Note: The previous post is my usual weekly contribution to SBM. I am taking the liberty of posting this additional entry today on an issue that is peripheral to Science Based Medicine. If you are not interested in the recent squabbles within the skeptical movement, you will probably want to skip it. But it does respond to a detailed critique of an article I posted here two weeks ago, and some might find that of interest. We have seen the same kind of behavior on this blog, where commenters have responded not to what we said, but to what they wanted to believe we said.
I have been falsely identified as an enemy of feminism (not in so many words, but the intent is clear). My words have been misrepresented as sexist and misinterpreted beyond recognition. I find this particularly disturbing and hard to understand, because I’m convinced that my harshest critics and I are basically arguing for exactly the same things. I wish my critics could set aside their resentments and realize that I am not the enemy.
Two weeks ago I published an article on gender differences and the recent divisions in the skeptical community. Ophelia Benson showed up in the comments. Not unsurprisingly, she disagreed with me about the Shermer incident, but then she said “I like the rest of this article a lot. I particularly like the point about averages and individuals, which is one I make all the time.”
I took that as a hopeful sign that friendly communication might be achieved, but my bubble was quickly burst by a hostile takedown of my article on Skepchick by “Will.” His critique is demonstrably unfair. He attacks me for things I never said and tries to make it look like I believe the exact opposite of what I believe.
When a baby is born, the obstetrician or midwife announces “It’s a boy” or “It’s a girl.” As toddlers, children learn to classify everyone as either boy or girl. When our firstborn was very young, we overheard her talking to herself as she grappled with the concept:
Let’s see… I’m a girl, and Kimberly [her baby sister] is a girl, and Mommy’s a girl… but Daddy’s not a girl… He’s a boy. [Pause followed by exasperated sigh] Cause he doesn’t know any better!
As with most things in science, the concept of boy versus girl is more complicated than it appears at first glance. It’s not a simple dichotomy. We humans like to classify everything into neat pigeonholes, but Nature’s inventiveness outsmarts us at every step.
Most reputable sources of nutrition information recommend a diet high in fruits and vegetables and low in red meat. Vegans go much further. Strict vegans reject all animal products including fish, eggs, and milk. Some vegans come across like religious zealots. Here are some comments recently posted by vegans on Facebook:
- Right now the biggest social issue facing the world is the violence and suffering of animals.
- The dairy industry is the number one feminist issue facing our modern society.
- I expect within a generation that milk will be viewed as the most unhealthy habit after cigarettes. I bet it is responsible for more disease than anything else in the US. Dairy products promote all stages of cancer. [In fact, low fat dairy can be protective against some types of cancer]
- Milk contains blood and puss[sic]
- Humans are not omnivores; they are herbivores. [Most biologists would disagree.]
I was even told that that anyone who really cares about the welfare of others must promote veganism. It seems I am an evil, uncaring person if I waste my time writing about any other subject.
Vegans offer some good arguments based on ethics, environmental protection, cruelty to animals, and sustainability. I won’t get into those issues here. I’ll only address the scientific evidence behind the health claims. How does this description of a video strike you?:
Death in America is largely a foodborne illness. Focusing on studies published just over the last year in peer-reviewed scientific medical journals, [Hardly any of the studies he cites were published over the last year.] Michael Greger, M.D., offers practical advice on how best to feed ourselves and our families to prevent, treat, and even reverse many of the top 15 killers in the United States.[emphasis added] (more…)
Several incidents have recently created divisions within the skeptical community. The latest one was over a casual comment Michael Shermer made in an online talk show. He was asked why the gender split in atheism was not 50/50, “as it should be.” He said he thought it probably was 50/50, and suggested that the perception of unequal numbers might be because attending and speaking at atheist conferences was more of “a guy thing.” They might have asked him to explain what he meant. They didn’t. He didn’t mean to say it was encoded in the male DNA. He was simply recognizing a reality of our society: male/female interests and behavior tend to differ due to all sorts of cultural influences. Among other things, women might find it more difficult to attend meetings because of lower incomes and the need to arrange for babysitters. Watching sports on TV with other guys and beer is a guy thing too, but not because it’s hardwired into the male brain. It’s a guy thing because of customs and attitudes in our society. And it certainly doesn’t mean women are less capable or that societal influences can’t be overcome.
Nevertheless, Ophelia Benson assumed Shermer meant:
that women are too stupid to do nontheism. Unbelieving in God is thinky work, and women don’t do thinky, because “that’s a guy thing.”
That’s not what he meant. It’s not fair to judge him by one off-the-cuff remark. His record stands for itself: there is not a hint of sexism in his writings and he has always fully acknowledged women’s intelligence and their ability to think critically.
In a rebuttal article, Shermer quoted me:
I think it is unreasonable to expect that equal numbers of men and women will be attracted to every sphere of human endeavor. Science has shown that real differences exist. We should level the playing field and ensure there are no preventable obstacles, then let the chips fall where they may.
PZ Myers called this “a sexist remark.” (more…)
Whipworms in the intestine. Click to enlarge.
Humans evolved in an environment where they were exposed to animals, dirt, and a variety of pathogens and parasites. Our immune systems evolved to cope with that environment. Now most of us live in a different environment, with safe drinking water, flush toilets, food inspection, immunizations, and public sanitation. This means that we are far less likely than our ancestors to die of infectious diseases or to harbor intestinal worms. But it seems that the cleaner we get, the more likely we are to suffer from allergies and autoimmune diseases. One hypothesis is that our immune systems evolved to require early challenges by parasites and pathogens in order to develop properly. A hygienic environment fails to give our immune system the exercise it needs, resulting in imbalances and malfunctions.
The hygiene hypothesis was first proposed to explain observations like these:
- Hay fever and allergies were less common in large families where children were presumably exposed to more infections through their siblings.
- Polio attack rates were higher in high socioeconomic groups than in lower ones.
- Allergies and many other diseases were less common in the developing world.
Investigation of these and other phenomena is contributing to a better understanding of the immune system, which is a good thing. At the same time, it has led some people to deliberately infect themselves with intestinal worms in an attempt to cure their allergies and autoimmune diseases, which may not be such a good thing. These treatments are far from ready for prime time, are risky, and they have a high yuck factor. The very idea of deliberately infecting yourself with worms is unpalatable, and finding wiggly live creatures in your stool or passing a 20 foot tapeworm are not generally considered to be pleasant experiences. (more…)
A stay-at-home mom recently e-mailed me. She is a former CAM user who once treated her infant’s colic with homeopathy but has since seen the light and is now thinking skeptically. She asked that I look into the dōTERRA company, seller of essential oils: concentrated extracts distilled from plants, containing the “essence” or distinctive odor of the plant. She said:
…moms, well educated and seemingly rational moms, will believe anything. This isn’t a big deal if we are talking about sugar pills trying to cure crying that has no cause. However, I recently attended a dōTERRA “talk” (aka pressure to buy) about how essential oils can cure everything and anything, including one woman’s mother’s skin cancer. I didn’t want to offend this mom by calling her a quack, so I walked away spending 60 bucks on oils to be polite (this was the least amount I could spend and I used these oils to make my home smell nice, even though they were intended to solve all sorts of skin and digestive problems. I didn’t want to use them without knowing if they actually worked).
Instead of stressing the aromas, the focus was on the need to spend hundreds of dollars on these products to keep your family healthy. A handout showed how you could replace everything in your medicine cabinet with an essential oil alternative. She said:
The reps talked about how conventional medicine failed them and how they never go to the doctor anymore because the oils are a better cure.
I donated a knit afghan to the auction by Skeptics for the Protection of Cancer Patients. I made it myself. Proceeds go to cancer research in the name of Stanislaw Burzynski as a birthday present to publicize his many misdeeds against cancer patients. It’s warm and cuddly. Please consider bidding to reward my MANY hours of work and support cancer research. You are welcome to call me a “knit-wit.” Click here to bid.
David Gorski already mentioned this on Monday, but Burzynski’s birthday is rapidly approaching (January 23rd) and I want to encourage our readers to donate to the Burzynski birthday campaign.
Burzynski’s misdeeds are highlighted by the stories on the website The OTHER Burzynski Patient Group If you haven’t already visited that site and read some of the stories, please do. 26 patient stories have already been posted, with another hundred or so to come. They show a pattern of lies, unethical practices, exorbitant charges, and harm to vulnerable patients. This has to be stopped!
Over $10,000 has already been raised. It’s tax deductible and easy: just click on the donate button here and supply your credit card information. The goal is to raise $30,000, the amount that a Burzynski patient typically has to pay for treatment that is misrepresented as a clinical research study! (In most legitimate clinical trials, patients are paid, not charged). The funds will be given to St. Jude Children’s Hospital for cancer research, and Burzynski will be notified on his birthday that it is a birthday present for him. He will be offered the opportunity to match whatever has been donated. He can well afford it from his ill-gotten gains. He lives in a $6 million, 14,495-square-foot mansion.
We talk a lot and complain a lot, but we seldom have an opportunity like this to actually do something, to simultaneously support science-based medicine and publicize the sins of a miscreant. Please donate.
Helke Ferrie has written an article for The CCPA Monitor, a monthly journal published by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, entitled “Dirty electricity, EMF radiation can be removed or reduced.” It is in the June 2012 issue, and is not available online. She calls herself a science writer, but this is not the writing of a person who understands science. There is hardly a word of truth in it. It’s a classic example of pseudoscientific propaganda, an appalling farrago of false statements and fallacious arguments. The nonsense starts with the very first sentence:
The symptoms of electropollution-induced sickness involve all organs with many debilitating symptoms, from skin rashes to cancer; they are part of the Multiple Chemical Sensitivity (MCS) spectrum.
The diagnoses of “electromagnetic hypersensitivity” and “multiple chemical sensitivity” are not recognized by the medical and scientific communities. Up to 5% of the population has come to attribute a large variety of nonspecific symptoms to non-ionizing electromagnetic fields from cell phones and other common electrical devices or to the chemicals in their environment. Their complaints have been thoroughly evaluated. Numerous studies and systematic reviews have been done; they are summarized in a Wikipedia article. Just to give one example, a systematic review published in Psychosomatic Medicine in 2006 analyzed 31 double blind studies comparing real radiation to sham radiation. Patients couldn’t tell the difference. 24 of the studies found no effect, 7 reported “some” supporting evidence (2 of which could not be replicated on subsequent trials by the same researchers), 3 were false positives attributed to statistical artefacts, and the final 2 had mutually incompatible results. They concluded:
The symptoms described by “electromagnetic hypersensitivity” sufferers can be severe and are sometimes disabling. However, it has proved difficult to show under blind conditions that exposure to EMF can trigger these symptoms. This suggests that “electromagnetic hypersensitivity” is unrelated to the presence of EMF.
Now that the XMRV myth has been put to rest, patients with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (CFS) are no longer jumping the gun to demand anti-retroviral treatments. But they are jumping the gun in new ways, based on very preliminary data coming out of Norway.
A correspondent in Norway wrote to tell me patients from Norway with myalgic encephalitis/chronic fatigue syndrome (ME/CFS) are travelling to the US to have Dr. Andreas Kogelnik in San Francisco treat them with IV infusions of rituximab, apparently to no avail. A course of treatment costs over $6000, not to speak of travel and other expenses. (more…)