelation therapy for ASD experimental gives it more credit than it deserves. It is not even speculative. There is evidence to suggest that the basic premise of chelation for ASD is wrong. Giving chelation for ASD is therefore not really an example of putting the cart before the horse, but putting the cart before the unicorn.  

It is therefore not only unacceptable to give chelation for ASD, it is also unethical to even perform a clinical trial of chelation for ASD - the basic science justification is simply not there.


Steven Novella, M.D. is the JREF's Senior Fellow and Director of the JREF’s Science-Based Medicine project.

Meditation - Specific or Non-Specific Effects

JREF - Sun, 2012-12-16 02:00

One of the challenges of scientific investigation, perhaps especially in the complex arena of medicine, is teasing apart specific from non-specific effects. A specific effect is one that derives from the details of a particular intervention, with a distinct mechanism of action. Non-specific effects are everything else.  

Non-specific effects are part of placebo effects, but not the same as placebo effects also include statistical effects, bias, and other sources of illusory effects. Non-specific effects are real; they just do not derive from the specific intervention itself.  

For example, with therapy techniques for anxiety or depression, non-specific effects would include the caring attention of the therapist, taking time out from one's regular schedule to think and talk about their feelings and problems and the hope generated from taking positive action to address one's symptoms. Any specific technique, therefore, would seem to be effective due to these non-specific effects of the therapeutic interaction.

Before one claims that moving the eyes back and forth, or guided imagery, or being regressed to a prior life has specific effects, and is therefore evidence of a specific mechanism, the non-specific effects outlined above need to be carefully controlled for. This is especially true when the alleged mechanism is outside the bounds of currently known biological phenomena.


  This confusion of specific with non-specific effects is at the core of much of what is labeled "alternative" medicine. Acupuncture is another great example. The best evidence strongly supports the conclusion that there are only non-specific effects from acupuncture, deriving from the kind attention of the acupuncturists. It doesn't seem to matter where or even if you stick needles through the skin, arguing against any specific underlying mechanism.  

Another treatment increasingly popular in the world of alternative medicine is meditation, or specifically transcendental meditation. Interestingly, one study on TM (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23204989) contained the following statement: "Transcendental Meditation and TM are trademarks registered in the US. Patent and Trademark Office, licensed to Maharishi Vedic Education Development Corporation and are used with permission." I noticed that few other studies of TM contained this statement, and realized it was probably because the studies were all conducted at the Maharishi University of Management (more on that below).  

TM is a specific meditation technique and proponents claim that it is effective at reducing blood pressure, reducing cardiovascular risk factors and generally promoting health. This sounds like another perfect example of confusing specific and non-specific effects. Relaxation therapy and stress reduction have been demonstrated to lower blood pressure and cardiovascular risk. There is a known mechanism for this - emotional stress increases sympathetic tone, which raises blood pressure and stresses the heart.  

Unless there is very good evidence controlling for the non-specific effects of stress reduction, there is not reason to believe that TM has any additional specific effects that relate to the details of the TM procedure. Occam's razor would favor the known over the unknown as an explanation.  

In looking over the literature on this question, however, I ran into a significant problem. All of the primary research into TM is conducted at one or another Maharishi institution. Every one. Perhaps this has something to do with their patent. I could not find any truly independent replication. I did find one review (the one above with the patent disclaimer), but this was just a review of Maharishi studies.  

A conflict of interest alone does not prove that the results are unreliable, but given how difficult it often is to tease apart specific from non-specific effects and the obvious motivation to promote TM, it certainly places a question mark at the end of all such research. Further, it is impossible to fully blind such interventions - subjects know if they are performing TM or not.  

Subjects could be trained in one of several relaxation techniques, without being told which one, and then assessed by blinded evaluators. That would be one way to reasonably separate specific from non-specific effects of TM. Until then, it's difficult to take pro-TM research at face value.  

Further, the result of TM on blood pressure and cardiovascular risk tend to be modest, barely statistically significant and variable from study to study (where various outcomes are measured - systolic vs. diastolic BP and stress response vs. ambulatory blood pressure, for example). (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/9134445 and http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/15691622). The data, in other words, are a bit noisy if generally positive.  

I remained unconvinced that there is any specific effect from TM that is not present with any reasonable method of stress reduction. The kind of studies that would tease apart specific from non-specific effects, independently replicated by researchers not affiliated with TM, would be more convincing.  

Meanwhile, any method of stress reduction appears to be a reasonable intervention for high stress people with increased blood pressure or cardiovascular risk.


Steven Novella, M.D. is the JREF's Senior Fellow and Director of the JREF’s Science-Based Medicine project.

Etsy Gets Creative

JREF - Sat, 2012-12-15 02:00
D.J. Grothe recently reported that Ebay planned to prohibit sales of many paranormal services, including spells, curses, prayers, and healing. Of course, this was easier said than done. In a quick search of Ebay plenty of woo can still be found, including a Time Machine, a Deluxe Quantum Radio Amulet for ghost hunters, and an EBook that teaches you how to have sex with a succubus or incubus.

Some sellers use workarounds to avoid deletion, such as misspellings, or hedges that a painting is “possibly” possessed. For example, one seller offers a clown doll for $450, with the header: “Is this clown haunted?” followed by the disclaimer:

Ebay I am not saying that this particular clown is haunted, just saying it is similar to one that was.

Craigslist users are in on the act too. Boulder’s “Eco Psychic” charges $74 to channel the musician of your choice to compose a song for you. The seller claims he can communicate with a number of artists, including Paul McCartney, Billy Joel, Stevie Wonder or Dolly Parton (even though they’re not dead…)

Another ecommerce site that needs to clean up its act is Etsy.com, which is a kind of fixed price Ebay for arts and crafts. They specialize in selling handmade and vintage items, but which of these categories do love spells and penis enlargement fall under?

Etsy sells a large range of paranormal and pseudoscientific goods and services, including Wiccan, Voodoo and Santeria spells, amulets and talisman, ghost hunting tools and alternative medicine products. The ads make grandiose claims, without supplying any evidence that they will work in the way promised.

Etsy sells hundreds of unproven weight loss remedies. Who needs exercise and diet when you can simply wear a ring? Red Dragon Apothecary casts the spell of your choice onto rings, pendants and charms. For example, they sell a ring containing a spell that supposedly “assists in weight loss and overall health. It will help boost metabolism and flush out toxins.” Moonstone Dancer offers “Weight Watchers Oil” that you simply “Rub the oil over areas where you wish to rid fat”. The secret isn’t in the oil, let’s not be silly about this. The key is visualizing yourself as thin. “Visualization is MOST important, so make sure that you perform all of these while visualizing yourself healthy and fit.”

Arcane Spells will “connect to your soul” during meditation, and “using your soul as a bridge, will “connect to your subconscious mind” and send energy that “will increase the metabolism of the body a lot. As a result, not only your body will burn fat at a very fast rate, but you will also have much more energy. The spell will continue it’s [sic] effect until most of the fat in the body is gone.” Not only will you lose weight, but “you will never gain weight again”. Even witches have BOGO sales. If you buy two spells, the seller promises to “send three times more energy”. Ironically, Arcane Spells reminds us to let the buyer beware, as “Most spellcasters on the internet are crooks”.

Papa Hoodoo sells hundreds of Hoodoo, Voodoo and Wiccan spells, but not as curios. The shop offers a necklace that when worn will “Increase your breast size, get firmer larger breasts, rid of stretch marks around breasts, get the nipples you desire.” Other spells will increase the size of your penis; give you “6 pack abs”, make you to gain hair in wanted places or rid your body of unwanted hair. A powerful ring contains:


For $124.95 the buyer can also be assisted with “gender sex change”.


Etsy is riddled with thousands of ads selling spells to attract love, fertility and money, and to banish or curse. There are “healing” herbs, oils and incense, and snake oil “cures” for PMS, prostate problems, baldness and much more. There are hundreds of homeopathic treatments, “healing” magnetic bracelets, “healing” crystals, and thousands of pendulums. There are “haunted” dolls, voodoo dolls and even a “Chiropractic adjustment doll”.

Some of these dangerous products contain disclaimers that state these products are for “entertainment” purposes only, or that they are “not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent disease.” These are mere afterthoughts following their numerous claims and anecdotal evidence attesting to the efficacy of the product.

Etsy also has a questionable feedback system. Negative or neutral feedback for sellers is frequently deleted or hidden from view, while the sellers are still shown as having 100% positive feedback. Etsy doesn’t appear to offer any consumer protection against dodgy sellers and their shonky products.

I encourage skeptics to flag these sellers and their individual products. At the bottom of each page there is a button to “Report this item to Etsy”. However, we can’t rely on these companies to purge their sites of dishonest listings when they’re profiting from the sales. However, we can submit complaints about these companies to the Better Business Bureau and the FDA’s Medwatch. Join me in reporting these sellers, and making these ecommerce sites accountable for the useless and often dangerous products they sell.  


Dr. Karen Stollznow is a linguist, author, skeptical paranormal investigator and a research fellow for the James Randi Foundation. You can follow Karen on Twitter here.

Santa: My Children Didn't Myth Him

JREF - Fri, 2012-12-14 02:00

One subject sure to start a fight with any group of skeptics is the subject of Santa Claus.  The most diehard skeptic gets all soft and mushy when it comes to the subject of St. Nick, flying reindeer and slave labor elves.

People that will demand the expulsion of anyone at a skeptic conference that even hints at being an agnostic ("agnostics are just atheists that are to afraid to stand up for what they really don't believe!"), will explain in detail why they tell their children Santa Claus is real.

I don't always buy their arguments.  "The rest of the family tells their children Santa is real, while I'm willing to stand up for my atheism and skeptic beliefs, I don't want my young child to have to fight with her cousins about Santa.  It's not fair for a 3 year old to have to take this on."

People that gave their grandmothers strokes when they came out as atheists, will say "It would really kill grandmother, I mean not just cause her to lose all ability to move her left side, I mean KILL grandmother if she thought the kids did not believe in Santa.  I can't do that to her."

There is the peer pressure argument.  "Our child will not fit in at school if she doesn't believe in Santa.  The other children will shun her."  I like to point out that the Jewish children manage to survive.  Children of other religions that do not celebrate Christmas, and I am sure are not told Santa is real, manage to have friends and not be scarred for life.  As a former preschool teacher I can assure you Jewish children, as well as Buddhist and Sikhs do not sit down their children, read the "Night Before Christmas" and explain "Except the reindeer don't land here, and you don't get presents. It isn't that you are bad children, we're just not Christians."

Skeptic parents that teach Santa at least don't pull the stunts that other non-skeptic parents do.  Anyone that has been shopping at this pre holiday insanity time has probably seen a parent do the "Santa threat".  In my day it was "If you aren't good Santa won't bring you presents, you'll just get coal."  Today, it's not serious holiday shopping if I don't see at least one parent pull out their cell phone and threaten to call Santa to tell him how horrible the children are behaving.  I've seen parents dial Santa and carry on conversations with him about how little Max doesn't deserve the complete Lego Harry Potter set as he's screaming in the middle of Target. It works, but I wonder how these parents keep their children under control the rest of the year.

My own choice for my children was based on how the school where I used to teach dealt with the holiday season. Santa is just one of many mid-winter myths.  Children love to hear how different cultures celebrate Christmas and other holidays.  Santa has different names and different looks all around the world.  He has different helpers, and some cultures don't have Santa at all.  My children learned "There are many traditions and myths, let me tell you about other Santa myths and winter celebrations from around the world".  Our family loved to incorporate other holiday traditions.  We even once included wreaths with candles worn on the heads of my girls, as a nod to Swedish tradition.  Despite my worries, both girls managed not to catch their hair on fire, or burn down the house.  Christmas was a wonderful cultural and history lesson for my girls.

Santa wasn't "real" he was a "myth" like the Easter Bunny or Ronald McDonald.  We also, like all families, made up our own Christmas traditions. We put out carrots for the reindeer, the next morning the carrots were not there.  The children knew they had become a holiday snack for hungry wildlife in our yard. It was just fun to "remember" how hard working the reindeer were.  When dad suggested Santa might like a beer, the children just giggled and joined in the fun.  Every year Santa has a beer waiting for him, it's our tradition.  If Santa were real, he would want to stop at our house, reindeer snacks and a Sam Adams!

I also taught the children why there are so many holidays at this time of year.  Long ago, there would not be enough food for all the animals on the farm to make it through the winter. Rather than letting the animals slowly starve, the extras were eaten.  If you are having a feast, you might as well have a celebration of some sort.  Later, when agriculture improved and farmers were able to raise enough crops to feed all their animals through the winter, a mid winter holiday celebration became just a fun way to liven things up.

I in no way advocate that skeptics and atheists should not teach their children about Santa Claus.  Parenting is a very personal matter.  I myself was not shocked when told that Santa was not "real", though I had a very hard time believing it as my older brother had informed me had had stayed up late one Christmas Eve and seen Santa.  I actually went around for a few years feeling the adult that had broken the news to me about Santa was misinformed.

My now adult brother swears he really did see Santa, though we now understand he probably fell asleep while waiting and had a very realistic dream.  This is why eyewitness testimony is never enough!  If just seeing Bigfoot makes Bigfoot real, then Santa certainly should be real based on my brother's evidence.

My only problem with skeptics and atheists that teach their children Santa is real, is their lack of honesty about why they are doing it.  Very few admit, "I tell my children Santa is real, as it's a lot of fun for me.  I like Santa!"  If telling your child Santa is real, and comes with presents on a sleigh pulled by reindeer and eats cookies and milk (or beer) gives you and your child a lot of happiness, you don't need to defend your choice.  Part of parenting is about having fun with your child and also reliving happy childhood memories.  I enjoyed Christmas much more after I had children than before.  I get much greater joy watching my children open their stockings or unwrap that perfect gift they have been wanting, than in opening a gift for myself.

My children enjoyed the myths of Santa, and enjoyed the thought that around the world so many other children would also be waiting for St. Nick, or Pere Noel, or Grandfather Frost, or even the Christmas Brownie.  It was a way for them to feel connected to other children on that special eve and morning.

So "To believe or not believe, that is the question!"  It's up to each parent, because this is a family choice, not a political or ethical or religious choice.  The holidays are about having fun, and I hope also making up new traditions and myths to be remembered and passed down in the family.  Trust me, the Santa gets a beer is one our family still practices.  (Sometimes even Mrs. Santa enjoys a beer)

When it comes to Santa, it's really just the business of you and your family.  Because the reason for the season is family.  (No matter what religious people say)


Kitty Mervine is a teacher, artist, and mother of 2 daughters. She is also a longtime volunteer with the JREF, helping staff the JREF forum table every year at TAM among other things. Kitty speaks on people who believe they have been abducted by UFOs and their experiences. She also blogs at Yankeeskeptic.com

New Video from the Amaz!ng Meeting 2012: Investigative Methods for the Skeptic

JREF - Thu, 2012-12-13 12:57

If you missed The Amaz!ng Meeting 2012, you can still catch great talks, panels, and workshops on science and skepticism given live at TAM 2012 on our YouTube page. Today, we are pleased to share one of those remarkable workshops.

Investigative Methods for the Skeptic

In this workshop from TAM 2012, a lineup of top paranormal investigators teach the best methods for examining extraordinary claims. Featuring JREF fellow Dr. Karen Stollznow, author Ben Radford, Bryan Bonner and Matthew Baxter of the Rocky Mountain Paranormal Research Society, Carrie Poppy and Ross Blocher of the "Oh No! Ross and Carrie" podcast, and Blake Smith of "MonsterTalk".

Watch for new talks from The Amaz!ng Meeting every week, right here on randi.org. And enjoy new videos the moment they are posted by subscribing to our YouTube channel.

Hello world!

Canterbury Atheists - Wed, 2010-12-08 10:24

Welcome to WordPress. This is your first post. Edit or delete it, then start blogging!

Categories: The Local Blogosphere

There’s witchcraft in them there Carterton halls.

Canterbury Atheists - Fri, 2010-10-08 10:28

Wairarapa appears to be a hotbed of paganism (strange, I seem to have been left off their invite list to this years midnight Satanic orgy?) and the sleepy town of Carterton is the vortex for this shameless devil-worship.

This coven of devil-worshippers was exposed when the towns-library was temporarily housed in the local Masonic Lodge.

As every good Christian knows those goat-molesting Freemasons are in league with Beelzebub and Reverend John Cromarty from St David’s Church in Carterton wants the mayor to close the temporary library being run out of the lodge – least it corrupts the population.

In his letter to the town mayor Cromarty spells-out the evils of Freemasonry and the potential dangers of being exposed to its dark-craft.

"Freemasonry, while it does good works in the community, is based upon the worship of pagan gods,"

“While it portrays a facade as being compatible to Christianity in its teaching, it has its foundation rooted in witchcraft and pre-Christian teachings and practice."

The reply from Cartertons mayor, Gary McPhee, to Reverend Cromarty’s complaints could have been penned by yours-truly, given its acerbic nature.

McPhee told Cromarty in his open reply he was "stuck in the wrong century" and "We are now in the 21st century but clearly some people didn't move along with us."

Looking at the retard in the photo above (check-out the jutting jaw and small cranium) – I have to agree with McPhee’s line of reasoning on this one, but he appears to have let diplomacy get the better of his vitriol.

After closer examination of Reverend John ‘Missing-Link’ Cromarty’s photo, I would place that period of time closer-to 400,000 years ago when Homo Neanderthalensis roamed the planet, rather than mere centuries.

Categories: The Local Blogosphere

Would the real DM please stand-up

Canterbury Atheists - Wed, 2010-10-06 13:21

This is ‘the’ legendary DM (a.k.a David Marbus) the author of such gems as the one below, which appear with annoying regularity in the comments section of atheist blogs through-out the world, including mine:

add comment moderation to your BS you will not have a PUBLIC FORUM NEW GAME WITH YOU LITTLE F*CKERS - SPEAK N DIE. Come see the latest DM videos for your viewing pleasure! the WORLD TRADE CENTER PROPHECY - THE DANCE OF DEATH http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=X0Hez25fFrg http://media.depechemode.com/micro_sites/remasters/gr/wallpaper/violator_8_640.jpg _______________ And the Pope is 100% correct: The Nazis and the atheists both wish to ABOLISH FAITH.... http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-11332515 ________________________ hawking is WRONG science cannot explain NOTHING! http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PMRJJcfEXls& FAIR AND BALANCED! ________________ http://dissidentphilosophy.lifediscussion.net/philosophy-f1/the-boobquake-911-t1310.htm

If that wasn’t enough indication DM is a looney-tune extraordinaire, take-a-look at another one of his delusional rants, I recently deleted:

the only crap you will ever need from this so-called "philosopher" called massimo pigliucci http://chem.tufts.edu/science/pigliucci/rationally-speaking/RS2001-091.htm "The light shines in the darkness, but the darkness has not understood it." http://www.dailymotion.com/video/x1iy39_depeche-mode-john-the-revelator_music JOHN THE REVELATOR! FAIR AND BALANCED! KING OF TERROR add comment moderation to your BS or more people will die with you... NO GODS AND NO POLITICS WITH THESE LITTLE IDIOTS! http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gyEISfS15g4&feature=player_embedded plush safe he think http://www.christies.com/lotfinderimages/D14781/d1478164x.jpg http://vimeo.com/13704095 but with recent revelations about James Randi, I think he likes DICKS! THE SECOND COMING! THE END OF ATHEISM FOLLOW THE WHITE RABBIT... http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Smwrw4sNCxE THE B**BQUAKE - 911 http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yeblvLoVJCA&feature=related http://www.youtube.com/watch?v

David Marbus turns-out to be a Canadian called Dennis Markuze and he’s a lot younger than I expected.

But then again I should have guessed he was closer to 30 than 50 when I had in front of me the stunning truth that Nostradamus predicted the formation of the group Depeche Mode and that somehow in-turn lead to September 11th.

If you ask me his jacket is more Spandau Ballet than Depeche Mode and the later have penned more than fair share of atheist anthems as it happens – not that DM is aware of much happening in the real world outside his Montreal bedroom.

Markuze also seems to like the Japanese horror-film ‘The Ring’ from other rants I’ve seen over the years – hardly suprising since I don’t think he gets out much of his parents house, except to fill-up his prescription.

Basically ‘the tough-guy’ DM turns-out to be a sniveling creep.

This song is for you DM.

Categories: The Local Blogosphere

The time for popes to show their magic is when they are alive – not dead.

Canterbury Atheists - Mon, 2010-10-04 12:41
Part of the all-but automatic beatification process of a pope and the road to his sainthood, is evidence of a credible miracle.

To gain sainthood a pope must show they are in-effect a kind of middleman ‘lightening rod’ on earth for their god called Yahweh.

Invariably this anecdotal evidence when provided is flimsy at best, and placed-on the-table long after their deaths.

No one seems to care that when someone is alive they are never able to display their magic-tricks and never, but never, in an open-public forum or say under scientific scrutiny.

If the current pope is to show us the power of god channeled through his form – why not stump-up with the goods right now rather than later when he is dead and buried?

Why doesn’t The Catholic Church show us Benedict is literally ‘gods emissary’ by showing-us now, rather than decades later, his miracle, so we can examine it in the harsh light of day?

The time for Benedict to show us his magic, say regeneration of a severed limb, is now - but there sweat FA chance of that happening.

That would lead the entire public and scientific community playing the devils advocate.

Categories: The Local Blogosphere
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