The Greater Blogosphere
- 80 books no woman should read – “…of course I believe everyone should read anything they want. I just think some books are instructions on why women are dirt or hardly exist at all except as accessories or are inherently evil and empty. Or they’re instructions in the version of masculinity that means being unkind and unaware, that set of values that expands out into violence at home, in war, and by economic means.”
- Shut up about the y-axis, it shouldn’t always start at zero – From Ashley.
- More Big Pharma outrage after 2000% overnight price hike on infant seizure medication – From mrmisconception.
- Anti-GMO statistician Nassim N. Taleb now defends homeopathy – From criticaldragon1177.
- Cute Animal Friday! I’m not much of a rodent person but look at how adorable this elephant shrew is.
But of course, any tool or application that can be used for good can also be used for ill. Crowdfunding sites have been used to fund pure pseudoscience. A recently example was sent to me by a reader – Vitastiq. The campaign was 185% funded, for over $210,000.
What the product claims to do is measure vitamin and mineral levels non-invasively by simply touching a small probe against a specific location on the skin. I was immediately skeptical of these claims – how can the blood level of vitamin B12, for example, be measured on the skin? Further, the probe just has a simple electrical conductor. At best it is measuring skin conductance, which can be used to measure sweat levels but not much else.
Exploring further, the company claims that there are specific locations on the body to measure specific vitamin and mineral levels: Vitamin C on the thumb, Copper on the left abdomen, etc. This is starting to sound like acupuncture – and there is a good reason for that. It is based on acupuncture.
It is further based on “Electroacupuncture according to Voll” or EAV. The company claims:
Vitastiq is a single innovative concept that connects EAV methodology to your smartphone. Expensive tests and specialist check-ups are not needed anymore.
EAV devices essentially measure the galvanic skin response. This is a common target of quack devices, because it can look superficially impressive. It is used for devices like lie detectors, in order to measure sweating. It cannot detect medical conditions or measure blood levels of anything, however.
The galvanic skin response pseudoscience is then combined with acupuncture pseudoscience, leading to the claim that the conductance at a particular point on the body relates to a specific condition or physiological parameter. Such claims are completely devoid of scientific backing, however. In short, this is complete and utter quackery.
It is a sad commentary that enough people bought into this nonsense that the campaign was fully funded. Even the slightest curiosity about how such a device could possibly work should raise serious doubts about the claims being made.
Where is the vast body of scientific research that would be necessary to establish first the basic technology and then the specific application, namely the locations on the body that correspond to each vitamin and mineral? Vitastiq does not even pretend to link to any supporting research.
Think about what would need to be true if chromium levels in the blood could be detected specifically in the big toe. What would this say about human physiology?
Further, the FDA might have something to say about such devices. According to Quackwatch:
The FDA classifies “devices that use resistance measurements to diagnose and treat various diseases” as Class III devices, which require FDA approval prior to marketing. In 1986, an FDA official informed me that the FDA Center for Devices and Radiological Health had determined that the Dermatron and Accupath 1000 were diagnostic devices that posed a “significant risk.”  No such device can be legally marketed in the United States for diagnostic or treatment purposes. A few companies have obtained 510(k) clearance (not approval) by telling the FDA that their devices will be used for biofeedback or to measure skin resistance, but this does not entitle them to market the devices for other purposes.
Vitastiq does not mention FDA listing or approval of any kind, and I cannot find it listed under approved devices. I sent a notice to the FDA, we’ll see how they respond.
Vitastiq makes extraordinary medical claims without the slightest bit of plausibility or evidence. The only way to characterize such a device, in my opinion, is as medical quackery. Anyone relying upon this device to monitor their health and make decisions about diet and supplements is at risk.
Indiegogo should not only be ashamed of facilitating this quackery, they should be partly liable for it. At the very least they should not allow campaigns for unapproved medical devices.
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I’m a secular humanist, which means that I am fairly certain that this life is our only one, so we should work hard to make it a good one for as many people as possible. I generally like and agree with humanist organizations and find that by and large, they do good and important work, especially compared to similarly sized organizations that just focus on atheism.
That’s why I was surprised to read one of the most pointless and anti-humanist articles ever at thehumanist.com, written by American Humanist Association employee Matthew Bulger.
Bulger comments on the heartbreaking case of Julianna Snow, a 5-year old girl with CMT, a degenerative nerve disease that can vary in its intensity. Many people live with it, including Julianna’s father, but it was so severe in her that it was killing her in an incredibly agonizing way that required constant hospitalization.
Her parents asked her if she wanted to continue going to the hospital for painful treatments, or if she wanted to stop and die at home. She enthusiastically chose the latter. Now she’s hanging out at home in her princess-themed bedroom with her family. Happy, and making plans for what she’ll do when she goes to heaven.
Bulger thinks that Julianna shouldn’t be able to have a say in her own life and death, for two reasons: one, because she’s so young that she can’t understand death; two, because she believes that she’ll go to heaven when she dies.
It’s tough to argue with Bulger’s piece, mostly because it’s so badly written. He says at the end that the child’s decision should be noted but that ultimately it’s the parents’ decision, which, um, obviously? I don’t think anyone anywhere is arguing that a 5-year old should be allowed to commit suicide over the objections of her parents.
But clearly Bulger thinks that this child’s belief in an afterlife compromises her ability to make this decision, which, frankly, is disgusting. I’m an atheist, meaning that I believe there is no heaven or hell. But I’m also a pragmatic agnostic, meaning that I believe there’s absolutely no way for me to know for sure what happens after I die. Bulger apparently is sure, since he insists that Julianna is wrong and that if she knew for a fact that she isn’t going to heaven, she wouldn’t make the same decision.
That’s not just an argument against children who wish to end their lives. That would be an argument against any person with a religious belief that includes the afterlife from ending their own lives, which is maybe the least humanistic argument I can imagine.
Deciding when and how a child with a painful terminal illness is going to die is an incredibly horrific decision, and it’s only going to be made worse by people like Bulger judging the family harshly and insisting that they believe in fairytales. The humanistic approach? Understanding that they’re dealing with the situation in the best way they know how, giving them a tiny bit of empathy, and letting them find what comfort they can in the beliefs they have, even if I disagree with them.
- US doctor group calls for ban on drug advertising to consumers – “The American Medical Association on Tuesday called for a ban on advertising prescription drugs and medical devices directly to consumers, saying the ads drive patients to demand expensive treatments over less costly ones that are also effective.” From Amy.
- Anti-vaxxers target Brisbane woman following viral Facebook plea to vaccinate – “A Brisbane woman has hit back at so-called anti-vaxxers who targeted her with private messages after a Facebook post she made sharing her son’s battle with whooping cough went viral.” From Jack99.
- Fierce little boy slays in this adorable Moschino Barbie ad – “This ad for the brand new Moschino Barbie is absolutely freakin’ adorable, and it features a Barbie first: a boy starring alongside girls in the ad!” From Amy.
- The end of lads’ mags? FHM and Zoo suspended – From Amy.
A Chinese team of researchers recently announced that they attempted to edit the genes in human embryos with the genetic disease beta-thalassemia. They used the CRISPR-Cas9 technology, which they said was not successful enough in this application to be used. Some of the embryos resulted in mosaics, with only some of the cells being fixed, and other resulted in unwanted mutations.
While the attempt to fix the genetic disease in embryos was unsuccessful, the announcement has prompted discussion over the ethics of gene editing in humans.
First for some background, because I have not yet written about the CRISPR technology, this is an exciting gene-editing technology that allows for rapid, accurate, and inexpensive gene editing.
CRISPR stands for Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Pallindromic Repeats, which refers to a sequence of base pairs found on the DNA of bacteria that have this feature. Some bacteria and archaea use CRISPR for adaptive immunity, in order to incorporate bits of DNA from invading viruses into segments of their own DNA in order to target their immune system at those sequences.
Cas refers to CRISPR associated genes. Cas9 is for an endonuclease that can cleave DNA. It can be combined with specific RNA in a system that can either insert or delete genetic sequences into the target DNA.
What all of this means is that the CRISPR system can be used for highly specific and convenient gene editing, either deleting or inserting sequences into target genes. There is an overwhelming consensus that this technology will usher in an age of cheap and easy genetic manipulation.
One private company, for example, offers CRISPR systems to researchers, boasting:
Introducing the only complete genome editing solution designed to expedite your research. Our easy-to-use optimized and validated solutions span the entire cell engineering workflow, making genome editing accessible to anyone at any level.
Gene Editing Human Embryos
Given the controversy over genetically engineering corn, it is no surprise that the prospect of genetically modifying humans will be highly controversial. Despite the fact that the Chinese researchers concluded that the technology is not quite there yet, their announcement has sparked the predictable conversation.
The Huffpo Interview shows two basic attitudes toward this prospect. Dr. Marcy Darnovsky, executive director of the Center for Genetics and Society, is concerned about the implications of the technology. She raises several points, all of which we have heard before with other technologies, including IVF itself. There are safety concerns. The technology can go beyond treating disease to creating new humans and “designer babies.” She also warns that this technology could lead to those with money creating a superior race, creating a world we would not want to live in. She equates the technology to eugenics.
Antonio Regalado from MIT Technology Review argues that the same objections were raised for IVF, and that the eugenic analogy is not apt since this technology will be voluntary and won’t harm anyone.
I tend to agree with Regalado. Raising safety concerns is a false issue. There are always safety concerns with a new technology, but they can be dealt with. They aren’t a reason to stop the technology. We can evaluate the precision and consequences of using CRISPR on human embryos, and only approve applications when the techniques are sufficiently safe. The same was true of IVF and pretty much any new medical technology.
Before we get to the issue of using CRISPR (or any genetic modification technology) to create enhanced embryos, let’s not forget that the application currently being studied is to correct a genetic illness. Regardless of ethical considerations about the former, we should not let that interfere with a technology that can cure genetic diseases at the embryo stage.
There are actually two approaches here. You can select embryos that lack a harmful mutation, without doing any editing. This is not possible, however, if every embryo is a carrier. Then gene editing is required.
I see no ethical reason to hamper any technology that can treat genetic diseases, which can be devastating and costly, resulting in a lifetime of medical bills. We cannot afford to eschew a potentially cost effective medical intervention given rising health care costs.
I don’t buy the slippery slope argument that such technology will necessarily lead to designer babies. We can use regulations to approve some applications and not others.
The thorny ethical issues, in my opinion, only revolved around creating genetically enhanced people. The argument that such technology would be unethical, or at least a bad idea for society, was articulated by Darnovsky – this can create a truly stratified society in which one race of humans, the offspring of those with money, is perceived to be superior to another.
The primary argument against this objection is that you can say the same thing about iPhones. Almost every technology is more accessible to the wealthy than the poor, and widens the gap between the haves and have nots. We are now dealing with a “digital divide,” where access to computer technology and the internet is yet another social advantage of those with resources over the poor.
I acknowledge that one meaningful difference here is that we are talking about changes to the people themselves, not just the technology to which they have access.
One might argue that the solution to such technology gaps is not to ban the technology so no one can take advantage of it, but to address the underlying social issues themselves. There are also social safety nets in place to provide at least some resources to the poor. Sure, the wealthy can afford organ transplants without having to worry, but poor people still get transplants through Medicaid.
These social systems are not perfect, and they probably never will be. In any society where people are allowed to benefit from their talent, skill, hard work, and even luck, there will be those who have more than others. Historically, this fact does tend to lead to increasing social disparity, but there are many mechanisms to mitigate stratification, allow for social mobility, and to distribute resources equitably.
Exactly how and how much to do this is a huge ideological debate, and pretty much drives the division between liberals and conservatives. I get the feeling that the same liberal/libertarian ideological divide is coloring the debate over gene editing and other similar technologies.
My position is essentially not to bring that ideological fight to medical technology that can be used not only to cure disease but to make humans smarter and healthier. Deal with the underlying social issues. We should no more ban gene editing than we should shut down the internet in order to eliminate the digital divide.
To be clear, we need to regulate genetic manipulation of humans, just like any powerful medical technology. Those regulations should be appropriate to the technology, to ensure safety, informed consent, and appropriate ethical use. We have similar regulations and systems in place for organ donation, for example. It can work.
Mosquitos: the worst! Especially if you live in a place where not only are they super annoying, but they also carry deadly diseases. That’s why figuring out how to get rid of them, or at least stop them from spreading those diseases, has become a huge humanitarian effort.
On a sidenote, mosquitos are also a pretty good argument against the existence of a benevolent god. Yes, they are a part of the food chain in that a lot of fish and birds eat them, but if they were to go extinct tomorrow, there’s a good chance that the world would be just fine. So. Fuck mosquitos, and if a god made them and put them here on purpose, then fuck him, too.
Mosquitos find people to bite by seeking out a few things, including body heat, the carbon dioxide you breathe out, and the chemicals that seep out of your disgusting skin, you leaky bag of sentient meat.
Right now, DEET is the best stuff we have for warding off mosquitos. It’s a chemical also known as diethyltoluamide, developed by the US military in the 1940s. Weirdly, no one was sure exactly how it worked until 2011 when a neurobiologist named Leslie Vosshall figured out that the chemical wasn’t stopping mosquitos from smelling people — it was scrambling the chemical signal so that they couldn’t tell what they were smelling.
DEET can be mildly irritating if you rub it all over your skin for extended periods of time, and it’s not a good idea to put it on babies. For those reasons, plus the fact that it is a chemical with a scary chemical name, there are a lot of people who are scared of it, and so instead they use “all natural” bug repellants. A recent study shows that not only are those products full of shit, but they don’t even work as well as perfume. Perfume! Not even good perfume. Victoria’s Secret perfume!
You may read in places that the all-natural repellents actually attracted more mosquitos than the control, but that’s not true from a statistical perspective, which is the only perspective worth noting here. Besides, it’s bad enough that there was no statistical difference between all-natural products and nothing at all.
As for the perfume, it didn’t work nearly as well as DEET, but if for some reason you think that a chemical designed by a multi-million dollar underpants manufacturer is more “natural” than one made by a military industrial complex, I guess you can use that instead. Researchers think that it works by blocking the bugs from smelling your delicious human scent, which makes sense as that’s the entire reason perfume was invented in the first place.
One thing to keep in mind, though, is that the test involved a very high concentration of the perfume. To mimic it in the real world, you may have to literally bathe in the stuff. Judging by my experience in close proximity to people on public transportation on their way to work, that shouldn’t be a problem for many people. But it should be. Really.
- Restrictions on Women’s Health Force Women to Self-Induce Abortion, Study Finds – “TxPEP estimates that somewhere between 100,000 and 240,000 women age 18-49 in Texas have ever tried to end a pregnancy on their own without medical assistance. The study outlines four primary reasons why women attempted to self-induce their abortion: financial limitations to travel to a clinic or pay for the procedure, the closure of their local clinic, the suggestion from a close friend or family member to self-induce, or to avoid the stigma or shame of going to an abortion clinic, especially if they had prior abortions.”
- When trolling crosses dangerous lines: This writer’s selfie transformed into a terrorist portrait shows how far online abuse can go – “The image was debunked early, but a new investigative report from Vice traces the act back to Gamergate supporters.”
- Gray-Haired Granny? An 85-Year-Old Writer Goes Punk Rock Instead – “Along about the time I became a great-grandmother I dyed my white hair blue. Not a wussy “blue-rinse” blue, but eye-stabbing, punk-kid blue. At the time, I didn’t do any soul-searching. I just thought, What the hell, why not?”
- What Women Want, According to “Female-Friendly” Restaurants – “Do women pay 77 percent of the list price, to account for the national wage gap? Can women servers take orders from customers without sexually charged comments attached? Nope. There are salads, though!”
- This Chemist Discovered How to Salvage Useless Photos with a Dash of Radioactivity – “When NASA hired chemist Barbara Askins to salvage the photos they were getting back from astronauts, they never expected she’d revolutionize how to restore details to underexposed photographs.”
- When People Flee to America’s Shores – “We are a nation of immigrants and refugees. Yet we always fear who is coming next.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
There will be a brief pause in postings while The Mind Hacks Blog moves to a new home. I've disabled comments while this is happening. Full details after we've successfully completed moving the furniture behind the scenes (clue: not too much will change).
'Legal highs' may actually contain illegal drugs, according to a study just published in the medical journal QJM.
This new research provides a further insight into the foggy world of the 'legal high' industry, with particular reference to recent UK legislation which banned several previously 'legal highs' including a drug called mephedrone which was bizarrely dubbed 'miaow miaow' by the media.
The authors of the study bought several substances before and after the ban and sent them for lab testing to see whether the listed ingredients matched the advertised ingredients.
Surprisingly, they found on both occasions that the advertised ingredients of the 'legal highs' didn't meet the active ingredients they discovered through chemical tests.
For example, before the ban, a legal pill sold as 'Doves Original' was advertised as containing a blend of amino acids and ketones but actually contained the psychedelic drugs mephedrone and butylone. Both were completely legal but were simply not mentioned by the manufacturers.
Interestingly, after the ban, it seems that several companies just changed their packaging without changing their ingredients.
Out of the six products tested, all advertised as being legal, five included recently banned substances - including mephedrone, 4-fluoromethcathinone and methylone - and the other contained dimethocaine, a legal but unmentioned local anaesthetic (presumably to emulate the nose-numbing effect of cocaine).
This makes an interesting contrast to a recent study on 'legal high' synthetic cannabinoids that we covered previously, where new unregulated substances appeared on the market before the ban came into place.
In the case of the UK legal stimulant market, however, it seems rather than innovating new substances to avoid the ban, the industry has simply resorted to mislabelling and deceptive advertising.
What this may suggest is that the synthetic cannabinoid industry is more scientifically savvy than the legal stimulant industry, not least because synthesising cannabinoids can't be done as easily. But despite this, they seem to be more 'agile' when it comes to reacting to legal clamp downs.
This week's Science has a thought-provoking article charting how several of the world's biggest pharmaceutical companies have canned their development of psychiatric drugs, citing the medications as unlikely to be profitable given the difficulties in understanding the neurobiology of mental illness.
On 4 February, GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) announced that it planned to pull the plug on drug discovery in some areas of neuroscience, including pain and depression. A few weeks later, news came that AstraZeneca was closing research facilities in the United States and Europe and ceasing drug-discovery work in schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, depression, and anxiety.
These cutbacks by two of the top players in drug development for disorders of the central nervous system have raised concerns that the pharmaceutical industry is pulling out, or at least pulling back, in this area. In direct response to the cuts at GSK and AstraZeneca, the Institute of Medicine Forum on Neuroscience and Nervous System Disorders organized a meeting in late June that brought together leaders from government, academia, and private foundations to take stock.
But the biggest problem, researchers say, is that there is almost nothing in the pipeline that gives any hope for a transformation in the treatment of mental illness. That's worrying, they say, because the need for better treatments for neurological and psychiatric disorders is vast. Hundreds of millions of people are afflicted worldwide. Yet for some common disorders, like Alzheimer's disease, no truly effective treatments exist; for others, like depression, the existing drugs have limited efficacy and substantial side effects.
Sadly, the full article is locked behind a paywall (news kills people) but the author, science journalist Greg Miller, discusses the topic in the freely available Science podcast which covers the same ground.
One theme to consistently emerge is how, for years, Big Pharma has been chasing easy profits by making slightly tweaked versions of existing drugs rather than investing in research aimed at developing genuinely new treatments. It seems this short-term-ism is starting to run out of steam.
By the way, the Science podcast piece on Big Pharma is followed by coverage of an innovative new study on dopamine and impulsivity so well worth a listen.
Most importantly, it's actually a great album. It's not an attempt at parody or a tribute, it's an inspired, groove heavy, high production values record with a wonderful lyrical touch.
It's not for kids, you simply won't be able to play half the tracks to your high school science class without risking your job, as in classic hip-hop tradition, it's down and dirty from beginning to end.
You can listen to it online and can download it to your computer and mp3 player, choosing whatever price you want to pay for it.
Link to Baba Brinkman's The Rap Guide to Human Nature (thanks Mark!)
Oscillatory Thoughts has an excellent post on Hans Berger, the inventor of EEG, who created the technology not solely to investigate the electrical signals of the brain, but to try and uncover the neural basis of 'telepathy'.
It turns out, Berger was a big believer in psychic phenomena: namely telepathy. He believed that there was an underlying physical basis for mental phenomena, and that these mental processes—being physical in nature—could be transmitted between people. Thus, in order to show that psychic phenomena exist, Berger sought to show the nature of the underlying physical processes of thoughts and emotions.
The piece goes on the explain the details of Berger's early experiments and how the link between electrical activity and brain function has expanded since his revolutionary invention.
Berger is one of the most fascinating characters in the history of neuroscience, but is badly under-researched.
Sadly, he ended his own life in his later years as he struggled to come to terms with the rise of the Nazis, but he has left a weighty legacy which has become a central pillar of neuroscience, despite its somewhat idiosyncratic origins.
Link to Oscillatory Thoughts on Hans Berger and EEG.
For only 25 cents you can see some rather glassy-eyed Chinese gentlemen, a door which reveals a skeleton, and a dragon that appears through the window.
It's no coincidence that this somewhat eccentric piece of carnivalia originates in San Francisco, as it was the first place in America to ban smoking opium.
The city passed the 'Opium Den Ordinance' in 1875, timed to take advantage of the growing anti-Asian sentiment that had grown during the gold rush in which many immigrants from China had settled in the area.
The episode was perhaps the first modern drug scare, with moral panic making the papers and opium being blamed for a whole range of social ills, well beyond its actual impact.
These days, the last echoes of the turn of the century scare can be mechanically animated for anyone with a quarter and a curious mind.
Quick links from the past week in mind and brain news:
Popular Science reports on proposals to study the obscure hallucinogen ibogain as a treatment for opiate addiction.
A study on how money restricts life's pleasures is covered by PsyBlog.
Yale Alumni Magazine looks at research "which seeks to use robots not to perform tasks for humans but as a means of investigating the inner workings of human behavior and psychology".
The chance of getting executed for killing a white person is about three times higher than for killing an African American, regardless of the offender's race, according to research covered by In the News.
Stereotypes of mental illness in cinema - a brief diagnostic guide - over at Frontier Psychiatrist.
Wired Science reports on a study finding synchronised brain activity between people in a conversation.
The first and preliminary controlled trial of MDMA-assisted psychotherapy for PTSD is covered by Drug Monkey.
New Scientist analyse the shaky idea that bigger brains means more intelligence.
A video introduces IBM cognitive computing's SyNAPSE project - which stands for 'Systems of Neuromorphic Adaptive Plastic Scalable Electronics' since you asked - is over at Developing Intelligence.
The Today Programme from BBC Radio 4 interviews psychologist Til Wykes on changes to psychiatric diagnosis and the shrinking definition of normality.
What proportion of chemical leaks provoke mass hysteria? asks the BPS Research Digest.
Seed Magazine has an interesting review of 'Sex at Dawn' - a new book looking at the history of sexuality in pre-history.
Brain scan based career advice? The Neurocritic covers a curious study on using brain structure and cognitive performance for 'vocational guidance'.
Life Matters from ABC Radio National discusses whether 'bad kids' become more popular as rule-breaking becomes attractive as kids age.
There's a great piece on how a study of heroin addiction in ex-Vietnam soldiers gave birth to the 'disease model' of addiction over at Addiction Inbox.
The New York Times has an in-depth article discussing whether the seemingly permanent record of the internet means an 'end to forgetting'.
The Research Blogging editor's selections of psychology and neuroscience articles posted regularly at The Thoughtful Animal are excellent.
Wired has an in-depth article on the possibilities of a 'stress vaccine' that protects against the damage associated with chronic stress.
Can music negatively affect your memory? asks Barking Up The Wrong Tree.
New Scientist reports on how a doctor has been reprimanded apparently for asking valid questions about the validity of 'shaken baby syndrome'.
Scientific American Mind has excellent coverage of the recent 'self-fulfilling feigning of mental illness' study.
BBC Radio 4's Inside the Ethics Committee programme had an interesting discussion on when it is ethical to accept a mentally ill patient's decision to refuse a life-saving operation if their objections are based on delusional ideas.
Not Exactly Rocket Science discusses an awesome 'sniff-detector' that allows paralysed people to write messages, surf the net and drive a wheelchair.
What if there had never been a Cognitive Revolution? asks Cognition and Culture.