Monthly Archives: January 2009

He’s Gone! Bush Leaves Legacy of Science Abuse

…Those of us who defend rational thinking, science and secular values – what one advisor to the Bush Administration dismissed as the reality-based community, who would have thought reality would need defenders? – The Center For Inquiry (CFI).

Can you hear it? The collective sigh of relief of the entire world as George Bush vacates the White House? Well, not everyone is excited about George Bush stepping of his pedestal but it is a sure bet that scientists and those who care about reason in politics are doing handstands.

There maybe many reasons why people will not miss George Bush and his Republican machine. Many point to the fiscal irresponsibilty and the misinformation that supported the war on Iraq. Others will feverishly wave their fingers wildly at the administrations a priori dismissal of responsible sexual health policies and a squandering of individual reproductive rights. Still more will castigate the Bush Administration for allowing the financial mess in America to arise.

Whatever the criticism, the Bush Administration will go down in history as a highly ideological driven government that pandered to extreme evangelical religious right sensibilities. There is nothing wrong with being religious but using faith instead of reason is a flawed approach to politics. All too often when a policy decision was to be made the Bush Administration would rather bury their heads in the sand rather than confront the problem. Science and evidence were relegated second to “faith-based initiatives” which often meant changing scientific documents to suit the policy rather than shaping policy around the evidence. The Republican attacks on science got so bad that it prompted science writer Chris Mooney to write an entire book, The Republican War On Science, which was dedicated to documenting the science abuses of the Bush Administration.

Elected in 2000 to a platform of “unity”, Bush proceeded to divide society with submitting to God politics and thereby marginalising science and those who do not share his Christian convictions. The abuse and subversion of science was not focused on just one area of science either. Stem-cell research, global warming, reproductive policy, evolution teaching in schools, “fixing” NASA research data… any science that “got in the way” was swiftly moved out of the way. What is common among all the policy areas to do with that science was tampered with or flat out ignored when it conflicted with Christian religious values. This unconstitutional advancement of one religious viewpoint in politics has been noted by many, particularly the Center For Inquiry (CFI), which continued unabated in exposing the anti-democratic, anti-science behaviour of the Bush Administration.

The following quote from President Obama is refreshing given the politics of the past 8-years:

Scientific and technological information is of growing importance to a range of issues. I believe such information must be expert and uncoloured by ideology.

I will restore the basic principle that government decisions should be based on the best available, scientifically-valid evidence and not on the ideological predispositions of agency officials or political appointees.

Statements like those above are exciting to the “reality-based community”. America now has a president who embraces science as a tool for informing policy decisions and has appointed people to positions based on their expertise in that field. People like Steven Chu – Energy Secretary and nobel prize winning physicist. It is doubtful the Bush Administration would have even contemplated hiring someone qualified to such a post given the implications on policy he or she might have had.

President Obama has also elevated the science advisor from the geek in the corner to a position of respect. John Holdren, physicist at the John F. Kennedy School of Government in Harvard, will take the post as presidential science advisor. No longer will important policy decisions be run by the likes of Karl Rove before being parroted to the President. Issues where science can inform policy decisions will come from scientists. Imagine that… government adhering to basic priciples of reason and formulating policy from facts. In this, Obama is unequivocal. He realises the need for science and the history of science in being able to solve our collective problems. One Obama quote succinctly sums up the difference between the failed politics of the Bush era with the resolve of the new:

There can no longer be any doubt that human activities are influencing the global climate and we must react quickly and effectively. First, the U.S. must get off the sidelines and take long-overdue action here at home to reduce our own greenhouse gas emissions. We must also take a leadership role in designing technologies that allow us to enjoy a growing, prosperous economy while reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 80 percent below 1990 levels by 2050.

Checking with reality has been and always will be the best starting point for important decisions and the previous quote acknowledges this basic principle. In his acceptance speech, Obama noted that America must move on from that which divisive and that a unified approach and common vision is the only way forward. Favouring certain segments of society and the dismissal of the rights of others by government appears to be throught the exit door. It might not be an easy road, but adhering to the findings of science is a good start.

GE Activists Blinded by Ideology

AgResearch should be commended for advancing transgenic cow research in order to create new commercial options for New Zealand farmers.

The research is very tightly monitored and contained so that no genetically modified material ever leaves the facility.

Only the fruit – the milk proteins that carry enormous commercial value as pharmaceuticals or nutriceuticals – have the possibility of making it outside the 2-metre high fences.

This ought to be great news for everyone concerned. Sadly though, the usual noise makers have come out and opposed the research solely because the terms “GE” or “GM” cropped up.

Why such opposition to apparently harmless science? AgResearch, to their credit, have spent most of their communication about transgenic research encouraging people to educate themselves first about the subject. They have excellent resources on their website, all of which checks out as valid science and is backed by international studies.

Anti-GE groups on the other hand, have encouraged emotive responses to everything transgenic and actively encourage ignorance.

Opposition to the research mainly consists of groups whose ideology states that anything unnatural is way uncool. This begs the question, what is natural? Does natural guarantee something is good or safe? Is anything human beings do natural?

Instead of analysing every claim made by anti-GE activists (which would take weeks) I am going to strip away the value judgements and look solely at the evidence. After all, if someone feels strongly enough about an issue then the science tends to take a backseat role to the agenda – political or otherwise.

Firstly, it is necessary to point out that no amount of evidence, safety assurance or benefits will ever satisfy extreme green fundamentalists. If they say it is unnatural then to them it’s off limits.

Of course we know that a lick of superphosphate on a paddock is, to some activists, completely unethical. There may be good reasons to look at reducing fertiliser use but like GE, the fertiliser isn’t the issue. It’s man-made, unnatural and can’t be done – science or no science.

The act of growing crops is unnatural in the first place. We are in essence playing with nature by selecting certain crops over others. We then further modify nature by selecting the best plants within those crops for future crops and weeding out others.

Todays Hereford is completely different to the Hereford of the 1940’s and before. Todays fruit and vegetables are completely unlike anything our ancestors would have recognised thousands of years ago. In the case of the humble carrot, it was only a very small sweet root.

Today’s often large and juicy carrot variety only appeared after ancestors took a shine to the juiciest, sweetest and largest of the roots. Todays carrot may not have even appeared if some mammal didn’t like it.

Breeding and selecting based on traits is a simple and imprecise form of genetic modification.

Secondly, genetic modification happens all the time naturally. Genetic modification is a naturally occuring process taking place all the time.

Human intervention in this process is simply steering the direction genetic change takes in a direction that benefits humanity.

Australian scientist and author John Wilkins says it better than any other I have encountered: “Genes are trafficked between species, kingdoms and even superkingdoms all the time. They do this mostly via viruses that take up genetic material from one host and carry it to another. In plants, this is so frequent that to claim GE in itself is an environmental threat is to evince total ignorance and willful stupidity.”

GE, like many branches of science has been overinflated by activists to be a boogeyman of their own creation.

This trait of distorting the science is a common feature in ideological opposition to abortion, contraception, global warming, stem cell research and in medical science.

Some environmental groups are fundamentally against GE and therefore no amount of assurance will ever be enough.

This oppositional stance is at odds with their own goals. GE research is aimed at improving crop yields (which leads to less deforestation) and less reliance on pesticides and fertilisers.

Sure there are potential risks – every new science raises some ecological and ethical questions. That’s exactly why there is research to be done.

AgResearch is performing transgenic research that won’t lead to any genetically modified material leaving the facility.

They comply fully with regulations and are experiencing success in producing proteins in a natural way that will lead to health benefits for consumers and economic advantages for farmers.

We owe it to ourselves to leave the armageddon arguments out of the GE debate and educate ourselves to the true nature of the science.

Education in this area, however, is currently the most unnatural thing of all.

No Inquiry! – NZ Acupuncture Reveals Pseudoscientific Underbelly

I didn’t realise how much crap-based medicine has infiltrated New Zealand until I came back from a working holiday. It seems almost every stretch of road in Auckland has some converted house promoting nonsense as legitimate therapy. Acupuncture is one such investation on the pseudoscientific front. Any increase in acupuncture and Chinese herbal medicine is probably due in part to greater Chinese immigration in the past decade. Acceptance of acupuncture as a conventional, evidence-based modality among the lay public and even GP’s is quite remarkable. So why are acupuncturists scrambling for cover when the word “science” is mentioned or “controlled test”?

Proponents of all pseudosciences wish to have their particular modality or hypothesis to be regarded as legitimate but in most cases avoid the one activity that will grant them that legitimacy: the controlled test. Claims to actual, umambiguous cause and effect is the domain of science so why then do peddlers of acupuncture and the like balk at the mere mention of testing their claims?

In 1995 Carl Sagan, American astronomer and astrobiologist wrote:

“Pseudoscience ripples with gullibility. Superstition and pseudoscience keep getting in the way of understanding nature, providing easy answers, dodging skeptical scrutiny, casually pressing our awe buttons and cheapening the experience, making us routine and comfortable practitioners as well as victims of credulity.

“Those who have something to sell, those who wish to influence public opinion, those in power, a skeptic might suggest, have a vested interest in discouraging skepticism.”

Because pseudoscientists can’t argue with the scientific evidence on their side, they turn to the tried and true tactics of ideological argument that cunningly avoids the most important topic – what does the scientific method reveal about the proponent’s claims?

Since this article is specifically about acupuncture, specifically in New Zealand, I shall address how and what acupuncturists argue, given the facts do not support their claims.

Pseudoscientific arguments by nature rely on logical fallacies and misguided criticism of the evidence. Case in point, probably my favorite humourous quote of 2008 comes from the mouth of Paddy McBride, president of the NZ Register of Acupuncturists. In the August 24, 2008 edition of the Sunday Star Times, McBride was asked what her thoughts were of a book by Simon Singh Ernst entitled Trick or Treat – The Undeniable Facts about Alternative Medicine – a book that specifically looked at the scientific evidence for a number of alternative medicine modalities. Singh and Edzard Ernst are critical of acupuncture claims and say that most are without scientific foundation and that the Qi or ‘life energy’ mechanism that underpins acupuncture is completely unsupported by science.

McBride said acupuncture is particularly effective for chronic conditions, where conventional medicine sometimes falls short. She strongly disagrees with the arguments of Singh and Ernst, saying acupuncturists have no “huge need to prove ourselves to western medical science”. She says acupuncture is difficult to study in the tight frames of clinical trials, such as being double-blind. The clearest results are in patients returning and referring others.

Let’s have hold that comment up again and examine what McBride is really saying:

…acupuncturists have no “huge need to prove ourselves to western medical science”

The critical mind could spend hours ripping that comment to shred so I will just focus on the main points that show how McBride’s comment is utterly ridiculous.

First off the bat, western medical science implies a false dichotomy. Science is science, it is simply a method for investgating nature and causal relationships within nature. There is no western science and there is no eastern science. The best way to investigate the truth value of any claim is to test it in a controlled manner so that all variables that could possibly effect the outcome of the test are accounted for. Science is only a method and so cannot be claimed to be ‘eastern’, ‘western’ or anything other such label. “Western science” is a cynical attempt to frame science as somehow cultural which it is not.

Secondly, this framing of science is a subtle way of dodging the responsibility of proving the claims that acupuncturists make. If their claims were true then the evidence derived from the scientific method would be embraced by acupuncturists with open arms.

Thirdly, dodging the responsibility of proving claims is a way of creating a double standard where one group of medical practitioners must adhere strictly to the evidence and facts and the other escapes this scrutiny. For what reason does the latter group of practitioners feel that they are somehow immune from scientific scrutiny? What if we accept that one group can escape scientific scruitiny and not have to prove that their practises actually work and don’t adversely affect patients? People and groups could then claim anything and there is no standard that we could apply to check validity of the claims. Is this an acceptable way of supporting medical claims given the importance of facts when dealing with a person’s health?

It is also clear that McBride has a very loose standard for evidence. She says patients returning and the number of referrals is a better standard to measure acupuncture by. Anecdotal evidence is a poor indicator of whether something works or not. If anecdotes is all that is used to validate a claim then we’re in the realm of belief and belief is subject to so many cognitive and perceptual flaws that it is practically useless. Again, this is dodging the real issue: does acupuncture work and what does it work for? Little wonder McBride does not like controlled, double-blind studies of acupuncture – the thousands of years old Chinese practise hasn’t survived decades of scientific inquiry. The evidence simply shows it does not work, unless… you’re talking about vague claims such as stress and associtaed symptoms. There is some evidence acupuncture works to relieve pain but the studies are unclear as to why. The scientific study findings of acupuncture will be discussed in forthcoming posts but I will say at this point that the pain relieving effects of acupuncture can be achieved with heat and electricity applied to acupuncture points and other parts of the body. This does not validate the magical claims that are amde by acupuncturists and does suggest that the use of needles is completely unnecessary.

Aside from the points I raise above in response to the notion that acupuncturists have no “huge need to prove ourselves to western medical science”, I will also point out that most pseudoscientific modalities originate from pre-scientific times and cultural forces rather than evidence. In this respect, acupuncture is a superb example and this issue will be the subject of my next acupuncture post.