Skepticism

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!

Is Derren Brown a Skeptic?

Derren Brown

Derren Brown is a magician of the mentalist variety. Mentalists use a variety of techniques to create the illusion that they can read minds and have other amazing mental powers.

Recently Derren Brown created a storm of controversy when he claimed that he was able to predict the lottery numbers and then appeared to do just that on a live TV show filmed as the lottery numbers were announced. He claimed that he would reveal the technique used to make the prediction a few days later on a subsequent show however, when the show aired the explanations he provided were not convincing and created a substantial amount of uproar among both his fans and his detractors.

Various sites have provided detailed examinations of the problems with his explanations along with more plausible alternatives (which you can see examples of here and here) so I’ll just provide a brief summary.

The majority of the show was spent suggesting that he had used a group of 24 volunteers, various psychological experiments/complex mathematics and automatic writing to arrive at the numbers. This is a non-explanation as group psychology has absolutely no way of impacting a machine randomly selecting numbered balls nor can automatic writing give you insight into the future.

The second explanation, offered alongside immediate denials, intended to arouse suspicion of the ‘methinks, the lady doth protest too much’ variety, was that the lottery balls could have been tampered with. This is illegal and would also be practically impossible given the amount of security and safety systems that are in place to prevent such things from happening.

The much simpler explanation, as discussed by a significant amount of newspapers and commentators, was that it was a trick achieved by some clever camera effects, projecting the numbers onto the balls or some other form of trickery. This is the simplest explanation and is strongly supported by the fact that Derren did not reveal the numbers until the lottery draw was completed, has not yet won the national lottery and says himself that it was a trick (albeit with a nudge and a wink to suggest that maybe it wasn’t).

In essence Derren is simply a magician performing a trick on TV and as such there should be no real surprise that he would provide false explanations for how his trick was performed. Yet there was surprise, or at least there was a significant sense of irritation, which stems from the fact that Derren does not package what he does as magic or as involving traditional illusionist techniques. And without invoking those it seems that he did something impossible.

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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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C’mon Simon!

C'mon Simon!

Today, Simon Singh announced that he will applying for “an oral reconsideration of his application for Permission to Appeal” after his initial application was turned down last week. For the one or two people who don’t already know; Simon is a science writer being sued by British chiropractors for an article he wrote in a newspaper over a year ago and he is asking to appeal because a judge decided in a preliminary hearing that his article meant something that he did not actually believe or intend to suggest and which makes his case very difficult to win.

I’ve been following this case since it started and I have to admit that when Simon’s initial appeal request was turned down last week, although it was somewhat predictable, it did rather dampen my spirits and lead me to reconsider whether  the case was worth pursuing. It seemed to me that Simon had already done more than anyone could have been expected and it seemed like a waste to have such an excellent science writer have his time taken up by expensive legal proceedings that in all likelihood, because of the crazy UK libel laws, he would not win.

After reading Simon’s detailed explanation of why he believes this case is still worth fighting I have now completely changed my mind. If you haven’t read his explanation I suggest doing so now – the announcement is available here. It provides an excellent summary of what’s gone on and also a detailed breakdown on his reasons for fighting on and why he thinks it’s important that he continues. It also reveals that pursuing the case will not prevent Simon from carrying on his usual schedule or deprive the public of any new science books and he makes a very compelling case as to what he hopes fighting the case will achieve.

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Offending New Humanist

From New Humanist's God Trumps

From New Humanist's God Trumps

A few days ago I attended a talk by Caspar Melville the editor of the New Humanist magazine at a London ‘Skeptics in the Pub’ event. The topic of the talk was ‘taking offence’ and in it he outlined the varied ways that ‘offence’ impacted New Humanist from what received the most complaints to his editorial policy on when offence is permitted. Caspar certainly seems to have given the topic some thought and has even produced a book discussing the topic called Taking Offence: Manifestos for the Twenty-First Century.

The talk and the discussion afterwards were very interesting and while I disagreed with Caspar on a number of points I think he did a good job overall of explaining and defending his positions in the face of some difficult questioning.

However, the topic and surrounding discussion I found most intriguing was Caspar’s editorial decision to not republish the controversial Danish cartoons of Muhammad which caused a worldwide frenzy back in 2005/2006.

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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.

The BCA: Dodging the Issues

Just when you think the British Chiropractic Association might have learnt that every time it offers a public response it tends to blow up in it’s face and that it might be wiser to stay silent a new article by Richard Brown, the BCA vice president, pops up. This time round his response appears in the British Medical Journal and purports to be about ‘clarifying the issues’ surrounding the BCA’s case and the evidence for it’s claims.

And the result?

In the same issue as Brown’s article there is also a response written by Edzard Ernst. Ernst’s response is a short but thorough assessment of the quality and relevance of all of the “substantial evidence” which Brown cites in his article. He shows that every single reference cited by Brown is either irrelevant or of very poor quality. Ernst’s conclusion is that “the association’s evidence is neither complete nor… substantial”. This conclusion is echoed by Fiona Godlee, the editor of the BMJ, who writes that “[Ernst’s] demolition of the 18 references is, to my mind, complete”, proceeds to recommend that all readers of the BMJ should be “signed up to organised skepticism” and finishes by criticising the intrusion of legal cases into what should be scientific debates.

So once again it’s another PR disaster for the BCA as now, thanks to Richard Brown’s article and its terrible citations, one of the UK’s premier medical journals joins the chorus of critical voices directed at the BCA and its libel case. And not only that but it is urging its readers to follow suit! But before anyone starts to feel sorry for poor old Richard let’s take a more detailed look at what he actually said…

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