Britain’s New Secretary of Wishful Thinking

September 6, 2012

The following is adapted from my segment on last night’s Virtual Skeptics webcast, now available for your viewing pleasure on the prestigious Internet.

It’s a good time to be British: first they had the Olympics; now they have a new Health Secretary. Jeremy Hunt, conservative member of Parliament for South West Surrey, was named Secretary of State for Health on Tuesday, September 4, after a Cabinet reshuffle.

His appointment has been controversial for a number of reasons. For starters, in his previous position as Culture Secretary, Hunt reportedly attempted to banish the celebration of the National Health Service from Danny Boyle’s Olympic opening ceremonies fandango. Andy Burnham, the Shadow Health Secretary, opined:

Right now the NHS needs somebody who believes in its values and is ready to stand up for it. Instead, the prime minister has given it to the man who reportedly tried to remove the NHS tribute from the opening ceremony of the Olympic Games.

Of even greater concern to anyone interested in science and effective health care, the Health Secretary supports homeopathy. Because of this, New Scientist has dubbed him the Minister of Magic.

(Yes, I know Dumbledore wasn’t Minister of Magic)

In 2007, Hunt signed a House of Commons Early Day Motion in support of the “positive contribution” homeopathy and other alternative therapies had made to the NHS. The motion states:

That this House welcomes the positive contribution made to the health of the nation by the NHS homeopathic hospitals; notes that some six million people use complementary treatments each year; believes that complementary medicine has the potential to offer clinically-effective and cost-effective solutions to common health problems faced by NHS patients, including chronic difficult to treat conditions such as musculoskeletal and other chronic pain, eczema, depression, anxiety and insomnia, allergy, chronic fatigue and irritable bowel syndrome; expresses concern that NHS cuts are threatening the future of these hospitals; and calls on the Government actively to support these valuable national assets.

In his reply to a constituent who wrote to point out to Hunt that homeopathy doesn’t work, Hunt said:

I understand that it is your view that homeopathy is not effective, and therefore that people should not be encouraged to use it as a treatment. However I am afraid that I have to disagree with you on this issue. Homeopathic care is enormously valued by thousands of people and in the NHS that the Government repeatedly tells us is “patient-led” it ought to be available where a doctor and patient believe that a homeopathic treatment may be of benefit to the patient.

Personally, I enormously value human sacrifice as an effective treatment for migraines. I’m currently seeking a doctor* who agrees with me. If I can find one, I fully expect that my insurance will cover my dark rituals, since medical care should be “patient led.” I mean I know more about it than a neurologist, right? RIGHT?

I’m also a big supporter of the British Veterinary Voodoo Society. They believe that if Homeopathic magic is a valid treatment, then so is Voodoo magic:

The principle of voodoo healing is simple. As “like affects like,” an appropriately manufactured and treated wax doll or cloth puppet may substitute for the patient, and manipulations performed on the doll substitute for those performed on the patient. Techniques of visualisation and channelling of healing are easy to learn, and it is possible to combine voodoo with “conventional” or allopathic medicine simply by administering the medicine to the doll rather than to the patient.

The response to Hunt’s appointment has not been enthusiastic. Dr. Edzard Ernst, Professor of Complementary Medicine at the University of Exeter (the first such position in the world), trained as a homeopath, but now studies homoepathy and other alternative and complementary therapies from a science- and evidence-based perspective. He said:

To praise the positive contribution of homeopathy to the NHS does not bode well for the new person in charge of UK healthcare. One can only hope that with the reality of the new job, there will be a more rational insight in the actual evidence on this topic.

John Krebs, professor of Zoology at Oxford University, noted:

There is overwhelming evidence that homeopathic medicine is not effective. It would be a real blow for those who want medicine to be science-based if the secretary of state were to promote homeopathy because of his personal beliefs.

In the Telegraph, Tom Chivers compared Hunt’s appointment to “putting someone who believes the Second World War began in 1986 in charge of the Department of Education.”

*It doesn’t have to be a real one: I’ll go with a homeopath, iridologist, naturopath, chiropractor, acupuncturist, energy healer, aura cleanser, reflexologist, witch doctor–I’m not picky.


Article about my work…

August 26, 2012

Hey, ho!

I thought I’d let you know that my work was profiled in an article in Georgia Tech Alumni Magazine. It’s “The Article They Don’t Want You to Read.”

RJB


Can Science Rape Nature?

July 16, 2012

I don’t mean metaphorically. I’m not talking about fracking damaging Mother Earth. Can science literally rape nature in the same way a man can rape a woman?

No.

This may seem obvious, but there was a bit of a kerfuffle at the Skepticism and Humanities panel at TAM 2012. Bob was talking about the Sokal Hoax, which is sometimes used to attack the Humanities in general. Of course, dismissing several disciplines on the basis of one data point is a failure in critical thinking. Bob was pointing out that it is only a small but vocal minority of post-modernist/post-structuralist scholars who have made radical and silly pronouncements that fly in the face of logic and common sense. One example he cited was the idea that masculine science rapes feminine nature. I made an off-the-cuff joke about nature asking for it. That may have been unfortunate, but–hey–it just slipped out of my mouth. More importantly, I was trying to highlight the absurdity of the accusation: abstract concepts don’t have sexual identities, and they can’t rape each other. Personification isn’t real.

To be clear, Bob was discussing a specific type of academic feminism. There is a lot of great feminist literary criticism: some discussing female authors, such as Aphra Behn and Lady Mary Wroth, whose work was under appreciated for many years; some discussing the treatment of women in works by male authors. But there is a type of feminist scholarship that sees masculine oppression in science, logic, reason and in writing and language itself. Specifically, Bob had in mind Sandra Harding who, in her 1986 book The Science Question in Feminism, called Isaac Newton’s Principia Mathematica a “rape manual.”

A number of leading proponents of post-structuralist feminist theory, such as Julia Kristeva, Hélène Cisoux and Luce Irigaray, also attack the supposed patriarchal, masculine oppression of science and reason. They decry the phallogocentrism of language and call for an écriture féminine in which the female body is inscribed on the text. As far as I can tell, this inscribed female body has been reduced to a womb and lactating breasts. Hey, there’s nothing wrong with nurturing and motherhood, but you know what? Logic’s pretty cool, too. And mothering without critical thinking seems to lead to stupid things, like not vaccinating children. To give an idea of how absurd this variety of feminism can get, Irigaray has characterized E=mc2 as a “sexed equation” because “it privileges the speed of light over other speeds that are vitally necessary to us.”

Rape is a vicious, vile, unforgivable crime, but saying that science, an evil masculine entity, rapes nature, a nurturing feminine entity, trivializes rape, demonizes men and makes women look like illogical idiots.

ES

Further reading:

Dawkins, Richard. “Postmodernism Disrobed.” Review of Alan Sokal and Jean Bricmont’s Intellectual Imposters. Nov. 1998.

Mandelker, Stephen. “The Radical Feminist Attack on Reason.” Reason Papers, Issue 19. 50-55.


Stephen Hawking Is Wrong!

June 10, 2012

…about Norse mythology.

Last night I watched an episode of Stephen Hawking’s Grand Design, called “Did God Create the Universe” on Discovery. The series is based on his book The Grand Design (co-written with Leonard Mlodinow). At the beginning of the episode, Hawking discusses how people have invented gods to explain natural events they didn’t understand. In particular, he mentions Norse beliefs. We are treated to footage of actors pretending to be scraggly Vikings looking in terror at the sky. Hawking mentions that the Norse feared Thor, who made lightning, and Ægir who brought storms. But the god they feared the most was…Sköll.

Sköll?!

Yes, Sköll. Hawking explains that Sköll was a wolf who chased the sun, and when he caught up with her chariot, he ate her, causing an eclipse. He describes it somewhat differently in his book. He begins with a quote from Grimnismál, from the Poetic Edda:

Skoll the wolf who shall scare the Moon
Till he flies to the Wood-of-Woe:
Hati the wolf, Hridvitnir’s kin,
Who shall pursue the sun. (qtd. in The Grand Design, ch. 2)

Nowhere does he give credit to the translator. Most people who quote the passage on the Internet also fail to give the translator credit. The translation is by renowned twentieth-century poet, W. H. Auden, with Paul B. Taylor. You can find the complete translation here. Auden’s translation is lovely, but a bit…poetic. A more literal translation:

Sköll is the name of the wolf who pursues the bright-faced god to the defending wood. The other [is] Hati; he is Hróðvitnir’s son; he shall [be] in front of the bright bride of heaven. (My translation, based on the edition by Guðni Jónsson)

The sun is both the bright-faced god(dess) and the bright bride of heaven. One wolf pursues her, and the other is in front of her, presumably chasing her brother, the moon. Auden seems to have his wolves backwards. Hawking goes on to say:

In Viking mythology, Skoll and Hati chase the sun and the moon. When the wolves catch either one, there is an eclipse. When this happens, the people on earth rush to rescue the sun or moon by making as much noise as they can in hopes of scaring off the wolves. (The Grand Design, ch. 2)

Now, it is absurd to suggest that Sköll was the most feared of Norse gods. Outside this mention in Grimnismál and an elaboration on it in Snorri Sturluson’s Prose Edda, he isn’t even named. Also, he’s not a god or a “wolf-god,” as Hawking calls him. The two races of gods, the Æsir and the Vanir, were on one side, and supernatural wolves were in the opposing camp, along with giants. It’s true that Hati is said to be the son of Hróðvitnir (Fenrir)*, and Fenrir is the son of Loki, and Loki lived among the Æsir. But Loki was not quite one of the Æsir: while several gods (including Odin and Thor) had giantess mothers, Loki’s father was a giant (Fárbauti), which seems to be much more problematic. Many of Loki’s offspring were monsters who fought against the gods (one notable exception is Sleipnir, Odin’s eight-legged steed, but Loki was Sleipnir’s mother, not his father).

The main problem with Hawking’s discussion of Norse mythology is his claim that the wolves’ attacks on the sun and the moon were used to explain eclipses. They weren’t, no matter what the Internet says. The passage in Grimnismál is a bit obscure, but in paraphrasing it, Snorri says:

There are two wolves, and the one who is chasing her [the sun] is called Skoll. He frightens her, and he eventually will catch her. The other is called Hati Hrodvitnisson. He runs in front of her trying to catch the moon. And, this will happen. (Gylfaginning, Prose Edda, tr. Jesse Byock, p. 20)

Notice the use of the future tense? These are not events that happen regularly: they are extraordinary events that have not occurred yet. Later Snorri says,

First will come the winter called Fimbulvetr [Extreme Winter]. Snow will drive in from all directions; the cold will be severe and the winds will be fierce. The sun will be of no use. Three of these winters will come, one after the other, with no summer in between…. Next will come an event thought to be of much importance. The wolf will swallow the sun, and mankind will think it has suffered a terrible disaster. Then the other wolf will catch the moon, and he too will cause much ruin. The stars will disappear from the heavens. (Gylfaginning, The Prose Edda, tr. Jesse Byock, p. 71).

The disappearance of the sun, the moon and the stars heralds the beginning of Ragnarok, the Norse apocalypse. I don’t know how the Norse interpreted eclipses. I suppose it is possible that they thought, “Oh no, Ragnarok’s coming,” but I tend to doubt it. They were used to the idea of the sun going away for most of the winter, so I wouldn’t think they’d be too worried if it disappeared for a few minutes. Oh, and I have no idea where he got the thing about making noises to scare the wolves away.

Hawking makes the mistake of thinking the mythic future applies to the historical present. This is similar to what ancient alien theorist Graham Hancock does in Fingerprints of the Gods, as I have discussed previously. Both Hancock and Hawking speak of an event that is supposed to happen in the future and apply it to real events that have already happened. This is not company you want to be in, Professor Hawking.

*In Vafþruðnismál, it is Fenrir himself who swallows the sun.

ES

REFERENCES:

Hawking, Stephen and Leonard Mlodinow. The Grand Design. New York: Bantam, 2010. Kindle edition.

Snorri Sturluson. The Prose Edda. Tr. Jesse L. Byock. Penguin Classics Ed. London: Penguin, 2005.


Stanislaw Burzynski’s public record

November 26, 2011

I’m going to put aside the conspiracy theories for a minute to talk about an issue that has suddenly gotten quite big quite on the Internet, though my interest in this topic goes back about 15 years.

Many years ago, the son of a friend was diagnosed with brain cancer.  He held on for about a year and had the best treatment possible at St. Jude’s. His mom had done everything possible, but in the last stages, he was too sick to participate in an experimental trial. My friend began looking for another option. From her perspective, anything that even looked like an option was preferable to what surely awaited her.

One day, near the end, I got a call. It was my friend, and she wanted to bounce an idea off of me. She had heard about a doctor somewhere in the south who had an experimental treatment. The main ingredient? An extract of urine. I listened to her, and then I crushed her. If this guy had a cure for cancer, then he’d have multiple Nobel Prizes right now. Of course, I did not mean or even want to extinguish that last bit of hope, but the doctor forced me to. I don’t know who this doctor was, but I have never forgiven him for putting me in that position, for preying on my friend’s misery, or for trying to take away the last days she had with her son.

Her son died shortly thereafter, at home, which is something, I guess.

Stanislaw Burzynski, M.D. [for now] runs a clinic in Houston, TX. He’s been running “clinical trials” on people with extracts from urine for decades. Is this the same guy? I don’t know. I don’t care.

If you take a look at the public record, Dr. [for now] Burzynski has assembled quite a record of getting people to raise enormous amounts of money for desperate causes which usually end in failure.

  • On Nov. 1, the Irish Times reported that one patient had to raise EUR 50,000. Keith Gibbons’ friends are still trying to raise money, but I’ve seen no update of his progress. [UPDATE 8/10/12: It's with a heavy heart that I report that Keith Gibbons succumbed to his tumor. My condolences go out to his loved ones.]
  • On 26 June, 2011, The News of the World reported that the parents of Zoe Lehane Levarde were trying to raise 1 million for treatment at the Burzynski Clinic (1 million to get into a drug trial?). Zoe is now dead.
  • On 5 June, The Sunday Express reported that Luna Petagine needed to raise $20,000 to just find out if she was eligible for the unproved treatment. [UPDATE 8/10/12: I am distressed to report that Luna has passed away. The $100,000 raised to take her to Burzynski did not help, as the treatment was suspended after a month.]
  • In January of last year, an 8-year old girl from Australia, who had raised $135,000 for treatment, died, according to the West Australian.
  • The Evening Standard reported on 23 July that Wayne and Zorzia intended to take their son to the Burzynski Clinic.  According to the article: “The clinic says its antineoplaston therapy, which targets cancer cells without destroying normal cells, could give Fabian a 30 to 50 per cent chance of survival. But the treatment will cost £100,000 for the first year and is not eligble for NHS funding. A spokesman for Great Ormond Street Hospital said there was no medical evidence to suggest it would be more effective than chemotherapy.” The poor kid died that September, having only raised $50,000.
  • In March 2005, the Montreal Gazette reported that a five-year old girl, Raphaelle Lanterne, died after her parents went against medical advice and saw Burzynski.
  • In October 2003, The Gazette reported that the parents of Antonio Luk were looking for $200,000. I found that his foundation raised $30,000. Treatment was $10,000/month. Antonio died in 2004. Featured in the same article was teenager, Wesley Stefanik, another patient of Burzynski, who it seems also succumbed to his cancer.
  • On 29 September 2002, the Dallas Morning News reported that Burzynski patient Christian Titera’s costs were $13,000/month. The family raised $61,000. He died in April 2003.
  • On 21 April 2002, the New York Daily News reported that Taylor Mouzakes’ family was paying $10,000/month. Taylor died in 2006.
  • Mirjam Binnendyk, 24, went to Burzynski’s clinic, reports the Montreal Gazette in 2001, and she was happy with the treatment at the time, though the $200,000 price tag was an out-of-pocket expense. She appears to have died in 2008, but I have not been able to pin down the year.
  • Brandon Hamm, reports the Dallas Morning News on Feb 17 2002, was delivered into the care of Burzynski. It cost his family $13,425 to begin treatment. “‘I just hope this treatment at the Burzynski Clinic has him up and running in a year like the other children I read about,’ said Ms. LeJeune [Brandon's mother], referring to testimonials on the Burzynski Clinic’s website.” He died the next day, and the death was reported in the paper on the 20th.
  • From the Globe and Mail, 9 March 2o00:

“Jean and Tom Walsh also found Dr. Burzynski on the Internet. Their 26-year-old daughter, Andrea, had also been diagnosed with a fast-growing brain tumour. They borrowed $16,000 to start her treatment, then borrowed more. Andrea suffered severe side-effects, including high fevers, disorientation and constant thirst. When Jean complained, the nurses told her these were signs the tumour was breaking up. A few weeks later, she was told that Andrea would soon be back to work. “I can’t tell you how happy we were,” Jean recalled. Her daughter died two days later, on the plane on her way home. That was 2½ years ago. Jean and Tom are still paying off their debts.”

  • In the same article, the Globe and Mail reports that Rosmari Brezak, whose treatment was projected to cost $300,000, after five weeks in treatment at the clinic, had a massive seizure and lapsed into a coma. She died on March 9.
  • The St. Petersburg Times of 3 Feb 2000 said that the husband of 29-year old Tracy Bolton was attempting to raise $10,000 to take his wife to Burzynski. When she died on the 9th, her husband was reported by the Times as saying: “If only we had gotten the money a week sooner, we would have been out there.”
  • Norma Chaimberlain of Cardiff, reported The People on 26 July 1998, was receiving  £4000/month supplies of intravenous antineoplastin, and her family was tasked with raising the projected  £90,000. She did not live through the year.

Need I go on? And this is the public record, people. Of the records I searched, I found one girl who seems to have beaten cancer into a 3rd remission. Almost everyone else I saw who had been touched by this guy is dead.

Now we hear that this guy’s representatives are threatening bloggers who question the unproven treatment? They started with Quackometer, who caught wind of yet another international fundraising event (I think that is how most of these cases ended up in the newspapers I researched–so many fundraisers). Andy came up with some reasonable concerns about Burzynski’s practices, and I quote at length:

  • Burzynski is a ‘lone genius’. Great scientific medical cures rarely stem from single individuals. They are the result of collaboration and teams. Such breakthroughs need to be assessed by peers to ensure that the researcher is not mistaken or overstating their case.
  • Burzynski is claiming he has found the ‘cause of cancer’ and his antineoplaston therapy is its cure. Cancer is a name given to many different diseases. There is not a single cause and treatments need to be targeted as specific forms. It is a common quack claim that they have found the ‘single cause’ and they have a ‘unique cure’.
  • The ‘cure’ – Antineoplastons – which were extracted from urine (yes – its the piss treatment) – has no good independent peer-reviewed RCT evidence suggesting it is effective.
  • Consequently, the treatment is not approved by US regulators. However, it is approved if treatment is part of a trial.
  • The Burzynski clinic charges hundreds of thousands of dollars for people to enroll themselves in a trial.
  • These trials of this ‘new and pioneering treatment’ have been going on for decades – since 1977. No end appears to be in sight.
  • The website Quackwatch has raised concerns about the origin of Burzynski’s claimed PhD.

Someone who apparently represents this unproven piss peddler then released a barrage of positively unhinged rants and threats against not only Andy, but also his family. This bloke doesn’t seem to understand that not only do we have the right to question Burzynski’s “miraculous” treatments, but an obligation to question them.

The threats, then, are unforgivable. And skeptics have noticed, including Orac, before whose mighty word processor the very mountains tremble. (Update: Numerous lists are going up of bloggers writing about this. Here’s LizDitz’s running tally of articles.)

It’s time for Burzynski, after decades of trials, to submit his data to peer-review or to stop treating and charging patients.

RJB

Please donate to St. Jude’s, who don’t turn people away, even if they can’t pay. Unlike Burzynski, who was once found guilty of fraud.


David Mitchell on the Burden of Proof

September 15, 2011

His is the only youtube channel to which I subscribe, by the way. Unfortunate how he used the word “skeptic” when he meant “denier,” but that’s my personal beef.

Also, new rule. If  you laugh, you need to give a donation to the NCSE. They recently took up climate science as one of their interests. Also, Eugenie Scott is awesome, an educator of truly epic proportions.

RJB


Interview with American Freethought

September 11, 2011

I caught up with John and David from the American Freethought podcast at Dragon*Con, and they asked me to be on their show for the 9/11 episode. That interview is up right now. Go. Listen. Subscribe.

I am currently working on the 9/11 version of the “week in conspiracy,” but there is a lot. Go figure.

RJB


My visit to the TruthCon…in video form!

June 30, 2011

Tim Farley, or as I like to think of him, Novellatron 2.0, has created a vimeo site for the Atlanta Skepticamp. Below is the talk-version of my Skeptical Inquirer article:

All They Want is the Truth: TruthCon 2011 from Atlanta Skeptics on Vimeo.

If you want to see the vids as they appear (a couple hundred MB at a time), visit the site!

Check out Tim’s whatstheharm.net, an invaluable skeptical resource. More coming soon!

RJB


My Skeptical Inquirer article, “All They Want is the Truth,” is online

June 9, 2011

Several moons ago, I visited the TruthCon, a convention with a difference. It brought together a wide variety of extraordinary claims together under one roof. I was unable to write about it here because I was reporting on it on behalf of Skeptical Inquirer. Well, it’s up now and ripe for your delectation. Enjoy!

All They Want is the Truth

(I should mention that I am also going to be appearing on the conspiracy theory panel at the upcoming CSICon in New Orleans in October. You should really come. It’s going to rock out!)

RJB


The Language of Pseudoscience

May 28, 2011

On April 20th, I was a guest on Inside the Black Box, a science-themed radio show produced at Georgia Tech. Well, they have archived the show, which makes me very happy, because now I get to hear myself speak, which as you can imagine is something I enjoy immensely! Also, I am dying to know if they kept in a calculus joke I made that they thought might be too dirty for the archives. I know! I can make calculus positively obscene!

The topic is “The Language of Pseudoscience” (mp3 file) and it draws on a course that I taught in the Fall of 2010.

RJB


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