Sunday, July 31, 2005

The 14-year-old gets it

Yesterday, I posted about a supposed "miracle" in which a statue of the Sacred Heart of Jesus supposedly opened its right eye. I see that Majikthise is also on the case, but she used a report from the New York Daily News as her source. The great thing about the article she found is that is shows that kids seem to be the most rational about this whole "miracle." For example, a 14-year-old seems to be the only one showing any signs of critical thinking:
"It's just a sculpture," said Wanda Aldea, 14, shaking her head. "I think somebody just scraped its eyelid off."
That girl looks like she may be a future contributor to the Skeptics' Circle; that is, if she can maintain that healthy skepticism into adulthood. The most amusing comment came from an 11-year-old:
Anthony Purvis, 11, silently stared at the statue for about 90 seconds and then turned to four of his boisterous friends and said, "If the other one pops open, I'm going to run. I'm out of here."

Sunday morning random links with my coffee

It's been a while since I did a link roundup for your reading and browsing pleasure. What better time to do it on a Sunday morning? So, here we go, in no particular order:


First off, it's great to know that the winners have been announced for the 2005 Bulwer-Lytton Contest. For those of you not familiar with the contest, it's a bad writing contest. The premise is that you have to imagine the worst novel ever written, and then write the opening sentence for that novel:
An international literary parody contest, the competition honors the memory (if not the reputation) of Victorian novelist Edward George Earl Bulwer-Lytton (1803-1873). The goal of the contest is childishly simple: entrants are challenged to submit bad opening sentences to imaginary novels. Although best known for "The Last Days of Pompeii" (1834), which has been made into a movie three times, originating the expression "the pen is mightier than the sword," and phrases like "the great unwashed" and "the almighty dollar," Bulwer-Lytton opened his novel Paul Clifford (1830) with the immortal words that the "Peanuts" beagle Snoopy plagiarized for years, "It was a dark and stormy night."

The contest began in 1982 as a quiet campus affair, attracting only three submissions. This response being a thunderous success by academic standards, the contest went public the following year and ever since has attracted thousands of annual entries from all over the world.
I personally own three or four of the books containing entries from this contest. This year's winnner was Dan McKay of Fargo, ND:
As he stared at her ample bosom, he daydreamed of the dual Stromberg carburetors in his vintage Triumph Spitfire, highly functional yet pleasingly formed, perched prominently on top of the intake manifold, aching for experienced hands, the small knurled caps of the oil dampeners begging to be inspected and adjusted as described in chapter seven of the shop manual.
And the winner in the fantasy section:
"Why does every task in the Realm of Zithanor have to be a quest?" Baldak of Erthorn, handyman to the Great Wizard Zarthon, asked rhetorically as he began his journey began to find the Holy Hammer of Taloria and the Sacred Nail of Ikthillia so Baldak could hang one of Zarthon's mediocre watercolors, which was an art critique Baldak kept to himself unlike his predecessor, whom Zarthon turned into the Picture Frame of Torathank. (SSG Kevin Craver Fort Polk, LA)
And, finally, the science fiction section:
Long, long ago in a galaxy far away, in General Hospital born I was, and quite happy were my parents, but when a youngling still I was, moved we did. (Mary Potts Oneco, FL)
Little known is that I once submitted a couple of entries to this contest several years ago. I didn't even get a dishonorable mention. Bummer.

Around the blogosphere

Prometheus, in taking on people who think that they are just as qualified to evaluate complex data as physicians and scientists who have spent 25 years studying the question, tells us that if you want to drive the bus, you have to go to bus driving school. (This is essential reading for dealing with alties; sometimes, as un-PC as it might be, it is appropriate to tell someone that they don't know what they're talking about.) He also takes on Dr. Hornig's "autistic" mice that are often touted by mercury-autism advocates as an "animal model" for autism and its supposedly being caused by mercury.

The Columnist Manifesto tells us the difference between men and women is something he calls "eyedar" and thus solves one of the mysteries of the universe. He also give relationship advice regarding a question all men with a wife, significant other, or girlfriend dread.

The Mad House Madman tells us Ten Random Things I Asked My Interns to Do Today. Man, I don't want to get on the Madman's bad side.

Kathleen Seidel tells us just what lengths some will go to to silence those who don't agree with them and follows up dealing with the responses.

The Waiter tells us how he likes to see customers deal with the check and tipping and tells you when the server (and the entire restaurant staff, actually) wants you to leave. He also gives a lesson in slapping down one of those beautiful people with an undeserved sense of entitlement who happened to work in his restaurant. Meanwhile the Doorman gives advice on blogging, and the Bitter Waitress presents the Shitty Tipper Database.

Skeptico tells us why ad hominem attacks are not valid arguments. (I will likely be posting a bit about this myself next week using some of my Usenet experience.)

Via Brent, I discover a case of beermaggeddon.

Jason Rosenhouse continues his report on the Creation Megaconference.

Juspasenthru tells us about Nasty Lawyer Tricks. Essential reading for any physician.

Decorabilia (a future host of the Skeptics' Circle, by the way) provides a link to a pro-"intelligent design" rap song called "Agency." Ow. It hurts the ears. Inane lyrics. Bad rap, even worse than most rap. Oh, it's awful. I think my ears are bleeding. I wouldn't recommend William Dembski start using it. Eminem and 50 Cent have nothing to worry about.

Too much. I should have stopped while I was ahead.

Blatant plugs

This is where I try to use the minimal might of Respectful Insolence for good, pointing out blogs I've noticed recently. (It's almost as though I think that, now that I've passed 100,000 visits, someone is actually reading this stuff.) There have been a couple in the last month:

Brian has started a blog called Common Sense for the Biochemist, because, as he puts it, what is common sense to a biochemist?

Notes from RW is a medblog by a hospitalist in Arkansas.

Saturday, July 30, 2005

More visions

I'm not sure if this qualifies as pareidolia or not, but there's yet another religious vision being reported in Hoboken, New Jersey. (Tip o' the hat to my wife for letting me know about this story.) Apparently, believers report that a statue of the Sacred Heart of Jesus in a Nativity scene (I'm not sure why a Sacred Heart statue would be in a Nativity scene myself, but never mind) is "alive." They report that they've seen it open its right eye and turn its head towards the crowd:
Julio Dones' Catholic shrine has fronted a housing project in Hoboken for three decades, its statues of saints and crucifixes viewed as a positive diversion from area drug deals.

But these past two days, word that the shrine's Sacred Heart of Jesus statue spontaneously blinked its right eye twice and kept it open -- while its left eye stayed closed -- sparked more excitement there than ever. Both of the statue's eyes are normally closed, Dones said.
This has caused a pilgrimage to the area similar to the recent religious fervor that occurred because a stain in an expressway underpass in Chicago was thought to be a vision of the Virgin Mary or another incident in Perth Amboy, New Jersey, where a pattern on a window was also thought to be a vision of the Virgin. (My wife, who happened to be in Perth Amboy five years ago around that time, actually personally witnessed the Window Virgin. She told me it looked "like a smear that you get when you use Windex on a window that isn't completely dry.") The reaction has been the same:

Dones, a 52-year-old neighborhood preacher who attends the nearby St. Francis Roman Catholic Church and maintains the shrine year-round, said he first saw the blinking after a friend alerted him to it Thursday, around 2 p.m.

He said tears flowed from the eye, and that Jesus' head turned to the right.

"I felt a chill going up my body, the Holy Spirit coming upon me," he said. "I ... told the people to come see the great sight that just occurred. See, people don't understand what God does. God does things in mysterious ways."

Dones, who found the statue in the trash in Jersey City a year ago, said a woman who stopped by yesterday saw the right eye blink and began crying.

Yesterday afternoon, not everyone who stopped by said they believed. Some were amazed at the similarities in the Jesus statue's eyes and Dones' eyes. Dones is blind in his left eye, and his eyelid droops.

I'm sorry, but once again, as with the case of Underpass Virgin and Window Virgin, I just don't see what the faithful claim to see. My faith must not be strong enough, I guess. What I do see is an old, beat-up statue of Jesus with one of the eyelids broken off, leaving the eye exposed. Whether it was always that way or whether someone damaged it, who knows? Indeed, the fact that the open right eye now makes the statue look like Dones has to make you wonder about kids pulling a prank. But a bona fide vision? I don't think so.

I'm also not sure how to classify this particularly religious vision. I don't think it is pareidolia, because pareidolia is seeing an object in a vague pattern or form, like seeing the Virgin Mary on an expressway underpass stain or seeing a vision of Lenin in a shower. Perhaps a little research will lead me to a specific term to describe this sort of wishful thinking vision.

Studies don't matter to alties

I was, not surprisingly, correct when I said that the recent echinacea study would fail to persuade alties, no matter how well-designed it was or how much it built on previous negative studies, that this herb does nothing for the common cold. Much of their objections come from an appeal to ignorance:
Her brother immediately forwarded her a news article about the echinacea study, she said, but "it didn't really bother me." Why? "Well," she said, waving her hands and looking off into the distance, "I wouldn't be surprised if again in six months another study was published and it turns out that echinacea extends your life or something."
Not an entirely unreasonable thing to say about any one study, but it isn't just one study. I've addressed this issue before, and it's the preponderance of studies that matters. You can always dismiss one study (although this one was particularly well-designed and controlled), but this is merely the latest and best-designed of of several studies that have shown echnicacea does nothing for colds or cold symptoms above placebo.

Health food stores probably have nothing to fear as far as their echinacea sales go.


I hadn't planned on posting much (if at all) this weekend, but I was perusing my RSS reader last night and noticed a couple of new posts on the blog of my fellow traveler, Andrew Mathis. He had posted a piece that, while appreciative for my listing him, demonstrated him to be somewhat perturbed that I had listed him under "liberal" blogs/websites in my blogroll:
We are not amused.

We are not liberal.

We should stop using the royal we, which should only be used by the Pope, the Queen of England, and people with tapeworms.

In earnest, I dislike the label "liberal." And not because Republicans tried to turn it into a bad word a decade or more ago. I dislike the label because I dislike liberalism. This is not to say that I dislike the tradition of freedoms that liberalism, in a more general sense, stands for. Rather, I dislike liberalism in practice as it has been used in American history.
Hmmm. This is a first in the history of this blog. I've never had anyone object to my classifications before. Of course, until quite recently, Respectful Insolence was such a tiny bit player in the blogosphere that no one noticed (or, if they did notice, gave a rodent's posterior) what I said about them or where I put them in my blogroll. In any case, Andrew's a friend and ally in the struggle against Holocaust denial, and I truly hate to do anything that disturbs him. He's also reminded me that "liberal" and "conservative" are inadequate labels. For example, consider me. I tend to be in favor of limited federal government, fiscal responsibility, strong national defense, and other tenets of "conservatism," but I tend to be a lot more "liberal" on social issues. Truly, such labels are inadequate.

Fortunately, I had planned on doing a little blog housecleaning of Respectful Insolence and the Skeptics' Circle archive site sometime this weekend anyway, part of which will likely involve revamping my blogroll and fixing a couple of broken links that I've been made aware of. It will allow me to reclassify him somehow. (How, I don't yet know.) It will also allow me to purge my lists of blogs that I formerly rather liked, like LaShawn Barber's Corner. LaShawn used to seem to be a fairly reasonable conservative to me, but she's recently gone totally off the deep end when it comes to comments by Representative Tom Tancredo about bombing Islamic holy sites in response to a new terrorist attack on the U.S., not to mention that she's becoming more arrogant, more right-wing, and, worst of all, a less entertaining read. Sad.

A cleanup of my blogroll is actually long overdue. In Andrew's case, I'll make him a deal. I'll figure out a more appropriate category for him if he agrees to try to update his blog a little more often. He's too good a writer to let big gaps pass between posts. (Besides, I love it when he takes on Holocaust deniers in his own inimitable fashion.) Sound fair?

Friday, July 29, 2005

The Skeptics' Circle reloaded

In less than a week, Be Lambic or Green will be hosting the 14th Meeting of the Skeptics' Circle. Naturally, I have a keen interest in helping Mark succeed in presenting a truly fantastic edition, given that this will be the first Skeptics' Circle since the announcement at last week's Circle that I would be taking it over from St. Nate after his unfortunate impending departure from the blogosphere. (Aside to Nate: You called your recent hosting of The Carnival of the Godless your "second to last post." In my book that means you still owe your fans--like me--one last post, and we're going to hold you to that!)

Consequently, I urge all of you out there who do blogging that is appropriate for this carnival to send your best recent writing to Mark, according to his instructions here. Mark notes that he has rather heavy duty spam filters in place; if he doesn't acknowledge your submission, he wants you to leave a comment. Alternately, if you still don't get an acknowledgment, you can send the submissions to me, and I will forward them on. Guidelines for what we're looking for in posts contributed can be found here and towards the end of this post.

I will probably be tweaking and fine-tuning these guidelines in the future when I get around to it, but it's highly unlikely that I will make any radical changes. Basically, we want posts that use facts and/or science to examine and/or debunk myths or phenomena that are widely believed but have little or no basis in fact. Topics can range from evolution, psychic phenomena, quackery, pseudoscience, pseudohistory (such as my personal bête noire, Holocaust denial), or anything you can think of that would benefit from the application of critical thinking, skepticism, and science. There's a lot of, well, just plain bullshit out in the blogosphere that gets amplified as it gets passed from blogger to blogger, and the Skeptics' Circle was designed to serve as an antidote to this phenomenon.

Now that the initial shock of the transition is past, I thought I'd take the opportunity today to discuss some of my ideas for the future of the Circle. The three main areas I'd like to touch on include hosting, publicity, and the nature of this particular carnival.


As with all blog carnivals, perhaps the most important factor is to find good hosts who are willing to go that extra mile to round up interesting, intelligently written, and entertaining posts, to organize them in an entertaining fashion, and then to publicize their edition of the Skeptics' Circle to the the hilt, which describes past hosts of the Circle quite well. I fully expect that it will also describe the future hosts whom Nate lined up before stepping down. To give you an idea of the quality of past hosts and past Circles, here is the schedule as it stands now:

February 3, 2005
The First Skeptics' Circle, hosted by Saint Nate's Blog.

February 17, 2005
The Second Skeptics' Circle, hosted by Respectful Insolence.

March 3, 2005
The Third Skeptics' Circle, hosted by Rhosgobel: Radagast's Home.

March 17, 2005
The Fourth Skeptics' Circle, hosted by The Two Percent Company.

March 31, 2005
The Fifth Skeptics' Circle, hosted by Science and Politics.

April 14, 2005
The Sixth Skeptics' Circle, hosted by SocraticGadfly.

April 28, 2005
The Seventh Skeptics' Circle, hosted by Thoughts from Kansas.

May 12, 2005
The Eighth Skeptics' Circle, hosted by Pharyngula.

May 26, 2005
The Ninth Skeptics' Circle, hosted by Saint Nate's Blog.

June 9, 2005
The Tenth Skeptics' Circle, hosted by Skeptico.

June 23, 2005
The Eleventh Skeptics' Circle, hosted by Anne's Anti-Quackery & Science Blog.

July 7, 2005
The Twelfth Skeptics' Circle, hosted by Unscrewing the Inscrutable

July 21, 2005
The Thirteenth Skeptics' Circle, hosted by Respectful Insolence

August 4, 2005
The Fourteenth Skeptics' Circle, hosted by Be Lambic or Green

August 18, 2005
The Fifteenth Skeptics' Circle, hosted by Atheism Guide

September 1, 2005
The Sixteenth Skeptics' Circle, hosted by Red State Rabble

September 15, 2005
The Seventeenth Skeptics' Circle, hosted by decorabilia

September 29, 2005
The Eighteenth Skeptics' Circle, OPEN

October 13, 2005
The Nineteenth Skeptics' Circle, hosted by Time to Lean (whose blog has even been mentioned in the Amazing One's newsletter!)

As you can see, Nate did a fine job of lining up quality hosts all the way up to September 15 (October 13's host was my find) before handing over the reigns, and there were some excellent editions during his tenure. I don't want to rest on Nate's (and, of course, past hosts') laurels, though. I'm looking for more hosts who will strive to carry on the evolving tradition of the Circle. So, what kind of blogger, specifically, am I looking for? First of all, the main theme of your blog doesn't necessarily have to be science, quackery, pseudoscience, or skepticism, but you should be the type of blogger who likes to write about one or more of these topics at least occasionally. Second, you should have an interest in skepticism and the application of critical thinking, science, and data to dubious claims. (If you regularly check out The Amazing Randi's weekly newsletter, you're probably already halfway there.) Third, you need to want to do it and to be willing to give it your best shot at doing it well. I can tell you from my own personal experience hosting the Skeptics' Circle, that hosting a high-profile blog carnival early on in the life of your blog is a great way to get noticed and help your blog take off. Indeed, I cut my teeth hosting the Skeptics Circle and went on to host Grand Rounds and Tangled Bank, and then the Skeptics' Circle again. It's also a hell of a lot of fun, and I'll help you in any way I can.

So how does one host a blog carnival like the Skeptics' Circle? There are two main styles of hosting blog carnivals. There's the good, old-fashioned straightforward style, as exemplified by St. Nate's recent hosting of the Carnival of the Godless; Grand Rounds as hosted by fellow surgeons Bard Parker or Aggravated DocSurg; or Tangled Bank as hosted by Buridan's Ass or About Town. This is the most commonly used style and is still often the best. However, some hosts don't wish to be confined to a simple listing and brief commentary about the submitted articles, however pithy the commentary may be. They choose to use somewhat more--shall we say?--creative styles of organizing and presenting, as exemplified by my hosting of the Skeptics' Circle and Grand Rounds. (Of course, it is possible to go off the deep end a bit using these sorts of gimmicks, as I admit that I probably did when I hosted Tangled Bank, but better to reach and fall flat on your face than not to reach at all, I say.) Other highly creative examples include Grand Rounds as hosted by the Mad House Madman, Maria, Polite Dissent, Mudfud; the Skeptics Circle as hosted by Brent; and Tangled Bank as hosted by Science and Sensibility. As you can see, the possibilities are limited only by your imagination, making this a great chance to strut your stuff in front of a wide audience.

How long does it take? Well, the straightforward approach will probably take a couple of hours the night before you post the carnival. The creative approach will take as long as you wish to dedicate to it.

Interested? Send a request to me at, and I'll see about getting you on the schedule. I want to line up hosts as far in advance as I can manage.


The Skeptics' Circle has already become fairly well known, having been linked to regularly by such established bloggers, such as Pharyngula, Majikthise, and One Good Move, among others (to all of whom I'm grateful). (Unfortunately we've never managed to get Instapundit to link to us, as he does to Grand Rounds every week.) We've even been linked to twice by the Amazing Randi himself! (Of course, I'd love to have Randi link to us every edition; if anyone has an "in" with the Amazing One and wants to advocate for us, please contact me.)

Of course, more is better here. So, once again, if you have any new ideas of how to promote the Circle or know of any high-traffic bloggers who might be sympathetic to the ideals represented by the Skeptics' Circle, and thus willing to link to us regularly, please let me know, and I'll contact them, hopefully persuading them to let me add them to the publicity mailing list. Remember, the more publicity, the more incentive for people to host and host well, and the more incentive for bloggers to send in their very best writing and the better the Circle will become. The better and more widely read the Circle becomes, the more effective a weapon it becomes against the rampant credulity in the blogosphere.

The Nature of the Skeptics' Circle and Submitting Your Work

I wanted to finish this post with a few words on the nature of the Skeptics' Circle and what kinds of posts I would and would not like to see. First, let's dispose of the easy part, the types and formats of posts:
  1. Submissions should come from bona fide bloggers. That means a weblog that is regularly updated in a format in which the articles have dates on them, preferably with more recent articles at the top. I realize that the boundaries between a website and a blog can sometimes be blurry, but I think most people recognize a blog when they see one.
  2. Submissions should showcase the writing of the blogger submitting it. After all, the very purpose of this blog carnival is to showcase high quality skeptical blogging. That's why Instapundit-style simple links with little or no commentary or analysis are rarely, if ever appropriate. However, commentary that quotes significantly from another link is certainly acceptable, as long as a signficant proportion of the content comes from the blogger.
  3. Submissions should be fairly recently written. Ideally, they should have been written after the last Skeptic's Circle, but within the last month is usually acceptable. If the article is particularly good, the host may of course show some discretion.
  4. The blogs from which submissions come don't necessarily have to be devoted to science or skepticism, but should have some content of that nature.
I already touched on it somewhat in the introduction, but I'd like to expand upon it a bit. Nate has laid out the general guidelines here, here, and here. As Nate has said, appropriate topics include quackery, pseudoscience, urban legends, the paranormal, and dubious historical revisionism. I have a particular fondness to see posts on the nature of critical thinking, science, and how one evaluates the evidence, in other words, how we know what is valid and what is not. The Skeptics' Circle was also meant to be relatively apolitical, as St. Nate pointed out after some unpleasantness a couple of months ago. At that time, he decided he didn't want bloggers whose blogs are highly political. I tend to agree with St. Nate's original desire to keep the Circle relatively apolitical, but have always had a few concerns. Consider what I said weeks before the Skeptics' Circle was even a reality, back when I was a new, itty-bitty blogger:
St. Nate did not want political or ideological biases to come into it. I'm not sure how that will be possible, unless the topics are restricted to science and pseudoscience, and I'm not sure such a carnival should be so narrowly restricted. On the other hand, leaving things too wide open could potentially put each host of such a carnival in the uncomfortable position position of having to evaluate the arguments themselves, which might be too much work. Also, not all hosts would have the same capabilities in the same areas.

I still feel the same way, and now that I'm in charge I don't want to put our hosts in such a position. Hosting is supposed to be fun and challenging, but it should not become onerous, nor would I want the Skeptics' Circle to turn into a bunch of political rants. However, certain issues that are regular fodder for the Skeptics' Circle are already charged with political implications. The most prominent example, of course, is the conflict between biologists and science teachers and advocates of creationism trying to get "intelligent design" taught in the classroom. Another example is global warming, where there is a broad scientific consensus that global warming is happening and that human activity is contributing to it (although how much and what we should do about it are, of course, hotly debated questions). My point is that it's impossible to avoid politics completely, and a recent article in Slate pointed out that skeptics these days are almost by necessity dealing with politically charged issues like global warming, intelligent design, stem cell research, and end of life issues. The question is, should the Circle even try to remain apolitical?

My answer now is: yes, for now. The reason is simply because of the very nature of a blog carnival. It would be different if there were some sort of "peer review" of the articles with expertise in the relevant fields, but that's not what we have. We have different hosts every two weeks, with one person (me) being the only element of continuity. I have a great deal of knowledge about quackery and creationism, as well as the scientific method and critical thinking in general, but I feel far less comfortable wandering too far out of my area of expertise. I've been thinking of ways that I could add a backup means of "peer review" of questionable articles, and I hope to flesh them out soon. If I can pull that off successfully, I may very well let a little more politics slip in. But only if I can pull it off successfully. In the meantime, the Circle will stick to areas that can be evaluated using evidence, reason, and the scientific method. (Don't worry; politically charged or not creationist fallacies remain fair game because they are clearly pseudoscience--or antiscience, if you prefer--because they can be clearly debunked using evidence and science.) Certainly, I would appreciate input on this matter, especially from past hosts and regular contributors to the Circle.

I have, however, decided to loosen up a bit Nate's requirements for hosts that their blogs be apolitical. That requirement was instituted a couple of months ago after the previously mentioned unpleasantness. Now that things have been going relatively smoothly the last couple of months, I don't think it's necessary to continue to be quite so stringent. (Besides, the pool of apolitical bloggers dedicated to science and skepticism is relatively small.) Consequently, I'm now quite willing to cast a wider net and to consider interested bloggers whose writing is primarily political--if they think they can remain relatively objective in evaluating the submissions. I'm just a facilitator for the Skeptics' Circle, anyway. In reality, without contributors to provide high quality skeptical blog posts and hosts to present them in an entertaining and engaging way, there wouldn't even be a Circle. My thanks go out to all who have hosted, contributed, or publicized the Circle in the past, and I hope you will continue to support us in the future.

Which brings us back to this week. Mark wants submissions. Mark needs submissions. Mark's gotta gotta have them--by Wednesday, August 3, of course!

And, once again, if you're interested in hosting, drop me a line at

Another one bites the dust

I was looking over the most recent issue of the New England Journal of Medicine, and what did I see? A study showing that Echinacea has no detectable effect above placebo when it comes to preventing or ameliorating the symptoms of colds. It's a nicely designed randomized blinded study that tested three different preparations of Echinacea and a placebo on healthy volunteers, who took the preparation and then were challenged with rhinovirus. There was no detectable difference between groups in the infection rate or measurements of cold duration and severity. None of the Echinacea groups were better than placebo.

Now that's the way you evaluate alternative remedies! For once, NCCAM has actually funded a study that, when added to earlier studies, pretty well puts the final nail in the coffin of this particular remedy. More interesting was an editorial by Dr. Wallace Sampson, who argues that, when it comes to alternative medicine, we should stick to putting resources into evaluating scientifically plausible remedies:
The inability of randomized clinical trials and systematic reviews to establish inefficacy in research into alternative treatments contributes to a recent loss of bearings. Researchers and advocates of alternative medicine present a mass of information with inadequate heuristics for making sense of it and insufficient standards for making use of it. Should there be studies of other echinacea species, of other parts of the plant, and of each extract of each part of each plant on each cold and each influenza virus? Should these studies be repeated in various combinations, with dose modifications? Why? The possible combinations increase geometrically. Since 1999, the NIH has spent almost $1.5 billion in grants for research into alternative methods. NCCAM has spent almost half that amount and has found no evidence of efficacy and little evidence of inefficacy. NCCAM has three more randomized clinical trials of echinacea that are currently active. As long as research sponsored by NCCAM and private foundations continues, advocates of alternative treatments can claim that a state of equipoise exists when, in fact, the issues should have been settled on the basis of previous knowledge.

It is time for reassessment. First, there is an answer to the question, "Why are we doing randomized clinical trials of folkway uses of herbs and sectarian remedies?" The answer is that proponents and evaluators have excluded plausibility from the equation. What is needed is knowledge-based medicine, with randomized clinical trials of treatments with histories that indicate some reasonable chance of efficacy. This approach mandates a medicine based on evidence that has passed through the sieve of plausibility and that is consistent with basic sciences, other applied sciences, and history — all molded by wisdom and common sense. NCCAM, if it is to justify its existence, must consider halting its search for active remedies through clinical trials of treatments of low plausibility.
Unfortunately, as I've learned dealing with alties, no matter how many negative studies showing no efficacy of their favored remedy over placebo are done, they always find a way to rationalize the failure of well-designed scientific studies. There has to come a point when we must conclude that the question has been pretty much answered and that we should put our resources into other areas of investigation that might yield more promising results.

Thursday, July 28, 2005

Another Cablevision fan

Unfortunately, our power was out for several hours last night, which means I didn't finish the post intended for today. It looks as though the record heat in our neck of the woods caused a blackout in our town, because we really didn't get much in the way of storms predicted. In any case, few things are more fun than sitting around in a humid, sweltering house in the dark--which is why my wife and I went shopping and then out to dinner to escape the situation for a while. (Unfortunately, as Majikthise has pointed out, not everyone has the means that my wife and I do to escape the heat when there is no air conditioning.) Fortunately, the power was back on by the time we got home, but I was too tired to finish the planned post. Also fortunately, I had this lying around from a week or two ago, looking for an appropriate time to post, as well as the brief mention of Dr. Laidler's article.

After my little rant four weeks ago about Cablevision, I've found another Cablevision fan.

Since then, I've mellowed a bit on Cablevision, at least on the cable guy who came to my house. If you remember, when I called to complain that my picture was pixelating, freezing, and even disappearing, the "customer service" drone on the other end tried to tell me it was because I didn't turn the cable box off overnight to let it "update." When the cable guy came in, he immediately hit a service key combination on the box, looked at the signal strength and the number of errors the box was registering, and told me that my signal was so weak that he was amazed that I got any picture at all! He then proceeded to check our wiring and discovered that the guy who owned the house before us had split, re-split, and re-split again the cable again. Worse, at one point, he had hammered a moulding down over the cable, crushing it, which, according to him, can compromise signal transmission. (I was not surprised, as I had always assumed that the cable outlets in almost every room of the house were not the work of Cablevision.) His solution? He ran a new line in and unhooked the main line from all the splits. He even got rid of most of the splits in the line to our other TV. Unfortunately that leaves a bunch of useless cable connections all over the place. On the other hand, they were pretty much useless already, given the number of splits.

The result?

Beautiful HD pictures and sound on the HD channels and good to excellent quality pictures on all the others. It's still way more expensive than it's worth, but at least we're getting what we're supposed to be getting now, and I like Optimum Online too much to consider a switch to satellite (which would also cause my Internet bill to go up for not getting Optimum Online with a TV package).

Clearly, not every Cablevision employee in customer service is an idiot. But enough of them are to cause a lot of grief.

Hopefully tonight I'll have the time to finish the post I had originally intended for today. And sometime next week, if I get around to it, maybe I'll tell you why alties like to call me a "pharma shill" and other favored ad hominem attacks that cranks like to use.

On the uselessness of chelation therapy for autism, update

A while back, I commented on the uselessness of chelation therapy as a treatment for autism. Yesterday, Kathleen Seidel posted a preview of an excellent overview written by Dr. James Laidler explaining on what basis scientists and doctors conclude that chelation therapy is useless for treating autism. Dr. Laidler also points out how quacks use bogus "mercury testing" to convince parents that their autistic children have been "poisoned" and that they "need" chelation. Highly recommended reading.

Of note, Dr. Laidler also makes an interesting observation about the VAERS reporting system so beloved by mercury/autism advocates like the Geiers in "proving" a link between mercury and autism:
The chief problem with the VAERS data is that reports can be entered by anyone and are not routinely verified. To demonstrate this, a few years ago I entered a report that an influenza vaccine had turned me into The Hulk. The report was accepted and entered into the database.

Because the reported adverse event was so…unusual, a representative of VAERS contacted me. After a discussion of the VAERS database and its limitations, they asked for my permission to delete the record, which I granted. If I had not agreed, the record would be there still, showing that any claim can become part of the database, no matter how outrageous or improbable.

Since at least 1998 (and possibly earlier), a number of autism advocacy groups have, with all the best intentions, encouraged people to report their autistic children—or autistic children of relatives and friends—to VAERS as injuries from thimerosal-containing vaccines. This has irrevocably tainted the VAERS database with duplicate and spurious reports.
Consider this when examining any report that uses the VAERS database as its source.

Wednesday, July 27, 2005

Tanged Bank XXXIII

Tangled Bank XXXIII has been posted at Evolgen. It's time once again for your biweekly dose of the best science blogging out there. (OK, there is one exception to that description, a piece that drinks deeply--excuse the term--of antifluoridation conspiracy-mongering, something that RPM points out with an appropriately sarcastic General Ripper/Colonel Mandrake allusion. May I suggest that, after reading that article, you go and read this amusing piece by Nurse Kelly on antifluoridation conspiracy-mongering, to cleanse the palate? Or just read Nurse Kelly's article instead of that one?)

Now, go forth and be educated and entertained (after finishing up here, of course). While you're there, you could check out his interesting post about genetic diversity in the yeast used in winemaking. Evolgen is on the list of blogs I follow in my newsreader for a reason.

Academia in drug development

Being part of academia, I almost never think much of what sort of financial rewards that could result if I ever managed to develop a successful new drug, other than the altruistic benefit to humankind, plus perhaps a dollop of credit to myself and as many publications and speaking invitations as I can milk out of it. Certainly the potential financial rewards of developing a successful drug are rarely realized by academic investigators, who usually end up selling their patent rights to a pharmaceutical company for relatively little money. (The pharmaceutical does the expensive heavy lifting of getting the drug to market, while the academic researcher gets the line on his or her CV listing the patent.) Indeed, the most I ever made from my one patent was around $20,000 over several years, and the treatment never made it past all the hurdles necessary to become a viable, marketable drug. I also can't help but note that that's more than the vast majority of translational researchers ever make from their work, and it only came about because my Ph.D. thesis advisor was fair and generous enough to give me half the credit for a discovery I made while workign in his lab. In any case, I'm not really in it for the money. I'm in it for the intellectual stimulation, the chance to discover new things about cancer, and, if I'm really persistent, smart enough, and lucky enough, perhaps to improve an existing treatment or even discover a new treatment for cancer. I daresay that the same is true for most academic physicians.

Of course, pharmaceutical companies look at it a different way. They're in it for profit, and have to get their drug through all the regulatory hurdles and to market with enough time before its patent expires that they can actually make back the up to $1 billion it can take to develop the drug and still have time left to make a profit. That's part of the reason that it takes a different mindset to succeed in a biotech or pharmaceutical company. Indeed, scientists in the drug industry sometimes look down their noses at academia's attempts to develop drugs, as academia sometimes looks down its nose at attempts by biotech and pharmaceutical companies to do basic research.

Now, via In the Pipeline, I've discovered an example of an interesting example of a successful drug coming out of academia, namely the antiretroviral drug emtricitabine:
Gilead Sciences, Inc. (Nasdaq: GILD) and Royalty Pharma today announced that the companies have entered into an agreement with Emory University providing for the purchase of the royalty interest owed to Emory for emtricitabine, also known as Emtriva®. Under the terms of the agreement, Gilead and Royalty Pharma will make a one-time cash payment of $525 million to Emory in exchange for elimination of the emtricitabine royalties due to Emory on worldwide net sales of the product. The transaction, which is subject to customary closing conditions, is expected to close on or before July 29, 2005.

Gilead and Royalty Pharma will pay 65 and 35 percent, respectively, of the $525 million cash payment to Emory. Following this transaction, Gilead will be obligated to pay to Royalty Pharma royalty revenue based on all future emtricitabine net sales relative to Royalty Pharma’s contribution to the Emory royalty buyout. Gilead will continue to have obligations to pay certain royalties to GlaxoSmithKline, fulfilling Emory’s obligations under a previous agreement. Within 30 days of closing, Emory and certain inventors of emtricitabine may acquire interests in Royalty Pharma approximating up to 25 percent of the proceeds payable by Royalty Pharma in the transaction.
Wow. That's some righteous bucks those pharmaceutical companies are paying the Emory. According to the Emory's intellectual property rules, the University will get the lion's share, to be reinvested into its research programs, and the investigators will get a minority share. Still, according to Derek Lowe:
And the deal provides that the University itself gets 60% of that, with the rest to be split between Liotta, Raymond Shinazi (on the medical side), and former Emory researcher Woo-Baeg-Choi. That is 210 million dollars to be split between the three of them.
That's some incentive, even if the odds of my ever producing a drug or treatment that would net me that much money are probably only marginally better than my odds of winning the Mega Millions Jackpot. Heck, even my odds of ever producing another drug that would even bring me another relatively paltry $20,000 sometime in the next decade aren't all that promising. On the other hand, even if the odds are long, the investigator does at least share in the proceeds that come from his or her work, as long as he or she works for a university with a reasonable intellectual property policy. Compared to industry, that's not bad at all:
I can tell you that if I come up with a winning drug here in industry, I'll likely get promoted, and may well even see a bonus. But I will most definitely not see any seventy million dollars. Maybe this academic model for drug discovery has something to it after all. . .
Yeah, but what are the odds? It seems to me that drug development in academia is a bit like being an entrepreneur, except the odds of a big payoff are much lower--but so are the risks.


Upon further reflection, I think that I might have to offer some humble apologies here.

Yesterday, I administered a blog slapdown to a particularly deserving blowhard named Karl for his simple-minded, fact-free, and logic-free attack on Skeptico and then on Skeptico, Autism Diva, and me. Apparently Karl didn't like our recent frequent blogging dedicated to debunking the scaremongering of RFK Jr. about a supposed link between mercury in childhood vaccines in autism. No, I'm not apologizing for administering said slapdown (which Karl richly deserved), although admittedly it was akin to using a Howitzer to eliminate an ant.

No, I'm apologizing to you, loyal reader, for in my irritation with Karl's many logical fallacies I subjected you to the inane rants in his blog Word Soup. Even though watching Karl melt down in the comments sections of the two posts linked to above under the onslaught of comments from readers of Skeptico and Respectful Insolence and then change the contents of his original post (for example, softening his offensive comment mocking autistic "unique snowflake personalities"--note that the way I quoted it was verbatim from the way it originally appeared) was highly entertaining (and probably is still highly entertaining), after a while it became more akin watching a car wreck. Karl's repeated refrain seems to be:
I don't play pseudo-science Google patty-cake with anonymous pseudo-scientists, sorry.
You seem to think this is either a lab or debate club. Too much academia I smell on you guys.

"Too much academia I smell on you guys?" What is this guy, Yoda? In any case, the above have to be two of the most pathetic excuses for not backing up one's opinions that I've seen in my long years of online discourse.

On the other hand, this addition to the part of his post where he bragged about the size of his penis is rather amusing:
That's sarcasm for egomaniacs, academics and experts so sheltered by institution or academia they can no longer properly process humor.

My penis is actually very, very, very small.
Ah, the truth at last! On the plus side, Karl did let me exceed my quota of Respectful Insolence for this month, much as RFK Jr. did last month.

On to better things. Of course, if anyone wants to leave one more comment for Karl, I'm not stopping you. I'm just sayin', you know?

Tuesday, July 26, 2005

Grand Rounds XLIV

Grand Rounds XLIV has been posted at a most unusual place, Pharyngula. Can pure science be reconciled with the art of medicine? Find out as PZ breaks down What Medbloggers Do.

It looks like Orac attracted another one

One of the occupational hazards of blogging is that sometimes people don't like what I say. I've had alties and creationists take their best shots and attracted some pretty fierce attacks in the comments section of various posts. Early on, I had a hard time letting any criticism that I detected pass without response. As Respectful Insolence got a little bit bigger and better established, leading to more people taking potshots at me, I learned to let it slide--most of the time, anyway. The rare times I haven't "let it slide" sometimes end up in the "Orac knows snark" section of my sidebar.

This time I don't feel like letting it slide. I admit it; sometimes an attack annoys me just enough that, if I happen to be in the right (or, more appropriately, wrong) mood, I have a hard time resisting making a response and administering a smackdown, even though my better nature tries frantically to warn me not to waste my time, like the robot in Lost in Space yelling, "Danger, Will Robinson!" Maybe it's because I had a rough day in clinic yesterday. Maybe it's because, for whatever reason, my tolerance for such silliness is lower as I write this than it usually is. Maybe it's because I was watching the remake of Dawn of the Dead on cable as I settled down to come up with today's post? Who knows? (What my occasional inability to resist giving these people the oxygen of attention--to "feed the troll," as we used to say on Usenet--says about me, I will leave the reader to decide; but sometimes a blogger's just gotta do what a blogger's gotta do. Besides, it's been two months since anyone's annoyed Orac enough to motivate him to lay down some of his trademark Respectful Insolence.) In any case, via e-mail I've become aware of just such an attack. Apparently a blogger named Karl doesn't like me very much, or at least my message when it comes to mercury-autism conspiracy-mongering. He also seems to like Skeptico or Autism Diva even less than me, viewing us all as "blowhards." I knew it was going to be a case of the pot calling the kettle black right away, though, when Karl started out:
As I kept digging into this Mercury/autism debate over the weekend, the more it started to bug me. And not just because of the possibility a government decision may have led to the poisoning of massive swaths of children. But because I loathe blowhards, and the more I read, the more I found the debate dominated by an odd collection of self-professed "skeptics" and experts.
Hmmm. By that criterion, it would appear that Karl must have a lot of self-loathing to deal with. As I started to read, I was wondering if Karl had perhaps found some major flaws in my arguments or those of Skeptico or Autism Diva that had angered him to the point that he felt that he had to respond in such an angry, sarcastic fashion, much the way I did when I first encountered the RFK, Jr. article.

I should have known better.

Instead, what followed was nothing but pure ad hominem attack, utterly devoid of a single intelligent piece of analysis, citation of a study, or reasoned argument showing the flaws in facts or logic that any of the three of us used. "Pot kettle black" indeed! For example:
But on the flip-side of that coin is a web of bloggers who fancy themselves skeptics and autism experts because they can post hyperlinks on Wherever someone pops up to suggest a Thimerosal/autism link, there they are, assailing & attacking like foamy mouthed yapping little hyenas.

They're like the Jessie Jackson of Mercury & Autism. Always hanging around. Not really experts. Most have no real credentials in the field. But golly, do they swarm and sting when someone suggests big pharma and Uncle Sam might have fucked up.

Being active on the issue - running sole-purpose blogs focused on an honest debate, the welfare of humanity, and data integrity - that's one thing. But the more I read these people's ramblings, the more I smelled something. And it wasn't honest skepticism.

Someone like Karl lecturing me on what what "honest" skepticism is reminds me , well, an entirely different Karl lecturing on avoiding leaks. Karl's also using a straw man fallacy. None of us has claimed or argued that Uncle Sam or big pharma has been above reproach. Indeed, whether or not Uncle Sam or big pharma has been perfectly well behaved or not has little to do with whether the data does in fact support a link between thimerosal-containing vaccines and autism anyway. Vague conspiracy theories are tempting and fun (how many websites and blogs would disappear virtually overnight if such lunacy didn't exist?), but rarely shed any light on anything other than the paranoia behind them (unless there is real evidence of a coverup, which neither Karl nor even RFK, Jr. can produce). As they say, data talks and bullshit walks, but Karl doesn't seem to want to address the data. In fact, he assiduously avoids addressing the data, resorting instead to ad hominem attacks, after this appeal to ignorance:

Blowhards are always absolutists. Real, honest people don't fucking know. In fact the more an honest person learns, the more they realize they don't know. Therefore, if you actually know anything, you should be fucking uncertain and petrified.

Wrong again, Karl. Even if there is uncertainty, it's burying your head in the sand to say we should be "fucking uncertain and petrified." The uncertainty level about this issue is simply not high enough to justify your Chicken Little response. The Canadian and Danish studies, among others, show that it is highly unlikely that there is a link between mercury and autism. Do they entirely rule out a small effect of mercury in susceptible individuals? Not completely. But they do pretty well refute the contention of some activists that autism is a "misdiagnosis for mercury poisoning." In fact, contrary to Karl's rant, none of us three are absolutists, as a perfunctory reading of our posts on the subject would reveal to a truly neutral observer. I suggest that Karl read this or this and recall what I said (plus variants of the same thing on other occasions) if he doubts me:

For obvious reasons, it's impossible ever to do the gold standard study about this issue: a double-blinded randomized control trial comparing vaccination of babies with vaccines containing thimerosal and vaccines not containing it and follow the children prospectively to see if the babies receiving vaccines with thimerosal have a higher rate of autism than those receiving thimerosal-free vaccines. So what's the next best thing? Good epidemiological evidence has a way of trumping all the theoretical concerns, cell culture experiments, and even animal data, and the removal of thimerosal from vaccines two years ago provides an epidemiological experiment that is seldom possible to do with other diseases. It's a golden opportunity to test once and for all the hypothesis that autism is caused primarily by mercury in thimerosal in vaccines. If, after a decade of no thimerosal in vaccines, austism rates do not decline, that would be very strong evidence that mercury in vaccines is not and was not the cause of autism. In such as case, it would be very difficult indeed to say that there is a link between the two.
Yep. I sure sounded like a rigid dogmatic "blowhard" there, didn't I? How is what I've been saying any different from what Karl seems to approve of as one legitimate view:
Some suggest there's no link now, but note we need to watch autism levels to be sure.
In substance, what I said isn't different, other than in emphasis (namely, in that I express doubt that there will be evidence of a link in the future). But that didn't stop Karl. He apparently also missed this one by me:
Finally, I realize what I've said may have sounded dismissive, but it wasn't. It is a natural desire to look for causes for illnesses like autism or for people to blame, and, even with my skepticism, I wouldn't bet the farm that I might not be tempted to take the same path if I were ever to have an autistic child.

Gee, I sounded really absolutist there, didn't I? I'm sure it must have been a simple oversight on Karl's part that he didn't see the above or any of a number of qualifying statements I've made over the two or three months that I've been blogging on this particular topic. Yeah, that must be it.

Karl also can't resist throwing out a lot of other red herrings, his favorite seeming to be this little gem about Skeptico:

The way he rails against Kennedy reminded me of the absolutist vitriol fired at Michael Moore by free market fanatics. A google search of the name he uses to pen his reviews shows he contributed to the piece that circulated thrashing Moore's Columbine film. Why does that matter? I think his Kennedy tirades show his political stripes. He probably doesn't like Kennedy here because he's saying the same thing Moore repeatedly says:

Corporate America is fucking you.

Uh, no, Karl. The reason Skeptico doesn't like RFK Jr.'s article is the same reason I've been lambasting RFK Jr. It's because RFK, Jr. misrepresents the data, confuses correlation with causation (his most egregious example being his repeated claims that autism was unknown before thimerosal-containing vaccines were introduced in the 1930's when a simple reading of the history of autism shows that there were no specific diagnostic criteria for autism before 1943 and that there are many descriptions of autistic-like syndromes from the 18th and 19th centuries), and intentionally feeds hysteria. (Hmmm. Come to think of it, maybe comparing RFK Jr. to Michael Moore isn't completely inappropriate.) It's the same reason both of us get annoyed by "intelligent design creationists" and quacks. Skeptico's politics are irrelevant (as are mine, yours, or even RFK Jr.'s, for that matter). What is relevant are our arguments and the data and reasoning we use to back them up. Really, Karl, if you want to be taken seriously, you need to address those, not speculate about Skeptico's politics. It's not even a matter of politics. I can easily cite a prominent lefty blogger who concluded that RFK Jr. is full of it, and a self-proclaimed flamingly liberal blogger who also doesn't buy into RFK Jr.'s fearmongering.

Now, on to Karl's most egregious ad hominem attack, this time about Autism Diva:

Is she Pharma astroturf (bogus blogs or PR designed to sway public opinion by pretending to be public opinion)? A high functioning autistic (or the mother of one) who can't stand the idea her "unique snowflake" personality might be the result of mercury poisoning? I'm still trying to decide. An expert? Not so much. Sure gets treated like one though.

Notice that, as was the case with Skeptico, Karl can't or won't address any of her arguments. But this time, besides the usual ad hominem attack that she must be a "pharma shill" (an ad hominem attack much beloved of alties, some of whom can't believe that someone who attacks their pet therapy could ever do so for reasons other than being in the pocket of big pharma), Karl launches another unique attack of a particularly nasty nature, namely his sarcastic crack about the "unique snowflake" personality of autistics.

Oddly enough, Karl probably went the easiest on me. Why, I have no idea. Nonetheless, he seems to have a rather distorted view of my beliefs, claiming I have an "utmost belief in the integrity of the U.S. Government, modern medicine, and the Pharm industry." Uh, no, not exactly, given some of the things I've said about this administration and Bill Frist. I just happen to be a big fan of science and evidence-based medicine, so much so that I've devoted my life to it. Come to think of it, you're using a red herring there again, Karl. What I have is an utmost distrust of people like RFK Jr., David Kirby, and J. B. Handley, all of whom have been demonstrated to exaggerate, distort, and cherry-pick data to come to their predetermined conclusions. Ditto the Geiers, whom you held up as examples of investigators showing a link. Did you know that David Geier owns a company whose purpose is to help parents sue for compensation from the National Vaccine Injury Compensation Board and that Dr. Mark Geier makes a good side living as an "expert witness" in vaccine cases, even though he is not qualified? Did you know that Dr. Geier was rebuked by the FDA for trying to merge data files in a way that would have compromised patient confidentiality and allowed the matching of names to conditions in the database, a breach that led to the revocation of his protocol by his Institutional Review Board? Or that the reason the IOM was not impressed by their findings is because of their shoddy research methods? Did you know that the Geiers are no more "unbiased" than the worst pharma shill you seem to think all of us to be in your fevered little tinfoil hat dreams?

Of course you didn't, because you didn't bother to find out. It wouldn't have fit into your little rant, would it?

At least at the end Karl does say one thing that I agree with:

Do I know autism? Nope.
Karl's made that much abundantly clear. He proudly trumpets his ignorance of the actual facts of the issue and instead seems to take great pride in boasting that he can identify "blowhards." In my book, though, "blowhard" is a good word to describe someone who blusters about things he obviously knows little or nothing about. Please, I encourage everyone to read Karl's article and then those of Skeptico, Autism Diva, and me (not to mention Prometheus and Citizen Cain), and decide for yourself who is and isn't a "blowhard." I never claimed to have the final answer on the question of whether mercury in thimerosal in vaccines causes autism, but I did use my training in science and clinical studies to evaluate the data and come to my conclusions. If Karl wants to try to refute them, he is, of course, perfectly welcome to give it his best shot. Will he, though? Flinging about ad hominems and claims of bias is easy. Looking at the data critically and--dare I say?--skeptically and coming to conclusions based on the it isn't nearly so easy.

Evolution in action

Unfortunately, due to the selective pressure of poachers looking for ivory, tuskless elephants are becoming more common in Asia.

Monday, July 25, 2005

Arthur Caplan finds the Hitler zombie in bioethics

In the most recent issue of Science, bioethicist Arthur Caplan points out how common flawed and overblown Hitler or Nazi analogies are during debates about stem cell research, end of life care, and clinical trials:
Sadly, too often those who draw an analogy between current behavior and what the Nazis did do not know what they are talking about. The Nazi analogy is equivalent to dropping a nuclear bomb in ethical battles about science and medicine. Because its misuse diminishes the horror done by Nazi scientists and doctors to their victims, it is ethically incumbent upon those who invoke the Nazi analogy to understand what they are claiming.

I couldn't have said it better myself. (Of course, Arthur Caplan does this kind of thing for a living and I don't; so it would be shocking if he couldn't say it better than I.) The Hitler zombie will not be pleased by his words, as biomedical debates have proven a fruitful hunting ground for him to find brains to snack on, and not just in the debate about thimerosal and autism. there are also the issues of stem cells, human clinical trials, genetic engineering and gene therapy, and end of life issues.

On a more serious note, let's look at one example in particular that Dr. Caplain mentioned, the Terri Schiavo case. How many times did you hear that the way authorities were rushing to "execute" Terri was reminiscent of Nazi Germany or even a step onto the "slippery slope" to a new Holocaust? There was apocalyptic imagery of "jack-booted" Gestapo coming to end her life. Indeed, it makes me wish I had come up with the concept of the Hitler zombie a few months before I did, as he would have had a field day with this case. Here's one example:
As Schiavo starves to death, we are entering a world last encountered in Nazi Europe. Prior to the genocide of Jews, Gypsies, and Poles, the Nazis engaged in the mass murder of disabled children and adults, many of whom were taken from their families under the guise of receiving treatment for their disabling conditions. The Nazis believed that killing was the highest form of treatment for disability.
And this article about Schiavo:
It was also used in Auschwitz, Bergen-Belsen, Treblinka and the Soviet gulags. Stalin used starvation as a means of control. Nazi doctors experimenting on unwilling "patients" adopted all kinds of cruel techniques. One of those techniques was starvation and dehydration. It is recorded in the records of the Nuremberg Trials.
And this one:
Even before the rise of Adolph Hitler's Third Reich, the way for the gruesome Nazi holocaust of human extermination and cruel butchery was being prepared in the 1930 German Weimar Republic through the medical establishment and philosophical elite's adoption of the "quality of life" concept in place of the "sanctity of life." The Nuremberg trials, exposing the horrible Nazi war crimes, revealed that Germany's trend toward atrocity began with their progressive embrace of the Hegelian doctrine of "rational utility," where an individual's worth is in relation to their contribution to the state, rather than determined in light of traditional moral, ethical and religious values.
Yet another article about Schiavo invoking the Nazis:
Because evil has no reason, we once again see its ugly head in the shameful decision by people dressed in black like the Gestapo of Nazi Germany, giving way to the execution by starvation without a jury trial, required in all capital death cases.
And, finally, of course, such a discussion would not be complete without the gratuitious, outrageous, and overblown dropping of the H (for Hitler)-bomb (Mary Labyak apparently runs the hospice where Terri Schiavo was being cared for):
While Mary Labyak is not a leader of armies of soldiers and is not known to be targeting ethnic groups as Hitler did, she is actively involved in making hospice a place where the severely disabled can be eliminated, with government approval. Hitler also targeted the severely disabled, killing over "200,000 handicapped, mentally ill and other institutional patients who were deemed physically inferior" and used his government to accomplish that goal. Labyak uses her hospice to accomplish the same goal.

Labyak sits on the board of national level policymaking organizations which decide the future of hospice and health care. Labyak agrees with Hitler that there is a rationale for intentionally ending the lives of the NON-terminal, severely disabled and is pushing that agenda. Labyak sits on the board of an organization (Partnership for Caring) with DIRECT historical roots in the Euthanasia Society of America, founded in 1938 in New York, during the HEIGHT OF THE NAZI agenda of killing off the disabled, mentally ill and other ethnic groups, shortly thereafter to become THE HOLOCAUST!

If you do a Google search, you can easily find thousands of articles making or discussing that analogy (although at least one pointed out how dubious it was). And, indeed, if you don't know a lot about Nazi Germany and its euthanasia program it can all sound pretty persuasive. The problem is, it doesn't add up, as Dr. Caplan points out, and I'll try to expand upon a bit.

Nazis justified the T4 euthanasia program on two main grounds. The first and foremost purpose of the program was eugenic, to remove undesirable genetic traits from the Volk. Consequently, the Nazis killed the deformed, the disabled, and particularly the mentally retarded or those with mental illnesses. They used multiple methods, including starvation, intentional overdose with narcotics, lethal injection, and then ultimately gas chambers to achieve this end. (Of course, given that genetics was in its infancy, the Nazis not infrequently misidentified conditions as being genetic when in reality they weren't, one example being cerebral palsy, which is often due to birth trauma or cerebral anoxia.) Consistent with this vision was the mandatory sterilization of adults deemed to have "undesirable" genetic traits, a group that expanded to include Jews and other "racial undesirables," who as groups later became the victims of mass murder during the Holocaust. The second justification was to eliminate what the Nazis perceived as drains on the Volk in order to "free up hospital beds," "increase the food supply," and "free up personnel for the war effort," among other specific reasons they would group under this rubric. Indeed, some of the terms for the disabled the Nazis would use to justify this killing were "life unworthy of life" and "worthless eaters." Removing them by killing, according to Nazi ideology, would allow the "healthy" members of the Volk to devote themselves to pursuits that would contribute to society and the war effort, rather than "wasting" their efforts caring for the disabled.

Consider this in relationship to the Terri Schiavo case. What was at the very core of the arguments made by those advocating removing her feeding tube? Personal autonomy and the right to self-determination, about as un-Nazi-like a justification as you can make! (Indeed, referring to such analogies, one commenter in a blog said sarcastically about such comparisons: "Yep: Adolf Hitler, famous advocate for patient autonomy.") In essence, the state of Florida spent nearly a decade and millions of dollars trying to determine what it was that Terri herself would have wanted for herself if she ever fell into a permanent coma or the persistent vegetative state she found herself in, and even ordered the feeding tube reinserted when an appeal was made. Implicit in that search was the accepted right of an competent human adult to refuse medical care. Nowhere in the arguments for letting Schiavo die were appeals to wasted resources being used to keep her alive or threats to the genetic health of the nation. Consider further, then: What would the default have been if Michael Schiavo had failed to convince the courts that he was not lying when he reported that Terri's wishes were not to be kept alive in a coma or persistent vegetative state? It would have been to continue to keep her alive, as she had been kept alive for years before that. In contrast, in Nazi Germany, the justification for letting Terri die would have been that she was a drain on the Volk, and not a second thought would have been given to withholding food and water or even helping her along with a lethal injection as soon as it became clear that she was never going to recover.

Besides being a bad analogy, such arguments rely on a logical fallacy, that of the "slippery slope." In essence, this logical fallacy seeks to convince one that, if the proposition in question occurs, then it will set into motion a chain of causality that will lead to something truly horrific; in this case, if Terri Schiavo is allowed to die, it will lead to widespread involuntary euthanasia of the disabled. The reason that the slippery slope is almost always a logical fallacy is that the chain of causation is usually vague and it is not proven that if the disputed proposition were to become reality that the feared outcome would have a high probability of resulting. Given that the very basis for letting Terri Schiavo die is not anything like the justifications the Nazis used for involuntarily euthanizing the disabled, there is no strong evidence or reason to conclude that allowing her to die would move the United States towards the horror of the widespread involuntary "mercy killing" of the disabled, as some advocates of the disabled have claimed.

Does this mean that all Nazi analogies in the realm of bioethics are dubious? No, but I would argue that the vast majority are. I've addressed this issue before with respect to bad Holocaust/Nazi/Hitler analogies in politics, and I'll paraphrase what I said before for biomedical Nazi analogies: Whenever someone makes a Hitler or Nazi comparison, be it "Bush=Hitler" or "killing Schiavo=Nazi euthanasia" or a questionable Holocaust comparison, don't just accept it. Pin down the person making the analogy. Make him justify the analogy with history, facts, and logic. Ask him what historical events lead him to make that analogy. At least 95% of the time, you'll get either no answer (and you'll hopefully make the idiot making the analogy very uncomfortable); a meaningless answer or an obviously fallacious answer. The other 5% of the time you may actually get an answer that makes you wonder. In any event, when examining a particular bioethical issue, what should determine whether such an action is ethical or not should be the facts and ethics of the case, not any distorted Nazi analogy.

As Arthur Caplan argues:
There are many reasons why a practice or policy in contemporary science or medicine might be judged unethical. But the cavalier use of the Nazi analogy in an attempt to bolster an argument is unethical. Sixty years after the fall of the Third Reich, we owe it to those who suffered and died at the hands of the Nazis to insist that those who invoke the Nazi analogy do so with care.
I wish I could have put it so succinctly. When considering a bioethics issue, to determine what is and is not ethical should rely on the facts of the case and the ethics of the policy, not a bad analogy to a historical event.

Pinkoski's at it again

A while back, I mentioned a creationist cartoon in which evil "fallen" angels lead dinosaurs in an attempt destroy Noah's Ark. Now, via Jesus' General, I've discovered that the cartoonist responsible has a movie pitch:
The manager of the local bank is not a human being.

He is a demon, and he enjoys seeing people come in and sign for their high interest bank loans.

This demon loves money, and loves to see the pain it brings to peoples' lives when they have to default on their loans and lose their homes, etc.

Then one day FATHER TIME decides that this has gone far enough

He continues:
One of the awesome visual sequences in this movie will involve something that has never been done before in a movie, a battle between angels and dinosaurs attacking Noah's Ark
I have little doubt that such a sequence has never been committed to film before (although I can't for the life of me figure out what angels and dinosaurs battling over Noah's ark would have to do with demons cheating unwary borrowers with usurous rates). Now that sounds like an entertaining movie! I'd go and see it. Well, maybe I'd rent it when it comes out on DVD. Or maybe I'd watch it on cable.

But only if nothing else were on and I didn't have anything better to do.

Monday carnival barking: Better late than never

I didn't post this when it came out on Sunday because of my blog break, but St. Nate's second to last post, The Carnival of the Godless #18 has been posted, and, as usual, Nate shows us how it's done when it comes to the straightforward style of blog carnival hosting. It's getting really depressing to contemplate Nate's imminent departure from the blogosphere.

Friday, July 22, 2005

If this blog ever goes quiet for longer than a few days... of these reasons might be the explanation (particularly #1 and #3).

Welcome back, Nick. I hope you manage to find time to update Blogborygmi more often.

Speaking of blogs going silent, given that I'm taking the weekend off, may I suggest to those new to the phenomenon that is Orac that they check out the "Essential Orac" on the sidebar? You won't regret it.

If that's not enough, check out Jason Rosenhouse's report on the 2005 Mega Creation Conference (plus part 2). It just goes to show that, "intelligent design" be damned, young earth creationism is unfortunately still alive and kicking. In a way, though, it's refreshing, because at least young earth creationists aren't disguising the true nature of their beliefs, the way "intelligent design" creationists do.

If that's still not enough, thanks to an e-mail from St. Nate, I've discovered a surprisingly good podcast called Skepticality. (I say "surprisingly" because most podcasts I've listened to from sources other than professional radio personalities have been frightfully amateurish.) It's listed in iTunes; so if you have iTunes 4.9 you can just subscribe to it from a link on the website. There's lots of good stuff there. I checked out a couple of their shows today in my office while doing some particularly dull number crunching from one of our experiments. One of the shows featured an interview with Michael Shermer, another an interview with James Randi. I see there's also an interview with fellow blogger Phil Plait there, but I haven' t had a chance to listen to it yet.

One thing that was quite amusing was a parody of those Bud Light "We Salute You" commercials: "We Salute You, Mr. Internet Politics Debater." ("No matter if you're a Republican, a Democrat, a Libertarian, or a wishy-washy fence-siiter, you make sure that your opponent looks like a fascist Nazi KKK hatemonger or a bleeding-heart, dope-smoking hippie socialist to your buddies.")

And if that still isn't enough, be sure to head on over to St. Nate's on Sunday to check out his turn at hosting the Carnival of the Godless. I still can't believe he's leaving the blogosphere. It's definitely a loss.

Never let it be said that I leave my readers hanging when I disappear from the blogosphere for a couple of days. (OK, maybe you'll be able to say it in August when I go on vacation, necessitating my longest blog break since I started, but other than that you can't say it.)

Until Monday, then...