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Skeptic Summary #237

By The Staff
Posted on: 5/24/2009

Darwinius, many miles, sucky anti-change, three wolves, bogus therapies, biodynamics and more!

Week ending May 23, 2009 (Vol 6, #19)

Welcome to the Skeptic Summary, a quick week-in-review guide to the Skeptic Friends Network and the rest of the skeptical world.

Forum Highlights:
Darwinius masillae - One great find for evolution, and the media goes ape.

Hypermiling - After a year of data collecting, this thread has reached the end of the road.

The more things change… - …the more these people suck.

Editor’s Choice: Three Wolf Moon - I laughed so much I howled.

Kil’s Evil Pick:
Why Bogus Therapies Seem to Work: At least ten kinds of errors and biases can convince intelligent, honest people that cures have been achieved when they have not,” by Barry L. Beyerstein — In a recent thread on the SFN forums, “Acupuncture… with toothpicks?,” a new study on the effects of acupuncture and back pain gave rise to a discussion of why acupuncture may work, at least as a placebo, and does the physiological component of the effect matter? If acupuncture works on some people, can we ethically recommend the procedure to our friends as an alternative treatment?

And that brings me to my pick. What is a placebo and how should we correctly regard its effect? While the Beyerstein article is not new, it is as relevant today as when it was written, more than ten years ago. It begins:
Those who sell therapies of any kind have an obligation to prove, first, that their treatments are safe and, second, that they are effective. The latter is often the more difficult task because there are many subtle ways that honest and intelligent people (both patients and therapists) can be led to think that a treatment has cured someone when it has not. This is true whether we are assessing new treatments in scientific medicine, old nostrums in folk medicine, fringe treatments in “alternative medicine,” or the frankly magical panaceas of faith healers.

To distinguish causal from fortuitous improvements that might follow any intervention, a set of objective procedures has evolved for testing putative remedies. Unless a technique, ritual, drug, or surgical procedure can meet these requirements, it is ethically questionable to offer it to the public, especially if money is to change hands. Since most “alternative” therapies (i.e., ones not accepted by scientific biomedicine) fall into this category, one must ask why so many customers who would not purchase a toaster without consulting Consumer Reports shell out, with trusting naïveté, large sums for unproven, possibly dangerous, health remedies.

For many years, critics have been raising telling doubts about fringe medical practices, but the popularity of such nostrums seems undiminished. We must wonder why entrepreneurs’ claims in this area should remain so refractory to contrary data. If an “alternative” or “complementary” therapy:

a. is implausible on a priori grounds (because its implied mechanisms or putative effects contradict well-established laws, principles, or empirical findings in physics, chemistry, or biology),
b. lacks a scientifically acceptable rationale of its own,
c. has insufficient supporting evidence derived from adequately controlled outcome research (i.e., double-blind, randomized, placebo-controlled clinical trials),
d. has failed in well-controlled clinical studies done by impartial evaluators and has been unable to rule out competing explanations for why it might seem to work in uncontrolled settings, and,
e. should seem improbable, even to the lay person, on “commonsense” grounds,

why would so many well-educated people continue to sell and purchase such a treatment?
Read on.

Nobody seems more obsessed by diet than our anti-materialist, otherworldly, New Age, spiritual types. But if the material world is merely illusion, an honest guru should be as content with Budweiser and bratwurst as with raw carrot juice, tofu, and seaweed slime.
— Edward Abbey

Chat Highlights:
Wednesday: We started with a few Sluggy comics and then talk of boron10’s upcoming wedding. The conversation turned to dogs when Trish stopped by with news of her pregnant Brittany. Then chefcrsh joined and as a result the rest of the night was spent talking about food. He must choose between two jobs, the more attractive of which would mean working for a New Age boss with a New Age menu; quite a conundrum. Many had left after more talk on food, the fatty American diet, and Kil’s artichoke dip. But those who remained talked about politics, mostly in the form of Rachel Maddow videos.

Come chat with us.
SkepTirade on Biodynamic Biobaloney:

I was recently at the vet’s office where I found a magazine with the featured story titled “Woo Woo Wine.” One could hardly pass up such amazing alliteration. Officially termed biodynamic wine, this stuff has more woo in it than you could shake a stick at. And if you did, you’d probably end up finding water.

First proposed in 1924 by Rudolph Steiner, the practice includes planting crops with quartz and using astrology to determine when to plant, cultivate, and harvest. One of my favorites is preparation 502: Yarrow flowers are fermented in a deer’s bladder, then applied to the compost. Makes one wonder if a vegetarian would have any objection to drinking it. If that didn’t sit well with you, perhaps you’ll prefer preparation 505: Oak bark fermented in the skull of a cow placed in the compost. There’s more bullshit in that than there is in manure; perhaps that’s why they use it.

But does it work? According to many wine experts biodynamic wines do have, on average, better quality. Don’t make the mistake of concluding that deer bladders or oak bark are the cause of this superior quality however: biodynamic vineyards do use many scientifically approved methods for producing better harvests. Such correlation without causation is the hallmark of bad thinking.

If it is a better product, shouldn’t one buy it regardless of the amount of woo involved? This is a personal choice and perhaps to a devoted wine aficionado the quality is of the utmost importance. For me however, it is a non-issue: The knowledge that I am financially supporting magical thinking will always leave a bad taste in my mouth.

New Members This Week:

(Not a member? Become one today!)

Elsewhere in the World:
The 111th Skeptics Circle: You’re Gonna Love It

I wonder what the “toxins” brigade of anti-vaccine loons will think of this

Man flu and the difference between mice and men

Skepticality #101 — Quirky Ghost Photos

Got some skeptic news items? Send them to us, and we’ll think about adding them.

Book of the Week:
Predictably Irrational, Revised and Expanded Edition: The Hidden Forces That Shape Our Decisions, by Dan Ariely.

“For years, the ideology of free markets bestrode the world, bending politics as well as economics to its core assumption: market forces produce the best solution to any problem. But these days, even Bill Gates says capitalism’s work is ‘unsatisfactory’ for one-third of humanity… Another sign that times are changing is Predictably Irrational, a book that both exemplifies and explains this shift in the cultural winds. Here, Dan Ariely, an economist at M.I.T., tells us that ‘life with fewer market norms and more social norms would be more satisfying, creative, fulfilling and fun.’

…Obviously, this sly and lucid book is not about your grandfather’s dismal science. Ariely’s trade is behavioral economics, which is the study, by experiments, of what people actually do when they buy, sell, change jobs, marry and make other real-life decisions…

Yes, you have a rational self, but it’s not your only one, nor is it often in charge. A more accurate picture is that there are a bunch of different versions of you, who come to the fore under different conditions. We aren’t cool calculators of self-interest who sometimes go crazy; we’re crazies who are, under special circumstances, sometimes rational.”

— David Berreby, New York Times

This Week’s Most-Viewed Pages:
Forum Topics:
  1. The Supper
  2. PZ expelled from Expelled — Dawkins slips in!
  3. Stop laughing, dammit! This is serious shit!
  4. Darwinius masillae
  5. Possum on the half shell
  6. Same-sex marriage thoughts
  7. We’d invite Hitler to speak, says Columbia dean
  8. The shallow end of the gene pool…
  9. Quote Mine warning propaganda poster
  10. New World Order happening right now!
  1. Fundamentalists Hate Noah’s Ark
  2. Evolving a Venom or Two
  3. Miracle Thaw — The Bogus Miracle
  4. Scientific Truth
  5. Skeptic Summary #152
  6. The Bible’s Bad Fruits
  7. Miracle Thaw Tray
  8. Mesmer, Casino Monkey, and Video Sex
  9. Evolution is a Lie
  10. Skeptic Summary #236
There were 17,118 daily visitors this week.

More issues of the Skeptic Summary can be found in our archive.

The Skeptic Summary is produced by the staff of the Skeptic Friends Network, copyright 2008, all rights reserved.

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