Friday, June 24, 2011

Fantastic Friday: Wrangling With Woo

Magical thinking and other forms of anti-scientific nonsense are as pervasive in the developed world as ever and they show no signs of abating. In recent decades, these attitudes have become established in everything ranging from the prevalence of "organic" foods in grocery stores, the popularity of alternative "medicine", anti-vaccination movements, and errant fears over genetically engineered foods to name a few. The anti-nuclear hysteria that has re-arisen in the aftermath of Fukushima Daiichi is just the tip of the iceberg.

Although on the surface, most woo appears harmless, it can have very disastrous consequences for some people. This is because it can distort the process of scientific research, or cause the results of a legitimate study to be highly politicized by people who are not familiar with the field in question, or who are willfully trying to distort and mislead in order to fit an ideological agenda. In political terms; the "left" has become immersed in a strange mixture of naturalistic fallacies and neoluddism while the "right" (In the US at least) has been taken over by religious fundamentalism which makes a point of promoting young earth creationism and other Christian mythology. Unfortunately the war against science has gone mainstream as is under continual attack from political movements on all sides of the aisle. These are just a few areas where politics have trumped science

-Fears of radio frequency radiation have been around for years, despite there being no evidence for any of these concerns being justified. However, the World Health Organization recently issued a report saying that radiation from cellular telephones may cause cancer.

Now this will lend an air of undeserved credibility to RF-phobes without any studies pinpointing a definite link between cellular telephone exposure and what constitutes an unsafe dose, and other necessary details. Hypothetically, something may cause a condition, but until there is solid evidence that it does, the empirical assumption is that such a claim is invalid.

There is a five-part lecture on this topic given by Professor Christopher Davis who has a background in electrical and computer engineering. It is well worth listening to the whole thing. This is the first video, the other four parts can be found by following the links underneath it.

Part 2

Part 3

Part 4

Part 5

-Anti-vaccination activists such as Jenny McCarthy and Viera Sheibner and the rest of their ilk have been whipping parents up into a frenzy over vaccines, citing fears over mercury, and formaldehyde; or for fears that they might be responsible over conditions such as childhood cancer and autism, when the only report that they are using as the basis for these claims has been the infamous Wakefield study which has since been retracted by the General Medical Council as being fraudulent and Andrew Wakefield was stripped of his medical license last year.

However, the damage has been done as the anti-vaccine movement continues to distort information and spread misinformation to suit its needs, out of some misguided idea that they are doing it in the name of public health. Many of these diseases such as diphtheria, polio, and whooping cough were deadly for children before the vaccines against them were available, and while other illnesses like measles and mumps were mostly benign, they could cause permanent sensory impairment in some cases. Because of vaccines, these diseases are no longer a common occurrence. Unfortunately, this has lead society to forget the havoc these pathogens could cause, especially in newborn infants.

This child's brush with death and permanent deafness could have been prevented if her mother had given her the MMR vaccine like her physician recommended. Her daughter is now paying the price. Even as we speak there is an outbreak of measles that is happening in the US that has in no doubt been helped along by public fears against vaccination. There is no reason why anybody should suffer from these preventable illnesses in the 21st century yet they are making a comeback. The anti-vaccination movement is responsible for the deaths or permanent disability of people around the world because whenever vaccination rates go down, herd immunity also goes down, making it more likely that diseases can find carriers. Nobody is going to be championing the resurgence of polio if and when it returns at this rate, and I doubt that pressure ventilation systems would become a fashion statement.

-Alternative medicine is a catch-all phrase for medical treatment using folk remedies, traditional practices, or supernaturally-based therapy rather than modern medical science. Alternative medicine has not been shown to be supported by scientific evidence, and the only benefit that anybody seems to derive from it is the placebo effect. While the placebo effect can be beneficial, it often means that people who suffer from serious medical conditions often put off real medical treatment which can cause their illnesses to worsen.

The motivation for this movement is somewhat understandable, as many people in the US cannot afford access to medical treatment as medical insurance companies here are notorious for their dysfunctional practices. The US medical system is in need of a serious overhaul. But this is from an administrative and financial standpoint as modern medicine has been proven to work and therefore the issues behind the broken American medical system ARE mostly administrative and financial. The issue is one of access rather than the effectivity of modern medical treatment.

Because many people lack access to basic medical care, they turn to whatever options are open to them. Although homeopathy, ear candling, and faith healing and the like have not been proven to be effective, an entire industry has sprung up to cater to the alternative medicine movement and play on people's feelings, even though alternative medicine accomplishes nothing other than fooling people into paying for things that do not work rather than seeing a real medical professional.

Unfortunately, the alternative medicine movement is growing, and it is showing no signs of stopping. The NHS in the UK has even started allocating funding for treatment to visit alternative medicine practitioners, yet none of these treatments have ever been shown to work. Quackery exists in many forms and now it seems that many people are supporting it and encouraging it. Speaking of "quackery", there is an in-depth discussion on the subject by pathologist, Dr. Ed Uthman. It is in four parts. I recommend watching it in its entirety.

Part 2

Part 3

Part 4

-It has become fashionable to deride foods produced on "factory farms" in favor of "organic foods". Promoters of organic foods claim that they are safer to eat, contain more nutrients, are better for the environment, or have benefits that are not found in foods produced by conventional farming techniques. Organic foods have become a huge industry in the past twenty-years as it is marketed brilliantly by its producers. As growers of organic foods cannot compete in cost or quantity of foods grown using conventional means, they justify the higher prices of their products based on their own moral or environmental superiority.

This is largely false, because "organic" foods are often worse for the environment. Organic produce uses more land to grow while generating lower yields, ultimately leading more land to be converted into farmland. Chemical fertilizers are not allowed, so growers of organic foods must resort to using animal manure. Bacterial contamination from manure has led to outbreaks of food poisoning across the world because it is difficult to wash off pathogens using water alone. While organic food growers claim that they do not use pesticides, this is not true as "natural" pesticides such as rotenone and nicotine are permitted under the "organic" label. Although the judicial application of pesticides is a necessary evil when growing any food on a large scale, "organic" pesticides have not been specially formulated in a laboratory to meet certain standards and are often just as dangerous if not worse than their manmade counterparts.

In regards to other labels such as "free range", chickens in an outdoor environment are often subject to many parasites that cause the birds suffering such as gapeworm in addition to preventing them from reaching a desirable weight as a result of increased parasite loads. Predation is also an issue from prowling animals, and this raises the question on whether or not "free range" actually brings any sort of tangible benefit to the animals at all.

The third attack on conventional foods comes from people who are wary of genetically engineered plants and animals in our food supply. Humans have been "genetically" engineering their produce and livestock for thousands of years. By all accounts, there is nothing "natural" about modern day corn or the Holstein cow as they have both been bred by humans to produce higher yields of a desirable product in a shorter period of time than their wild ancestors. Their very existence depends on humans to raise and care for them. With genetic engineering, it will enable humanity to select for desirable traits in a shorter period of time using less money rather than running selective breeding experiments over several years. Eating further "genetically modified" food would be no more or less dangerous than eating food that has been modified for humans since its domestication by humanity. While I do not excuse the business practices of Mosanto, that is a legal and political issue and it has nothing to do with the application and implementation of genetic engineering technology.

Some clarification on "organic" foods.

-Religious fundamentalism has been fighting back against the encroachment of science upon its perceived domains in the modern world. Politicians of both the left and right pay homage to imaginary beings to increase their chances of getting elected, while science in public school curriculums is being subverted by groups trying to sneak in creationism under the guise of intelligent design or claim that Noah's ark was indisputable fact. Faith-based initiatives continue to receive funding from the US federal government despite there being a codified separation of church and state within the law of my country and it is considered politically acceptable for presidents to publicly claim that they were told to launch military campaigns against foreign nations by their god. Both men and women continue to have their genitals butchered for religious reasons worldwide, and suicide bombers have blown themselves up and the surrounding area under the illusion that doing so will allow them to enter some sort of erotopian afterlife.

There continues to be no evidence that there is a god or any other sort of supernatural entities, yet people waste so much time and cause themselves so much suffering in trying to appease something that really is not there. Abuses are allowed in the name of religion that would be shouted down if perpetuated by any other sort of institution. The effects of religious beliefs foisted on children by their parents can have lasting psychological damage, and religious schools can often impair or inhibit children from receiving a proper education.

While one cannot be absolutely certain of everything, the things that we do know about the nature of the universe and the beings that are in it has shown that the existence of gods is highly unlikely, and even if they did exist they would be unnecessary as the universe seems to be self-maintaining. Why do we allow religion to control people's minds and direct their thoughts when it has proven to be a very destructive phenomenon? Although it would not be acceptable for atheists to bully and harass theists for their religion, there is certainly no place for religion in guiding the decisions of our political leaders as their actions would have consequences for us all.


smellincoffee said...

Good woo roundup: I appreciate all the videos. I had no idea Brian Dunning also did YouTube segments.

Neurovore said...

Yes, he has quite a few of them. All of them are worth watching.

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