Posts Tagged skeptic

God, UFOs, Life After Death: What do New Zealanders Believe? Darcy Cowan Dec 07

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Reading the paper today I learned that 1/3 of New Zealanders believe that we have been visited by extra terrestrials. I thought this was an interesting juxtaposition of stories given that a page or two later there was a report about a possibly habitable planet. Maybe aliens are visiting us from Kepler-22b.

Keplerites aside, I decided to look up the report from UMR Research about the beliefs of my fellow citizens.

The report makes for interesting reading (if somewhat disconcerting in places) and I’ll be looking for the follow-up reports around Maori culture and Herbal remedies. The first thing to note is that this was an on-line survey, so right off we should be wary about how representative these findings are of the general population. In that vein there was some attempt to make the results as representative as possible with quotas and weighting of responses. I couldn’t find details of how this was carried out so with that in mind do take the results with a grain of salt.

One of the first things that jumped out at me was how uncertain people were regarding their answers. The questions seems to have 4 possible answers for both the affirmative and negative, from Absolutely Certain through Fairly Certain, Not Too Certain and Not At All Certain.

So while 61% believe “That there is a God or some sort of universal spirit” only 28% are absolutely certain of this. If we lump in the fairly certains then it goes to 41% (from now on I’ll consider both groups to make up the “Certain” category). Compared to 38% who don’t believe (27% of who are certain-ish). 38% non-believers in NZ. It’s difficult to compare data sets but this appears to be up somewhat from ~34% (depending on how you count) religiously unaffiliated at the 2006 Census.

57% of us believe that there is life after death. 32% are certain. 31% are certain this isn’t the case. 55% of us believe in psychic powers, 27% are certain; 27% are certain that they don’t exist.

Now we get to the headline grabbing UFO question. 33% believe we have been or are being visited. How many are certain? 11%.

That’s a bit of a relief.

Then there’s Astrology. 24% think there is something to that malarkey. Only 6% are certain though. Whew…That’s lucky. Still, those horoscopes are everywhere.

It seems that the hardcore believers tend to only make up a minority of the population, even for the mainstream beliefs. With the more mainstream the belief the more evenly spilt the believers and non-believers. i call that interesting. As well as somewhat heartening.

The report breaks down the results further into gender and ethnic responses but I’m happy with looking at the top level stuff here. Check it out to see how women answered differently than men and how ethnicities are split between the different questions.

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Filed under: Psychic Phenomena, Psychological, Religion, Sciblogs, Science Tagged: belief, New Zealand, nz, Religion and Spirituality, sceptic, Science and Society, skeptic

Breaking News!: Have Constipation? Moxibustion Won’t Help! Darcy Cowan Dec 06

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ResearchBlogging.orgWhat’s Moxibustion, And why would you want to use it for constipation? The first I can answer, the second…not so much.

Moxibustion is the practice of burning ground up mugwort and applying the smouldering plant indirectly or directly to the skin to alleviate illness. In the indirect method acupuncture needles are inserted and the burning mugwort is used to heat either the skin or the needle. Direct methods are exactly what it sounds like, the mugwort is burned while sitting on the skin and your skin burns too. The amount of skin burning can vary – from minor to burns that will leave scars. On purpose.

Why would you want to subject yourself to this? Beats me.

But people do, and others study what it might be good for and publish papers about it. One of these turned up in my in-box this morning courtesy of BioMed Central Complementary and Alternative Medicine. With a title like “The effectiveness of moxibustion for the treatment of functional constipation: a randomized, sham-controlled, patient blinded, pilot clinical trial” how could I ignore it?

Reading the study I was transported to a place where the underlying physical process of disease matters not a whit and where the sweat, facial features, , body energy, duration of disease, and pulse type are methods of determining treatment. To be fair other measures were also used, including stomach pain, stuffiness and duration of disease.

No indication was given of how “body energy” was measured. Stuffiness was not defined – I’m sure these are standard things that every doctor knows about.

Frankly, if you are using a magical treatment to unblock your magical life energy then this is the type of thing you should expect to be important.

The study itself was quite small, as the title suggests, only 25 participants. 12 in the treatment arm and 13 in the sham moxibustion arm. Now, how do you do sham moxibustion? Apparently, as it is the heat from burning the mugwart that is important, you just introduce an insulator to stop that heat reaching the patient.

Luckily the procedure used was the indirect acupuncture type, so those in the sham group didn’t wonder why no third degree burns where in evidence.

This approach leaves all the burny, smokey goodness of the mugwort though. Given the negative outcome of the study I suspected this would come up in the discussion. I was not disappointed.

We’ll get to that in a bit. First I want to cover how the patients were divided into “deficiency syndromes” and “excess syndromes”. Constipation in traditional Chinese and Korean medicine is apparently due to either a deficiency or excess of qi (chi), you know, the life energy. This is where checking out people’s faces and sweating etc comes in.

I’ll quote directly from the paper at this point:

“A patient with a deficiency syndrome has sunken, weak pulse, whereas a patient with an excess syndrome has superficial and broad pulse. The patients having symptoms such as a pale face, heavy sweat, and depression were considered to have a deficiency syndrome; the patients having symptoms such as a swollen face, little sweat, and chest pressure were considered to have an excess syndrome. Syndrome pattern differentiation was conducted by an OMD before randomization.”

Further on:

“Five participants were diagnosed with an excess syndrome, and twenty-one participants were diagnosed with a deficiency syndrome. In this study, the most prevalent symptoms for an excess syndrome were a strong body energy and superficial pulse; for a deficiency syndrome the symptoms were a long duration of disease and weak body energy.”

Given that “body energy” plays such a part in dividing the patients I was hoping at this point it would be defined and a method to assess it given. Alas, I was out of luck. Obviously it’s too basic to explain here.

To the results!

I already gave the game away: moxibustion was no different than sham moxibustion when it comes to improving symptoms of constipation. To their credit the authors admitted this could be because moxibustion is, in fact, ineffective. But then, maybe they chose the wrong acupuncture points (never mind that large well designed studies show that where you stick the needles has no effect on outcomes). Or perhaps the sample size was too small – I’ll give them this one, though if there was a significant effect then even a small sample should have shown it.

Then the inevitable, perhaps the sham moxibustion was effective after all. Because, you know, the smoke and stuff. And, oh yeah, the patients actually had “excess-cold” syndromes when normally you’d expect excesses to be warm – so maybe that has something to do with it…

Can you say “rationalising”?

The authors also note that while a number of adverse events have been reported for moxibustion, the patients in this group only experienced redness. Another quote:

“Previously reported adverse events related to moxibustion treatment include burns [no kidding, I thought that was a feature - not a bug], an itching sensation, infection, allergy and xerophthalmia [dry eyeballs]“

Dry eyeballs…. hmmm, better than a punctured lung.

The paper concludes with the obligatory call for larger more rigorous studies, despite the fact that this is an implausible treatment based on magical thinking. Oh well, such is the way of things nowadays.
Park JE, Sul JU, Kang K, Shin BC, Hong KE, & Choi SM (2011). The effectiveness of moxibustion for the treatment of functional constipation: a randomized, sham-controlled, patient blinded, pilot clinical trial. BMC complementary and alternative medicine, 11 (1) PMID: 22132755

Filed under: Alternative medicine, Medicine, Sciblogs, Science, skepticism Tagged: Alternative medicine, altmed, CAM, Chinese, Health and Medicine, OMD, Oriental, skeptic, TCM

Confounding Variables Darcy Cowan Nov 01

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Over at Psychology in Action there’s a decent post on confounding variables.

The focus is on conducting and reading research and determining good research study practice but I think there is value in everyone knowing what confounding variables are.  So what are they?

Well, read that post……

Ok, good.

Another example that I got in my stats class (many moons ago) was the correlation of matches with cancer. Those people who tend to carry boxes of matches in their pockets also have a higher risk of cancer.

As in the Murder vs Ice-cream example given at the link above, there is no direct link between matches and cancer (though it’s obviously related), the most probable explanation is that those who carry matches are more likely to be those who smoke and it is the smoking that relates to cancer.

Smoking can then be said to be the confounding variable – the variable that explains both of the explicitly stated variables and either ties them together with a causal mechanism (Matches -> Cancer) or shows that there is no direct relation (Ice-cream -/-> Murder).

A similar effect may be seen with something like surveys, the manner in which a survey is carried out may introduce confounding variables (say a phone or internet survey which pre-selects participants by their access to said communication methods) or the questions asked may smuggle in assumptions that do not separate out confounding variables.

For example a survey may ask “Are you Religious” and “Are you Happy” (as many have). The Religious question smuggles in a number of extra factors that may contribute to a person’s level of happiness eg religions usually come with a feeling of belonging to a community, social interaction, social support networks or guilt over actions and feelings. Each of which may more directly impact happiness that religion per se.

Other areas may also suffer from the confounding variable problem, alternative medicine springs to mind. Say you suffer from a cold, you soldier through it until you can’t take it any more and start downing some homeopathic remedy. In a day or two your symptoms resolve and you feel better. Did the remedy work?

In this case the confounding variable could be the natural history of the disease. Colds don’t last for ever (it is “self limiting”), it could be that you took the remedy right before the cold would have resolved itself anyhow. If this is so the conclusion that the remedy “cured” your cold would be invalid, there would not be a causal connection between the remedy and the cold symptoms going away.

The natural history of the disease would explain the reason you took the remedy when you did (symptoms had reached a climax) and why the remedy appeared to work (the cold would have resolved anyway).

When we examine issues closely we can see that confounding variables crop up, and should be carefully considered, every time we try to determine a causal connection between two events or phenomena. This is the reason that skeptics chant “Correlation does not equal causation” like a mantra.

Just for fun, suggest some instances of confounding variables in the comments. The more obscure the better.

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Filed under: Psychological, Sciblogs, Science, skepticism Tagged: Causality, Confounding, Correlation and dependence, Science, Science and Society, skeptic

Holy Hyperbole Batman!! Darcy Cowan May 25

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Apparently the Armageddon predicted by Harold Camping is not the only one we have to contend with. Watch out, it’s The Next Armageddon!

Did you know that the WHO is not the health promoting organization we think it is but really the most nefarious institution in human history?[1]

According to one conspiracy nut[2] the WHO has put into action a plan to kill over 3 billion[3] people. Huh, WHO’da thunk it?

WHO is really going to take this seriously?[4]

The target of this hysteria is the Codex Alimentarius, a set of regulatory guidelines put out by the WHO to:

“..develop food standards, guidelines and related texts such as codes of practice under the Joint FAO/WHO Food Standards Programme. The main purposes of this Programme are protecting health of the consumers and ensuring fair trade practices in the food trade, and promoting coordination of all food standards work undertaken by international governmental and non-governmental organizations.”

At least, that’s what “They” want you to think. Mwahahaha!

Russians and Nazis and conspiracies, Oh My!

The first thing you’ll notice about this brightly coloured screed[5] is the complete absence of references. A large number of extremely serious allegations are made and not a single effort has been made to allow you to verify these for yourself.

The first real claim made (apart from the whole killing three billion people thing) is that a Nazi war criminal teamed up with the United Nations to control the population of the world through the food supply. Not a sniff of backing for this is included in the text. Searching on the name of the Nazi[6] and United Nations turns up only other conspiracy sites using virtually identical text. I’m convinced.

This page also taps into the paranoia around water fluoridation by asserting that fluoride is both a poison and has the effect of eliminating aggression and ambition. the proof?

“…. and the fact that it is used in many drugs prescription[sic] shows that it eliminates aggression and ambition in people.”

What more do you need sheeple??? Obviously it must be true, its all in black and white (except the bits in red). Plus, you know, the Russians used it in experiments and got the same results. Uh, where did you get that tidbit? Show me that paper, and the others where it was replicated. Oh, it’s part of the conspiracy you say. How convenient.

Regarding poisons, I’ve said it before: Dose Matters. Things that in high doses would kill us are routinely used in medicine. There is a range where the benefit’s of a substance outweigh the risks. To deny this is to fundamentally misunderstand medicinal and toxicological science.

Of course, this is all the work of evil entities that have been planing population control since the early 1960′s. I have to say that this is some impressively long term planning. I’m surprised there’s no mention of the “Illuminati” if anyone is good at long term, surely it’s them.

Conspiracies, conspiracies everywhere….

“Why Are You Not Aware Of This?

Because the strategy was so thought-out that it’s almost impossible to realise our food is being used against us.  But when you dig deeper you will see that everything is set up to kill us slowly over time… without one factor being the main cause, because there are many. Basically, for those who die… it will be made out as their own fault…”

Yep, almost impossible. Almost. Only those who have the ability to scratch the surface, pull back the curtain and pierce the fog can work it out. Gosh they must have keen insight. Or perhaps they are engaging in overactive pattern recognition and faulty reasoning, not to mention MSU[7] syndrome. It could go either way.

But wait, there’s more. Not only is this guy warning us out of the goodness of his heart, he’s also willing to sell us a book that tells you how not to be killed by the evil powers that be. How nice.

The price of USD$37 is just symbolic, you know nominal, don’t worry about it at all.

My favourite of the benefits touted as to why you should buy the book is:

“The naked truth behind UMAMI (the taste scam behind 90% of the foods today…which is so toxic and makes the foods taste so good and irresistible). What you don’t know is that UMAMI has a terrible effect over your health. Here’s how to avoid it… “

I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt and presume that this is an example of poor editing. Umami isn’t a chemical, it’s the subjective experience of taste that we interpret as savoury/meaty taste. Perhaps what is being referred to here is glutamate or MSG, which for a short time was considered to have negative health effects.[8] Subsequent study has failed to bear this out. So even that generous reading of this point is, well, wrong. Sorry.

If it seems like I haven’t really taken any of this seriously, it’s because I don’t. There are some claims where the only reasonable response is ridicule. There are dozens of assertions put forward on the web page in question. Many of which don’t even give enough information to know exactly what is being claimed[9], let alone providing any basis for refutation or confirmation.

Without providing any details the page is “not even wrong” it’s incomprehensible. The only value it has is to whip up unfounded fear and paranoia, all to pave the way towards buying the book that will save you. From another perspective it has one other value, entertainment.

HT to Alison for bringing this to my attention. Thanks for the hilarity.



1. If you’re an anti-vaxxer, don’t answer that. Also, don’t quote-mine me. Satire has it’s weaknesses.

2. He says he’s not but methinks he doth protest too much.

3. For maximum effect try to read this in the tone of Dr. Evil.

4. Last one, honest.

5. Though not nearly as bad as most conspiracy sites, so there’s that.

6. Hermann Schmitz, president of I.G. Farben the major producer of poison gas for the Germans.

7. Making Shit Up.

8. Ooooh, the dreaded Wikipedia. Inside joke, don’t worry about it.

9. “All nutrients (vitamins and minerals) that have any positive health impact on the body are to be considered toxins/poisons and are to be removed from all food because Codex prohibits the use of nutrients to “prevent, treat or cure any condition or disease”. “   -What does that even mean? Are they going to suck all of the beta-carotene out of carrots? How would you even go about implementing such a retarded scheme?

Filed under: Hoaxes, Psychological, Sciblogs, skepticism, Warped Science Tagged: Codex Alimentarius, complementary and alternative medicine, Conspiracy, Conspiracy Theories, fluoride, Health and Medicine, Nazi, paranoid, Science, skeptic, WHO

It’s the End of the World as we Know it and I Feel Fine Darcy Cowan May 17


By now you will have probably heard that this Saturday (21-May-2011 for future historians) is the beginning of the end, the Rapture. Don’t panic*, please conduct yourselves in an orderly manner at the appointed time. I recommend congregating in open spaces with no overhead power lines or air traffic. Safety first[1].

Ok that’s enough fun. I have seen a number of stories[2] regarding this alleged event and while many make note of the fact that the main promoter of this year’s doomsday has been wrong before I have not yet seen anyone attempt to put this latest foretelling in historical context. By one estimate there have been at least 275 end of the world predictions in the last two thousand years. 116 of those were predicted for the years 2000 to 2010[3].

That’s a whole lot of wrongness right there. Those guys couldn’t have been more wrong if their name was W. Wrongy Wrongenstein.

One of the more remembered failed apocalypses was the one predicted by William Miller for 1843. Offshoots of this group became the Seventh-day Adventist Church once the predicted day came and went without incident.

While that is a memorable one in “recent” times, end of the world predictions go back to the first century. The writings attributed to Paul the Apostle, if read literally, imply that the end of the world would occur sometime in the first century[4]. At least within the writer’s lifetime. As this obviously didn’t happen room was left for subsequent predictive hopefuls to insert their own dates for the apocalypse.

Here is a (small) sampling:

  • Pope Clement I predicts the world could end at any time ~90CE
  • Sextus Julius Africanus predicts Armageddon for 500CE
  • John of Toledo Predicts the end of the world in 1186CE
  • Pope Innocent III thinks the last date is 1284CE
  • Gerard of Poehlde predicts the end of the world date to be 1306CE
  • Melchior Hoffman thinks the real date is 1533CE
  • Benjamin Keach put’s his money on 1689
  • Charles Wesley (one of the founders of Methodism) goes for 1794CE as the date.
  • The Jehovah’s Witnesses First predicted 1914 as the date to remember[5].
  • Pat Robertson predicted 1982. This and other failed predictions do not seem to have dimmed his popularity in some circles.
  • Peter Ruckman (an Independent Baptist Pastor) calculated the date to be around 1990-ish. Other than that he is a completely reliable source.
  • The year 2000 alone had about 32 predictions of the “End Times” to contend with[6]. We’re lucky to have made it out of that year alive. Or not.

Most disturbing is the number of Americans who believe that we are actually are living in the end times. This specific prediction is laughed off as being naive or false teachings but the concept itself is embraced. Harold Camping may be ridiculed but the only thing that is fringe about his beliefs is that he dares put a date on them. Now that’s scary stuff right there. Think about that and try not to have your opinion of humanity lowered just a little.

Quite frankly, when I decided a few of weeks ago to post about this near the date predicted I had no idea that this would be taken up by the media to such an extent. Just goes to show; any crazy thing can be news worthy – given a low enough threshold of “news”.

Still, some good may come of all this hysteria. If we take the opportunity. If some research psychologists out there are willing to exploit the disappointment that is bound to strike the adherents of this belief we may gain some insight into the workings of the human mind. While it may seem like there is no overlap between you and those that hold the Earth to be ending soon the mechanisms that they use to deal with the eventual disillusionment are the same that help you function in everyday life.

The extreme case may illuminate the more mundane.

Everyday we must reconcile the actions we take with the self image we have created. Sometimes this is easy, I’m a good person so I help out my co-workers when they are having trouble. Sometimes we run into difficulty; I’m honest but I also lied to my mother about being busy so I didn’t have to attend that awkward family thing. Discrepancies like this can cause us discomfort – this is referred to as Cognitive Dissonance[7]. In this case we come up with personal stories that explain to ourselves why we acted in  a manor inconsistent with our self image.

Those who wake up May 22nd to the realization that they are still here will have to do some fancy mental footwork to fit their belief in a failed prediction into the image of themselves as intelligent, rational people. Rich fodder for investigation into the human psyche.

Now I’ve had a bit of fun at the expense of this belief but I want to point out that these people are not objects for our amusement. In some cases on May 22nd there are going to be individuals who realize that their lives are ruined. No jobs, no money and families to support. Those who propagate damaging ideologies such as this have some responsibility towards those whose lives they destroy.

By some estimates[8] Harold Camping’s media empire is in control of millions of dollars worth of assets. How much of this will nice old Mr Camping be willing to part with in order to help those who have lost everything because they trusted him?

The depressing part is that the inevitable failure of this prophecy will have absolutely no impact on those who fancy themselves end of the world prognosticators. People will continue to generate beliefs based on untestable propositions. Those people will continue to influence others to their detriment. Post non-rapture the world will go on and with regard to con-men and scam artists (sincere and otherwise alike) it will be SSDD.



*Sorry Douglass.

Verse 17

2. Like here or here or here.

about half way down. This is likely to be a low estimate.


5. The Witnesses have turned end of the world predictions into something of a cottage industry having at least 9 different dates for the last days.


7. I cannot recommend Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson’s book “Mistakes Were Made (But Not by Me): Why We Justify Foolish Beliefs, Bad Decisions, and Hurtful Acts” Highly enough for a look at our inner justifications.


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Filed under: Hoaxes, Psychological, Religion, Sciblogs, skepticism Tagged: Benjamin Keach, christian, Christianity, end-of-the-world, Eschatology, Harold Camping, Melchior Hoffman, Peter Ruckman, rapture, Seventh-day Adventist Church, Sextus Julius Africanus, skeptic

Amber Teething Beads: A Few Points to Consider Darcy Cowan Feb 21


Being a new parent and a sceptic I have been on guard regarding dubious advice and practices. Parents, especially new parents like myself, are a vulnerable group. We tend to be full of anxiety that we are doing the ’right thing’ by our children. Where-ever you find a vulnerable group like this you also tend to find those who prey on such fears. I have actually been pleasantly surprised, despite my vigilance I have not yet been subjected to any dubious advice (that I’ve noticed). But early last week I was confronted by a practice from a fellow new parent that I found a little disturbing. I’m taking about using necklaces of amber beads to reduce the pain of teething for babies.

Teething can be an especially stressful time for parents and children, the child may be experiencing pain as the new teeth break through the gums. This means an irritable child and frazzled parents. Anything that promises to relieve or prevent this harrowing time is gratefully embraced.

On to the amber beads. This practice disturbs me for several reasons. First is safety, the necklace if left on the baby for long periods may pose a strangling hazard of it becomes caught on something. Most advertise that they are made to break easily to prevent this and that the beads are individually knotted onto the necklace to prevent scattering on breakage. However this still seems to leave a broken string of beads in reach of a baby, as as most people know – anything a baby can get it’s hands on goes straight into the mouth. So choking is also a concern[1&17].

Now, I’m not one to be a worry wart over every little potential hazard, used correctly under parental supervision I suspect that the likelihood of a tragedy of this kind is low. But not zero[15&16]. This coupled with the low possibility that the necklace actually does anything is what worries me. The second disturbing thing is that parents are accepting this via word of mouth and apparently not consulting their doctors before subjecting their child to an intervention of unknown safety and efficacy.

I have three main points I want to cover with regard to these amber beads that parents should consider before trying these beads (in addition to the physical safety above). The first relates to basic plausibility.

Before we get to that though it depends on which mechanism of action for the beads you subscribe to. There are several explanations regarding how the beads are supposed to work floating around the intertubes, many are of the tinfoil hat brigade variety, these will be ignored (but look here and here for a bit of a chuckle). Only one explanation I have found makes biological sense so that’s the one I’ll be focusing on.

That explanation is Succinic acid, baltic amber is known to contain between 3-8% succinic acid. According to proponents this is released from the beads and into your baby. The succinic acid then allegedly has an analgesic effect and so reduces the pain of teething. Here is where my first point regarding plausibility comes in:

Amber is tough, really tough. This is a material that has persisted for thousands and in some cases millions of years unchanged. Suffering through heating and cooling of innumerable climatic changes through the years. Yet this same tough unchanging material with happily give up it’s chemical components upon the gentle heating it receives on being placed next to your baby’s skin? Colour me unconvinced[1&2]. Related to this point amber has a hardness on the Mohs scale of between 1 and 3 [3], baltic amber which is usually touted as the therapeutic variety (because of the high succinic acid content) is at the high end of this scale 2 — 2.5. To put this in perspective, Tin has a hardness of about 1.5 and Gold is 2.5-3 [4]. But forget about this point, I don’t need it. Lets say for argument sake that clinically relevant amounts of succinic acid are released by the amber and absorbed by your baby’s skin.

My second point then, relates directly to the claims made for succinic acid. Succinic acid is made in the body (and in plants) as part of the citric acid cycle (aka krebs cylce)[5]. It is also use in the food and beverage industry as a food acid (additive #363 to be precise)[6]. Interestingly in this capacity there are recommendations from some quarters to avoid the substance[7]. Even so, apart from it’s early use as a topical treatment for rheumatic pain[8] there is no evidence that I could find (searching Pubmed at least, where I would expect a decent study to be referenced) that it is effective as either an anti-inflammatory or general analgesic. Let me be clear on that, I don’t mean low quality evidence, I don’t mean small poorly designed trials with equivocal effects, I mean nothing. Zip. Nada. In fact if anyone knows of any let me know because I find this complete lack quite surprising, I’m open to the idea that I was looking in the wrong place or was using incorrect search terms. So, unless there is late breaking news, it fails on that count as well. Meh, what do we care about evidence of efficacy anyway? Throw this point out too. Lets move on to my final argument, uh, I mean point to consider.

Lets say that a. the beads do indeed release succinic acid into your baby and b. this succinic acid has an analgesic effect once it enters your baby’s body. Doesn’t the very fact that an unknown amount of a drug[9] is being put into your baby’s body bother you? What is that I hear? It’s natural? Oh, well, that’s ok then. No wait, no it’s not. I don’t care what the origin of a compound is, the question is what are it’s effects on the body and do the benefits out weigh the risks. Ok, lets replace succinic acid with some other naturally occurring substance, salicylic acid. This is a compound with known anti-inflammatory properties[10]. Would you be happy with a product that introduced unknown levels of this compound into your baby? What if I said that overdoses with this compound could lead to a 1% chance of death?[11] It’s natural, it’s also the precursor to acetylsalicylic acid, otherwise known as Aspirin[12].

Now, lest I be accused of unnecessary fear mongering and drawing false comparisons I would like to admit that at present there is no evidence to suggest that succinic acid is hazardous, nor even that it is potentially hazardous[5]. This does not detract from my main point however, the point isn’t whether this particular compound is safe or not but that the reasoning[13] around it’s use is faulty and cannot be used as a substitute for evidence.

Based on the complete lack of plausibility on any level of efficacy any potential for harm, however small, must tip the balance of this equation away from the use of this product. Don’t trust me though, talk to your doctor, I suspect though that given the complete lack of reliable information on this topic they will be left to rely on their own philosophy of harm vs benefit. In the final analysis, there are not always clear answers[14], but developing good critical thinking skills will at least provide you with a small light in the darkness.



2. I found this paper that analysed the volatile out gassing of amber, succinic acid was not mentioned as an identified component.







9. If it has biologic activity that can be used in a therapeutic fashion, it’s a drug, no quibbling on that point please.




13. ie “It’s got to be good, it’s natural.”. Don’t make me barf.

14. Who am I kidding, there are almost never clear answers. Who wants certainty anyway?

15. This is an american document but I don’t think necklaces become safer just because we’re in NZ.

16. NZ infant mortality statistics.

17. See page 33.

Filed under: Alternative medicine, Medicine, Questionable Techniques, Sciblogs, Science, skepticism Tagged: Alternative medicine, altmed, Amber, Aspirin, babies, baby, Baltic amber, complementary and alternative medicine, crunchy, Earth Science, health, mothers, Necklace, parents, skeptic, skepticism, Succinic acid, trendy

A Skeptic’s Perspective — Repost Darcy Cowan Oct 18

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After Friday’s unabashed rant on things magical and absurd I felt it would be good to post a more level headed and rational piece. This post from a couple of years ago caught my eye at the right time and given the popularity of reposting I decided it was worth another outing:

A less formal post today, unstructured playtime if you like. This week I had not had a chance to write my usual contribution to my work newsletter. Instead I decided to search for a skeptical cartoon to use as a place holder until next week. I found two things, first that there aren’t very many good skeptically themed ‘toons around and second those I could find just seemed to portray skepticism as simple doubting. While this is a good place to start it certainly isn’t all there is to the skeptical outlook. While philosophical skepticism is concerned with whether there is any such thing as objective reality the modern Skeptical movement takes this for granted and seeks to supply a basis for rational inquiry and thought.

A skeptic attempts to examine claims objectively, trying to limit the effect of bias on their conclusion, both that of the person making the claim and their own. This is obviously not easy, we all view the world through a collection of filters that encompass all of our preconceptions, hopes, wants and needs as well as, for most of us, a desire to be part of a larger community. This can seriously affect how we interpret the events around us and hamper our ability to make sound judgments concerning the validity of claims that we make and that are presented to us a factual. As I have previously discussed personal experience as related through anecdote is extremely powerful in affecting the way people perceive the world. An emotion filled story about someone’s plight with an illness and subsequent miraculous recovery is often enough to convince most people of the efficacy of a treatment.

For a skeptic however, certain minimum standards of evidence must be met before we can evaluate the plausibility of a claim. The more unusual or outrageous the claim the higher that minimum standard becomes. This is because prior plausibility must be considered as part of the evaluation process. We all do this in our lives, when we consider how likely a friend is to keep that promise to arrive on time we think back to previous occasions when they were early or late and decide how likely it is that they will make it this time. We consider the prior probability to their claim of punctuality. A friend who is habitually late will score lower that one who has proven time and again that they can read a watch. In the same way a skeptic will consider the evidence that has come before when looking at the claims of Homeopathy, Chiropractic, Therapeutic Touch, psychics, mediums, cryptozoologists, etc.

So, if you meet a skeptic remember that they are not simply trying to ridicule paranormal experience but are attempting to apply reason to the world around them and are hoping that they are providing an example for others to do so as well. At least that’s the way I see it. Happy critical thinking.

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Filed under: Psychological, Sciblogs, Science, skepticism Tagged: Critical thinking, Rationalism, rationality, sceptic, scepticism, Science and Society, Science in Society, skeptic, Skeptical Inquiry, skepticism

Man Flu, the Disappointing Reality Darcy Cowan Jun 12

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Man Flu, scourge of modern Manly life. Struck down by this dreaded disease men are reduced to a shadow of their former glory, unable to maintain the meager level of household responsibility they usually get away with or even care for their own well being. Reduced to mewling invalids, men afflicted with Man Flu have little recourse beyond bed rest and watching daytime television while a significant other tends to their every need. After being ridiculed by wives and girlfriends for decades science has come to the rescue and vindicated us, the Man Flu exists!*
*The preceding is a work of fiction and any resemblance to real people or events is coincidental.
Despite what the media would have us believe recent advances in scientific research has not in fact established that Man Flu is a real phenomena beyond simply showing our inability to deal with sickness effectively. The real science behind the hype, as usual, is much more modest in it’s scope and consequences.

So what was actually studied? The research was carried out by McGill University in Canada and looked at the effects of a certain protein, caspase-12. The study involved investigating how the activity of this protein affects immune response against Listeria monocytogenes bacteria, a microbe that can cause serious food poisoning, in mice. Part of the study also investigated the effect of gender on the activity of the protien and whether any difference was mediated by the hormone oestrogen. To do this researchers infected mice with the bacteria and looked at spleen and liver bacteria levels in male and female mice with and without the gene for the protein and male mice with the gene and being treated with estrogen.

The interesting thing is that this gene did have a different effect on how sick the mice got depending on the presence or absence of estrogen. Those male mice with the gene were more susceptible to the infection than females or males recieving hormone treatment, but the gene is inactive in most humans. Only about 20% of native Africans have a working version of the gene, so this research has virtually no applicability to general differences in flu severity between men and women. I guess Man Flu remains a myth, for now.

Posted in Hoaxes, Medicine, Sciblogs, Science, skepticism Tagged: Flu, man flu, media, medical research, Medicine, mice, Research, skeptic

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