The Greater Blogosphere
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.
This is cross-posted from Queereka. I initially did not cross-post it to Skepchick because I didn’t see it making the rounds in the skeptical/atheist blogosphere. But now that I see it popping up (in quite unskeptical ways, I might add), I figured I’d cross-post this to give a different take than I’ve seen elsewhere.
I came across this awesomely bad article late last night. It is either an example of really bad science reporting, really bad science, or both.
Actual Headline: Scientists May Have Finally Unlocked Puzzle of Why People Are Gay.
I’m sure many of you are familiar with the ever-elusive “gay gene” and the plethora of studies that have attempted to find it (and failed). Well, apparently we’ve moved on from that folks: now it’s all about the EPI-MARKS!
So what the hell is up with this story? Well, for starters it’s not actually science.
The team of researchers used mathematical modeling to suggest that teh gay is passed through epigenetic markers, not through genetics. How does this work?
Evolutionarily speaking, if homosexuality was solely a genetic trait, scientists would expect the trait to eventually disappear because homosexuals wouldn’t be expected to reproduce. But because these epi-marks provide an evolutionary advantage for the parents of homosexuals: They protect fathers of homosexuals from underexposure to testosterone and mothers of homosexuals from overexposure to testosterone while they are in gestation.
So what’s the conclusion these scientists draw? Welllll……
“These epi-marks protect fathers and mothers from excess or underexposure to testosterone — when they carry over to opposite-sex offspring, it can cause the masculinization of females or the feminization of males,” Rice says, which can lead to a child becoming gay. Rice notes that these markers are “highly variable” and that only strong epi-marks will result in a homosexual offspring.
So there you have it folks. These epi-marks create us sissy boys and butch girls, which clearly causes teh gay. Nevermind all the masculine gay men, feminine lesbians, trans* gays and lesbians, androgynous queers, bisexuals, asexuals, pansexuals, and so on. They’re clearly just abberations that don’t fit into the neat homo/hetero binary based on heteronormative stereotypes and are therefore unimportant. Case closed!
Except, it’s not. Why?
Rice’s model still needs to be tested on real-life parent-offspring pairs, but he says this epigenetic link makes more sense than any other explanation, and that his team has mapped out a way for other scientists to test their work.
“We’ve found a story that looks really good,” he says. “There’s more verification needed, but we point out how we can easily do epigenetic profiles genome-wide. We predict where the epi-marks occur, we just need other studies to look at it empirically. This can be tested and proven within six months. It’s easy to test. If it’s a bad idea, we can throw it away in short order.”
So the whole “may have unlocked the puzzle of why people are gay” headline really should read “Hypothesis about epigenetic causes of homosexuality needs to be tested” or “Scientists seeking empirical evidence for basis of heterosexist understandings of homosexuality.” Or just “more biological reductionist crap from the media” would suffice as well. I mean, really, this whole thing about nellies and tomboys is right out of the sexology playbook circa late 1800s. Havelock Ellis and Richard von Krafft-Ebing would be so proud!
The thing is, I don’t doubt there are some biological components to sexual orientation. But to completely ignore the wide varieties of how same-sex behavior is expressed and experienced cross-culturally is asinine. Simplistic explanations like this never pan out because sexuality is complicated and fluid and not so easily defined.
You can find a copy of the study here.
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.
The New York City Center for Inquiry is getting atheists and secular humanists together this Sunday for a rather unusual fundraising event—singing Christmas carols in Washington Square Park to raise money for the Hurricane Sandy recovery efforts. Every penny raised will go to New York Cares.
The idea is that many atheists still enjoy various traditions, regardless of their religious origins—baking cookies, decorating, singing, and so forth. So why not get together with fellow heathens and have some fun while raising money for people in need at the same time?
When: December 16, 2012, 2:00 pm to 4:00 pm
Where: Washington Square Park
You can find out more information, including links to the carols, on the CFI–NYC event page.
Featured image by emily balsley.
- A woman’s opinion is the miniskirt of the internet – If you flaunt either, brace yourself for a barrage of harassment.
- Atheists carolling for good – CFI NYC will be carolling on the 16th to raise donations for Hurricane Sandy relief.
- Meteorologist fired after politely responding to racist Facebook comment about her hair – Eeesh, racism and sexism, the worst/least surprising combo.
- Anne Hathaway, Matt Lauer, and the end of embarrassment over naked photos – Hathaway handles a gross comment from Lauer with great aplomb.
- Cute Animal Friday! Mary shared Sam the rescued fighting dog’s story, which will make you cry but has a happy ending. And since humans count as animals, here’s an adorable baby in a bucket from Mindy.
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:
A WHITE MAGICK BUTT & THIGH ENHANCEMENT SPELL FOR MEN OR WOMEN~ IMPROVES THE BOOTY GIVING A NICE ROUND BUBBLE BUTT , TIGHTENS LOOSE SKIN, REDUCES FAT OR CELLULITE, ENHANCES THE BOOTY IN AREAS YOU MAY NEED IT MOST!
For $124.95 the buyer can also be assisted with “gender sex change”.
FEEL LIKE YOU WERE BORN THE WRONG SEX? ATTRACTED TO MEN NOT WOMEN? OR WOMEN NOT MEN? MAYBE JUST TIRED OF DEALING WITH THE OPPOSITE SEX? THIS SPELL CAN HELP TO TRANSFORM YOUR BODY & MIND FROM MALE TO FEMALE OR FEMALE TO MALE!
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.
The Pseudoscientists Episode 70 — Birds and butts, epigenetic sexuality and creationist beliefs, with Sarah McBride
Jack, Belinda and Rachael are joined by new YAS writer and medical student Sarah McBride to talk birds and butts, the epigenetics of homosexuality, eating fat, and what creationists actually believe about science. Jargonauts focuses on the word “fiducial”, and we look at your answers to last week’s question about the best argument for the existence of God. But sadly, no On The Street! Next week’s question: “Is it okay for atheists to celebrate Christmas?”
Plus, Jack has some pretty controversial opinions about cats and birds. Cat lovers be forewarned.Links
- “The Top 10 Claims Made by Creationists to Counter Scientific Theories” at io9
- “Birds use butts in nests to deter pests” - ABC Science
- “Cutting down on fat shed kilos” - ABC Science
- Don’t forget to take part in the Atheist Census!
If you have feedback for the show or want to ask us a question, get in touch via our Contact page or send us an email at youngausskeptics(at)gmail(dot)com.
Bain Capital is one of the world’s leading private, alternative asset management firms, with approximately $65 billion in assets under management. That’s the first thing you read when you go to their web page. That’s right $65 billion, let’s say approximately and round off at 66 billion. Last night a Bain representative (who will for the time being be referred to as Mr. X) called me up to discuss “platforms” and “marketing options” his investor clients want to take a look at. They are interested in the “psychic market.” Hmmmmmm. Looks like the Big Bucks guys are looking for new ways to make the money grab now that Romney is out.Flattering as it was to be their “go to guy” in this enterprise, my antennae went up after I first Googled this fellow’s name before officially accepting his call. I’ve been here before. The last time somebody wanted to pump me for the ”how to” on 900 lines, it was Uri Geller himself back in the 90′s. Uri wanted to set-up a new phone line with me as his partner. I declined. Later he left a voice mail on my message machine and believe it or not, after listening to his greeting, that machine never worked again. But that’s another story.
It was odd indeed to be interviewed by a person who apparently hadn’t read my book, “Psychic Blues” or have any idea about what my take on this dicey world would be. I guess they are just too busy counting money over at Bain to get into the higher spiritual realms.
The key phrase Mr. X used that set the tone was, “…We aren’t interested in the skeptical aspects of your work.” Yeah. Duh. This was not a surprising introduction to what was to come.
Bain and their partners, clients and moguls are knocking on the doors of the psychic world. Again, not surprising at all really. Who wouldn’t? Especially when you’ve got billions to spend?
We know as skeptics we are mostly losing the battle for rational thinking (and now investing) and when things get worse in the economy and elsewhere; well, …things get worse. The vultures are circling. They smell blood in the water and want their piece of the action. Knowing what little I know about Bain, the Koch brothers and their pack I braced myself, listened carefully and as in my past role infiltrating the psychic market in “Psychic Blues;” I played the game.
Standard questions such as who calls 900 lines, payment, basic demographics and such were covered. I told Mr. X the absolute truth from the perspective of someone who has been there and back. I made sure to underscore the fact that back in the 90′s when 900 psychic lines began to take off, it was a novelty and fun new way for many people to feel “entertained.” It remains true that when times get tough, psychics tend to prosper and people want cheap solutions to their problems now just as then. The problem for young guys like Mr. X and his investors today is since convicted frauds like Miss Cleo, the Psychic Friends Network and their ilk have ben so badly discredited or gone belly up, not only are most people thankfully a little bit smarter than back then, they also have little or no discretionary funds to piss away on such frivolities. They need things like food, gas and heating more than psychic harmony or healing crystals. I let him know in no uncertain terms it’s now more than ever a risky business for anyone to get into and unless somebody comes up with an original and exciting way to banish the deceptive practices and woo mumbo-jumbo, they are bound to lose money and fail.
After dwelling on the downside of entering into a business that would no doubt increase the misery and poverty of millions of people, Mr. X told me he personally had “moral reservations” about supporting alliences with his investors in these ventures, but hey, …that’s his job. Nice dodge Mr. X.
It’s clear to me that no matter how discouraging my answers to this interrogation may have been, Bain & Co. are likely going full-steam-ahead with their plans. Mr X told me they had spoken to many other “psychics, healers and intuitives” about future options. I got the distinct feeling I was the one dissenting voice in his day. Let’s face it, I’m sure those “professional” charlatans made things look as rosy and inviting as possible.
So get ready Ladies and Gentlemen – a whole new barrage of hyped-up nonsense is on the horizon. With people like Dr. Phil (take home pay 35 million a year) and the Koch brothers hosting the lowest of the low in our society, it won’t be long before your PC, iPhone, and most private sensitive information will be skillfully woven into a huge fabric of consumer fraud and used against you by people who have the money, power and initiative to think up bigger and more devious ways to convince you they have what you need in “spiritual guidance.”
Without wanting to sound too conspiratorial – or political, expect this new wave of streamlinde state-of-the-art bullshit to subtly inject right-wing thought into their new witche’s brew of high-tech wonders.
I predict things like; “…Psychics are into inner higher awareness and shun big government intrusion into their space” or “Psychics support the right to carry concealed weapons – it’s all about Karma” etc.
Don’t say I didn’t warn you.
In a major expansion, the Skeptoid science podcast, in English since 2006, is now available in Mandarin on the Chinese iTunes Store and at http://skeptoid.com.cn. This effectively triples the potential listener base, making the award winning show available to more listeners worldwide than any other podcast in any genre.
Host Zhe Li (Lizzie to her English speaking friends) was selected as the favorite from a field of test hosts whose recordings were evaluated by a large focus group of Chinese natives. As a professional translator, she brings a wealth of experience and resources translating even the most obscure technical and scientific terms from Skeptoid.
For an in-depth interview with Lizzie (in English) please give a listen to The Skeptic Zone episode 216. It starts at about the 23-minute mark.
I spent months evaluating the idea of expanding Skeptoid into foreign languages. It’s a much larger commitment than most people realize, so the available resources had to be thrown at the lowest hanging fruit. China is the world’s largest market, and Mandarin Chinese is the language spoken by more non-English speaking people than any other; so it was the obvious choice. Translation, recording, international rights management, bandwidth, editing and engineering, website nationalization, and commitment to Chinese marketing, listener support, and quality control are ongoing tasks, and all cost time and money. Skeptoid Media’s 501(c)(3) nonprofit application is still pending, but I decided to proceed with the investment because I think it’s an important direction. (By the way, at least half a dozen people have contacted me from various countries in the past week offering to host other language versions of Skeptoid. Thanks for the enthusiasm, but I promise you I’ll move in that direction if and when the resources are available, each language becomes Skeptoid’s strategic priority, and when all the ducks are in a row to do so.)
A lot of people have asked me about the political issues involved with China, and how I plan to avoid getting blocked by China’s “Great Firewall”. This is a serious consideration. Fortunately Skeptoid is largely free of any political content; and in any case, episodes are only selected for the Chinese version that are appropriate for the market. A bigger concern, it turns out, is simply finding subjects that Chinese listeners will be interested in. I once gave a talk on Mexican history to an Australian audience. They’d scarcely heard of Mexico, and couldn’t care less. Similarly, Chinese listeners are largely disinterested in most stories from the Americas. But stories from Russia, Asia, and Australia are very much of interest, as are general science topics that apply worldwide.
So please, invite your Chinese friends to check out Skeptoid. It has very little competition in their podcast market, and I think it’s going to set a decent standard for new media worldwide.
One of the joys of having children is the opportunity to vicariously view the world through child-like eyes. Children are generally curious, and are free from the bias of “knowledge.” I am not trying to make ignorance into a virtue – knowledge helps us to think about things on a deeper level and to see the connections that make up the tapestry of reality. But knowledge can also be a trap that constrains how we think about things.
Children may highlight this fact by innocently asking questions that are free of assumptions we didn’t know we had. Every parent has likely faced these questions. In my opinion these moments are tremendous opportunities to engage a young mind with everything that is awesome about science and intellectualism itself.
Alan Alda seems to get this. He has been parlaying his TV and movie fame to promote science communication. He is a founding member of the Center for Communicating Science at Stony Brook University. He wants scientists to explain basic concepts to the public – to children, in fact – in a way that they can understand. He gets questions from 11 year olds and then challenges scientists to explain the answer in a way that is engaging and accessible to 11 year olds, and then has 11 year old judge the answers (although referred to as “11 year olds” it seems the job of submitting questions and judging answers is open to 4-6th graders).
Last year Alda posed the question – what is flame? This is a perfect child-like question that adult may take for granted or just assume there is no specific answer to (a complacency to mystery perhaps not entirely shared by children). Many scientists submitted answers, the winner was Ben Ames whose answer was in the form of a video. Nicely done.
Alda decide to make the “Flame Challenge” a recurring thing, and this year he solicited questions from children and came up with a new challenge – what is time?
This is a perfect question, the kind of thing that most adults may assume does not have a specific answer, or if it does it’s too “sciencey” to be understandable by non-experts, or perhaps they think they know what what the answer is. Try to put the answer into words, however, and it becomes immediately obvious that this is no small challenge.
There are lots of pithy if snarky answers, such as, “time is what keeps everything from happening at once,” (which I believe was the focus of a Doctor Who episode). Such answers, however, tend to be more philosophical than scientific. A thorough scientific answer can be extremely technical and mathematical, involving relativity and thermodynamics, for example. This has the makings of a good challenge and I will be interested in seeing what real experts come up with.
My off-the cuff crack at an answer is this:
Time is a property of the universe – a measurable quantity that separates two events. It is like a stream that moves in only one direction. You are always at one point on that stream, being carried forward at a steady rate. Part of the stream is forever behind you, while the rest is in front of you. You can move more quickly or more slowly along that stream, but never backwards. Further, you cannot see in front or behind you. You can only see the boat that is your “now.” You can remember where you have been, but you cannot see or remember the future in front of you.
That is, perhaps, a simplistic analogy. I will have to think about this some more to see if I can come up with anything better. Feel free to take a crack at it in the comments as well, or even submit an official answer to the challenge.
A pale, wrinkled face approaches. Its owner clears his throat and proceeds to tell what he calls a true tale of absolute horror:
Once upon a time, in a place very like this one (but not quite — plate tectonics and all), there was a community of people dedicated to reality-based thinking. All they talked about was how Bigfoot doesn’t exist, psychics are frauds, and homeopathy doesn’t work. There were no disagreements within the group. They never made statements about anything but taking down claims of the paranormal and debunking pseudoscience. All of these people just happened to be white and male, but they never actually said people who weren’t white and male couldn’t join.
Then, one bleak day, some people who weren’t white and male came along and ruined the whole thing by complaining about stuff that had nothing to do with the True Meaning of the movement. They wouldn’t stop. Some of the white males even joined up with these fight-picking types. The True Meaning of their movement became sullied and the Actual Goals diluted. Never before had people not wanted to join for any reason, but now, people disgusted by all the squabbling left or decided not to join. The True Heroes who bravely proposed that nothing but Bigfoot et. al. ought to be discussed were silenced, and darkness overtook the land.
This tale about the early days of skepticism and/or atheism (but especially skepticism) serves as the foundational myth in the minds of not only explicitly anti-feminist skeptics, but has also taken root in the minds of those who claim disdain for “both sides”/”all that unnecessary fighting” as well as those who long for what they see as a past where skepticism was “real” skepticism, without any hint of feminism, anti-racism, and LGBT advocacy. Some in the latter group might even be sympathetic to the plight of marginalized groups but feel that skepticism should be kept free and clear of those issues.
To them, I present an alternative creation story.
Someone approaches. You might be curious as to what they look like, but it appears that their face is glued to their palm.
The palm pivots to one side a bit to reveal a mouth, which begins to recount a curious tale:
In a time not so long ago, I was treated unfairly because of something about me that set me apart from the rest of the overall population. I heard whispers of a community of people who defined themselves by their dedication to reality-based thinking. I was heartened to hear of such a group — where no claim went unexamined — and was sure that I’d be able to find a place with them. When I finally made my visit, I immediately saw that all of these people were white and male. Although I felt some suspicion and wondered why it was so, I reminded myself that they never actually said people who weren’t white and male couldn’t join, so I joined anyway.
I soon discovered why. Their constant “jokes” about what made me other to them, their comments and remarks, their insistence that I act and think exactly the way that they did, their refusal to apply skeptical principles to what they held dear, their general inability to see beyond their own perspective, and, worst of all, their silence towards those who blatantly insulted me — all that wore me down. I thought about quitting, but realized that I had as much of a right to the principles they claimed to uphold as they did.
Still, I didn’t want to make too big of a deal out of it. Then, I started talking about it, quietly at first. I found out that there were people like me who left or didn’t join in the first place because of the treatment they received. This outraged me. The principles in which I believed so dearly were becoming associated with prejudice and oppression and rejected based on that by people like me. I decided that I would fight to end this sullying of the reputation of my community by working to improve it. I applied the very principles we all claimed to hold dear to their own prejudices and….
Just as “New Atheism” is sometimes viewed as more combative, confrontational, and aggressive merely because its members do not stand by as their rights are violated, the new faces of skepticism are seen by some as unnecessarily divisive. In reality, those divisions have existed for a long time and were invisible to those who were not directly affected by them. Closeting these issues forced those hoping to change them to feel alone and unable to gain allies in their fight.
A separation between social justice issues and rest of the concerns of skepticism is the luxury of those who do not belong to a group that has been — and indeed, some that still very much are — marginalized by skepticism. The struggles have been obvious and painful to many of us long before they became readily apparent to everyone else. While I (and everyone else, likely) wish the changes could have happened with less vitriol, they’ve still made skepticism a better place for more and more people by, among other things, thoroughly dispelling any false notion that skepticism (and atheism) are the exclusive province of white men.
Since when was more of what we all claim to hold dear a bad thing?
- Are beauty standards higher for men now? – “These new beauty standards for men grab our attention because they’re so novel, but in no way does that mean they have surpassed what’s expected of women, either on-screen or all too often in real life.”
- Reporting domestic violence to an employer – From Andy, the Ask A Manager site asks its readers to weigh in.
- Dry cleaner puts “Choose Life” message on its hangers – From the department of WTF.
- Did you back up your computer before 12/12/12? – Too late, I know, but I had to include this for the “Neptune is the planet that rules leaks” bit. From Michael.
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
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.
Our speaker at the December Skeptics in the Pub is science writer Seth Mnookin, author of The Panic Virus:A True Story of Medicine, Science, and Fear as well as books about the Red Sox and journalistic ethics. He teaches science writing right down the river at MIT. Seth has been embedded in the front lines of the Vaxx Wars, and will share his experiences with us on Monday, Dec 10 at Tommy Doyle’s in Harvard Square, upstairs at 7 PM as usual.
If, like me, you believe one of the most important things skeptics can do is combat pseudoscience in medicine, don’t miss this event. In The Panic Virus (see a review by our own Todd W.), Mnookin has thoroughly researched the modern vaccine/autism controversy and its history from Wakefield’s 1998 paper through his eventual disgrace and loss of his medical license. He has looked at the issue from all sides and reaches the conclusion that, like many manufactured scientific controversies, there aren’t two equally valid sides to every issue, as conventional journalist wisdom would hold, but one side with evidence, logic and science and another side with a mix of economic interests (the cynical purveyors of alternative, untested or disproven medical theories and practices) and wishful or magical thinking (the desperate people who turn to them for help and the enablers who truly believe they are fighting for the little guys against powerful vested interests.)
In the end, the problems tackled by the book, like so much skeptical literature, also leads to a deeper understanding of why people believe false and ultimate harmful ideas:
In The Panic Virus, Seth Mnookin draws on interviews with parents, public-health advocates, scientists, and anti-vaccine activists to tackle a fundamental question: How do we decide what the truth is? The fascinating answer helps explain everything from the persistence of conspiracy theories about 9/11 to the appeal of talk-show hosts who demand that President Obama “prove” he was born in America.
This promises to be a fascinating and important discussion.
See our Facebook event page for more information.
My Scienceblogs site is a-changin'. National Geographic has been working behind the scenes to convert and move all the old data to a newer and prettier website, and the final surge of fixes is going into place tonight and tomorrow — so don't bother commenting over there for a while until it's all stabilized.
I suspect it will all go smoothly (and the new site is looking good) except for a little bit of drama. NatGeo has informed Abbie Smith that they want the ERV slimepit posts taken down, according to Abbie's own account on facebook. There are various accusations as well that it's us here at FtB who are responsible for the complaints that are bringing it down — which is not true. All along, NatGeo has been telling me that there will be new Standards & Practices rules at the National Geographic-branded Scienceblogs site — it's why I took proactive steps to move all of the new godless anti-religion content to the new site at Freethoughtblogs. I've said since last August that there were posts that bugged our new NatGeo overlords, and that there were changes coming.
Abbie Smith is in denial. Now, in addition to implying that Sb crew at FtB are responsible for shutting down the slimepit, she claims I've been lying about the imminent changes.
NatGeo have been just fine. Not being sarcastic. PZ was blatantly *lying* about censorship from NatGeo last year.
So I said NatGeo would be lightly censoring content last year. This year, NatGeo is telling Abbie Smith to censor some offensive posts. Therefore, in Abbie Smith's world, I was lying when I said NatGeo would be asking us to censor some content.
I don't get it.Read the comments on this post...