"Amsterdam is a mess... a cesspool of corruption, crime..."

Tuesday, July 28, 2009 at 4:29 PM Bookmark and Share
I visited Amsterdam once while waiting to catch a plane following a trip to the Den Haag (and no, I didn't do anything there considered illegal here - although I did walk past plenty of cannabis cafes and brothels), and overall it seemed like a nice place. That said, it's great to see someone throwing some factual information at Fox News when they get it wrong:

Learing about nature from zoos...

Sunday, July 26, 2009 at 1:42 PM Bookmark and Share
... is kind of hard when the zoo uses a dyed donkey for it's Zebra display.

(Photographs by Sharon Weinberger, from the news link above).

How NOT to argue with creationists

Friday, July 24, 2009 at 7:48 PM Bookmark and Share
I'm a big fan of Thunderf00t's work, but I'm going to bet that (like myself) he wasn't on the debate team when he was a kid. When I heard he was going to debate Ray Comfort, I had high hopes that he'd smash some of Comfort's claims regarding science and - for lack of a better term - reality. Instead, I must admit I was a bit disappointed, though it's not like there any resources available for taking religious fundamentalist to task (well, except here, here, here, here, here and probably a few other places).

While some of this is pretty painful to watch, the end has some good moments - Thunderf00t makes Ray Comfort squirm a little over evolution in parts 6 and 7, and I was a bit surprised to hear Ray says some pretty wacky things in part 8, but overall it was pretty non-productive. Anyway, on to the advice section...

So, how shouldn't you argue with creationists??
  1. Rely heavily on the assumptions that (1) a deplorable understanding of science = they can't possibly score points during debate; and (2) debating them will go a long way towards educating the public about science, logic, and critical thinking.
  2. Don't bring notes, or paper on which to take notes.
  3. Let them ask all the questions and choose all the topics, or at least most of them.
  4. If they confuse fact-based knowledge with unfounded belief, just let it go.
  5. Don't mention bananas.
  6. Don't mentioning any baseless beliefs or flawed logic that might arise, and instead explain a more general logical error in great, technical detail. This works way better than asking probing questions to point out their dubious arguments.
  7. If you're an atheist/agnostic/whatever, and they ask you why you don't believe in God, by no means turn the question around and ask them to justify why they do.
  8. Don't ask them to define terms and phrases like "moral being", "create", "soul", etc. Such details won't cause any problems later on in the debate.
  9. If they repeatedly refer to the Bible for all their knowledge, don't question it at all, and don't bring up any internal conflicts or conflicts with solid empirical evidence. Wait until the very end of the debate. This is when the audience is of course most alert, and most capable of understanding those conflicts, and how they apply to the many arguments made by your opponents over the past hour.
  10. There's no need to study up on their style of debate and favorite assertions. They'll never repeat the same dumb arguments over, and over, and over, and over again. For example, they'd never use the old watch-maker argument, false dichotomy, etc., so just don't bother.
  11. If they say "DNA is a language" agree with them (it's basically Quechua, with a hint of Dutch) since it in no way represents a large molecule that encodes information that guides the production of RNA inside the cell.
  12. When they make remarks like "So you're just electricity?" answer "Pretty much, yeah." This totally wins over their supporters in the audience, politely ignores the fact that he or she is missing your point, and it doesn't at all make you look you're not running the show.
  13. Practice by reading the Bible (preferably the version they believe in), and not resources on ways to debate creationists, or debate in general. After all, t's a pretty easy book to read, and will give you deep, deep insights into exactly how Christian fundamentalists think.
  14. Don't compare techniques used by Scientologists "to propagate their religion" to similar evangelical Christian practices... unless you do so by first offering a distracting discussion about anthropomorphizing animals, and then making up some parody of God named Todd to illustrate your point.
  15. When they ask if adultery is wrong, pause for a while before answering - it's great way to win over their supporters. By no means ignore them and continue on making your point. If that's what they wanted you to do, they would stop interrupting you.
  16. In general, let them draw you away from making a good point by asking a handful of irrelevant questions based on tricky concepts like "morality". This will ensure you don't make your point, which always puts you ahead in the debate.
  17. When you ask them to describe a basic scientific concept, like, say speciation, and they change the subject without doing so, don't bother asking them again.
  18. When they deny that man makes camcorders, let it go... After all, we can't even make sand.
  19. Don't correct them when they confuse salamanders and frogs... repeatedly. It's tricky for some people.
  20. Don't wear garments made of both wool and cotton, as it might make you sweat during the debate (oh, and because God said so).
  21. Don't make fun of them for believing in witches and wizards, it's just a common courtesy.
  22. Most important of all? Afterward, let them pay for lunch.

Stem cells cure mankind's most devastating diseases!

Wednesday, July 22, 2009 at 7:50 PM Bookmark and Share
A friend of mine recently brought my attention to the website for Medra Inc., ran by one William C. Rader, M.D. To sum it all up - the whole thing smells pretty darn fishy...

So what type of medical services does Medra provide?? How about human fetal stem cell treatment for, as stated on Medra's website: "many of mankind's most devastating diseases." What are those disease? The rest of the site suggests they include a menagerie of neurological diseases, autoimmune diseases, Down's Syndrome, arthritis, chronic pain, and others.

With a list like that, you might be wondering what exactly is this amazing new stem cell treatment? Well, nobody outside of Medra Inc. seems to know. According to this L.A. Times article, Dr. Rader "said he has not published anything about his therapy because that would open him to attack from a 'conspiracy' of scientists, government authorities, pharmaceutical companies and abortion opponents."

Er, wait a second. So, he's discovered a way to treat "many of mankind's most devastating diseases", but he can't tell even his own peers about how they might use the treatment to save countless other human lives? Hmmm... something seems just a little bit really strange here!

According to his website, this fetal stem cell treatment is
A medical procedure whereby Human Fetal Stem Cells are transplanted into a patient. These cellular building blocks are usually administered intravenously and subcutaneously (under the skin). It is a painless procedure, which takes place in approximately one hour, and has no negative side effects.
Wow! No negative side effects!? Now pretty much all of my BS detectors are going off! Is this guy for real!?! Don't get me wrong - I think stem cell research holds great potential for advancing both medicine and many areas of biology, but the treatment offered here seems too good to be true.

Unfortunately, Medra Inc. is for real - in fact, $25,000+ for real. Oh, and you also have to travel to one of Dr. Rader's out-of-country clinics in the Dominican Republic, the Bahamas, or the Ukraine to get this mysterious treatment. Seems completely legit, right? Riiiiight.

So, with my suspicions flying off the charts and no available scientific evidence to turn to in order to evaluate these claims, what's left to do?? How else might we evaluate his claims of curing all these ailments? Even if we could hear each and every patient's story, we'd still be hard pressed to see through any placebo effects. But what we can do is take a closer look and see if there's at least some anecdotal evidence consistent with his claims. This by no means proves anything, but if Medra Inc. can't even provide some compelling anecdotal evidence, we can feel comfortable looking elsewhere for medical treatment.

So, lets start with the obvious - his front page "success stories." Lets begin with a video about Hannah from Medra's own website:

Adorable kid, horrible disease, and a heart wrenching video with a wonderful outcome - the stem cell treatment has cured her! Right? I mean, that's what the video suggests, and we should trust Medra, Inc. to be honest with us, right? Surely t would get taken down if she were still sick, right? Wrong.

Fortunately, her mother keeps a web journal with tons of details. You can read about her last treatment in March, 2009, back to what appears to be the first treatment in June, 2007, and other details back through October, 2006. I don't have the time to do it myself, but it would worth trying to piece together a time-line of her treatments and symptoms over this period - various drugs at various dosages, IVIG treatments, the stem cell procedures in question - all seem to have been at play at some point during the past couple of years. Indeed, such a history could be just the sort of thing that doctor could infer quite a bit from, were we actually shopping around for this sort of medical treatment.

In any case, as you can see from the 2009 entries, Hannah's struggles are not over. Returning to our original intent for dredging through all this information - can we infer anything about Medra's front-page success story? Well, for starters, it isn't at all the wonderful success that the video lead us to believe. Could the treatment have helped her? Perhaps, although she was also receiving multiple other forms of treatment over the past couple of years that might also be responsible for any improvements. Heck, for all we know trips to the Dominican Republic alone may have brought about changes in her symptoms! Who knows!?

While we can't say much conclusively about Dr. Rader's claims, we can say that Medra, Inc. looks to have pulled in at least $20,000 x 1,500 = $30,000,000 from the his patients' families for what appears to be, at best, only moderately effective treatment. So is this the quintessential case of the brilliant doctor who holds the key to curing mankind's most devastating diseases, or is Medra Inc. just a modern-day snake-oil salesmen? Unfortunately, we don't have the evidence to really answer that question.

Until I see some real evidence supporting Medra's claims - I for one won't be flying any of my family members down to the Dominican Republic any time soon.

Links to more information:

  1. Barrett, S. The Shady Side of Embryonic Stem Cell Therapy. Quackwatch, February 17, 2009.
  2. Wikipedia entry for William C. Rader.
  3. Ripoff Report #466029 and the associated web journal mentioned above.

These look interesting, but I haven't read them yet:
  1. Baker, Monya. 2005. Stem cell therapy or snake oil? Nature Biotechnology 23. doi:10.1038/nbt1205-1467
  2. Enserink, Martin . 2006. Selling the Stem Cell Dream. Science, 313(5784). doi:10.1126/science.313.5784.160
  3. Other articles through google scholar.

Talking about science, evolution with the public

Monday, July 20, 2009 at 11:19 PM Bookmark and Share
Anyone who works in a specialized field (e.g. law, neuroscience, chemical engineering, etc.) knows that talking about the details of their specialty with the public is hard. There's a lot of basic background, jargon and important yet subtle details that often need explaining, and many experts often fail to recognize these as barriers to clearly communicating what it is that they do and why it's important.

So how well do we talk about evolution in the public sphere? Well, all too often, not so well. For starters, the wise old advice to "know your audience" is a good place to start. Are you talking to a bunch of computer scientists, or a bunch of people who haven't taken a science class since the 1980s and don't believe in evolution for religious reasons??

While there's plenty to be said on communicating science to the public, I just wanted to pass along a few words by Eugenie Scott on the issue:
Accept it: Talk about evolution needs to evolve
By Eugenie Scott
August 1st, 2009 - ScienceNews

More on Alternative Medicine at the NIH

Thursday, July 2, 2009 at 2:11 PM Bookmark and Share
I just wanted to pass along this piece by Orac over at Respectful Insolence, on what appears to be some pretty sketchy studies looking at Chelation Therapy being done through the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (which I've mentioned previously).

The full article and some of the links are well worth the read... as a teaser, Orac closes with these remarks (I made some minor corrections and emphasized some text in bold):

If you want to know why NCCAM should be defunded, dismantled, and whatever bits of it that have any value distributed to other Institutes in the NIH, look no further than the offense to science and medical ethics that is TACT [Trial to Assess Chelation Therapy] and the tepid reaction of the OHRP [the NIH's Office for Human Research Protections] to its endangerment of patients. In no other area of human subjects research other than CAM research would a study with so little basis in science and so much evidence against its hypothesis be approved, much less to the tune of $30 million. Too bad powerful supporters of quackery in the legislature (Dan Burton is especially guilty in this case) care far more about proving that their woo works, no matter what, than they care about science or, more importantly, protecting the human subjects who are recruited for CAM studies like TACT from undisclosed risks, harm, or even accurate information about the science (or, more commonly, the lack thereof) behind the treatments being tested.