Monday, September 29, 2008

Area Customer Service Representative Not Interested in Call.....

Alamogordo, NM-When waiter Art Thriftwhistle called the customer service line for the Alamogordo Daily Inquisitor last week to complain about not having received his copy of the Sunday paper, he expected that his phone call would be considered important. But what Thriftwhistle soon discovered would rock the sleepy New Mexico town to its core and may bring down the local media goliath.

"The customer service lady was totally not interested in my phone call," Thriftwhistle explained. "She put me on hold three times, and when she finally talked to me all she did was try to convince me to subscribe to the full week of papers, as if her only goal was to get more money out of me. I just want the Sunday paper. Don't you understand, I just want the Sunday paper!"

Thriftwhistle is calling for a boycott of the town paper until improvements in customer service are made. "I'd like to know that my call is important to them, is that so wrong? How about having a recording tell me that in a pleasant female voice while I'm on hold? But not just once either. I'd like to be reminded every twenty to thirty seconds. Also, I'd like to have the conversation recorded so that future customer service represenatives might benefit from it as a learning tool."

But company leadership doesn't appear to be concerned. "Frankly I just don't see what the fuss is all about," Daily Inquisitor owner Maynard Hearst explained. "So what if we don't think your call is important? I didn't get to be where I am, running a newspaper in a town of over thirty-five thousand people for nearly eight decades, worrying about customer service."

Hearst, who will turn 97-years-old this month, has lived through a number of minor skirmishes with the readership over the years. "Oooh, what are they going to do? The internet? Let's see them just try and get their news, sports and weather all from the internet. They won't last a week and neither will this internet, whatever that is. It's some kind of telegraph service right?"

Friday, September 26, 2008

Does Local News Coverage of Health and Science Do More Harm Than Good?.....

Tonight I stumbled across yet another unhelpful local news piece on the manufactroversy of the already thoroughly disproven link between childhood immunizations and autism. As expected, it followed beautifully the standard media outline for these types of reports, including the ubiquitous heart-wrenching anecdote of a healthy young child being robbed from his parents by autism caused by evil vaccines. This was followed by a meager discussion of the dangers of not vaccinating, and one very awkward quote from a local pediatrician and vaccine supporter, but the societal damage that I feel comes from these kinds of reports was already done.

The way I found this article was by clicking on the image of a dripping syringe next to the words "Do Childhood Vaccines Do More Harm Than Good?" prominently placed on the home page of the KSHB-TV website. Clearly this was a purposeful attempt at fear mongering to drum up readers. I guess a report titled "Vaccines: They Really Help People and Are Extremely Safe" wouldn't draw too many people in. If these reporters were worth their salt, they would include anecdotes from the parents who didn't lose their children to vaccine preventable illnesses like Haemophilus meningitis or Poliomyelitis, and who were satisfied with their children being vaccinated. There certainly are a heck of a lot more of them out there than the small minority of folks who have drunk the anti-vaccine kool-aid. But maybe just leaving anecdotes out of health and science reporting alltogether would be best.

After reading this report, all that many readers will take home is the sad story about a little boy damaged by vaccines and that vaccines might not be safe for their child. Some of them are the people that don't understand the useless nature of uncontrolled anecdotes or the fallacy of post hoc reasoning, or that are merely looking for powerful stories to support their already deeply held conviction. Some may not even read the entire article or even dismiss the discussion of the benefit of immunizations out of hand. All a conspiracy they'll mutter. It's clear to me that these bullshit pieces of pseudojournalism aren't helping anyone though. They are spreading the contagion of anti-vaccination belief, something which has already led to illness and death that was entirely preventable.

The most telling quote comes from the autistic child's mother. She explains that "The timing was too coincidental to ignore and I definitely believe in my heart the vaccinations triggered his autism,". There isn't anything someone like me, or even Paul Offit himself, could ever tell this woman that would convince her otherwise. At least it isn't very likely. And while I don't blame this poor grieving mother for being ill-equipped to critically wrap her brain around her child's diagnosis, I do blame the media for using her situation for the manipulation of readers via another's loss. Her story isn't news and we don't need to know about it. It serves no purpose other than to mislead and confuse.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Magical Australian Fertility Water.....

You would think that by now most people would realize that celebrities, regardless of how funny or attractive they may be, are no better equipped to think critically or to arrive at reasonable conclusions than anyone else. If anything, they tend to be less capable than the average person, who likely hasn't spent years surrounded by syncophantic 'yes men'. You would think that, but unfortunately it doesn't appear to be so considering how many people credulously accept whatever bogus claim folks like Oprah or Jenny McCarthy decide to champion as truth.

There are two problems regarding celebrity opinion. One is that the media presents such opinion as newsworthy, inflating its legitimacy and confusing it with something akin to expert testimony. The other is that the American public generally expresses interest in what these celebrities have to say about topics that are often far outside the scope of what they can claim expertise in. And even when we know it's bullshit, we still eat up steaming piles of celebrity blather with gusto on a daily basis. Take, for instance, yesterday's revelation in an Associated Press story that Nicole Kidman believes in the existence of magical Australian waterfalls that promote fertility.

Kidman welcomed her first child with singer Keith Urban into the world on July 7, 2008. Roughly nine months prior to this occasion she was on location in the Australian Outback filming the soon to be released epic movie Australia. Kidman believes that there has to be more to her pregnancy than the obvious fact that it is intimately related to her having had sex with her husband during ovulation. She is 41 and the pregnancy was unexpected, six other women who swam in the magic waterfalls near Kununurra, a small town in northwestern Australia, during production got pregnant, and of the seven babies only one was a boy. According to the lovely and talented, if not skeptically minded Kidman, "There is something up there in the Kununurra water because we all went swimming in the waterfalls, so we can call it the fertility waters now."

I'm just a humble skeptic, with no claims of expertise in the epidemiology of fertility, but I am sure that Kidman is not the first somewhat older woman to unexpectedly become pregnant. A quick online search revealed that women at Kidman's age have a 44% chance of becoming pregnant and going on to celebrate a live birth within one year of trying, and 64% will do so within four years. Those numbers aren't great, especially if you are one of the greater than 50% that may be increasingly frustrated with a lack of success, but they aren't bad. Of course, Kidman isn't an epidemiologist or a fertility specialist either. She is a human. An incredibly sexy human. But her preternatural attractiveness doesn't protect her from committing the same errors in thinking that plague us regular folk.

In this case, Kidman has fallen prey to one of the most common logical fallacies around, and one which lies at the heart of a variety of mistaken beliefs ranging from psychic powers to claims of effectiveness by proponents of unproven medical treatments. Post hoc reasoning, more formally known as the post hoc ergo propter hoc (after this therefore because of this) fallacy, occurs when a temporal relationship is confused for a causal one. Just because B follows A doesn't mean that A caused B. It could only be a coincidence, or there may be many factors at play with A only serving a minor role in causing B.

Typically unique experiences benefit from this logical fallacy the most, such as a novel treatment for an illness or a memorable dream of something bad happening. Many herbal supplements and homeopathic remedies achieve word-of-mouth success because they are advertised with claims of treating self-limited maladies like viral illnesses. As I tell my students, you can take [insert OTC supplement] to cure your cold and feel better in a week, or do nothing and feel better in seven days. What personal claims of effectiveness of a treatment, or of getting pregnant after taking a swim, amount to are uncontrolled anecdotes. We don't know what would have happened had Kidman not gone for a swim. It's very likely she would still be celebrating the birth of her daughter, only instead of the magic Australian water she would be praising something else entirely for its fertility boosting effects. Perhaps a new food she ate or a mud bath.

But as it stands right now, it is only a matter of nanoseconds before someone is selling magical Australian fertility water by the bottle, or arranging for fertility boosting baths under the waterfalls. People with too much money, and not enough critical thinking skills, will fly there at great expense to improve the health of their uterus. Somebody is going to get rich off of this, and a lot of desperate women are going to throw good money down the drain.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Weekly Science and Skepticism Pop Quiz #2.....

The European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) announced today that a combination of malfunctioning equipment repairs and high fuel costs have led to the decision to delay collisions at the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) until after Winter. Once the green light is given to begin full operation, it is predicted that collisions will replicate the heat, energy and densities that existed just a trillionth of a second after the Big Bang. It is hoped by the scientific community that the LHC will facilitate an understanding of the cosmos beyond the standard model of particle physics and possibly produce miniature black holes or reveal signs of extra dimensions. But what most physicists are drooling over is evidence for the existence of the Higgs Boson, something often referred to as 'the god particle', which is an elementary particles that could account for most of the mass in the universe.

What mysterious entities are unlikely to be revealed within the LHC?

A. The ever-elusive chiropractic subluxation, or more specifically the complex of functional and/or structural and/or pathological articular changes that compromise neural integrity and may influence organ system and general health. Despite not actually being proven to exist yet, it is theorized by some experts that the subluxation may account for most of the money in the chiropractor's bank account.

B. Water memory. Theorized by homeopathic scientists, who seem to employ reasoning skills diluted beyond measurement, homeopathic remedies are said to be able to benefit from the healing powers of a substance no longer contained within them. A liberal pilfering of scientific terms, like quantum and vibration, has become standard practice for those defending water memory.

C. Human energy. This undetectable phenomenon is claimed to be at the bottom of pretty much all medical maladies, and just needs the gentle touch, or non-touch in most instances, of a qualified human energy manipulator to straighten out. Western science, with its pesky and cumbersome methodological naturalism just hasn't been able to isolate this wonderous whatever yet, but perhaps soon the time will come for healing touch and reiki practitioners to put use their ability to do work celebrating.

D. Bigfoot. Cryptozoologists have looked everywhere else.

E. All of the above

Answer: E

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Grizzly Bears Bounce Back From Near Extinction, Find Jobs.....

Kalispell, MO-Despite being listed as near extinction for over three decades, and widely considered to be unemployable by a large percentage of Americans, the grizzly bear has may be mounting a suprising comeback according to the results of a $4.8 million, five-year study by the U.S. Geological Survey.

"Our preliminary estimate shows approximately 765 bears in northwestern Montana alone," explained lead researcher Katherine Kendall. "There have been some huge investments of time and money towards this recovery, and legislation that restricts hunting and development into grizzly habitats have helped immensely, but a large amount of the credit belongs to the work done to help integrate them into society."

5 years ago, ursine social worker Jonel Thaller took on the arduous task of finding jobs and accomodations for hundreds of grizzly bears in Kalispell, which is the closest city to Glacier National Park. Years of strained human-bear relations, and a reputation of having anger management difficulties, have made it exceedingly difficult for these majestic beasts to find employment, especially in densely populated areas. But last year, after fast food giant McDonald's became the first of several eateries to relax their restrictions on hiring bears, things finally began to look up. "It's been a long and difficult road to get where we are today," Thaller revealed. "But finally people are beginning to see that the grizzly bear, if properly medicated and in the presence of armed professionals at all times, can make an positive impact on the service industry."

Thaller, who touches base with restaurant managers on a daily basis for updates on her clients, says that the bears have led to big improvements in food quality and customer satisfaction. "Complaints are down, wait times are noticeably shorter, and even former problem human employee are shaping up when grizzlies are allowed to do what they do best, which is interacting with people and food in enclosed spaces." But Thaller points out that their success might not last forever. "All it would take is for one bear to devour a family for this to fall apart."

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Study Shows More Americans Getting Medical Information from Shampoo Commercials.....

Raleigh, NC-Researchers at North Carolina State University looking into where Americans obtain medical information, announced today that 80% of US adults cite shampoo commercials as their primary source.

The findings, based on telephone surveys of over thirty thousand men and women over the age of eighteen, are sending shockwaves through the medical community. "The dramatic rise in the number of adults turning to shampoo commercials to update themselves on chronic medical conditions, disease prevention strategies, and even information on when to seek acute care, is alarming," explained lead investigator Dr. Mort Fishman. "I'd love to be able to learn how to have shiny, lustrous hair, and how to manage Type 2 Diabetes in one convenient place as much as the next physician, but I don't trust patient care to Pert Plus or Garnier Fructis."

The shampoo industry, who had received word of the report prior to the official announcement, isn't rolling over. A. G. Lafley, CEO of Procter and Gamble, has already issued a press release attempting to counter some of the statements made by the NCSU researchers regarding the legitimacy of health information acquired from shampoo commercials. "You know, it seems like our information was good enough when Pantene practically wrote the book on the cardiovascular sequelae of atherosclerotic renal disease, or when Clairol Herbal Essences discovered the link between the BRCA1 gene and breast cancer. This is just a bitter bald guy trying to make a name for himself with flimsy evidence and poor reasoning."

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Zoo's News: Makers of Popular Energy Drink Turn to Infant Formula.....

Fuschl am See, Austria-Not satisfied with the inability of regular infant formulas to vitalize the body and mind, Red Bull GmbH, the eponymous producer of an energy drink that is popular with college students and young males around the world has set its sights on infants under a year of age.

"We're going to revolutionize the infant formula market with our new Baby Red Bull Extreme," company founder Dietrich Mateschitz explained. "Parents are sick and tired of infant formulas that don't provide vital substances that have been lost by their babies during times of increased mental and physical exertion, while also reducing harmful substances. With Baby Red Bull Extreme energy formula, which comes in both powder and ready to feed varieties, you get both!"

But helping young humans to maximize their concentration and reaction speed is only one aspect of Mateschitz's plan. "My goal is for all babies around the world to benefit from our scientific advancements in energy formulas. Every single one. Only then will humanity reach its true potential as shepherds of our Mother Earth!"

According to the Baby Red Bull Extreme website, their formulation has been scientifically designed to be as similar to human breast milk as possible, with a few additions that Mateschitz claims add up to more than the sum of their parts. "Sure breast is best, if it's all that is available. Like if you are in some kind of depressing third world country or something like that. But only Baby Red Bull Extreme provides these growing children with the taurine, glucuronolactone, caffeine, acesulfame K and aspartame that their bodies need on a daily basis."

Infant nutrition experts have expressed concern regarding the addition of infant energy formulas, like Baby Red Bull Extreme, to a child's diet. Farahilde Obermoser, a pediatric clinical nutritionist at Rot Stier General Hospital in Vienna believes that a diet consisting of a significnat amount of Baby Red Bull Extreme infant energy formula might not be the right choice for some families. "Sure we would all like for our babies to achieve their full genetic potential, and they definitely would on this formula, but not all parents love their children enough to make sure that happens. And not every parent is cool enough."

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Weekly Science and Skepticism Pop Quiz #1.....

Recently Dr. Michael Dickinson, a researcher on the biomechanics of insect flight out of Cal-Tech, and his study on why the fly is so frustratingly difficult to swat has made the national news. With the use of high-resolution high-speed digital video cameras, he discovered that flies are able to formulate a successful escape strategy and position their body optimally for jumping out of harms way within 100 milliseconds of visualizing the incoming swatter. They may hold the record for the fastest protective mechanism, but flies aren't the only creatures that employ effective means of dodging threats.

Which of the following survival strategies have also been put into use by members of the animal kingdom?

A. The ability of antivaccinationists to quickly move goalposts in response to contradictory evidence, thus protecting their irrational belief system.

B. The technique, used by proponents of implausible and unproven diagnostic and therapeutic modalities, of confusing the general public with marketing terms like "alternative" and "holistic" while distracting academic medical institutions with claims of popularity as they slip quietly through the back door to sneak away with ill-gained legitimacy.

C. The capability of Intelligent Design proponents to use state legislatures to pass "academic freedom" laws in order to more easily indoctrinate young minds and help to ensure their continued existence.

D.All of the above

Answer: D

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Zoo's News: Vice Presidential Nominee Pledges to Protect Environment and the Country.....

In a nationally televised press conference held this morning, governor of Alaska and John McCain's vice presidential pick Sarah Palin announced that she would make protecting populations of endangered species, and homeland security, a top priority if elected.

"I may be just a simple small town hockey mom, but I love the environment and I love America!" Palin declared while addressing the crowd of nearly thirty thousand supporters. "And I promise you that I will put the full weight of the White House behind saving our precious ecosystems and protecting the American people!"

Palin plans to propose an amendment to the United States Constitution that would make it legal for hunters to employ aerial-hunting tactics to thin the number of predators in regions with endangered species such as moose and caribou. It will also include the use of tactical nuclear weapons to protect Alaskan towns from roving gangs of bloodthirsty polar bears.

Saturday, September 6, 2008

More Bigfoot Fluff on the Local News.....

This one stings a little. I love Tennessee, especially the capital city of Nashville. It is a beautiful and vibrant place to live, even for someone like me, an atheist who doesn't particularly care for country music, and I spent three of the best years of my life there. I have nothing but fond memories of the place, and miss it dearly but, alas, I must admit that it fares no better than other cities when it comes to local news reporting of pseudoscience.

Today, WSMV Nashville brings us a brief report and an accompanying video covering the discovery of a "mysterious" footprint by a retired builder from Cookeville, Tennessee. The footprint, which is claimed by owner Harold Jackson to be thousands of years old, is a mess that barely resembles something made by a hominid species. There is the faint outline of what could be toes, and an indentation that appears to be a heal, but the whole thing might very easily be just another example of pareidolia. I think it is of too poor a quality to be a hoax but that is also a consideration. And though the report qualifies Jackson as an amateur archaeologist, he is quoted saying that he doesn't "know anything about archaeology or anything".

The title of the report, "Scientists Interested In Large Footprint Discovery", hardly counts as news, but in this day and age, where outlets jump at any fluff piece involving pseudoscience or the paranormal, it isn't too suprising. Nor is the fact that the only scientist specifially named as being interested in the discovery is oft quoted Dr. Jeffrey Meldrum, whose skeptical take on the recent Bigfoot corpse hoax was paraded around the news circuit as if it was some kind of unique opinion that required being a "Bigfoot expert" to hold, and whose best evidence for the existence of the creature is the argument ad populi that so many outdoorsmen and hunters can't all be wrong. Yes, Meldrum is a skeptic like Larry King is a skeptic and he employs critical thinking in regards to Bigfoot like Sir Arthur Conan Doyle did to fairies. Besides, calling oneself a scientific expert on a fictional entity is dubious at best, even if you have a PhD in anatomy to go along with your doctorate in confirmation bias.

The report sinks even lower into pseudojournalism when it is revealed, as if it is in some way meaningful, that Channel 4 has yet to even speak with Meldrum, or to reach Tennessee state archaeologist Nick Fielder for comment on the footprint. It isn't news that you didn't talk to somebody. You don't get credit for not doing your job when it comes to reporting. I have no doubt that lots of famous and important people are interested in whether or not Bigfoot exists, and many reputable scientists would be qualified to discuss this finding, but just mentioning the name of one is obviously thrown in to lend more credibility to this worthless bit of fluff.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Zoo's News: Study Finds 3 out of 4 Colons Haunted.....

Columbus, OH-A study published this month in the Journal of Paranormal Medicine reveals that 75% of American colons are haunted, though many are unaware of their ghostly stowaway.

"We decided to finally approach the question of haunted large intestines scientifically because of the piles of anecdotal evidence we've accumulated over the years," explained Bruce Sagemiller, Project Leader of the Ohio based Paranormal Medical Research Group and expert in electronic voice phenomena (EVP)."We were suprised to find out how widespread this problem actually is, and our results have raised a lot of interesting questions."

A certified Clinical Borborygmologist, Sagemiller started by designing an airtight, skeptic proof study. "The results of so many studies are ignored because of closed-minded attacks on the methodology and I didn't want to suffer the same fate." After using the standard paranormal investigation randomization technique of throwing darts at a phone book while blindfolded to identify the study population, Dr. Sagemiller made use of two seperate but equally valid techniques to diagnose the presence of any phantoms or specters within the colon: cyber-dowsing and EVP.

Team psychic and cyber-dowser Amanda Sentelle started by running her hand-bent wire dowsing rod back and forth over a computer monitor while each participant's Facebook or MySpace profile was visible on the screen. She was then able to interpret the subtle movements of the wire, weeding out subjects with clear colons. The second stage involved recording sounds eminating from the remaining subjects abdomens and analyzing them for the presence of ghostly messages from beyond the ileocecal valve. After this confirmation, statistical analyses led to the study conclusion that three out of four Americans have a haunted colon.

Sagemiller is now attempting to make sense of the findings. "We don't know why these spirits have chosen to dwell in our large intestines. We just don't know what, if anything, they want from us. We do suspect that their presence may play a role in a host of medical ailments, such as irritable bowel syndrome, chronic constipation, and painful gas." A follow-up study looking at the potential benefit of exorcism in the treatment of these conditions is already underway.

Monday, September 1, 2008

Stuff Believers Like: #8 Ear Candling.....

I often take the time to discuss critical thinking, and the various forms of irregular medicine that feed off of a lack of it, with medical students, physician assistants in training, and residents. They usually don't have much to say because, unfortunately, they don't tend to have much knowledge on the subject. But several months ago I was suprised by the vigorous defense put up by one intern of the practice of ear candling, which is in reality simply the shoving of a cone of paper and beeswax into one's ear and setting it aflame.

The young physician was convinced of the efficacy of this dangerous and thoroughly useless endeavor. She had seen the results with her own eyes and she had felt the relief from her headaches that the procedure had provided. And despite all of my best efforts to explain in detail how easy it is for us to be fooled into thinking that a treatment works when it doesn't, and how ear candling has been shown time and time again to be ineffective and unsafe as well as completely devoid of any plausible mechanism of action, she remained stalwart in her conviction that she had reaped the benefits.

Such belief despite a lack of evidence and plausibility is concerning to me. My fear is that if a medical professional is able to disregard critical reasoning and accept such foolishness as ear candling, then that individual may also come to see other, perhaps even more dangerous, forms of quackery as legitimate and recommend them to their patients. There are already countless proponents of snake oil and flim flam at work in the world pushing bogus therapies like chiropractic and naturopathy, many of which include ear candling in their repertoire. A number of these trick and treaters place an MD after their name, and never fail to take advantage of the increased clout that fact brings despite also often attempting to establish a false dichotomy between so-called alternative medicine and science-based practice.

In my online research, done for the advancement of my critical reasoning skills despite the inevitable and near overwhelming sense of doom such activity typically leads to, I have perused hundreds of websites touting the positive health effects resulting from ear candling. The most recent, wwwDOTearcandlingDOTcom, reveals that "For thousands of years, a form of hygiene known as Ear Candling, was used as a way of naturally cleansing the inside of the ears and head." The claim of cleansing inside the head was something I had not heard before however.

According to the website, which is run by Sharon Caren, a massage therapist with a knack for clearing your soul (for a price), "It is believed as the candle burns, gentle warm smoke is drawn into the ear canal that softens and loosens candida, wax, and other debris through osmosis. This means anything on the other side of the eardrum turns into a gas form to pass through the ear drum membrane. It is then collected into the remaining unburned portion of the candle." Caren, a certified ear hygienist, goes on to state that ear candling can be enjoyed by infants and dates back centuries to ancient Greece where it was responsible for laying the foundation of Western civilization. Okay, I made that last part up.

Comical pseudohistory aside, these claims are dangerous and quite absurd. Even if accurate, there simply is no need for the overwhelming majority of folks to worry about earwax. One of the first medical maxims I learned as a student was to never place anything in one's ear smaller than one's elbow, and that includes Q-tips. It simply isn't necessary, despite what our mothers told us, for the overwhelming majority of people to clean out their ears. If you are truly interested in the diagnosis and management of cerumen impaction, please by all means check out the clinical guidelines recently released by the American Academy of Otolaryngology-Head and Neck Surgery (AAO-HNS). It's a real page-turner.

The second dictum I learned was to never poke the skunk. This usually applies to ordering uneccessary labs and imaging studies but it also applies to ear candling. If you only need to know the serum sodium, you shouldn't check a basic metabolic profile because you can put good money on that potassium coming back falsely elevated, buying the patient another blood draw to confirm the result as spurious. Similarly, if a procedure isn't going to help don't do it, especially if it carries with it the risk of dripping hot wax onto the tympanic membrane, deafness, or burning your house down.

The devices aren't FDA approved and just about every legitimate medical organization has spoken out against them. Multiple studies have shown that ear candling doesn't create negative pressure, as theorized by proponents, doesn't remove ear wax or anything else from inside the ear (or sinus cavities), doesn't in any way lead to improved health or a boosted immune system, and is dangerous. Any residue left over after a session is the melted wax from the apparatus itself and nothing more. But at up to 18o dollars per session, that sense of emptiness in your wallet is probably very real.