Monday, February 28, 2005

Skeptic circle part III

This coming Thursday (March 3) the third-ever Skeptics' Circle will be published from Radagast's home.

It seems that almost any article that skeptically examines a topic will qualify for inclusion, Urban legends and hoaxes, story that doesn't hold up to critical thought, pseudoscience, quackery, harmful alternative medicines or misleading reports from medical news stories.

While we are waiting the third skeptic circle to arrive, you can count the black dots, and write me how many you found. Pretty cool.

Saturday, February 26, 2005

Internet Joke

Customer: "I want to download the Internet. Do I need a bigger hard disk?"

Friday, February 25, 2005

Clinton and Bush

This website is fun.

Thursday, February 24, 2005

How to recognize health fraud

You can protect yourself by learning some of their techniques, simply take a look at how these products are promoted.

Good example:

One Product Does It All
Be suspicious of products that claim to cure a wide range of unrelated diseases--particularly serious diseases, such as cancer and diabetes. No product can treat every disease and condition, and for many serious diseases, there are no cures, only therapies to help manage them. Cancer, AIDS, diabetes, and other serious diseases are big draws because people with these diseases are often desperate for a cure and willing to try just about anything.

Personal Testimonials
Personal testimonies can tip you off to health fraud because they are difficult to prove. Often testimonials are personal case histories that have been passed on from person to person. Or, the testimony can be completely made up.

Quick Fixes
Be wary of talk that suggests a product can bring quick relief or provide a quick cure, especially if the disease or condition is serious. Even with proven treatments, few diseases can be treated quickly. Note also that the words "in days" can really refer to any length of time. Fraud promoters like to use ambiguous language like this to make it easier to finagle their way out of any legal action that may result.

Don't be fooled by the term "natural." It's often used in health fraud as an attention-grabber; it suggests a product is safer than conventional treatments. But the term doesn't necessarily equate to safety because some plants (example, poisonous mushrooms) can kill when ingested.

Time-Tested or New-Found Treatment
Claims of an "innovation," "miracle cure," "exclusive product," or "new discovery" or "magical" are highly suspect. If a product was a cure for a serious disease, it would be widely reported in the media and regularly prescribed by health professionals--not hidden in an obscure magazine or newspaper ad, late-night television show, or Website promotion, where the marketers are of unknown, questionable or nonscientific backgrounds.

Satisfaction Guaranteed
Good luck getting your money back. Marketers of fraudulent products rarely stay in the same place for long. Because customers won't be able to find them, the marketers can afford to be generous with their guarantees.
Promises of Easy Weight Loss.

Finally, rapid weight loss without dieting

For most people, there is only one way to lose weight: Eat less food and increase activity.

Paranoid Accusations

Claims that suggest that health-care providers and legitimate manufacturers are in cahoots with each other, promoting only the drug companies and medical device manufacturers products for financial gain. The claims also suggest that the medical profession and legitimate drug and device makers strive to suppress unorthodox products because they threaten their financial standing.

Most people who are taken in by health fraud will grasp at anything, they're not going to do the research. They're looking for a miracle.

Further information: FDA Homepage

Tanning is not safe

Skin cancers are the most common type of cancer. There are two main types of skin cancer: non-melanoma and melanoma. Another skin condition, called actinic keratosis, can result from ultraviolet (UV) damage to the skin and has the risk of progressing to skin cancer if not treated.

Probably like a lot of people, I don't really think about the risks and most of us even think we look better with a little darker skin tones. But tanning is not safe, it causes skin damage and can promote the development of skin cancer. Two members of my family had skin cancer.

Further information.

Wednesday, February 23, 2005

Why does fraud exist?

The question can be seperated into two parts:
from the quacker's point of view or from the victim's point of view.

The quacker does it because there's a lot of money to be made.

And there will be victims because people want to believe there's something that can cure them.

Dr. Barrett gives an explanation to why:

Nearly everyone is vulnerable to one form or quackery or another. Five human characteristics contribute to vulnerability:

1. Lack of suspicion
2. Belief in magic
3. Overconfidence
4. Desperation
5. Alienation

I think Dr. Barrett might be right about this. I also think it's because most people let their feelings control themselves instead of using their brains. If you don't want to be fooled by health frauds you'll have to be more suspicious, realistic and skeptic about life in generel.

Tuesday, February 22, 2005


A lot of people seem to be entrusting their health care to unqualified individuals and buying unproven, sometimes dangerous remedies from them. They have entered the world of health quackery. We often concentrate on the most dangerous abuses, but health fraud is big business and using health product is not without risk. Many people who try quack remedies is harmed by side effects.

FDA describes health fraud as "articles of unproven effectiveness that are promoted to improve health, well being or appearance." The articles can be drugs, devices, foods, or cosmetics for human or animal use.

Here is FDA's list of the top 10 health frauds with small comments:

1. Fraudulent Arthritis Products.

2. Spurious Cancer Clinics. People who go to these clinics often abandon legitimate cancer treatments. This is tragic in the case of young children because some of their cancers are highly curable through legitimate treatment.

3. Bogus AIDS Cures. There is no cure for AIDS yet, proposed treatments such as massive doses of antibiotics, typhus vaccine, or herbal tea made from the bark of Brazilian trees are all unproven.

4. Instant Weight-Loss Schemes. Some of the latest gimmicks in instant weight-loss plans have included skin patches, herbal capsules, grapefruit diet pills, and Chinese magic weight-loss earrings.

5. Fraudulent Sexual Aids. Although male sex hormones, available by prescription, do influence libido and sexual performance, they have potentially serious side effects and should only be used under a physician's supervision.

6. Quack Baldness Remedies and Other Appearance Modifiers. Remedy to grow hair or prevent its loss, a cream that removes wrinkles, or a device to "develop" the bust.

7. False Nutritional Schemes.

8. Chelation Therapy. Promoters of this therapy claim that an injection or tablet of the amino acid EDTA, taken with vitamins and minerals, cleans out arteries by breaking down arterial plaque.

9. Unproven Use of Muscle Stimulators. Muscle stimulators are a legitimate medical device approved for certain conditions to relax muscle spasms, increase blood circulation, prevent blood clots, and rehabilitate muscle function after a stroke.

10. Candidiasis Hypersensitivity. Candida is a fungus found naturally in small amounts in the warm moist areas of the body such as the mouth, intestinal tract, and vagina. When the body's resistance is weakened, the fungus can multiply and infect the skin or mucous membranes.

To check a product out, FDA health fraud coordinators suggest amongst others to talk to a doctor or another health professional, talk to family members and friends, legitimate medical practitioners should not discourage you from discussing medical treatments with others. Be wary of treatments offered by people who tell you to avoid talking to others because "it's a secret treatment or cure." Find out if other consumers have complaints about the product or the product's marketer.

I think we all have been attracted by one form of quackery or another. There are several reasons to be tempted. Many people believe that if something is printed, it must be true, they believe what others tell them from personal experience and they are attracted by promises. Some people with a serious health problem become desperate enough to try anything. People who suffers from chronic pains or fearing growing old is vulnerable.

If you want to protect yourself, you must spot the health fraud and avoid being scammed by a worthless product. Best case you loose your money and worst case you become more sick.

Monday, February 21, 2005

Skeptic considerations

Most of us want certainty, we need to control our environment, and would like simple explanations. The pressures of reality lead us to be fascinated by mysteries and to seek spiritual meaning in our lives. These desires can interfere with critical thinking and problem solving. As a result, we may be seduced by the promises and claims of astrologers, psychics, and other pseudoscientists.

In science the value of failures cannot be overemphasized. Usually they are not wanted and often they are not published. But most of the time, failures are how we get closer to the truth and how we learn. Pseudoscientists ignores failures.

There is a tendency that when you discredit one possibility, the observer is forced to accept the other. This is the tactic used by the creationists. They use most of their time trying to discredit the theory Of evolution, concluding that since evolution is wrong, creationism, must be right. They argue if you cannot disprove a claim, it must be true. Or if you cannot prove there is not psychic power, then there must be. But it is not enough to point out weaknesses in a theory, it needs evidence both in favor of it and not only against the opposition.

Sunday, February 20, 2005

Sleeping Beauty, Tom Thumb, and Quasimodo were all talking one day

Sleeping Beauty said, "I believe myself to be the most beautiful girl in the world."

Tom Thumb said, "I must be the smallest person in the world."

Quasimodo said, "I absolutely have to be the ugliest person in the

They decided to go to the Guinness Book of World Records to have their claims verified.

Sleeping Beauty went first and came out looking deliriously
happy. "It's official, I AM the most beautiful girl in the world."

Tom Thumb went next and emerged triumphant, "I am officially the smallest person in the world."

Sometime later, Quasimodo came out looking confused and simply stated, "Who is Camilla Parker Bowles?"

Not that I am skeptic about Camilla Parker Bowles....:)

Saturday, February 19, 2005

Skeptics circle part II

Skeptics circle is a new blog round-up that emphasizes critical thinking, rather than criticizing thinkers. The basic idea is that several blogs each post an article about some skeptic-related topic. One of the participating blogs then posts an article that links to all of the other articles. Some topics are: Urban Legends and Hoaxes, Pseudoscience, Pseudohistory and Quackery.

The first Skeptic’s Circle contained links to 15 different skeptical posts from around the blogosphere.

Orac hosts the second Skeptic Circle with a lot of fine articles.

The archives will be located at Circular Reasoning, as well as the schedule for future issues.

Wednesday, February 16, 2005

Survival of genetic homosexual traits explained

Italian geneticists may have explained how genes apparently linked to male homosexuality survive, despite gay men seldom having children. Their findings also undermine the theory of a single “gay gene”.

From the newscientist:

The researchers discovered that women tend to have more children when they inherit the same - as yet unidentified - genetic factors linked to homosexuality in men. This fertility boost more than compensates for the lack of offspring fathered by gay men, and keeps the “gay” genetic factors in circulation.

The findings represent the best explanation yet for the Darwinian paradox presented by homosexuality: it is a genetic dead-end, yet the trait persists generation after generation.

“We have finally solved this paradox,” says Andrea Camperio-Ciani of the University of Padua. “The same factor that influences sexual orientation in males promotes higher fecundity in females.”

Relative differences
Camperio-Ciani's team questioned 98 gay and 100 straight men about their closest relatives - 4600 people in total. They found that female relatives of gay men had more children on average than the female relatives of straight men. But the effect was only seen on their mother’s side of the family.

Mothers of gay men produced an average of 2.7 babies compared with 2.3 born to mothers of straight men. And maternal aunts of gay men had 2.0 babies compared with 1.5 born to the maternal aunts of straight men.

“This is a novel finding," says Simon LeVay, a neuroscientist and commentator on sexuality at Stanford University in California. “We think of it as genes for ‘male homosexuality’, but it might really be genes for sexual attraction to men. These could predispose men towards homosexuality and women towards ‘hyper-heterosexuality’, causing women to have more sex with men and thus have more offspring.”

Camperio-Ciani stresses that whatever the genetic factors are, there is no single gene accounting for his observations. And the tendency of the trait to be passed through the female line backs previous research suggesting that some of the factors involved are on the male “X” chromosome, the only sex chromosome passed down by women. “It’s a combination of something on the X chromosome with other genetic factors on the non-sex chromosomes,” he says.

Immune system
Helen Wallace, of the UK lobby group GeneWatch, welcomes the new research that moves away from the controversial single-gene theory for homosexuality. “But it’s worth noting that the data on the sexuality of family members may be unreliable, so more studies are likely to be needed to confirm these findings,” she says.

Even if the maternal factors identified by Camperio-Ciani’s team are linked with male homosexuality, the research team’s calculations suggest they account for only about 14% of the incidence.

Their findings also support earlier findings that when mothers have several sons, the younger ones are progressively more likely to be gay. This might be due to effects changes to the mother’s immune system with each son they carry.

But Camperio-Ciani calculates the contribution of this effect to male homosexuality at 7% at most. So together, he says, the “maternal” and “immune” effects only account for 21% of male homosexuality, leaving 79% of the causation still a mystery.

This leaves a major role for environmental factors, or perhaps more genetic factors. “Genes must develop in an environment, so if the environment changes, genes go in a new direction,” he says. “Our findings are only one piece in a much larger puzzle on the nature of human sexuality.”

Sunday, February 13, 2005

Will natural medicine be a pille or a needle?

From the skeptical inquirer:

Many alternative practitioners promise to reveal "secrets your doctor never told you." One secret is never mentioned: why alternative remedies are ingested rather than injected. Though most practitioners of alternative medicine are silent on this question, this "missing information," as previously described by Kardes and Sanbonmatsu (2003), is crucial for evaluating the promised cure.

So-called natural medicines, usually herbs or supplements, are invariably things to eat or drink. And why not? Ever since the appearance of pharmaceuticals in the early 1800s, the doctor's prescription, legible only to a pharmacist, would nearly always get you something to swallow--a liquid, a pill, or a powder; an extract of senna leaves to relieve constipation, for example, or a "headache powder." Only occasionally would the prescription get you something to rub on your skin, like a salve. Today, medication still comes mostly in pill or capsule form.

By the late 1800s, Louis Pasteur's work with microorganisms brought about the first vaccines, for anthrax and rabies. BCG (bacillus Calmette-Guerin) vaccine against tuberculosis appeared in 1921, and by 1955, Jonas Salk developed his polio vaccine. These vaccines could not be swallowed, they had to be injected. With a needle. But inflicting pain is unpleasant and discourages parents from bringing their children for vaccination. Therefore, Albert Sabin's 1965 oral polio vaccine was an important discovery.

The 1960s also brought the oral contraceptives--birth-control pills. Carl Djerassi, a chemistry professor at Stanford University known as "the father of the birth-control pill," preferred to call it "chemical fertility control." What was so special about oral polio vaccine and oral contraceptives? Did we not always swallow our medicines? Why were these oral medications such a breakthrough?

Although polio vaccine and birth-control pills are Far apart in the pharmaceutical spectrum, the reason for the importance of "oral" is the same. Research often yields promising compounds that act on microorganisms or on cell cultures in vitro, in the shallow glass vessels called petri dishes. Next, the potential remedy is tested on animals, usually via a syringe. How does it get to be a pill? Or does it?

From Needle to Pill

Progesterone is a hormone secreted during pregnancy. One of its functions is to prevent the fertilization of other egg cells. It is the natural form of birth control, but it cannot be used as a pill. Progesterone is absorbed readily through the intestinal wall and is quickly metabolized on its first pass through the liver. Its half-life in the blood stream is about five minutes (Katzung 1998). Chemically modifying the progesterone molecule avoids this problem. That modification allowed the development of the Pill.

The moment we swallow something, what we eat starts on an obstacle course toward its destination. Enzymes in saliva begin the attack. Then the strongly acidic environment in the stomach alters many food molecules. Chemicals that survive this far face the digestive enzymes on their way through the small intestine. Eventually, some useful products of the breakdown of our food are absorbed through the intestinal wall into the bloodstream. Others are fermented by the bacteria in our colon, and still others are excreted.

More hurdles wait in the bloodstream. Portal blood carries absorbed food-derived molecules first to the liver, which can metabolize a chemical, be it food or medicine, before it reaches the systemic circulation. It's quite a steeplechase for whatever we eat.

Like the family doctor of old, alternative healers also give us pills or teas. After all, we have been conditioned to accept medicine as something we eat, never mind who recommends or prescribes it. But there is a difference between the alternative and the conventional. We invariably eat or drink the herbalist's prescriptions. But physicians, although they prefer to prescribe pills or capsules, must sometimes reach for the needle, because many effective drugs do not cope well with the rigors of our digestive tract. A drug's susceptibility to digestion or its poor absorption through the intestinal wall result in poor bioavailability. Such drugs must be injected to bypass the digestive system. The alternative-medicine approach rarely considers the bioavailability question.

Of an annotated list of North American prescription drugs, fully one third cannot be taken orally for these reasons (Springhouse Corporation 1996). They are injected, usually by a nurse or a doctor. In contrast, the complementary approach holds to the view that good medicine, provided by nature, comes from plants. It should be eaten, even if the extract must be sealed in a capsule. Strangely, although chemical laboratories are not kindly thought of by herb users, buying herbal extracts sealed into laboratory-made capsules does not seem to be a problem.

An early step in testing new drugs is determining how the drug reaches the target organ, how much enters the circulation, and how quickly it is metabolized or excreted. Without knowing this pharmacokinetic behavior, we cannot predict what happens after we swallow the pill, the capsule, or the tea.

A chemical called amygdalin, extracted from peach or apricot pits, was touted throughout the 1970s as an anticancer drug under the name Laetrile and became the subject of much controversy. While some alternative healers still believe Laetrile is a cancer drug, conventional medicine has rejected it. Laetrile molecules consist, in the chemical sense, of three smaller building blocks: benzaldehyde, glucose, and hydrocyanic acid. The last one is a highly toxic chemical, the "cyanide" of detective stories and gas chambers.

The reason for rejecting Laetrile is its pharmacokinetic behavior. When injected into cancer patients, it was quickly and almost completely excreted in the urine (Moertel et al. 1981). Given orally, it is rapidly split into its building blocks by stomach acid, causing elevated but nonlethal blood levels of cyanide. Since injected Laetrile is not absorbed, and if orally administered, the drug is destroyed by digestion, whatever it does to cancer cells in a lab is irrelevant.

Conspiracy theories and fighting them

Conspiracy theories and populism share a strong distrust of the elite, people in high places, the rich, the powerful, the well-connected - including scientists and other well-educated, pompous pundits. Most varieties of populism see science as symbolizing or representing elitism. Science is complicated and difficult to learn and superficially it seems to be monopolized by, and to support the interest of, the powers that be. Most scientists think, the populist strain of conspiracy theories sees science as traditional rather than revolutionary, conventional rather than going against the grain.

In conspiracy theories, the conspirators control public life by controlling access to valuable information. To fight against a conspiracy, we must first believe in it. And the central idea of conspiracy theories is that we must uncover the truth. As in the X-files, Mulder said it best: "The answers are there. You just have to know where to look." In principle, by telling the truth, we can undermine the control that the powerful have over us.

There are many varieties of conspiracy theories. One major type is the paranormal conspiracy theory. What paranormal conspiracy theories share with conspiracy theories in general is the view that nothing is as it seems. There are evil, shadowy figures who hide valuable information from the public.

In the paranormal conspiracy theory; the underdog tries to reveal the truth about scientifically unexplainable phenomena and undermine, and ultimately defeat, the dominant, establishment view, thereby empowering the public. The underdog is opposed to a "rigid scientific view of the world." In place of this rigid view, the anticonspiracy theory favors intuition, what feels right, what seems right, experience, memory--in short, what contradicts or can't be explained by science.

See who links to your web site.