FDA to Crack Down on Phony Cancer Cures?

June 17, 2008

Apparently the FDA has decided to start targeting internet businesses that have been making bogus medical claims about alt-med cancer cures. If so, it’s about time. I’m not against adults being allowed to imbibe whatever they want to believe will help cure them. I’d counsel strongly, strongly against it, but I don’t think it should be against the law. Companies, however, that prey on desperate folks like this deserve little mercy.

The letters criticized unproven claims made about these products including the ability to “destroy the enzyme on DNA responsible for cancer cells,” and the power to “neutralize” carcinogens. One product’s Web site had a testimonial claiming it had cured a patient’s skin cancer in three days, according to one of the letters.

I’m not even sure what “the enzyme on DNA responsible for cancer cells” is supposed to mean, exactly. I wouldn’t be surprised if the person who wrote it has no idea either. And that’s precisely what’s so screwed up about this entire market. While I’m sure some part of these sellers are sincerely convinced that their powders, chemicals, and rubs have some sort of cancer-fighting powers, they don’t actually know that they do. They believe. Alternative medicine is nothing more than medicine that hasn’t been vetted or tested to see if it actually works.

And in this context, that’s no better than handing someone a gun and telling them that it isn’t loaded… when they haven’t actually bothered to check. As good ole’ Abe Lincoln once said:

It is an established maxim and moral that he who makes an assertion without knowing whether it is true or false is guilty of falsehood, and the accidental truth of the assertion does not justify or excuse him.


Ok Skeptics: What’s Next? Immodest Proposals For Political Activism

June 15, 2008

If you haven’t noticed the rising cultural tide of skeptics and non-believers, then maybe we still haven’t made enough of a nuisance of ourselves. Just you wait!

Me, I’d like to take some time to think about where this is all going. What do we want?

Mostly, it seems, just to talk. And that’s a good thing: the subjects we’re interested are abstract: they’re debates about ideas first and foremost. Skeptics have always been the traditional first-line defenders of free inquiry, and we’re not about to give up that role anytime soon.

Still, we seem to have all these people with so many common interests and values. We have conventions. We should, I think, consider having some more concrete goals. Some specific issues we have on the table every election season. And I’m not talking about amorphous things like “better funding for science” and so on. I’m talking about very specific policy proposals: specific enough that some friendly Representative could introduce them as numbered bills on the floor of Congress.

So what should these be? Getting a consensus is always difficult, but other interest groups do it. Skeptics may be, by our very nature, hard to herd, but it’s not impossible. I think most of us could, for instance, get behind a proposal to bring back the Office of Technology Assessment (OTA), which used to helpfully advise Congress on all sorts of complex scientific issues that Congressman and their staffs, rarely have much depth of knowledge about. And if you have your own suggestions, I welcome them in the comments, or on your own blogs (let me know and I’ll link to them at the end of this post).

Here’s my proposal though: that we reform public education. And I don’t mean weigh into issues like vouchers, funding, teacher unions, or any of that. What I mean is that we lobby for a particular set of concepts and skills to become a central part of state and/or federal education standards: a theme that runs through what and how we teach kids to write and reason. Subject disciplines like history, math, biology, English, and so forth, are all important. But it’s just as, if not more important to prepare children to be critical thinkers, to be intelligent and skeptical consumers of mass media, political appeals, and even commercial advertising. To understand logical fallacies. To know how to read an argument and set about responding to it. To appreciate the basic principles of statistics, independent of math level, and the basic pitfalls of interpreting scientific results (regression to the mean, sampling error, etc.) We need civics courses for a new age.

American students have always held an economic edge when it comes to creative, independent thinking: even when our students lag far behind in brute force effort and devotion to studies. I think playing on these strengths is a winning economic and social strategy. I’m not entirely sure yet on how best to sell it to the public, but that’s what Public Relations geniuses are for.

However, we’d also have to be very focused and restrained about how we go about it. All of us skeptics have our favorite sacred cows that we love to target. But in the bitter, rough and tumble world of curricula debates, most of these line-item punching bags are also going to be non-starters. Few of the players and factions necessary to win political approval are going to trust our proposals if they think we’re using them just to smuggle in our partisan views.

I recently scoffed at William Dembski’s petty hopes of trying to cram Intelligent Design down kids throats. There’s a real danger of any effort too similar to his, one that focuses on what to believe, rather than how to think, will get scoffed at, and for much the same reasons.

Just to highlight one example of how skeptical teaching can quickly become politically objectionable, Brian Dunning of Skeptoid fame has a great new educational video out called “Here Be Dragons: An Introduction to Critical Thinking” I’m a fan of Dunning’s work, and this video is definately a worthy skeptical teaching tool.

But like it or not, a lot of the specific topics he covers are, sadly, too controversial for a public school. Maybe not scientifically, but politically. Panning over the countless nutritional supplements on store shelves and questioning their efficacy has great scientific and skeptical merit. But in practice, the owner of the drug store that makes big bucks off this stuff sits on the local school board.

And, right or wrong, many of these sorts of interested parties are going to give something like “Dragons” a big thumbs down when it comes to showing it in the classroom. Just to pick another example, the orange-grower lobby is not going to take too kindly to coursework that poo-poos vitamin-C’s cold-fighting powers. By the same measure, as silly as it all is, you can pretty much forget about the State of Florida ever endorsing such a course. Honestly, we’re lucky enough that there isn’t much economic force behind creationism or science education would really be in trouble.

But it’s not that we have to toothlessly stand down on everything just to play nice. That’s not the point. It’s just that in politics, everything has a price. Every issue has an interest group, every interest group is loyal to a faction, and every lost vote means having to scrounge up some more from somewhere else. Eventually, you price yourself right out of the market. So you have to be very realistic about how much you can do at any one time, with any one policy proposal.

And in this case, getting into those fights is ultimately unnecessary. If we focus on the core skills in question, it really doesn’t matter what examples we happen to use in the process of teaching them. And if we can lobby for school curriculums that do a good job of teaching kids how to critically analyze any and all claims, we won’t have to single out any specific targets for them.

We can’t have our cake and eat it too, politically. But we can serve students some cake, and then be pretty darn certain that they’ll eat it at some point, on their own initiative.

Anyway, I welcome constructive criticism on this, or any other policy idea you think would make a good centerpiece platform for skeptics. Is this something you think we could all rally around? Can we flesh it out sufficiently and seriously lobby for it? Or if not this, then what?

What’s next? And who’s up for it?


Smiley Face Serial Killer No Longer At Large?

June 11, 2008

Bwahahaha...hunhCNN’s Anderson Cooper laid out the case in hushed, grim tones in a story that even hit CNN.com’s “front page”: college-aged men all around the country have been drowning under mysterious circumstances since 1997. And as two retired NYPD detectives started to put the pieces together, they realized that “creepy” smiley faces have been found nearby at many of the scenes. And before long, the profile emerged: serial killer with a distinctive signature; preying on young, intoxicated men; and he’d been killing for more than a decade. It was enough to send chills down the spine of many readers.

Over at Skepchick, however, blogger Elyse has a different take: the hype just doesn’t pan out and the whole smiley conspiracy appears baseless. A case of impassioned officers trying too hard to make sense of too many tragedies at once, and improperly judging the statistical likelihood of several linked events.

And Elyse makes a darn good case too: one almost certainly similar to the reasons many local police departments have had for rejecting the “smiley face killer” connection. Her main points are as follows:

  • A conservative estimate of around ten thousand or so men have drowned between 1997 and today
  • Smiley faces are one of the most common pieces of graffiti found anywhere
  • Waterside areas are one of the most common places to find graffiti
  • The smiley faces identified at the various crime scenes share very little in common that could be regarded as a distinct signature-style: no distinctive shape, color, facial features, or design
  • Only 12 of the supposedly 40 linked cases, scattered all over several states, had faces anywhere nearby

Put all that together and you have something that isn’t even an eerie coincidence: it’s pretty much a mathematical inevitably that some feature, in fact, some piece of vaguely similar waterside graffiti would connect some drowning cases, especially if you could look at any case from 1997 to the present, pretty much anywhere in the country. If this is really all the investigators have to tie the cases together, it’s no wonder at all that the FBI isn’t impressed.

Their additional claim that each case has “mysterious” elements doesn’t help matters. While it’s statistically common that some young men in the U.S. will drown, it’s not at all a common or normal event in someone’s everyday life: some set of out-of-the-ordinary factors are likely to play into how each drowning happened, and in the cases where young men just vanished, and may have gone into the water alone with no witnesses, there will of course always be many unanswered questions about the circumstances.

Maybe there is a serial killer out there, or a cabal of them (an even more unlikely scenario that the investigators nevertheless seem to favor). But if so, they’ve managed to commit their crimes in a way that looks almost completely identical to what we’d expect to find if none of the cases (whether they were individually murders, suicides, or accidents) had anything to do with each other.


The New Age “Secret” in Hawaii: You Created Your Cancer Circumstance!

June 8, 2008

In my opinion, Hawaii is the best and most beautiful of our 50 states. But while I was down there blissfully schooling with reef fish, I also happened to notice that the local media seemed saturated with the New Age/New Thought nuttery known as “The Secret.” Many of its luminaries were offering talks, conferences, and workshops throughout the summer, with tickets that ran as high as $250 for “V.I.P.” seats.

For those not duly acquainted with this stuff, it’s essentially a self-help/motivational speaking movement that has proudly leaped off the deep-end with mystical pronouncements about the nature of thought and reality. Namely, they claim that the entire universe is shaped by people’s thoughts, and that a “Law of Attraction” allows you to draw the things you want to you just by thinking about them. The whole shebang is, in the end, pretty standard pseudoscience: lots of very vague claims, few falsifiable, coupled with the attitude that any skeptics are party-poopers messing up all the magic with their negative nancyings.

Wishing got me this hatAnyway, one of Hawaii’s local papers featured an interview with one Mike Dooley “former Hawaii Marine brat,” former tax accountant, T-shirt salesman, and now multi-million dollar motivational mufti for the Secret movement. His trademark idea is that “Thoughts Become Things.” He even, without any sense of self-parody, has some sort of super-adventure club called TUT.com to promote it.

How did he come to conclude that he (and maybe you, if you can afford the 130$ workshop) could recreate reality with his mind?

Not finding answers in the mainstream, including the religion I belong to [I was] a good old Catholic boy. I was left to draw conclusions–deductive reasoning. For instance, [that] we’re powerful, loved, eternal, that time space must be illusions. These were my inner suspicions. We are divine creators. What we focus on, we ultimately manifest. Books helped me confirm my inner suspicions about life.”

I’m not sure how or why “deductive reasoning” got downgraded to “inner suspicion” halfway through this paragraph, but the idea that time and space are “illusions” is a pretty darn extravagant claim. And it’s one that I’m not so sure you can use an “inner suspicion” to discern the truth of. Entirely within the confines of your own mind, it’s perfectly possible to think of the universe, and everything that happens in it, as illusion. That’s because it’s the ultimate in unfalsifiable beliefs: any possible evidence to the contrary can simply be classified as part of the illusion.

But what does it really mean to assert that time and space are a mirage… and then try to simply move on from there as a being within that false reality? If everything is fake, what’s real, and how does Dooley know?

Worse still, Dooley promotes his approach by insisting that his method can deliver all sorts of material wants: money, cars, worldly success. But that’s bizarrely out of step with his own philosophical assertions. If reality is a distracting illusion, then all these physical goodies would themselves also be a distracting illusion. What sense does it make to declare reality a complete fantasy and then spend so much time demanding cold hard cash out of it? At least when most Buddhists tell people to let go of any attachment to existence, they mean it whole-heartedly: not merely as a means to a materialist payday.

So, while Dooley calls his insights a philosophy, insisting that what he’s selling is neither religion nor a cult (and thus wonderfully compatible with either), it’s a woefully incomplete and vague sort of philosophy. This is especially so when he runs up against the obvious problem with his few coherent claims: if people create their own reality, then why would anyone choose to suffer? Wouldn’t this mean that individuals are all 100% to blame for any circumstance they find themselves in? When you get sick, is it merely because of a lack of will? Are cancer patients to blame for their colon killing them and their chemo treatments torturing them?

Well, according to Dooley, in addition to the Law of Attraction, there are “other parameters, none of which take away our power, but do explain the disparity we see in the world.” He doesn’t list any, or explain them further. Instead, he sort of slides around the implication without really answering it:

“Fault is not a word that would be used spiritually. We choose our lives, the stage, knowing ahead of time that there could be hardships. Irrelevant of the circumstances, we are creators. Why was such a circumstance created. Every person that has cancer has it with their own intents, rationale, and motivation. To say “Is it their fault?” is taking the whole thing out of context. They are master creators. There are reasons. Whether or not those reasons can be pinpointed doesn’t take away our ability to recognize that we are creators and that things do not happen to us by chance or accident.” (emphasis added)

“There are reasons”? We have cancer with “our own intents”? I’m not sure what the heck that means, but it sure sounds like cancer patients are indeed due little sympathy for their self-inflicted sufferings.

Give me old-time theodicy any day of the week. It doesn’t make any sense either, but at least it isn’t quite as vague and off-the-cuff.

Why isn’t “fault” a word that can be “used spiritually” anyway? We’re back to my usual complaint here: tossing the word “spiritual” or “supernatural” into a concept does not magically alleviate one’s need to explain what the heck you’re claiming is going on. Or, in this case, why a concept like “fault” can’t apply to the idea of people apparently choosing their circumstances. And it doesn’t explain how Dooley can know or “recognize” that nothing happens by “chance or accident.”

Traditional motivational speakers don’t dabble in metaphysics like this: they teach people how to improve on their circumstances, find explanations for things after the fact, repurpose lemons into Fruitopia. They teach positive thinking because it can help lead one to more positive behavior, not because it’s some sort of magic incantation.

I know enough about even the traditional “self-help” methods and movements to be highly skeptical of them, and advise the same skepticism for others. But the kooky claims of this Secret stuff positively scream “scam.”


A Brief Hiatus Ceases

May 6, 2008

After being away in the wilds of woolly New England, I’m back. Lest you think I rested on my laurels, I’m working on a review of David Berlinski’s “The Devil’s Delusion” (in which Berlinski, quite astonishingly, calls people other than himself pretentious) and a series of full-frontal assaults on some of the baddest of the bad ideas when it comes to moral philosophy and theology.

My favorite story that I missed while away? A substitute teacher in Florida was apparently accused of wizardry by a supervisor after performing a sleight-of-hand magic trick with a toothpick.

Wizardry.


Aliens Travel Many Lightyears to Earth Just To Annoy Local Couple

April 29, 2008

The phenomenon was thought truly bizarre: Pikesville, Maryland has been experiencing “deafening” booms and flashes of light every so often. They even caught it on videotape. And no, it didn’t seem to be lightning, at least not in any conventional sense. Police were baffled. Meteorologists ere baffled. So baffled that residents were even willing to appeal to aliens (though only tongue in cheek) and the supernatural.

But it turns out that the actual solution was a little more conventional and closer to home:

When they searched Mackler’s home, they found pyrotechnics, guns and drugs.

Police said that Mackler had problems with some of his neighbors, so he would wake up at 2 a.m. to set off the pyrotechnics.

As this case illustrates, “pyrotechnics, guns and drugs” is a actually pretty good default hypothesis for any weird, inexplicable event.