Monthly Archives: December 2008

Stem Cell Opposition Ethically Indefensible

If there is one branch of science that is guaranteed to incite moral outrage it’s biology, specifically those fields involving embryos.

So when the political hot potato of stem cell research reared it’s head recently, it was obvious that the usual misinformed objections to the research would be aired loudly.

But what is stem cell research and why is it being pursued? Stem-cell research is the most promising field of medical research at present. Stem cells can become any tissue in the human body and have therefore tremendous implications for treating severly injured to those who have been ravaged by disease. Scientists are understandably excited by the prospects this research has to offer. Given the potential for the relief of seemingly incurable human suffering, it is unthinkable that this research could be opposed.

However, like most debates over scientific progress, the emotional responses of those opposing stem cell research virtually prevent rational discourse from taking place. This can be seen clearly in the dismissal of the use of excess In Vitro Fertilisation (IVF) embryos by religious groups, specifically Right To Life NZ.

Groups such as these make a number of unprovable claims that are inevitable when the claimants invoke the creator of the universe into the equation.

Their view is clear, unequivocal and direct: experimentation using human embryos is killing a human being. They claim that a Creator (The Christian God) installs a soul into the egg at the moment of conception, effectively making the newly formed zygote a human being. Further than that, they claim that the embryo then has the same rights as a fully grown human being. To the pro-life advocates, that is the end of the story.

These forms of conversation stopping tactics provide a poor platform to make decisions about the future of stem-cell research and IVF embryos.

Given the enormous potential of stem-cell research, we owe it to ourselves to base any discussion – political, ethical or scientific – on the best information we have available.

So what do we actually know about the embryos that are used in stem-cell research? Can a collection of cells really be considered a human being and therefore be given the same rights as an alive human being?

The ethics of granting the status of a living human being to that of a small collection of cells is questionable.

At three days old, a human embryo is grand total of 150 cells and is termed a blastocyst. At this stage, the blastocyst does not have a nervous system and therefore cannot feel anything. The nervous system of an embryo does not begin forming until about 24 weeks after conception. This is a crucial distinction when we look at granting a small collection of cells the same status as a human being that does have nervous tissue and therefore can feel.

If suffering were a concern to pro-life advocates then the obvious solution to the debate is to support stem-cell research, as it offers great promise in diminishing the amount of suffering in the world.

The argument that the creator of the universe endows the embryo at conception with a soul also has its problems. Blastocysts can split thereby creating an additional embryo. Conversely, two blastocysts can fuse together to create a single indvidual. If the ensoulment argument true then what happens to the extra soul when two blastocysts become one? What becomes of the soul of the blastocyst that divides into two? Does the soul halve? These are important points to take note of if the ensoulment-at-conception argument is to be taken seriously.

The idea that a fertilised egg is a human being, as the pro-lifers tell us, overlooks an important fact – most fertilised eggs don’t make it – most are miscarried. Development into a baby is actually a low probability event. Are we to mourn this wholesale death of fertilised eggs?

Furthermore, eggs and sperm are genetic halves of a potential human being. Both are as alive as a fertilised egg and both die in large numbers everyday. Shouldn’t we be trying to save these potential humans by preserving as many sperm and eggs as possible? This reveals the absurdity of the “embyro is a human being or potential human argument”. Saying that sperm, egg or fertilised egg are as important as a an live, sentient, feeling human being is ethically indefensible.

It would be naïve of me to think that these points I raise above will change the minds of the fundamentalists who by nature do not revise their beliefs given new evidence. Scientific progress in all its forms will have detractors – science advances into uncharted territory. This is even more reason to answer the ethical questions that inevitably arise with sound judgement, reason and rationality.

We’re all skeptics… (when we feel like it)

We’re all skeptics. Everyone one of us… But only when it suits us.

Some are skeptics in the sense that they use critical thinking to evaluate all claims to truth. These are what I would call “true skeptics”, advocates of science and reason regardless of topic and their personal feelings about it.

If skepticism and blind acceptance (faith) were charted of a line they would be at opposite ends. And so it is with people. Some accept almost everything they hear/read/see without a moments critical thought. Others will critically analyse everything if they could. One takes little effort, the other requires discipline.

Dr Michael Shermer of Skeptic magazine says it eloquently: “Critical thinking is a method, not a position”. As a method, critical thinking requires discipline. The default workings of human perception and brain function is inadequate to give us the most accurate representation of reality. Science and rationality to the rescue!

Everyday skepticism 

When it comes to salespeople, especially of the car variety, most people are skeptical from the outset. So the main argument for critical thinking is “how do you know when to accept a claim without needing evidence?”

For true skeptics, the answer is that every claim should be examined critically. After all, what makes one claim different from another? I admit that this ‘true, 100% skeptic’ doesn’t exist because at the core, we’re all human and subject to the same biases, anomalies in perception and distortions in thought.

Where a person lies on the critical thinking spectrum has a lot to do with culture and upbringing. Lack of education in critical thinking plays a part for many. Similarly, many people accept the idea that faith (belief without question) is a virtue and automatically privilege some ideas and beliefs over others. This emotional investment and prior bias towards a given idea or set of ideas is another way we humans can drift from the path of reason.

Astrology and other old chestnuts

Take a fairly innocuous claim like those made by astrologers – that somehow the stars influence and dictate human affairs. Let’s put aside the fact that this belief reveals an extreme vanity in that it appeals to our self-centredness. The first question should be where’s the evidence? Our skeptical alarm bells should be ringing furiously at the slightest mention that stars somehow have some influence in human affairs. Why? Plausibility. It sounds implausible and indeed it is implausible.

This doesn’t necessarily mean the claim isn’t true it just seems highly unplausible given what we have learned about physics and the origins of astrology. Extraoridinary claims require extraordinary evidence, so you would expect the evidence to be of a very high quality in order to justify a belief in astrology.

There isn’t a plausible mechanism that could even place astrology in the ballpark of reality. The more plausible explanation for the notion of astrology comes from how and when it arose – it is simply an ancient projection of human concepts, fears and desires onto the night sky. The star patterns that form constellations are random and the ancient descriptions of what the constellations represent requires some creative imagination (does cancer really look like a crab?)

Furthermore, the stars only appear where they are because of where we are in the galaxy. To further demolish astrology, you could also add that the stars of each constellation have nothing to do with each other, as the stars only appear in a pattern from Earth when in fact each stars are at varying, large distances from us and each other. They have no gravitational effect on us or, in most cases, the stars in the constellation.

Given all this, people still believe in astrology. Why?

Cultural pull

Dr Steven Novella, host of the excellent podcast The Skeptics Guide To The Universe, points out that belief in ancient explanations and myths have a cultural inertia. Furthermore, once the mind becomes preoccupied with an idea and beliefs are formed, cognitive dissonance and confirmation bias virtually acts as a self-protection mechanism for the tangled web of ideas.

In many cases, beliefs will encase themselves in self-sustaining verification loops (filtering on the basis of data that verifies the pre-existing linguistic beliefs) so that new information is either disregarded or justified and woven into the existing belief framework. This is the nature of delusion and the starting point of much of the irrationality we find around us.

Hunting for red flags

Red flags that point to gross abuses of science and logic are easy to spot once you know what to look for. A basic understanding of science, the scientific method and logic delivers an illuminated path to reality, or at least as close as a human mind can get to reality.
Knowledge of science and logic can open up a whole new world that you would never now existed if you did not learn them. It is a sad fact that most people are not taught how to discriminate valid ideas from nonsense and it can only come back to bite us all on the arse.

The biggest red flag of them all

The biggest red flag, the one that represents the most abhorent and creative abuse of science is the appeal to Quantum Theory. Nowhere in the scientific canon is there a mention that quantum theory logically leads to ESP, astrology or any other paranormal phenomenon.

Quantum theory explains what we can observe at a minute level – the atomic and subatomic levels. At these minute, quantum levels, there are all kinds of strange phenemonen that take place. While these odd patterns of behaviour can be observed with small particles, large particles behave according to Newtonian mechanics. Large objects obey Newtons laws of gravity and motion.

Here’s where pseudoscientists – peddlers of nonsense – grant themselves free licence to abuse either their own lack of understanding or that of the lay public (usually consumers of their quack products). Because there is a weirdness that takes place at quantum levels, pseudoscientists jump on this opportunity to claim that’s the scientific basis of their own claims.

This is rather a cynical ploy… it is an exploitation of a beautiful theory and simultaneously sounding plausible and credible to people who don’t know any better.

Magical claims

The quantum theory card is only pulled when the claim is highly implausible and not supported by established science. Often, pseudoscientific claims that lack any scientific evidence are implausible because they violate well established physical laws and scientific theories. These include homeopathy, ESP and Psi claims, astrology, acupuncture, iridology, reflexology, healing touch, chiropractic, perpetual motion machines and zero energy machines… If any of these actually worked they would shatter very well established science.

In the case of perpetual motion and zero energy machines, the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics (which governs energy transfer in closed systems) prevents these devices from performing as claimed.

Homeopathy is at odds with physics – the more you dilute a homeopathic substance the more effective it is supposed to be. I don’t know about you but I don’t add water to my coke drinks ad infinitum because eventually I’ll dilute all the coke out of them. Water is all a homeopathic medicine could ever be if practitioners dilute to the degree they claim.

Science is only concerned with the real world

Science is the learning process and skepticism is built into the process. What better place to start learning… a null hypothesis, doubt before blind belief. We all adhere to this to a certain degree.

Science is really just a methodological way of the learning process we all use to understand reality. Those promoting systems of thought and belief that divert from the scientific method are guilty of willfully eroding the state of knowledge available to human kind.

Further, any anti-science or pseudoscience distracts our attention and finite resources away from inquiry into reality; relegating facts and evidence below fiction and fantasy.

There is no “alternative medicine”

Is there really an “alternative medicine” Or is the term just a semantic tool to disguise a profoundly anti-science stance?

We live in an age where medical advances have more than doubled our life expectancy over the course of the last century. We are are endowed with treatments, preventative measures, sanitation methods and food testing that would leave any previous civilisation in history in awe.

Yet, there exists a huge industry that parades itself as the medical science that has enriched our lives but rejects the methods of science. In other words, peddlers of this “other” medicine field can claim whatever they want to without submitting to the necessary research that would validate those claims. They want it all for no cost – a free pass on the coat tails of science. And even worse, they get away with it.

Folks, there is no “alternative medicine” – the semantic distinction foisted on the public is nothing but a semantic tool to paint real medicine as “the evil establishment” and create false legitimacy for junk medicine.

How can a system of supplements and “alternative” treatments continue to be sold to a willing public when no factual foundation for these quack cures exists? Robert Greene said it best in his book The 48 Laws of Power:

The truth is often avoided because it is ugly and unpleasant. Never appeal to truth and reality unless you are prepared for the anger that comes for disenchantment. Life is so harsh and distressing that people who can manufacture romance or conjure up fantasy are like oases in the desert: Everyone flocks to them. There is great power in tapping into the fantasies of the masses.

 Skepticism and critical thinking are hard sells, no doubt. Where science shows the body to be a complex system, pseudoscience paints an easy to understand and magical explanation for the body. While the reasons people get sick are many and often complex, the simple panaceas sold to the public via “alternative medicine” are an alternatives to evidence-based medicine.

What’s the alternative to evidence? Crap-based claims. That’s right, once a departure is made from science and testing the claimant can claim anything. And they do. The number of quack cancer cures to be found on the internet is truly astounding – especially given none of these claims survive even the mildest of scientific scrutiny.

On a base level, the claim that a foot massage can help promote “wellness” in other parts of your body (reflexology), that water and sugar pills can heal your ills (homeopathy), or that acupuncture has any health benefits whatsoever are completely unsupported by the evidence. If any one of these “alternative” modalities were to be supported by solid clinical trial evidence then they would cease to be alternative and be accepted mainstream medical practices.

Some of the justifications people put in defense of junk medicine takes the form of “well, it’s been around for 1000’s of years” or “so many people believe in it, it has to work”. Of course, this eludes the only relevant question of all: “Has the claim been shown scientifically to work – is there any evidence for it?” The arguments from popularity and antiquity can be easily shown to be bad platforms to base beliefs – all one has to do is look around the world and how many people believe in some form of paranormal claim, usually based on “ancient wisdom”.

British philospher Betrand Russell summed it up best when he said:

The fact that an opinion has been widely held is no evidence whatever that it is not utterly absurd.

Most crap-based medicine claims originated before science. Before we had a germ theory of disease, before we knew how the human body worked, before medical techniques of 20th century standard had been developed.

Most scientific theories have emerged in the last 200 years, a significant proportion in the last quarter of that period. Medical or truth claims made before science hit the tipping point has been tested in light of relatively recent scientific standards. Homeopathy, acupuncture, reflexology, iridology and many more have been thoroughly falsified. Some claims have been discard as much as 100 years ago.

The only reason these pre-scientific modalities are still around today is because the crap-based logic and beliefs that underpin them are passed on. The ability for these ideas to survive owes in part to the ideology behind them – “us versus the establishment (science, medicine and big pharma)”. It is thanks to science that we are now firmly on solid ground in saying that modalities posing as alternatives to evidence-based medicine are at best elaborate placebos.

The hypotheses claimed by proponents of these alternatives do not use real science in their claims. After all, well-conducted studies that control for variables and bias are bad for business. Many claims didn’t have to be tested to be falsified anyway, as the suggested explanation by proponents is at odds with well established science.

There is no alternative medicine and in place of such a semantically loaded term I shall use the precise terminology used in The Science Based Medicine Blog. That definition is “crap-based medicine” and this is the subject I will explore with my skeptical eye in upcoming posts.

The Problem With Mainstream Science Journalism

Anyone familiar with journalistic rules of thumb and practices will no doubt be familiar with the “be impartial and objective as possible by representing both sides of the story equally”. In most instances, this gives the reader a more complete background and avoids journalistic bias as much as possible. There is, however, a time when the “represent both sides equally” actually leads to bias, a bias I term “giving fiction the same creedence as facts”. Sadly, journalists writing science articles for mainstream media fall prey to this form of bias even though their intentions are good. Most journalists are unaware of the methods of science and how theories are woven together from corroborating evidence.

The media has an important responsibility in getting the science right. This is tough given that scientific literacy among journalists varies wildly. Great scientific journalism requires the ability to determine well conducted research from bad; logical conclusions from fallacious ones; and the X-ray vision to weed out ideology and skullduggery. Science will always be inconvenient for some people who hold opposing views or opinions so giving their ideas the same weight as the evidence is somewhat intellectually dishonest.

Typical examples of such journalism aren’t hard to find. Often the skeptical angle is portrayed as one opinion among others and little or no emphasis is applied to show the validity of one view over another. A UFO true believer will look at some fairly innocuous/ambiguous photo or video and declare that we are being visited by civilisations outside our Solar System. Astrologers will make claims over research that supposedly confirms their ideology to be true. The logical fallacies applied by such advocates is numerous. Without knowledge of these flaws in human reasoning it can be easy to actually view someone’s opinions as somehow valid.

What Journalists Should Watch Out For in Reporting Truth Claims

The phrase “truth claims” can be used as a substitute for “science” because skepticism, and the appropriate portrayal of the evidence should be used in all stories where some is making a claim. Here are a couple of things to look out for in writing and reading claims to the validity or falsity of something:

Extraordinary Claims Require Extraordinary Evidence – This goes without saying. If someone claims that there herb or magnetised water has some kind of magical quality or cures cancer – be skeptical.

Ockham’s Razor – The most simple explanation – the explanation that introduces the least new assumptions – is often the best.

Correlation Does Not Necessarily Imply Causation – Are the claimants stating or implying that there is a causal relationship between variables that correlate together? Essentially, black hair correlates with world rice production but it would be fallacious to say either causes the other.

Post Hoc Ergo Propter Hoc – A subset of the correlation does not imply causation, post hoc ergo propter hoc (after this therefore because of this) takes the form B followed A so therefore A caused B.

Slipery Slope Arguments – The notion that accepting a position means you have to accept the extreme of that position also. Arguments against abortion often employ slippery slopes by stating that accepting abortion means society will slip into a downward spiral of degradation and decay.

Fallacies can be the result of intellectual laziness and often lack of education. Science is a methodology designed to systematically weed out such cognitive phenomena in order to establish true causation and effects from the many variables and noise.

These are the common logical fallacies to watch out for (there are tonnes more, see this site). Once you tune into “the skeptical frequency” you will notice these fallacies employed everywhere. Then you’ll ask, “why didn’t they teach me this stuff in school?”

By George!

That word “abortion” rears its head again in New Zealand media and, once again, this right is under verbal attack.

First cab off the rank was New Zealand Herald columnist, Garth George, dived straight in accusing abortion as being “the root of all abuse”. A bold claim, considering abuse predates abortion by some margin. As a true christian conservative, he blames liberal values and the decay of religion for this supposed increase in abuse and family violence. He makes these claims hot on the heels of the nasty and insidious killing of 3-year-old girl Nia Glassie, following months of abuse from family members.

What is the basis for George’s claim that abortion is somehow linked to this sort of abusive behaviour? Evidence? Far from it. George invented this link and in regurgitating a religious ideological position about abortion, he advocates for a more Godly society, like that of 50-100 years ago. That would solve our family violence problems he reasons. This thinking is both wrong historically and sociologically. Religious families are not immune to violence. In fact, if we look back at the days George is suggesting we return to, child abuse was justified as “discipline” and instilling the “fear of God”. This insidious and shortsighted thinking has rightfully been exposed and a new more reasonable, liberal society has emerged.

What The Studies Say

Shortly after George’s tirade a couple of news stories about studies looking at a possible link between abortion and mental health. On December 2, the New Zealand Herald printed this article entitled “Study Links Abortion, Mental Health Problems”. This is a somewhat misleading title given what Otago University researchers say about their study in the article. The study, originally published in The British Journal of Psychiatry, found that of the 500 women who participated were more than a thrid likely to develop disorders such as anxiety and depression. The researchers say this is further verification of studies done overseas. This is factually incorrect. As a pro-abortion advocate pointed out, the well performed studies are unanimous in establishing a link between abortion and mental health. It is entirley plausible, that factors not controlled for in the Otago University study, such as other related issues that lead unplanned pregnancies, effected the results. The researchers themselves claim the study cannot be used to validate the claims of either side of the abortion debate. They did say, however, that the findings would have implications for the legal status of abortion in New Zealand and the UK. The question is why? How can one small study be so influential, especially when tossed in the barrel alongside numerous other well-performed studies that show no link between abortion and mental health?

Not two days later, Reuters followed up with this story that virtually demolishes any such notion of a link between abortion and mental health. In fact, a team from John Hopkins University in Baltimore, USA, stated that no high-quality study can establish such a link and that notions of a “post-abortion syndrome” were purely politically motivated. The researchers loked at 21 studies involving 150,000 women and found no significant differences in mental health between women who had abortions and others.

“The best research does not support the existence of a ‘post-abortion syndrome’ similar to post-traumatic stress disorder,” said Dr. Robert Blum, who led the study published in the journal Contraception.

Vignetta Charles, a researcher and doctoral student at Johns Hopkins who worked on the study said, “based on the best available evidence, emotional harm should not be a factor in abortion policy. If the goal is to help women, program and policy decisions should not distort science to advance political agendas”.

Abortion is one issue that exmplifies the fundamental split between religious conservative christians, moderate christians and others. In liberal countries such as New Zealand, where religious opposition is significantly quieter, the issue of a woman’s right to abortion is not on the table anymore.

What can be gained from all this twoing and froing over abortion? Primarily, we can take the Otago University study and treat it as one study. One study can only ontribute a drop in the bucket of the scientific literature. When viewed amongst the vast amount of studies, the well performed larger and statistically significant studies show no causal relationship between abortion and the mental health of the woman who have them. Amongst all the ideological opposition to abortion is the fact that subversion of science and the cherry picking of studies to confirm one’s prior ideology is an all too common pattern. As soon as the story hit the wires religious right activists were pouring out the ad hominem attacks on Dr Blum. Their claims were largely that he profits from abortion and that he is funded by Planned Parenthood and therefore can’t be taken seriously (in other words “we’re right”). Smear the researcher to cast doubt on the research is a cynical ploy, but necessary when the research doesn’t support the claim pro-lifers want to make.