Science

NEWSFLASH: Acupuncture is relatively safe…

... although this form of acupuncture may carry slightly greater health risks.

So while killing time on facebook researching new science articles I came across this short Guardian article containing a startling headline announcing that:

“Dozens killed by incorrectly placed acupuncture needles”

But before I could begin hunting for news stories about the recent activity of an acupuncture themed serial killer the sub heading informed me that a “survey reveals punctured hearts and lungs among causes of death over past 45 years”. Despite my general lack of statistical competence even I can work out that ‘dozens’ of deaths across more than four decades does not work out as a particularly scary statistic and certainly not one that warrants such a sensationalist headline. In fact as the first paragraph of the article explains the total recorded deaths numbers 86 over 45 years which works out as an average of around 2 deaths a year.

What makes this figure even less impressive is that the number was obtained from worldwide reports including those from Japan and China. Two deaths a year from a treatment that is performed on millions of people, multiple times every year is really not something which people should worry about. Winning the lottery would appear to be more likely than dying from a botched acupuncture treatment.

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Simon Singh and the Appeal Decision

My Oxford studies might still be kicking my ass and making me break all my blogging promises but I simply cannot let last weeks development in the Simon Singh case past without comment.

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Simon Singh finally won his appeal!

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Detailed analysis of the victory and what it means, as always, is available from Jack-of-Kent who has provided four excellent articles on the decision (one, two, three and four). Jack’s dependable analysis has also been joined on this occasion by a raft of coverage in the mainstream media, with articles and news segments appearing on practically every notable UK news source (a partial roundup is available here).

The impact of the coverage has particularly struck me, in that I have had friends and family who previously knew nothing about the case (and thus suffered at the hands of my diatribes), contacting me to ask if I saw the decision on the news.  The coverage has also typically included discussion of the wider campaign for reform of the libel laws and has therefore increased the publicity for this excellent cause too!

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Nano-Art

There is certainly a lot of hype surrounding nanotechnology but most scientists involved in the field admit that we are still a long way from harnessing the full potential of this new technology. However, one thing that scientists do seem to already be quite adept at is creating nano-scale sculptures. These micro works of art are certainly a testament to human ingenuity and the wonders of modern technology but they also serve as a welcome reminder of how at heart we are still a very silly species.

World's Smallest Snowman created by David Cox

Nano-Guitar made by Dustin Carr from Cornell

Nano-Toilet by Takashi Kaito

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Variations on a Prayer

Praying, praying, praying

An interesting study (available online here) by a group of Danish researchers provides strong evidence that different types of prayer activate different areas of the brain and that some specific types of prayer activate areas of the brain usually associated with social cognition.

This may seem like fairly straightforward conclusions to begin with however the authors of the study point out “in fact most studies of the relation between brain function and religion assume the hypothesis that religious experience is fundamentally a uniform category of human experience” and illustrate this by pointing to examples such as the well publicised work of Dr. Persinger who claims to be able to be able to reproduce religious experiences by stimulating the temporal lobe.

To provide a more nuanced perspective and highlight the variability within the category of ‘prayer’ the authors designed a study to test whether different types of prayer were producing different patterns of neural activity. In order to discover this they took twenty young devout Christians from a Danish Lutheran sect, put them in an fMRI scanner and while they performed different types of prayer they collected images of their brain activity.

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Return to Duty & Excellent Science Song

It seems my earlier prediction from a few weeks ago that I would be back to a regular blogging schedule was a bit optimistic. Being in-between houses and temporarily living on a friends couch was not the most productive environment for producing good (or bad) quality blogging (although the couch was very much appreciated- thanks Neal!).

I’ve now moved and (mostly) settled into Oxford where I have just began an MSc in Cognitive & Evolutionary Anthropology. Now, although I’ve not been blogging lately I’ve still been keeping up with my usual skeptical and sciencey events and so hopefully some time this week I’ll post up a short summary of my thoughts on any interesting points that came up at the events I attended.

Also, as I’m sure everyone reading this knows Simon Singh had the first bit of good news in his ongoing legal battle as he won the right to appeal Justice Eady’s decision on the intended meaning of his article. So… WOHOOO!!!

Ahem, this was an unexpected development but certainly came as welcome news and again I’m hoping to have a slightly more detailed post up shortly that covers my reaction to all the ‘Singh-BCA and general crazy UK libel law’ news.

I also haven’t forgot that I promised to write a post discussing the role (or lack thereof) of suicide in Buddhism. It’s about 50% finished now but I have some more pressing and interesting things I want to get off my chest first before I get round to finishing it off. So I haven’t forgot but it’s still going to be a while.

So that’s all for now just a short shout to say hello again to the blogging world, let everyone know I’m still around and will be posting more stuff soon and I also wanted to post up an excellent science song that was pointed out to me today (Cheers again Connor!). The song was created by John Boswell of The Symphony of Science and as he describes:

“We Are All Connected” was made from sampling The History Channel’s Universe series, Carl Sagan’s Cosmos, Richard Feynman’s 1983 interviews, Neil deGrasse Tyson’s cosmic sermon, and Bill Nye’s Eyes of Nye Series, plus added visuals from The Elegant Universe (NOVA), Stephen Hawking’s Universe, Cosmos and more.

Enjoy!

Hiatus coming to an End!

The End is NearI believe the traditional way of announcing a hiatus is to do so before it is due to happen rather than when it is about to end and I also believe that there are many self evident good reasons for sticking to that traditional order.

Nevertheless, throwing caution to the wind, I am now announcing the end of my non-announced hiatus!

So that schedule of a new post every 3-5 days I mentioned about a month ago will now be kicking in.

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Libelous Article or Honest Assesment?

Simon Singh’s battle with the British Chiropractic Association all started over an article written for the Guardian over a year ago on 18th April 2008. Today, the article was republished on the Sense About Science website and across a whole host of magazines and blogs with the two alleged libellous sentences removed.

So I thought I’d contribute my own little bit of help by hosting it up here as well. So below is the original article that caused the whole fracas sans two sentences and if you just cannot live without seeing those immortal ‘allegedly libellous’ statements one more time then good old Jack-of-Kent has posted them up on his site. Enjoy…

Beware the spinal trap

Some practitioners claim it is a cure-all, but the research suggests chiropractic therapy has mixed results – and can even be lethal, says Simon Singh.

You might be surprised to know that the founder of chiropractic therapy, Daniel David Palmer, wrote that ‘99% of all diseases are caused by displaced vertebrae’. In the 1860s, Palmer began to develop his theory that the spine was involved in almost every illness because the spinal cord connects the brain to the rest of the body. Therefore any misalignment could cause a problem in distant parts of the body.

In fact, Palmer’s first chiropractic intervention supposedly cured a man who had been profoundly deaf for 17 years. His second treatment was equally strange, because he claimed that he treated a patient with heart trouble by correcting a displaced vertebra.

You might think that modern chiropractors restrict themselves to treating back problems, but in fact some still possess quite wacky ideas. The fundamentalists argue that they can cure anything, including helping treat children with colic, sleeping and feeding problems, frequent ear infections, asthma and prolonged crying – even though there is not a jot of evidence.

I can confidently label these assertions as utter nonsense because I have co-authored a book about alternative medicine with the world’s first professor of complementary medicine, Edzard Ernst. He learned chiropractic techniques himself and used them as a doctor. This is when he began to see the need for some critical evaluation. Among other projects, he examined the evidence from 70 trials exploring the benefits of chiropractic therapy in conditions unrelated to the back. He found no evidence to suggest that chiropractors could treat any such conditions.

But what about chiropractic in the context of treating back problems? Manipulating the spine can cure some problems, but results are mixed. To be fair, conventional approaches, such as physiotherapy, also struggle to treat back problems with any consistency. Nevertheless, conventional therapy is still preferable because of the serious dangers associated with chiropractic.

In 2001, a systematic review of five studies revealed that roughly half of all chiropractic patients experience temporary adverse effects, such as pain, numbness, stiffness, dizziness and headaches. These are relatively minor effects, but the frequency is very high, and this has to be weighed against the limited benefit offered by chiropractors.

More worryingly, the hallmark technique of the chiropractor, known as high-velocity, low-amplitude thrust, carries much more significant risks. This involves pushing joints beyond their natural range of motion by applying a short, sharp force. Although this is a safe procedure for most patients, others can suffer dislocations and fractures.

Worse still, manipulation of the neck can damage the vertebral arteries, which supply blood to the brain. So-called vertebral dissection can ultimately cut off the blood supply, which in turn can lead to a stroke and even death. Because there is usually a delay between the vertebral dissection and the blockage of blood to the brain, the link between chiropractic and strokes went unnoticed for many years. Recently, however, it has been possible to identify cases where spinal manipulation has certainly been the cause of vertebral dissection.

Laurie Mathiason was a 20-year-old Canadian waitress who visited a chiropractor 21 times between 1997 and 1998 to relieve her low-back pain. On her penultimate visit she complained of stiffness in her neck. That evening she began dropping plates at the restaurant, so she returned to the chiropractor. As the chiropractor manipulated her neck, Mathiason began to cry, her eyes started to roll, she foamed at the mouth and her body began to convulse. She was rushed to hospital, slipped into a coma and died three days later. At the inquest, the coroner declared: ‘Laurie died of a ruptured vertebral artery, which occurred in association with a chiropractic manipulation of the neck.’

This case is not unique. In Canada alone there have been several other women who have died after receiving chiropractic therapy, and Edzard Ernst has identified about 700 cases of serious complications among the medical literature. This should be a major concern for health officials, particularly as under-reporting will mean that the actual number of cases is much higher. If spinal manipulation were a drug with such serious adverse effects and so little demonstrable benefit, then it would almost certainly have been taken off the market.

Simon Singh is a science writer in London and the co-author, with Edzard Ernst, of Trick or Treatment? Alternative Medicine on Trial. This is an edited version of an article published in The Guardian for which Singh is being personally sued for libel by the British Chiropractic Association.