Saturday, June 20, 2009

The Chiropractic Hate Society

Yikes, more hate speech against chiropractors. Here are a few references:

Discover Magazine (the worst offender)
Ministry of Truth

They are all talking about chiropractic practitioners and a trial going on where this PDF has just being released as proof of chiropractic claims. Of course there is some bad science. They can't help it as chiropractic practice is not known for their double blind studies. You can't, in my opinion, do a double blind study because it involves moving bits of the body around which voids the study.

But really, I am angry at the science geeks and their hate speech. They assume something without a double blind and repeatable results is fraud, stupidity and somehow a crime against humanity. Sorry, there may be a few, but most believe in this and that makes it real to them. It is no different than crystals or homeopathy. At some point the mind causes a belief, no matter how un-defendable, and builds the belief into a perceived fact probably can not be changed by argument or even direct proof.

I like that last little bit. There is no such thing really as belief. In the end belief is a fact to the person that holds the belief.

Don't the pseudoscience haters ever consider placebos? How about side effects of moving around bits of flesh and bone? The problem is that, in the minds of chiropractic practitioners, coincidences add up beliefs to create a perceived reality and that reinforces the odds that a cure will 'manifest' or appear to manifest in relation to spinal manipulations.

There is a lot of science in chiropractic, just no formal science related to what they are claiming. Massage is no different than chiropractic. Is massage pseudoscience? Manipulation manipulates, sorry but that is a physical thing. You can't wiggle your little finger without causing changes to your biology. The effect of having your spine jerked around is not a zero. Even if at a minimum it changes a bit of blood flow and the horrific sound of vertebra popping can shoot endorphins all about. To say there is nothing happening at all with chiropractic therapy is just plain bad science. The anti-chiropractic world should be ashamed of themselves for making just as absurd assumptions that they are complaining about.

A favorite of mine is the claim that chiropractic is better than other methods for back pain. Funny thing is that getting out of bed, driving to the clinic, having someone get you up on a table and pushing stuff around is better than laying in bed. The act of doing all this other stuff is also part of the cure. Sure the moves the guy makes may be hokum, but there is a lot of stuff other than the hokum you can't ignore.

But what of the cost of chiropractic? Isn't that ripping people off? No! There is a placebo effect that has been proven to be more powerful if you raise the cost of care. The only crime is that it is not more expensive and thus more effective!!!! ....ok, you were supposed to laugh at that one.

Chiropractic belief is caused by very old adaptions of the brain. We are wired by surviving in the jungle for millions of years to save energy and stay alive. Jungles will make you dead quick if you take the time for proper science. Tigers don't understand double blind studies.

This is also people making a living or justifying their beliefs which is also related to survival. This is little different than guarding a fruit tree so that your family can survive. Look at chiropractic like cattle farmers burning down the rain forest. You won't get them to stop burning unless you give them alternatives. You also have to convince the farmers that burning is bad and the alternative is better. But even here there are many people involve. The farmer that burns the forest is selling cattle into the rest of the system which relies on the cattle.

People sell and consume the meat. It is an ecosystem that has strategies to defend itself to survive and will protect each link in the chain.

Chiropractic is an ecosystem too. Chiropractic schools rely on the existence of chiropractic clinics. The lawyer of a chiropractor (or his association) relies on the chiropractor as does the owner of the building he practices in, the suppliers of equipment and so on. Even the patient that believes in chiropractic has a dependency and will not shift unless the benefit is greater than the embarrassment and cost of re-believing in something else. It is an ecosystem.

Ok, let's talk ecosystems some more. I hate flies and roaches. Flies sort of have a good niche in the web of life and I am sure there are some legitimate niches for the humble roach. But I hate these pests and they have no value in the local area I inhabit. Sure, if I keel over dead, maybe they have a part in the web O' life, but not while my girlfriend is still there to shuffle me off for proper disposal.

I hate flies. I hate roaches too. They are stupid adaptations of nature. Calling them stupid isn't going to help solve the existence of flies and roaches. As far as I know, short of a laser defense system under every leaf, stone, or the junk in my house, calling them names is not going to eliminate nature's process of adaption that allows these pests to be very successful at being pests. Calling chiropractic stupid is just as stupid as calling flies et al stupid.

Got a solution to eliminate and repurpose flies or chiropractic? Didn't think so.

Got a way to convince someone with a strong belief in something unsupported by pure science? Didn't think so.

Got a way to educate every man woman and child in the practice of critical thinking and enforce its application? Didn't think so.

Curing wacky thinking is like wishing for world peace.

These pseudoscience bigots need to stop ignoring the other side of science and how we make decisions. The human brain is purpose built to believe in crap because that is efficient. The only way you are going to change some of these people is to just show them how their brains came to these beliefs and the aforementioned alternate reality where unscientific hokum is real.

Pseudoscience needs to be rebranded as the study of how people believe and even thrive on bad data, poor logic, and their strong beliefs. Pseudoscience hate speech needs to be banned.

But here is a dose of my own medicine. Why is this hate manifesting in these science geeks? Simply because of the very same weak mind. It is cheaper to call someone a bad name and question their parentage than it is to study persuasion and the brain. Just like race prejudice too, it is an us-verses-them mentality. Defend the family from vermin, especially if they don't have the same beliefs.

It is also about survival. We saw what happened in the Bush era where non-science political appointees gutted science based establishments. Of course the same could be said about the behavior of people when we had forced integration. Night and day in the cause, but the emotion is the same. People are scared that a non-science person will be able to kill science and put the scientifically minded folks out of a job. Sorry science geeks (and I include myself), we are ruleby survival instincts and the brain's need to operate efficiently.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

When is Homeopathy not Pseudoscience?

A funny thing that happened recently. Zicam, a supposed homeopathic medicine was pulled from the shelves because it caused some people to loose their sense of smell.

I actually have some Zicam in my medicine cabinet. Never used it, but it had some cool packaging that screamed powerful medicine. Mainly bought it because it isn't marketed as homeopathic, rather a sort of vitamin for your nose. At least my reason and I am sticking too it. Tried zinc lozenges for a cold once and they soothed my throat, why not my nose?

You find this sort of stuff right next to the heavy duty drug-based nose candy in the drug store. It isn't on a shelf in the alternative medicines sections. It isn't on a shelf next to the magic crystals from magic healing land or voodoo dolls and bat wing.

Why is a non-drug next to a drug? The fact is, there are ingredients in Zicam. But that is only sort of true. The whole idea of homeopathy is that somehow the poison (and it is usually a poison), is no longer in the solution, but has its aura or essence (whatever, don't get me started) memorized by the water.

Zicam is considered homeopathic because of a law created in 1938. That makes it a drug, but not worth testing like a real drug because it contains naturally existing substances. Of course, many poisons are 'naturally occurring substances'. Just saying.

Love this, it is from a PDF from the Zicam folks FAQ:

Why is zinc gluconate considered homeopathic?
Zinc gluconate is recognized as a homeopathic drug because it has known "homeopathic provings" and/or known effects which mimic the symptoms, syndromes or conditions associated with the common cold, which it is administered to treat.

So, what does that mean? Essentially, if you take enough zinc gluconate you will get a runny nose. That's not good. But if you dilute it in water such that there is no trace... Well let's just say a magic fairy gives it the opposite effect. So, it is a medicine because, wait for it, in quantity it makes you feel sick, but diluted it makes you well.

You gotta love logic. It is so easy to twist. And we have believed this since 1792. Just goes to prove, illogic ages like a good wine.

Anyhoo, what is the effect a active dilution could have to cause smell blindness? Possibilities range from coincidence to other factors. Could be contamination, the fact that they use alcohol, or even that the dilution isn't really all that diluted and can cause problems in some people. Even mass delusion is a possibility - rumors can cause health effects too. Of course it can also be a bad coincidental sniffer failure experienced at the same time as using Zicam. When you roll the dice that someone gets well on their own, sometimes they get sick on their own too.

As you might guess, my Zicam is in the trash. Not that it can kill my sense of smell, but because it is homeopathic. Please don't get me wrong. Nothing wrong with homeopathy. Placebos are great stuff. I just don't believe in it and therefore I am immune to its effects.

There is another reason. The nocebo effect is also very powerful as we have discussed before. Just knowing that others have lost their sense of smell could cause your brain to kill your nose just from the belief that it could happen to you too.

Of course, I avoid homeopathic drugs as a matter of course becaue of the nocebo effects. If the whole idea is that it is a diluted poison (or whatever causes the bad effect like a runny nose), I have a tendency to believe in the effects of the poison rather than some anti-poison effect. I have a lot of faith in poisons rather than homeopathy. Call me silly, but this is my motto: That which does not kill me is probably not a poison.

You know I have not really offered up any experiments. Let's create an experiment worthy of a Boys Book Lab experiment!

  1. Take an over the counter stool softener and dilute to 10,000 to 1 so as to create the homeopathic equivalent of an anti-diarrhea medication.
  2. Take highest dose you can stand of an over the counter stool softener (contracting Montezuma's Revenge will also suffice for this experiment).
  3. Take a teaspoon or so of your homeopathic anti-diareah mixture.
  4. Call the Oprah show from your touchtone phone from the privacy of your bathroom throne to report your results.

Got a homeopathic experiment? Write it up in the comments and maybe I'll put it in my book! You too can get published!

Cracking Spinal Jokes to a Diabetic

I love chiropractors. Really! I just have a hard time letting them near me anymore. They are always cracking me up.

Here is the deal, you move stuff around in the body and stuff happens. Chiropractic, acupuncture, massage, are all manipulation. To a certain extent, they can all cause the body to do stuff that didn't happen before.

But then there are the claims. Chiropractors, or at least mine, claimed that doctors and drug companies were just treating the symptoms of a messed up spine. Really? Hard to say, but cracking my back and paying a lot of money and time did not help. Seemed a bit odd that I never got my money back (pun intended). I even signed up for a health program who's spokesman was Captain James T. Kirk.

Did it help a little? Sure, but no cures and I did exactly what he wanted. Paid in advance too. But that's a ruse by the pseudoscience practitioner. Hard to back out when you have already paid for the service.

Are people truly helped by chiropractors? Yep! But can you say it is because of all that back cracking work? Not definitively. Sorry, not a lot of proof. Devilishly hard to do a double blind study either. Despite the whining of chiropractors, there still isn't 100% success in their profession.

Cracking my knuckles feels good. So does cracking my back. You get a bit of freedom of movement in those joints. With a computer and bad posture, we don't move a whole lot. Chiropractors might help, but so does getting off my butt.

One of my greatest pain complaints is now gone. I had a lot of pain. Huge aching pain. Pain that made it hard to think. A pain that wasn't helped much by the chiropractor, better helped by massage, and even helped by electronic acupuncture, but never stopped. You know what it was caused by? Type 2 diabetes.

Sadly non of these people understand type 2 diabetes. They can't cure it. Sorry. They didn't even diagnose it. A quick blood test and there we go. Controlled diet and good drugs, well, pain goes away. Pretty cool eh? Fail to control diet and take the drugs, look pain. Ah, science.

I love pseudoscience. It is amazing how well it works, when it works. But there is the flaw. Placebos are cool, and some things, even chiropractors, can create physical effects (endorphins from having your head twisted are cool), but they are not necessarily cures. For all my chiropractor's talk of others treating the symptoms and not the cause, he was just treating my symptom. Go figure.

The key reason for this blog and the book is the understanding of why we believe in silly stuff. The problem of course is that silly stuff often works. People swear by magnets, voodoo dolls, and chiropractors. They can all have effects either from pure mind, or a real effect that is just confused with others or pure chance. The lesson here is that it is often hard to tell.

It is also a good idea to go out and buy a glucose meter. Go to a doctor if you want, but a glucose meter will tell you if you have type 2 diabetes. Read the instructions, read the literature, and test. It won't kill you, but it might save you. Most of us don't understand that effect of the food we eat. Seeing your blood sugar skyrocket after a happy meal or a bag of chips will wake you up.

Want to hear some great pseudoscience from your doctor? The fasting blood sugar test is hokum. It will only show that you are diabetic, not on the edge of diabetes. The only way to see if you body is on the slippery slope of type 2 is if you do a glucose tolerance test. The problem of course it that this takes time and money. Problem with that is that you are already in trouble if a doc sends you off for this test. I'd say get one every year after you are 35. I'm not a doctor, but I wish I had at least a hemoglobin A1c test instead of all those semi-worthless fasting blood sugar tests that failed to catch pre-diabetes.

If you don't want to go as far as a meter, read the diabetic symptoms (throw in weird achy muscle pain because that is often missed because it is rare). If you already have them, well too late, but at least you can take some action. Don't just treat the symptoms. Find the cause. Also, get a second, third, and forth opinion.

There is pseudoscience everywhere, even at your doctor's office. My doc missed the obvious symptoms of type 2 until the blood tests came back. Doctors are human, not infallible. They are influenced by education, drug companies, and even the psychology of the examination room. Sometimes real science is second banana to gut feelings, long held beliefs, influence of others, and a sprinkle of hokum.

Twenty million or more people in the US have diabetes. Half don't even know it yet. We don't really know why, but it is partially genetic, and part diet. Odds are pretty good that if you are over 45 you are either a type 2 diabetic or on your way. That's science, don't ignore its possibilities.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

The first star if Pseudoscience

Ophiuchus, the Serpent Bearer, also known as the Celestial Medicine Man is a constellation up there in the sky. It's no Oprah, but it beats her on age.

We have a long history in pseudoscience. The medicine man is an old concept. There are cures, herbs, and ceremonies all aimed at cures for either disease or the demons that cause disease. Not much different than health magnets or copper bracelets to help golfers. Of course there is all that hoodoo over Voodoo.

But what has changes? Science! If you can create an experiment that proves it, well it is science. If you have trouble repeating experiments, well that is the medicine man. Not that it doesn't work, just that you need to believe in the placebo/nocebo affects or you have to have a real effect that just has not been studied well.

The medicine man was a sort of scientist. Things worked and failed as you might expect. But things that worked, well they worked and were repeated. That is why we have drug companies making money. But the problem with a lot of the medicine man's bag of tricks was based on placebo/nocebo and blind luck. Sometimes taking mushrooms and blowing smoke will coincide with the patient just getting better - that's why I love herbal cold cures because they all eventually work!

We often associate Astrology with the stars (like Oprah), but this star sign is both a medicine man and a part of the astrological zodiac path. That deserves a bit of explanation as well.

Ophiuchus is also called an unlucky Zodiac sign. It isn't in the Zodiac, but that's the point. The Sun is in Ophiuchus more than twice as long as in Scorpius. Sort of a limbo for anyone born between November 30th and December 18th. So neither Scorpius or Sagittarius between those two dates. Unlucky for astrologers too because it is bad when not even the constellations add up scientifically.

But if you are born under this in-between sign, are you likely to be good at pseudoscience? Probably not. You can't believe in this because astronomy does not allow you to. Sorry, just 12 signs are valid.

It is like Pluto. Do you know why Pluto was demoted as a planet? Simple: It is silly to change all those astrology charts for a spec of light that astrologers can't see (most don't own telescopes).

There are other things about this contellation help us think about psudoscience. There is a star in this constelation called Barnard's Star, a 9.5-magnitude red dwarf (or a height challenged star for the politically correct). It is also called the Runaway Star. Running away is putting it mildly because it travels at 103 miles per second (0.06% the speed of light). This star is smoking! From our point of view on the Earth, Barnard's Star moves the distance of the full moon in just 180 years. Use the metaphors at will, but I'd make this akin to the snake oil salesman trying to get out of the neighborhood.

Speaking of neighborhoods, the runnaway star is the second closest star to our solar neighborhood at only 6.8 light years. It is just a tad farther away than Alpha Centauri. Actually, that is a lie perpetrated by bad high school text books. Barnard's is really the fourth closest star because Alpha Centauri consists of thee stars. I guess there is science, pseudoscience, and old science in high school text books.

On a personal note, Bernard's Star holds a special place in my history. I once had a high school buddy who claimed to be from Bernard's star. Because he was adopted and a bit weird, it is a possibility we could not find adequate evidence to disprove the claim.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

There is no such thing as pseudoscience

There is no such thing as pseudoscience. It is just the messiness of the human mind. We don't believe this stuff because we are delusional, but we are hard wired to be delusional. Self-delusion is inexpensive. It does not waste a lot of energy. We just use authority figures and rules of thumb and that's good enough. Has been since the first primitive brain cells started communicating.

The only real differences between an antivaxer and a doctor is that the anti-vaccination believeer is shooting from the hip, just like you would in the jungle. You don't eat poison plants in the jungle.

The evidence for poison really depends on if it is really a poison or just chance that the fellow died or got sick near the same time they eat a plant. Worse is evidence in front of you or from a celebrity as this hold more weight. Data is not as believable as your neighbor or a playboy model. Either way, a sample of one, as long as it is first hand or from an authority figure (Oprah), the one sample is good enough in the jungle. No need to experiment because that would be freaky dangerous.

We can experiment now. We are beyond the jungle, or at least those that have the time or aptitude. If you don't have the time, have a poor education, attended a California public school, or part of the Left Behind policies, you don't experiment and don't have the experience of what good science proves.

There is a price. It takes energy to do science. You have to have commitment. If you live in a trailer park and work for minimum wage, the biggest experiment you've done is Mentos and Diet Coke.

Real scientists are rare. And that Poor little mice pay a price... Or if you are a do it yourself scientist, get your sister to take a nibble. But others would rather save calories and look to their authority figures in the church, politics, and celebrities.

We have more data. But folks are still wired to live in the jungle... That is of course if you believe in evolution of man.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Oprah - Queen of Pseudoscience?

Is Oprah really the Queen of Pseudoscience? It is a tough call. Here at the "Boys Book of" offices, we asked the question. The mailman wasn't going to talk, but the rest cozied up to the big screen in the break rook to watch a few Tivo'd Oprahs.

The Secret is a good one. It isn't about any 'secret' per say, but the weird stuff you wouldn't think about in a million years. That make The Secret more fantasy or science fiction than science or even pseudoscience.

Indeed, there are things in The Secret that have a of real science. Try not to think of an Elephant.... I'll wait... See, that is all the secret is about. It is placebo and nocebo. It is attention of the mind on a goal. Nothing rocket science. The hoopla around The Secret is the wacky pseudoscience around how it works. Some guys are out there saying you are fiddling with the quantum foam of the universe and that's way out there. 

The Secret is all rather harmless pseudoscience. If you are trailer trash when you watch that episode, you are still trailer trash. If you have good ambition, ability to focus, and brave enough to grab opportunities when they appear, The Secret is just a good motivational self-help book that gets the juice flowing.

But is Oprah the queen of The Secret pseudoscience? You bet! She can bring in the stars! As we all know, scientists are nothing compared to movie stars. It isn't good pseudoscience unless you have good hollywood backing it up.
Ok, what about the antivaxers? Jenny McCarthy is the spokeswoman and recently appeared on the O show. Vaccinations cause autism, that's the cry anyway. 

Well, I have been vaccinated. I don't have autism as far as I can tell. But there are other things vaccination is linked with. For example, egg allergies because most vaccines are grown in chicken eggs. But vaccinations are always with a little danger but it is one in a very large number. Do we really understand the risks? Not sure, but the fact is that death by polio, measles, mumps, and other nasty stuff is a pretty good incentive for vaxination.

Poor Jenny does not have a lot to stand on if she is trying to link vaccinations to autism. There just isn't any evidence. Worse if you are pushing a boycott that has far greater danger.

Is anti-vaccination pseudoscience? I don't see it, sorry. It is just bad math. If Jenny was pushing magnets instead of vaccinations, well, you have my attention then. But no, the crystals and therapy candles are missing.

Is Oprah putting a notch in her pseudoscience belt by putting Jenny on TV? Well, there I go the other way. If you classify pseudoscience as believing in what ever is pushed by a former Playboy model, well... I must admit that you are definitely in crazyville if you think that this is a public service. It reeks of pseudoscience because real science doesn't have women that are that good looking and pose naked for Playboy.

But I don't think this goes all the way. Oprah even posted a response from the American Academy of Pediatrics that poo poos a bit of the show. I am so sorry, but disclaimers on your hokum are ok, unless they are quoted from real scientists. That's not proper pseudoscience and never will be.

So, two examples. You can guess that I am not putting Oprah on the top of the list for best talk show hokum. 

I must admit some bias though. I want to be an Oprah Book of the Month selection. I'm not going to suck up to Oprah and make her Queen of Pseudoscience just to get top billing. I want the book to speak for itself. Maybe then she gets the crown, no sooner. 

What is your opinion? Who is the Queen or King of pseudoscience?