The Lower Quote, As If You Didn't Know, Is By Richard Dawkins, Son.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Simon Singh's "Beware the Spinal Trap"

Reposted here (in its entirety) as part of a publicity effort against the chiropractic assheads trying to silence Simon Singh. 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.

This is Chiropractic Awareness Week. So let's be aware. How about some awareness that may prevent harm and help you make truly informed choices? First, 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 they still possess some quite wacky ideas. The fundamentalists argue that they can cure anything. And even the more moderate chiropractors have ideas above their station. The British Chiropractic Association claims that their members can help treat children with colic, sleeping and feeding problems, frequent ear infections, asthma and prolonged crying, even though there is not a jot of evidence. This organisation is the respectable face of the chiropractic profession and yet it happily promotes bogus treatments.

I can confidently label these treatments as bogus 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 Professor 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.

Bearing all of this in mind, I will leave you with one message for Chiropractic Awareness Week - 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.

That's Right. One Hundred Sixteen.

The newest edition (not to be confused with New Edition) of the Skeptic's Circle is up over at Beyond the Short Coat. Mmmm...it's tasty and delicious like a little Swedish meatball of rationality.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Update

I've been incredibly slack about posting here over the last few weeks and for that I apologize. Life gettin' in the way and all that. I'm on vacation at the cottage all next week doing the fishing and hangin' with the fam and friends thing, but after that I'll do my best to get back to bitching and complaining on the regular. I'm also wrangling to get back to some podcasting, but we'll see about that. In the meantime, thanks for being patient and going about your usual business whilst I sort my shiznit out.

Here's some amazing Bobby McFerrin performing a favorite of mine, Drive at the Montreal Jazz Festival to hold you over. Enjoy.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Really, Toronto Star? Heaven?

I know this is old, but I've been taking a bit of a blog break and this has been sitting on my desk for a couple of weeks. Now's the time to get to it and ask some pertinent questions.

So Michael Jackson died. The Star then did an entire page piece on whether or not Jackson is "going to heaven", in which there was this little nugget:
God's pity aside, Jackson exhibited behaviour one doesn't expect from the heaven-bound, from his alleged drug addictions to his accused pedophilia. Still, those don't automatically exclude him from paradise, says Chris Seay, the pastor of Ecclesia Houston and president of Ecclesia Bible Society. "We shouldn't be surprised to find someone like Jackson in heaven," he says, calling attention to biblical passages like Matthew 7:21-23. "Jesus makes it most clear that we will all be surprised to see that the beautiful and upstanding people we thought were `locks' for heaven did not make it in, and the people we thought hell was created for might have the largest palace on our golden street." (emphasis mine)
Nice, eh? Wouldn't that be awesome, to die choking on a Wendy's Taco Salad, then get to Heaven and find the douchebag who beat the shit out of you regularly in high school and who went on to be a drug-abusing, wife-beating, scam-artist scumbag, had a giant golden house and was cock of the walk...so to speak? Does that sound like any sort of place you'd aspire to go? Why do people think Heaven is great?

Then there was this:
Jason Poling, the pastor at New Hope Community Church in Pikesville, Maryland, brings up a unique scenario related to Jackson's mental and emotional state. Many conservative evangelicals...believe all children are automatically heaven-bound until they reach the "age of accountability" – an undefined point at which they become responsible for their own choices and morality...What if, Poling asks, Jackson never reached the age of accountability? Jackson was only 8 years old when he began touring with the Jackson 5. From that point on, he lived an increasingly insulated life, one that seemed to strand him in a state of arrested development.
Michael Jackson was a 50 year old man when he died. He had seen the world, he had been married, had obscene amounts of money to spend on whatever he wanted, and he was an iconic figure in music - that is so much more than most adults will ever experience that to say he was, "stuck mentally as an 8 year old" is insulting to a degree I'm not comfortable insulting. Is this truly an argument a rational person is making in a discussion so pointless that it should embarrass any human adult? It's like arguing that Noah's beard was actually just under a foot in length when he took the animals on the ark - is there any way to add another layer of stupid to the situation?

Yep, count on it:
Jason Salamun, pastor at Project Church in Rapid City, South Dakota. "The death of Michael Jackson, and the recent slew of celebrity deaths, has reminded me that the end of this life ends with a comma, not a period, and to live like today's my last day here on earth."
A "comma", eh? Now how, exactly, does Salamun know that? He, as Richard Dawkins says, "declares it by fiat." As I've said before, believing that your life continues on after death in some tangible place with memories saved and deeds to be done, makes what you do "on earth" not so much meaningful because you have an infinite amount of time to make amends. What if the wife-beating high school douchebag with the great house at 235 St. Peter Avenue meets you after you die and apologizes and buys you a steak frites? Does that mean that his life "on earth" is erased now and he's a fabulous guy?

Atheists and other non-believers know, as much as we can, that this is it. When we're gone, we're gone, and it is precisely that brevity of life that makes our actions carry weight. Our legacy lives on in our family, friends, and whatever lasting markers we threw to the masses. Not many people actually knew Michael Jackson, so to hear self-righteous assholes opine on his life illuminates just how shallow a philosophical wading pool it is in which they dwell.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Skeptic's Circle #115

Yep, it's that time again. Head on over to Tech Skeptic to check out the newest entries into the coolest blog carnival this side of the Cat's Eye Nebulae.

Wednesday, July 08, 2009

200,000

This blog has been around since 2005 and just recently passed 200,000 hits. This officially makes me an "F" level blogger at best, but I wanted to say a big "thanks" to anyone who has stopped by and read, had a laugh, got pissed off, left a nice comment, left a nasty comment, or wanted to either punch or kiss me.

An extra-special thanks to the seven and a half regular readers who always make my day. I may not be daily or, the odd month, even weekly, but I'll always be around, dammit. Watching...and waiting...

Alternative Medicine & Logical Fallacies

I frequent a massage therapy forum on Facebook that posts articles, most with a skeptical, science-based bent to them. Recently, there was a link to a book review on Amazon for the title, Snake Oil Science: The Truth about Complementary and Alternative Medicine, by R. Barker Bausell.

One member of the forum had the following all-too-common-to-skeptics comment:
Since we know only a fraction of a percent of how physics, chemistry and physiology work it seems pretty arrogant for someone to criticize effective therapies because the model the practitioner was taught is faulty. Every scientific model ever from Newton to Einstein has been proven wrong or adapted, that's how the process works. The implication that some branch of science or medicine is somehow 100% correct or informed is absurd.

Explain the placebo effect to me and we'll talk skeptic. Your life may be full of "facts" but it lacks the color and mystery mine has.

Cheers, good luck.
Firstly, I have to address what is known as an "argument from ignorance". This is a logical fallacy where someone says that because something is unknown or difficult to know, that it is impossible to know. In the above, the commenter's fallacy says, in essence, "we know only a fraction of a percent of how physics, chemistry and physiology work", therefore alt.med. is true. We (the royal "we", not including myself) know much more than "a fraction of a percent" of physics, chemistry and physiology and because of this, we can say with very near certainty that homeopathy, acupuncture, and other alt.med. modalities are ineffective.

The commenter also assumes efficacy with respect to alt.med. "therapies". All we say, as skeptics, is to show evidence under proper controlled circumstances. This is usually never met with compliance. A major difference (and many times an unspoken sticking point) between skeptics and believers, is their level of acceptance for "evidence". What a believer will take as rock-solid proof that their pet "therapy" is efficacious will make a skeptic shake his or her head in disbelief and annoyance.

The commenter then makes this (summarized) argument: science has been wrong in the past (lists prominent names like Newton/Einstein), so no one knows for sure what's going on, therefore trust alt.med. This is known as the "two-wrongs make a right" fallacy and what it is saying is that because alt.med. does not know how the world works, neither does science, therefore everything is equal and why not trust an alt.med. practitioner? Science will change in the future and the alt.med. will be validated - jump on the bandwagon early! Nevermind that "no evidence" thing....

Then we have a strawman; a caricature of the adversarial position that is easy to dismantle and/or ridicule. No scientist or branch of science claims to be, "100% correct or informed", so to claim this is silly and, honestly, it is a mirror of the alt.med. position. Where science-based medicine is forced to be honest in difficult situations and admit that there is nothing that can be safely done to help, alt.med. is always lurking with a made-up answer. It is alt.med. that claims to be 100% informed.

The commenter then asks: "Explain the placebo effect to me and we'll talk skeptic" - If the commenter read the link, perhaps this bit would have stood out as it deals with that particular question:
Indeed, as Bausell reveals, it is the placebo effect that accounts for most of the positive results. He explores this remarkable phenomenon--the biological and chemical evidence for the placebo effect, how it works in the body, and why research on any therapy that does not factor in the placebo effect will inevitably produce false results.
Finally, the commenter drops the, "science unweaves the rainbow" argument. Skeptics are dull, boring, lack "mystery and color". We do not get New Age therapies and are jealous of the chakra-feeling, aura-seeing, light-ball-making healers that are everywhere, everywhere, man!

Scientists love mystery. They love it more than the alt.med folks do and I can prove it: Show me any alt.med practice that has been left behind because new evidence arose that showed it to be ineffective. Science (any branch) looks to new areas, places where mystery and confusion lie, and tries to learn whatever it can glean. Alt.med just makes up answers based on dogma and never changes. Exploring new areas of interest is sexy and it attracts the best and brightest of every era - Columbus, the astronauts and cosmonauts of the space race and beyond, the thinkers who make predictions that are discovered true years after the death of the maker. Alt.med and its practitioners just look pale in comparison.

Saying that science takes away mystery and "color" is just plain wrong. It always reminds me of this beautiful passage from Richard Feynman:
I have a friend who’s an artist and he’s some times taken a view which I don’t agree with very well. He’ll hold up a flower and say, "look how beautiful it is," and I’ll agree, I think. And he says, "you see, I as an artist can see how beautiful this is, but you as a scientist, oh, take this all apart and it becomes a dull thing." And I think he’s kind of nutty.

First of all, the beauty that he sees is available to other people and to me, too, I believe, although I might not be quite as refined aesthetically as he is. But I can appreciate the beauty of a flower.

At the same time, I see much more about the flower that he sees. I could imagine the cells in there, the complicated actions inside which also have a beauty. I mean, it’s not just beauty at this dimension of one centimeter: there is also beauty at a smaller dimension, the inner structure...also the processes.

The fact that the colors in the flower are evolved in order to attract insects to pollinate it is interesting – it means that insects can see the color.

It adds a question – does this aesthetic sense also exist in the lower forms that are...why is it aesthetic, all kinds of interesting questions which a science knowledge only adds to the excitement and mystery and the awe of a flower.

It only adds. I don’t understand how it subtracts.
Exactly.

Thursday, July 02, 2009

Skeptic's Circle #114

I have been remiss in mentioning the recent Skeptic's Circles that have been happening. The most recent is the 114th(!) and is over at Homologous Legs. It's well worth checking out. It's witty and the entries look interesting, so do yourself a favor and do some reading!