Monday, March 30, 2009

Who wants academic freedom?

I have always found it ironic that few things in this world demonstrate the basic principle behind evolution better than Creationism. Over the last couple of decades it has managed to survive (thrive even) in an increasingly hostile environment thanks to its ability to adapt via mutation. At first it existed as pure Creationism, later it tried to remain relevant by redefining itself as Creation Science. When that failed it became Intelligent Design and when that faced extinction after the Dover trail, it went through three more rapid transitions as calls to: “Teach both sides”, “Teach the strengths and weaknesses” and “Academic freedom”. While these evolutionary changes may seem quite severe, I would actually have to agree with Creationists that these changes simply constitute “micro-evolution” – the changes were all superficial, at its core it has remained filled with dishonesty and hypocrisy throughout.

This latest mutation of Creationism pretends to be all about honesty and fairness. It tells us that scientists are mean and petty and that they just don’t want to give all ideas equal time. They, the Creationists – sorry, Intelligent Design Proponents – on the other hand are all about academic freedom. They, unlike those mean old evolutionary scientists, don’t simply discard ideas simply because they disagree with it. For instance the moderation policy on the ID website “Uncommon Descent” states:
“that UD, unlike the Darwinists, doesn’t ban or censor ideas… Our role is not to censor ideas but to provide a forum where hard questions can be discussed calmly, fully, and fairly, and we trust that when that happens truth will prevail.”
Of course this turned out to be utter bovine excrement! Recently, one of the regular contributors to the site, ID proponent Dave Scot, dared to go against the official party line that Evolution = Racism by pointing out that some of the most racist groups out there are fiercely pro creationism and anti-evolution. Shortly after posting that, his post was removed and Dave Scot was banned from the site. Of course it's not that easy to make something disappear from the internet, you can view his original post here. The following note to all contributors appeared in its place:
“The moderation policy does not apply to you; you are held to a higher standard. I expect your posts to have at least some tangential relationship to Darwinism, ID, or the metaphysical or moral implications of each. The purpose of this site is not to provide a place for you to jump up and rant on one of your pet peeves. DaveScot will no longer be posting at UD.”
You have to admire such commitment to academic freedom and the open marketplace of ideas, don’t you? Is it really academic freedom they are after? Not in the least. Rather they just want their ideas to be given the same weight as established scientific principles without having to muck about with all that hard work and evidence that said scientific principles had to provide in order to become established in the first place.

At a glance their appeals to teach all different theories to schoolchildren and to explore the strengths and weaknesses of scientific principles seems noble enough. Once again though, that’s not what they actually care about. They don’t want to discuss how little we understand about light and gravity in physics class, they don’t want to give equal time to holocaust deniers and moon landing hoaxers in history class and they certainly don’t want to discuss all the weaknesses of creation science and intelligent design! For that matter, neither would they want to give all religions equal time in the classroom. No, the only strengths and weaknesses they care about teaching to kids are the weaknesses (a.k.a the unanswered questions) of the theory of evolution (they don’t actually want you to know that much about the strengths though) in order to make their own ideas look more plausible. Ultimately, its not all sides they want taught, it’s their side they want taught at the expense of ideas they don’t like (See the wedge document). Its not academic freedom they want, it’s the freedom to put non-scientific ideas on equal footing with established scientific fact. That’s not academic freedom at all, that is pure foolishness!

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Alternative Medicine isn't

A recent trip to my local pharmacy shocked me out of my writers block and left me contemplating a change of pharmacist. While waiting for my prescription to be filled I was browsing the shelves and saw something really disturbing – they were selling Colloidal Silver! Now I’ve managed to grudgingly accept the fact that my pharmacy sells homeopathic “medicine” because at least these “remedies” won’t actually do anything to you (except lighten your wallet). Colloidal Silver on the other hand can actually do something to you. Long term use can cause argyria, a condition that turns you permanently and irreversibly blue! That’s right, blue. Forever. Behold Paul Karason:

It boggles my mind that people would still seek “alternative medicine” in an age where modern medicine is doing things that are nothing short of miraculous! Why do people choose pseudoscience from the dark ages over science based medicine that actually works?

I think a big factor is the fact that these alternative therapies are a lot less intimidating than modern medicine. Hospitals are scary places, operations are invasive and painful and some treatments (like chemo) make you feel a lot worse before it makes you better. I completely understand this. I had to get 2 surgeries and radiation to treat my cancer and I would have loved to instead be treated by something soothing and non-invasive. However, thanks to those unpleasant treatments I have my health back today. Attempting to avoid discomfort might have cost me my life. Unfortunately it is human nature to choose things that are comfortable yet ineffective over things that work well but are unpleasant.

Supporters of Alternative medicine often claim that it is just as effective as normal medical treatments. This is however demonstrably false. The only evidence for the effectiveness of alternative medicine is anecdotal evidence and as the saying goes, the plural of “anecdote” is not “proof”. To date no clinical trail has ever shown it to work better than a placebo which supports the conclusion that (when it works at all) alternative medicine only works due to the placebo effect. Call me crazy but I prefer medicine that works whether I believe in it or not! A recent study for instance found that acupuncture was effective at relieving back pain. However the same study found that there was no difference in relief gained between “real” and “fake” acupuncture. In other words there is no difference between someone who spent years learning about “chi” and memorizing the various “energy pathways” of the body and a drunken chimp randomly jabbing needles into someone. Yet another nail in the coffin of alternative medicine is the book “Trick or Treatment : The Undeniable Facts About Alternative Medicine” by Simon Singh, a physicist and journalist and Edzard Ernst. Ernst is a medical doctor who has practiced alternative medicine including homeopathy and the world's first professor of complementary medicine. He is also a scientist whose research group has spent the last 15 years vigorously seeking scientific evidence to decide which alternative treatments work and which don't – how is that for credibility? He wanted to find good evidence for alternative medicine and he couldn't. His conclusions?
•Homeopathy is a bogus industry that offers patients nothing but a fantasy.
•Acupuncture “might” be effective but only for some cases of pain and nausea, its underlying concepts are meaningless.
•Chiropractic is unbelievable, risky and only as useful as physical therapy for back pain.
•Some herbal remedies are interesting but more are unproven, disproven and downright dangerous.
•From aromatherapy to reflexology, alternative treatments fail the test of science.

Those who choose alternative medicine often claim that it is because alternative medicine uses natural ingredients where science based medicine uses artificial, synthetic products for treatments. This mindset that natural equals better is complete horsecrap (a 100% natural product btw). Lots of “100% natural” things are in fact very bad for you like Arsenic, Cyanide and Uranium and Ebola! Of course I don’t deny that certain plants and herbs have healing properties – and neither does scientific medicine. When something works, science looks at why it works and tries to find ways to make it work as well as possible with as little risk as possible. As Dr Harriet Hall explains here, a good example of this would be Foxglove: "Foxglove was a folk remedy for heart disease. It clearly worked. The effects were robust and consistent, not marginal and erratic like so many alternative remedies today. It was promising enough to warrant proper scientific testing. It was analyzed, purified, and a standardized product was developed. It had side effects and the therapeutic dose was dangerously close to the lethal dose, so scientists developed a synthetic variant that was safer. Today we can buy a Digoxin pill with a precise dose instead of crushing a foxglove leaf and taking potluck. While herbal products may work fine, the synthetic counterpart is usually just more effective and safer."

A big selling point offered by alternative medicine gurus is that their treatments are based on ancient wisdom. This is patently absurd. Firstly, the fact that it has been around for centuries should count against it, for what has it been able to cure so far? In just a hundred years, science based medicine has completely destroyed diseases like smallpox, scarlet fever and polio and is well on its way to permanently rid us of measles and mumps (or at least until the anti-vaccination wackjobs started undoing this). It has taken cancer from a certain death to a treatable ailment, given children to infertile couples, given sight and hearing to the blind and deaf and enabled us to replace failing organs with healthy ones. Those who suffer from epilepsy, schizophrenia and bi-polar disorders would once have been shunned as demon possessed but thanks to modern medicine can lead perfectly normal lives. What has alternative medicine done in all the centuries that it existed that remotely compares? Secondly this ancient wisdom is really not very wise and understandably so. It dates to a time when there was little to no knowledge of human physiology and anatomy and medical treatments had to rely on guesswork as to how the human body worked. Even a cursory glance will show you just how wrong these guesses were. Human energy fields and Therapeutic touch therapy for instance was thoroughly debunked by a 9 year old girl for a science fair project. Yet people still buy into treatments like chiropractics while completely oblivious as to the non-science it is based on. Here is a video clip explaining the principles of Homeopathy, anyone who can still think of it as science based or wise after watching this would have to be gullible on an Oprah level!

Many argue that alternative medicine is not so bad because it’s harmless. Sadly, that is also untrue. At best it does harm because it keeps people from seeking proper medical treatment. At worst it actively harms the health and well being of those who trust in it. For a laundry list of the dangers of quackery, look no further than the website – it gives details of the physical and financial damage some of these "alternatives" can do. Also, while preparing for this post I found something interesting - did you know that chiropractic neck adjustments can cause strokes?

I think that some who turn to alternative “medicine” sometimes do so after having a bad experience with the medical profession. Unfortunately it is a fact that not all doctors are equally good and the medical system is far from perfect. Doctors are not shamans though and they don’t claim to be supernaturally aided. They are human and they will occasionally fail. The correct response to this is not to turn to quackery instead but rather to find another doctor! Lance Armstrong is a great example of this – the first oncologist he saw wanted to treat his cancer so aggressively that it would have completely wrecked his lungs and future athletic prospects. The second doctor he saw offered a different treatment option that allowed him to return to racing after his recovery. The rest, as they say, is history.

In conclusion all I can say is that alternative medicine is a misnomer, there really is no such thing. Any treatment that works reliably ends up as medicine. Those treatments that do not end up as “alternatives”. Its not like we tolerate “alternatives” in any other industry, there are no “alternative airports” that specialize in “alternative flight” nor is there such a thing as “alternative engineering”. We use things that work, we discard what does not – except when it comes to our health. Why is that? I realize I cannot do much to change the minds of those who have faith in alternative medicine, they will continue to believe in it no matter how little proof exist. However I literally owe my life to modern medicine and I simply cannot let quackery go unchallenged.

For some good information on the subject, go to:
The Skepdoc
Science based medicine
What's the harm?