09 May 2008

Chiropractic Warnings, or: Trouble Communicating Skepticism

I get the feeling that I'm very bad at discussing skepticism-related issues with my family. I always fear that either I'm too timid, or in passion and urgency I lose credibility. This is a case of the latter, if either. Maybe you can take a look and let me know what you think.

This is a particularly difficult case, because we know the object of my skepticism personally: Kent, neighbor and chiropractic kinesiologist. I know that some chiropractors are evidence-based and honest about the limits of chiropractic adjustment; Kent is not one of those chiropractors. As far as I know, he subscribes to both Vertebral Subluxation (the idea that body ailments are caused by nerve blockages, which can be cured by mechanical adjustment) and Applied Kinesiology (the idea that muscle strength can be used to diagnose and prescribe treatment for body ailments). I recall he once adjusted my mother, claiming to be treating her allergies. Normally I wouldn't have made too big a deal over this. I'm not likely to use a chiropractor ever again, but Kent's a good person with some probable talents as a physical therapist; I wouldn't begrudge my family's visiting him, despite some of the kooky theories he practices.

But this article from Science-Based Medicine has been staring me in the face for the past week and a half, and I couldn't bring myself to say "what's the harm?" anymore. The article describes a specific statistical correlation (with mechanism) between neck adjustment and basilar stroke.

So today I finally got up the nerve to compose and send the following email to certain members of my family. The damage is already done, but feedback is still appreciated.

And consider this addressed to you, too, if you happen to visit a chiropractor.


Chiropractic adjustment can kill you. I'm not exaggerating.

I've recently learned about a specific risk associated with chiropractic neck adjustment. The vertebral arteries that pass through the neck actually loop through holes on the sides of the neck vertebrae. This tethering kinks the vertebral arteries, and makes them particularly susceptible to injury. If the artery tears, it causes a type of brain stem stroke called a basilar stroke, which often strikes young (average early 40s) and can be fatal.

There is a clear link between chiropractic neck adjustment and basilar stroke. A quick, forceful thrust from a chiropractor stretches the artery rapidly and can induce tearing. Sometimes the stroke occurs immediately and the victim collapses on the chiropractor's table, whereas other times the damage is delayed.

It is estimated that 20% of basilar strokes are attributable to chiropractic adjustment (about 1,300 cases per year in the US). However, the link has not been properly studied; in the past, few doctors asked their stroke patients about their chiropractic history, and so many cases have gone unreported.

I don't know about you, but I've never heard any warning from Kent (or any chiropractor) about the risks associated with neck adjustment.

Maybe the risk is small. But here's a dirty little secret: neck adjustment has NO demonstrable benefit whatsoever. It derives from the chiropractic principle of subluxation (supposed nerve blockages caused by abnormalities of the spine), which is pure pseudoscience. So even the most minuscule risk isn't worth taking.

The bottom line is, chiropractic neck adjustment does no good, but can sometimes do incredible harm. I love you all, and would hate to see you come to any unnecessary harm. Please, I beg of you, do not let any chiropractor touch your neck. Never, ever. Not even Kent. He may tell you the benefits outweigh the risk, but he's wrong, and he can't force you to let him adjust your neck. It's your body, take care of it.

For more information on the link between chiropractic and stroke, see this link: http://www.sciencebasedmedicine.org/?p=94

Love to you all,

08 May 2008

Not-Monsters Adding Not-Poison to Sugar

Andrew Kimbrell is a goddamn bio-Luddite, one of many.

It embarrasses me that certain liberals can be so staunchly and irrationally opposed to technology, based upon paranoia over corporate interest, a weirdly conservative adherence to the simple purity of "Nature," and their own naked ignorance. One of the major victims of bio-Luddite oppression is genetically modified (GM) foods, sometimes referred to as "Frankenfoods" (but not by me).

In a column today in the Huffington Post, Kimbrell sows paranoia over a specific GM crop, the Roundup Ready sugar beet developed by Monsanto. These sugar beets are genetically modified to be resistant to glyphosate, the active ingredient in the weed killer Roundup.

GM opponents often have a hard time explaining just what makes GM food so dangerous. Sometimes it's argued that the introduced genes themselves are somehow pollutive, despite the fact that it's all the same adenine guanine cytosine thymine, baby. Kimbrell makes a particularly poor argument here, based on glyphosate:
At the request of Monsanto, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency increased the allowable amount of glyphosate residues on sugar beetroots by a whopping 5,000% -- glyphosate is the active ingredient in Roundup. Sugar is extracted from the beet's root and the inevitable result is more glyphosate in our sugar. This is not good news for those who want to enjoy their chocolate morsels without the threat of ingesting toxic weed killer.
He then goes on about how seed farmers could start making seeds from Roundup Ready sugar beets so the GM crop spreads, and how sugar from GM beets gets mixed in with regular beets, and how GM beet pollen could contaminate other crops' genetics, and how there could be a huge consumer backlash, and how Big Science is putting poison in your dear mother's chocolates OMG!!!

Notice a problem here? How about the fact that the glyphosate isn't coming from the beets, moron!

I repeat, these GM beets do not produce glyphosate. What they do is allow farmers to use glyphosate on their crops with greater confidence in killing off weeds and maintaining good crop yield. The GM beets may increase the incentive to use glyphosate, but if that's a problem, then can be kept in check by regulation. Kimbrell's glyphosate beef isn't with the beets, it's with the EPA's change in tolerable glyphosate limits.

But is that even a legitimate concern? He makes it sound as if Monsanto asked, "Could we please put deadly poison on our beets?", and the EPA said, "Sure, since you asked so nicely!" This is just a guess, but I'd bet the EPA actually looked at some of the science behind glyphosate and its associated risks before raising the tolerable limit.

Glyphosate actually appears to be a very safe chemical. (Please forgive me for referencing Wikipedia here, but seriously, it just goes to show that you don't need to dig too deep to uncover the stupid.) It acts by inhibiting an enzyme in plants called 5-enolpyruvylshikimate-3-phosphate synthase (EPSPS). Normally, EPSPS kicks off a pathway to synthesize aromatic amino acids like phenylalanine, tryptophan, and tyrosine. In the presence of glyphosate, this pathway is inhibited, so the plants can't make these amino acids, and therefore die. The GM beets contain a copy of the EPSPS gene found in a strain of Agrobacterium. EPSPS made from this gene is resistant to glyphosate, so the aromatic amino acid synthesis pathway is uninhibited. The gene is already widely used in GM soybeans.

Glyphosate does not have this kind of effect in animals because we don't have that synthesis pathway; we get aromatic amino acids from our diet. And at a glance, the evidence seems to suggest minimal other side effects from glyphosate. The EPA would know better than I.

So Kimbrell is getting his knickers in a twist over genetically modified sugar beets that aren't producing a dangerous chemical that actually isn't that dangerous. Yeah... Next time he wants to play bioethics, maybe he should get the "bio-" part straight first.

06 May 2008

Flyover Country

I recently started reading James (The Amaz!ng) Randi's "Flim Flam", and I'm thoroughly enjoying it. One of my favorite bits of debunktastic trivia so far comes from the chapter on the Bermuda Triangle (p. 45). The promoters of "the Legend" apparently like to cite as an example a British York Transport flight from the Azores destined for Jamaica that went down in 1953. What they fail to mention, however, is that this flight was bound for Jamaica via Newfoundland, and that it was during this first leg of the journey that the plane crashed, 900 miles north of the Triangle!

Anyway, I mention that mostly as a lead-in to this fantastic Onion article: 30 Years Of Man's Life Disappear In Mysterious 'Kansas Rectangle'. I especially love the comments from the token skeptic towards the end.

Head Case

Alison Rose Levy, Huffington Post blogger and self-proclaimed "Ms. Integrative Health", fell down and hurt her poor head last week. She apparently wound up getting eight stitches (that's right, in a real emergency room, from a real health care technician). But her "health" response didn't end there:
. . . I accessed homeopathy to address the shock and bruising and acupuncture to strengthen my body's immune response. I used a natural silver homeopathic ointment to prevent infection, and health coaching for the feelings of sadness and fear that arose from this scary incident, while Gyrotonics helped rebalance my bones, muscles, and structure. Currently, I'm doing followup with DNA supportive nutraceuticals and energy medicine tools to minimize scarring and help the tissues rebuild rapidly.

All of this taken together has diminished the shiner of all times in just a week. . .
I have to admit, that is pretty impressive. Without all that treatment, it could have taken up to seven days for the bruising to fade. Even as it was, she still had to "integrate" concealer (undiluted, I assume... has anyone attempted marketing homeopathic makeup?) into her regimen.

Best to go through all those motions anyway, just in case. Because, after all, " it's not just about sifting through information, it's about learning to discern what works for you. And that is individual." Translation: Anecdotal evidence is the only evidence. Do what you feel like, devil the cost and reality be damned.

And this is far from the worst woo the HuffPo peddles.

01 May 2008


I'm not crazy about public debates; they seem to me to give too much power and import to rhetorical tricks rather than honest academic pursuit.

And any regular readers (and maybe a few passing readers) of this blog probably suspect that I loathe Dinesh D'Souza, not least of all because of the bad name he gives my beloved alma mater.

So it was with great trepidation that I attended the debate at Harvard last week between Dan Barker (author, former preacher, and co-president of the Freedom From Religion Foundation) and Dinesh D'Souza (contemptible ghoul). But boy, was I happily surprised. Sure, I had to sit through Dinesh's speaking, and I can now confidently say that he is as much of a condescending, pseudo-intellectual twerp (I'm trying to be polite, really) in person as he is in print. But it was worth it to see him make a fool of himself standing next to Barker.

From where I was sitting, Dan Barker mopped the floor with D'Souza. (D'Souza obviously thought differently... I refuse to link to his blog, especially to a post so trivial, but apparently that was "Atheist Bashing Week," which he compared to Black History Month.) I don't merely mean in terms of the arguments made; D'Souza is trying to defend Christianity, and is thus doomed to failure. Dan Barker was well-spoken, humble yet confident, intelligent, professional. D'Souza was arrogant and incompetent. He regularly and repeatedly equivocated and dodged questions. As Rebecca Watson notes, he made a lot of the same crap points he always makes, despite having now been corrected publicly numerous times. He joked a couple times about how he was going to thrash Barker in the debate. He made numerous comments about Barker that bordered on the ad hominem, mostly trying to paint him as a fool or hypocrite for having given up being a preacher. Maybe he was trying to appear confident, but he came across as an asshole. And Barker was there to answer him at every opportunity with calm poise, making D'Souza look even more ridiculous.

One of the most asinine offenses was when D'Souza, in "answering" a question about morality, invented a hypothetical example in which Dan Barker stomped a puppy to death. Here's a tip for would-be debaters: You might be tempted, during a debate, to try building an unfavorable subconscious image of your opponent with a subtly incriminating hypothetical. But if your audience catches on to what you're trying to pull (which is more likely with increasing education of your audience and decreasing subtlety of your example), then chances are it'll backfire and you'll just look like a dishonest dick. (And crying "just kidding," if it comes to that, won't help.)

Oh, and don't forget his crack about how Richard Dawkins is an example of "why biologists shouldn't be let out of the lab" (paraphrased). I really appreciated that. Also, Dinesh apparently doesn't know how to pronounce "agape" (usually ah-GAH-pay, not AG-uh-pee) or "slough"* (sluff, not slŏw (rhymed with "cow")). And he says "if you will" WAY too often. (You know what? No, I won't.) And in case you were wondering: yes, D'Souza plugged his book during the debate.

But it wasn't just his demeanor that sucked. Just about everything out of his mouth was utter swill.

As noted, some questions he just didn't answer. For instance, both Barker and D'Souza were asked what it would take to change their stance on the existence of God. Barker answered the question easily, listing a number of different possible evidences that, if demonstrated, would support the God hypothesis. D'Souza, on the other hand, talked about how he gave up his faith initially (apparently he gave up what he called "Crayon Christianity" in college, but later discovered "Adult Christianity"), but never gave any indication as to what it would take to make him change his current beliefs.

Occasionally, the debaters were allowed to pose questions to each other. During the "morality" portion of the debate, Barker asked D'Souza (paraphrased), "If God told you, personally, to kill me, kill the unbeliever, would you do it?" D'Souza essentially replied by saying that God wouldn't tell him to do that, so if he heard a voice telling him to kill Barker then he would assume it was the Devil trying to trick him. This, of course, invites the question of how Dinesh chooses any trustworthy source for his inspiration or information about God.

At least a few of his points were of the "whenever you think of something good, Christianity will be there to take credit" variety. For example, as part of his opening statement he trundled out the old canard about how Christians invented science because without God there's no reason to assume a deterministic universe that operates according to rational laws. Never mind the fact that we observe a deterministic universe. (For more, see Rebecca's review above.)

He stuck by the ol' First Cause argument, equivocating around Barker's clear and correct rebuttal that the laws of causality as we know them don't apply to the origin of the universe, since causality depends upon space and time, neither of which existed "before" the universe.

He claimed Albert Einstein as an example of a religious scientist, despite the fact that Einstein stated very plainly that he did not believe in a personal God.

He continued the trend of calling the "New Atheists" intellectual weaklings, instead longing for the good ol' days of Bertrand Russell. Which is funny, because Dinesh seems awfully enthusiastic about debating the "New Atheists" anyway.

He remarked on how the godless atheists are trying to push religion out of the public square, trying to compare a statue of David Hume to a statue of Jesus. Because everyone knows it's safe to, say, name streets after famous atheists, but not religious figures.

On a related note, he accused academics and professors of abusing their roles as a sort of new clergy and arbiters of information to impose secularism upon their students. PZ tackled this "professor as authority" point recently, so I'll defer to him.

He made repeated references to "Darwinian primates," as if human beings were the ONLY creatures EVER to have social rules. This, of all his comments that night, probably made me the angriest. It shows such utter ignorance of and disrespect for humanity and the rest of the animal kingdom, I really don't know how to approach it.

I actually got to meet Dinesh personally after the debate. Well, sort of. Several times when I tried to join the post-debate conversation, Dinesh literally threw his hand in my face. And long before I could ask him any sort of question, he was gearing up to bolt for the door. He did get one jaw-dropping comment in before he ditched us: Apparently, he considers himself a proud advocate for science. Oh, is that why he's allowed to dismiss entire fields of science based on his flawed understanding of one experiment, as he did recently with the Miller-Urey experiment? Is that why he repeatedly rebukes scientists for daring to take a stand against creationism? Is that why science denialist William Dembski has such a hard-on for Dinesh lately (again, no linky for the stupid)?

Anyway, as he was taking off, I shook his hand, refrained from spitting in his eye, introduced myself as a fellow Dartmouth alumnus, and expressed my disappointment that we couldn't discuss some science since they so seldom let me out of the lab.

Overall, the experience was somewhat cathartic. D'Souza has been weighed, he has been measured, and he has been found wanting.

I still can't believe he's more than twenty years my senior. It doesn't look like he's developed a day past his freshman orientation at college.

PS - The debate was hosted by the Harvard Secular Society and others. It was student-moderated, and the students did a fantastic job of keeping things flowing. I'll say, though, that after a year I still think Greg Epstein (the Harvard Humanist Chaplain) seems like a great guy but is clearly not the world's most capable public speaker.

*Best use of the word "slough" I've ever encountered: page 106 of Richard Preston's "The Hot Zone"