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March Madness: Basketball, Brackets and Psi! Oh my!

complicatedgraph

A complicated graph, shown here mere moments before proving the existence of precognition

In 2011, psychologist Daryl Bem published a highly controversial series of nine experiments designed to tease out the potential existence of precognition, the ability to experience future events. In order to isolate the potential influence of future events on the present, Bem’s experimental design reversed the standard order of psychological investigations. In one experiment, for example, subjects were allowed to practice with random words after having already taken a memory test comprised of some of them.

Bem’s results were controversial for many reasons, mostly because they were positive. But the question of whether or not they should have even been published in the first place, regardless of the results, was raised by many in the scientific and skeptical community. As history has shown us repeatedly, the risk of falsely legitimizing nonsense by publishing positive but typically poorly-designed studies is very real. And negative studies tend to be ignored by believers and policy makers.

Bem’s experimental design was made available from the beginning of his research in 2002, and he encouraged others to perform their own studies. Unfortunately for Bem, attempts at replicating his findings were largely reported, if not always published, as negative. Apparently this was not enough to discourage the intrepid believer. In fact, he currently has a meta-analysis of 90 experiments using the same protocols as his original research under editorial review.

The conclusions of his new analysis [PDF] are, not surprisingly, supportive of the existence of precognition, and in his manuscript he attempts to address all of the skepticism regarding his findings. He even quotes Feynman and implies that physicists are taking the possibility of quantum-based explanations of psi seriously. It’s an interesting read to say the least.

What does NCAA basketball have to do with the topic of psi research?

A new name in the field of parapsychology research has been making headlines since going public with his efforts on the 1st of the month, and not surprisingly the media coverage is increasing now that his findings have been announced. Dr. Mort Fishman, a psychologist and paranormal researcher out of Tuono di Legno University in Florence, has ingeniously incorporated one of the world’s most popular sporting events, the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament, into a study of precognitive abilities. The results, if they are to be believed, may change the minds of even the hardiest psi skeptics.

In anticipation of March Madness each year, millions of basketball fans around the world fill out tournament brackets in an attempt to correctly predict which teams will win, and ultimately who will emerge victorious from the championship game. Many make a contest out of it, with office pools now a nearly ubiquitous aspect of life this time of year. ESPN even holds a Tournament Challenge, the winner of which is given a chance for $20,000 and a trip to Hawaii. It might even be Mitt Romney this year, leading some to regret their vote in the 2012 Presidential election.

The reasons people give for their choices are myriad, ranging from a thorough evaluation of the various teams’ stats to something as primitive and powerful as a gut feeling or how cute the mascot is. Fishman, an avid basketball fan who played three seasons for the European Basketball Federation’s Florence Nightingales, set out at the beginning of the NCAA college basketball season to determine if there might be a precognitive component to these choices. Inspired by Bem’s study designs, he also incorporated a reversal of standard protocols into his research.

The typical approach to filling out a bracket is to do so before the first game of the tournament. In fact, most official contests require it in order to avoid any unfair advantage. Fishman, who had a league record foul-to-rebound ratio of 2.5 during his stint on the Nightingales, instead asked study participants to fill out their bracket after the completion of the championship game, which was won by beloved perennial tournament underdogs, the Duke Blue Devils. According to Fishman, the most challenging aspect of the study was preventing participants from being exposed to any potential contamination with information about the teams during the season.

We went to great expense to protect subjects from potential bias or even outright cheating by basing their bracket picks on outside information. They were sequestered in a reasonably priced hotel, without access to the internet, television, or radio from November 1st of last year through Monday night. They were not allowed to speak to anyone outside of each other and us. No family. No friends. I think there were a few old Reader’s Digests and maybe a Redbook in the room. Progress requires sacrifice.

Once the brackets were completed and turned over to the research team, the real science began. Each subject entered a sensory deprivation tank and was randomly exposed to the results of 25 of the tournament’s 67 total games. The brackets were analyzed using math to see if subject picks were retroactively impacted by knowing the result of games after the fact. Choosing to courageously forego the stifling process of peer review, Fishman announced the positive findings at a press conference held in the parking lot of a Buffalo Wild Wings eight minutes from Lucas Oil Stadium on East Washington Street in Indianapolis.

Conclusion

As believers in Science-Based Medicine, we must have open minds when it comes to fringe or even highly implausible claims because you never know when seemingly-incontrovertible assumptions about the natural world will be proven wrong. Science is imperfect and historically has been very wrong on many occasions. Experts used to believe that the Earth was flat and we still don’t know how Tylenol even works.

Intellectual humility is a key component of scientific skepticism. Sometimes ideas which were ridiculed turn out to be true. Having a closed mind might help prevent any untrue new idea from being accepted, but some of them are pretty interesting and already very popular with the public. Who are we to judge truth from fiction?

Though the existence of psi has now been proven by the Fishman study, it doesn’t mean that more studies aren’t needed. In fact, the hard part lies ahead. We need to figure out how best to harness its potential in order to improve patient outcomes, and only science can lead the way in that regard. But we must not be afraid of the unknown or of different approaches to discovery. As Endocrinologist Dr. Deepak Chopra said, “All great changes are preceded by chaos.”

 

 

Posted in: Humor, Science and Medicine

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The DC as PCP? Drug Wars Resume

Coming soon, to a chiropractor's office near you?

Coming soon, to a chiropractor’s office near you?

Chiropractors are once again engaged in intra-fraternal warfare over the chiropractic scope of practice, a saga we’ve chronicled before on SBM. (See the references at end of this post.) Every time it looks like the warring factions have buried their differences, they come rising to the surface like zombies.

The International Chiropractors Association (ICA), representing the “straight” faction, wants chiropractic to continue as a drugless profession. They are happy to detect and correct subluxations, thereby removing “nerve interference” and “allowing the body to heal itself” in the tradition of Daniel David Palmer. But the American Chiropractic Association (ACA) has bigger fish to fry.

This time, the ICA is upset that the ACA House of Delegates up and decided to establish a “College of Pharmacology and Toxicology,” which would operate under the auspices of the ACA Council on Diagnosis and Internal Disorders. The ACA’s announcement of the “College” is rather vague on details:

The purpose of the College is to further educate the chiropractic profession on clinical matters related to the widespread use of both prescription and over-the-counter medications and nutritional supplements.

I e-mailed the ACA several days ago asking for more information but have yet to receive a reply.

The ICA sees this move as yet another attempt by:

forces at work within some organizations actively promoting incorporating drugs into the chiropractic scope of practice.

(more…)

Posted in: Chiropractic, Herbs & Supplements, Humor, Legal, Nutrition, Pharmaceuticals, Politics and Regulation

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Alternative Medical Alert Systems in the News

Belvidere, NE- Bref Albright was taking an unfamiliar route home from work because of a stalled 18-wheeler when he passed by the cell phone tower. As the electromagnetic field washed over him, symptoms of his sensitivity quickly set in. He first noticed a tingling sensation throughout his body and an odd dryness in his mouth and throat. Then nausea and headache. Once the palpitations and difficulty concentrating on the road began, he knew he had to pull over in order to avoid an accident.

An elderly woman, shown here about to be strangled by a conventional doctor and/or pharmaceutical industry representative, is wearing an EmergenQi pendant

An elderly woman, shown here about to be strangled by a conventional doctor and/or pharmaceutical industry representative, is wearing an EmergenQi pendant

“Getting off the road was the right thing to do,” Albright explained. “I couldn’t risk injuring somebody else if I lost control of my truck, but it left me vulnerable. I was a sitting duck!” As expected, Albright’s condition worsened because of continued exposure to the deadly yet fundamental force of nature. Despite blurry vision and difficulty remembering his wife’s cell phone number, he managed to place a call. No answer. His wife, home brewing kombucha, had left her phone in another room.

Albright, a 53-year-old taxidermist for the Belvidere Parks Commission, then pressed the red button that activated his alternative medical emergency alert system. Within seconds, a satellite had pinpointed the location of Albright’s pendant and a team of emergency alternative medicine experts was soon on its way. While on route, a member of the team was even able to contact Albright’s wife Norleen and ask a few questions about Bref’s alternative medical history.
(more…)

Posted in: Acupuncture, Diagnostic tests & procedures, Humor

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John Oliver skewers Dr. Oz for his hawking of diet supplements

As regular readers of this blog know, Dr. Mehmet Oz had a very, very bad day last week, in which he received a major tongue lashing from Senator Claire McCaskill (D-MO) for the scientifically unsupported and irresponsible hyperbole he dishes out day after day on his syndicated daytime television show. Personally, I was tempted to pile on myself, but had to content myself with enjoying a couple of posts from a super secret blog in the run-up to the hearing (inviting Dr. Oz to testify is “like asking Al Capone to testify about U.S. tax policy or Stanislaw Burzynski about clinical trial design and ethics”), right after the hearing, and looking at the fallout from the hearing. I had even thought of asking my “friend” to combine the last two into an SBM-worthy post, but by the time that thought had occurred to me, the moment had passed.

One of the best takes I’ve seen on the whole “Oz-fest” last week comes from John Oliver on his HBO show Last Week Tonight With John Oliver. It’s a really long segment that takes up the last half of his show and features—don’t ask why—George R. R. Martin and a tap dancing Steve Buscemi. It’s hilariously spot on:

Most SBM readers will enjoy it. I promise. Oliver even correctly identifies Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-UT) and Tom Harkin (D-IA) as tools of the supplement industry and explains why dietary supplements in the U.S. are largely unregulated and the FDA and FTC have such limited powers to do anything about them preemptively.

Posted in: Herbs & Supplements, Humor, Nutrition, Science and the Media

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Improperly Performed Acupuncture Linked to Spontaneous Human Combustion

Experts in traditional Chinese medicine are warning patients to avoid unlicensed acupuncture practitioners after an apparent case of spontaneous human combustion.

Baton Rouge, LA-When investigators climbed from out of the smoldering debris that was the home of Hank Thomas, the looks on their faces told the gathering crowd what these hardened veterans of the Baton Rouge Fire Department couldn’t put into words. Thomas, a yoga instructor and avid fisherman who had lived in Baton Rouge his entire life, had exploded. And as the grisly details slowly emerge, people are asking questions about what might be to blame and how they can prevent being the next Baton Rougian to erupt into a massive fireball of body parts and Tony Chachere’s Creole Seasoning.

Some local medical professionals have proposed a controversial theory. Based on reports that Thomas has undergone acupuncture treatments for sciatica several times in the weeks preceding his untimely fulmination, a group of local experts are speaking out. They are warning the community to beware of discount acupuncture clinics.

“We aren’t saying that every incidence of spontaneous human combustion is linked to the incorrect placement of acupuncture needles,” Kuang Zhu LAC, Chief of Pragmatic Acupuncture in the Health and Wellness division of Vic’s Day Spa and Pet Grooming Center, explained during a recent press conference. “But in some cases, there is a relationship that is hard to explain otherwise.”
(more…)

Posted in: Acupuncture, Humor

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The Sleep Bank

The following article is entirely made up. It’s satire. I am making fun of treatment modalities which are claimed by proponents to cure everything, from real medical ailments to fictional entities like “adrenal fatigue”. I am also poking fun at the state of medical reporting these days. If the concepts discussed seem similar to actual alternative medical practice, it is because a great deal of what goes on out there in the real world really isn’t distinguishable from purposefully outlandish fictional treatments made up by someone with a doctoral degree in Feng Shui from Thunderwood College. (more…)

Posted in: Humor, Science and the Media

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Closing out 2012 with a bit of fun: Do you want some quantum with that pseudoscience?

today is the last day of 2012. As I contemplated what I’d write for my last post of 2012, I wondered what to do. Should I do a “year in review” sort of post? Naahh. Too trite and too much work. Should I just do what I normally do? There are, after all, many topics that are out there, some of them still holdovers from before the holiday season. I can’t get to them all, even between this blog and my not-so-super-secret other blog. I thought about it a minute, but then rejected that possibility. So I decided just to cover one of them. After all, when years begin and end are human constructs, and there’s nothing special about today other than that society has decided that it is the last day of the year, and tradition mandates that a significant proportion of the population will gather before midnight to get drunk and stupid. I’m boring that way, rarely doing anything on New Years Eve other than sitting in front of the TV with my wife and watching the ball drop in Times Square. Then I thought: Oh, what the heck? Why not take on something a bit…different for a change? Maybe even get a bit silly? At least I can finish off the year with a bit of fun. Who knows? I might even be able to be far more concise than usual? (Actually, that might be asking too much.) Besides, the topics I tend to take on here are almost always serious; so a little amusement would be good before diving into the science and pseudoscience that will certainly pop up in 2013.

If there’s one thing about “alternative” medicine, “complementary and alternative medicine” (CAM), or “integrative medicine” that’s always puzzled me, it’s just how gullible some practitioners must think their clients are. In some cases, they might know their customers every bit as well as a car salesman knows his clients or an author knows his readers, but in actuality most people who fall for alt-med are no more gullible than average. However, some words seem to impress more than ever, as promoters of alt-med scramble to appropriate impressive-sounding science terms into their woo. I’ve seen a lot of them. So has Mark Crislip.

Among the favorite real science term that quacks love to appropriate is “quantum.” I blame Deepak Chopra. Although I highly doubt he was the first promoter of alternative medicine and various New Age thought to use and abuse the term “quantum” as a seemingly scientific justification of what in reality is nothing more than ancient mystical thinking gussied up with a quantum overcoat to hide its lack of science, Chopra has arguably done the most to popularize the term among the science-challenged set. In Chopra’s world, the word “quantum” functions like a magical talisman that explains ™everything because in the quantum world anything can happen. Actually, I should clarify. While it’s true that many bizarre and wondrous things can be explained through quantum theory (such as quantum entanglement), it is not, as Chopra and his many imitators would have you believe, a “get out of jail free” card for any magical thinking you can imagine, and quantum effects do not work the way people like Chopra (say, Lionel Milgrom, who seems to think that homeopathy works through quantum entanglement between practitioner, remedy, and patient) would like you to think.
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Posted in: Basic Science, Health Fraud, Humor

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Disingenuous: Deconstruction of a naturopathic white paper

Science is the Concept by which
we measure our reality
I don’t believe in magic
I don’t believe in I-ching…
I just believe in science…and that reality.

John Lennon. Sort of.

As regular readers of the blog are aware, I am science/reality based.  I think the physical and basic sciences provide an excellent understanding of reality at the level of human experience.  Physics, chemistry, biology, anatomy, biochemistry, physiology, evolution etc. provide a reliable and reproducible framework within which to understand health and disease.  My pesky science may not know everything about reality, but day to day it works well.

“There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, Than are dreamt of in your philosophy. – Hamlet (1.5.166-7).”  

Perhaps, but all the medical advances in my lifetime have been not yielded new science, just (amazing) variations and extensions of known processes.  I sometimes think the blog should have been called reality based medicine, but science is the tool by which we understand reality, and while the tool is constant, our understanding of reality is prone to changing.  An understanding of the rules of the universe combined with an awareness of the innumerable ways whereby we can fool ourselves into believing that those rules do not apply to us is part of what makes a science and reality based doctor.

We are often told of the need to keep an open mind, but I like to keep it open to reality.  Not that I do not like fantasy and magic, it is a common category for my reading.  I just finished Red Country by Joe Abercrombie, and while I love the world he has created, I would not want to apply the rules of that imaginary world to my patients.   Well, one exception.  As Logen Ninefingers  would say, “You have to realistic about these things.” Fictional worlds should be limited to the practice of art, not the practice of medicine.
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Posted in: Humor, Naturopathy, Politics and Regulation, Public Health, Science and Medicine

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Down the Virtual Rabbit Hole

The interwebs are more than a series of tubes, it has the power of endless distraction and tangents, a series of clickable rabbit holes that can drag you deeper and deeper into the alternative universes that are parallel with our own. One moment you can be on Science Based Medicine, grounded on the terra firma of reality, and then with a click of the mouse you can lose your way in the electronic warren.

It started as an advertisement on a skeptical website, perhaps SBM, perhaps not. The entrances to rabbit holes are Hogwartian in nature, never being in the same place twice. It is how I remember it.

Google serves up ads based on what their algorithm perceives as the content of the website. The algorithm lacks a certain, shall we say, nuance, and fails to understand that advertisements suggesting training in homeopathy or the promoting the practice of chiropractic may not have a close relationship to the content of Science Based Medicine. Still the ad did intrigue me, as it mentioned that the practitioner was Oregon’s only MD Acupuncturist. So I clicked. (more…)

Posted in: Energy Medicine, Herbs & Supplements, Humor

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More Boosting

Topics, as I noted a fortnight ago in my uniquely misspelled and ungrammatical way, never die**. Or even fade away. There are popular ideas that persist in the world that have little to do with reality. In the reality based world of medicine there are concepts that refuse to die. Atelectasis causing fever or the need to ‘double cover’ Pseudomonas. Neither are true, yet every year medical students tell me that is what they have been taught. It is said the only way new ideas take hold is for those that hold the old ideas to die off. So maybe 50 years from now those medical myths will be gone.

Popular culture also its myths. Take the immune system. Please. It is not a bicep that can be made stronger with a little exercise. It is a complex network of cells and proteins. There are antibodies (IgG (with five subtypes, IgM, IgA, IgE),the complement pathway, polymorphonuclear cells, monocytes, lymphocytes in a profusion that rivals beetles. God, I think, has an inordinate fondness for lymphocytes. There is the Toll system, the cytokines and lymphokines, the non-specific defenses like cilia and mannose binding lectin and on and on and on.

I have a journeyman’s understanding of the immune system, what is needed to understand why a given patient has an infection, although there is little I can do to reverse the immunologic defects: abnormal antibodies from Waldenström’s or low mannose binding lectin levels from liver disease are not amenable to clinical intervention. (more…)

Posted in: Herbs & Supplements, Humor, Science and Medicine, Vaccines

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