Archive for health

Brauer: Natural Quackery

Posted in health, pseudoscience with tags , , , , , on June 1, 2010 by cpolsonb

I was in a local pharmacy the other day when, as I normally do I sought out the “natural” alternatives that were made available. I guess I do this in the hope that once, just once the pharmacy won’t be selling utter nonsense to an unsuspecting and trusting public. That day has not yet come and as usual I located the rather extensive homeopathic range by Brauer Natural Medicine. Brauer is the quack medicine distributor I most commonly see in local Perth pharmacies and I have had the privilege of personally testing their product by taking a “dangerous” overdose of homeopathic pills as part of this years 10:23 challenge. So anyway, on this particular trip to the pharmacy I decided to pick up one of the free “product selector” booklets that Brauer medicine produce to peddle their snake oil. In this blog entry I present for you a quick run-down on what Brauer says about their product, why science says it’s total nonsense and why it is dangerous.

I won’t get into a long discussion about the history and nature of homeopathy as I wish to focus on the specific case of Brauer medicine. For a more detailed and referenced rundown on why homeopathy is bunk please check out these excellent resources: The 10:23 Website, The Skeptics Dictionary, SkepticWiki, Quackwatch. For a very quick rundown homeopathy is a system of claimed alternative medicine invented in 1796 by Samuel Hahnemann. Since it’s invention it’s core beliefs have remained unchanged despite the world’s advancements in health and medicine including the discovery of viruses, bacterial infection, cancers, vaccines and genetics. It is by all accounts a relic of medieval thinking from a time when the leading hypothesis was that sickness was a result of imbalances in the four bodily humors (blood, phlegm, black bile and yellow bile). Homeopathy itself is based on three laws; the law of similars, the law of infinitesimals and the law of succussion.

The law of similars says that in order to cure a problem you need to consume whatever causes the problem. This extends to such things as caffeine for sleep disorders, sore eyes with onion and rashes with poison ivy.

The law of infinitesimals says that the more diluted a substance the stronger it’s medicinal effect. This means that the vast majority of homeopathic solutions are diluted to the point that not a single molecule of the active ingredient remains, including dilutions of 1:1000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000. Of course even if some of the active ingredient remained, the ingredient itself is worthless medically.

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Electron Boy Saves the Day!

Posted in health, News with tags , on May 8, 2010 by cpolsonb

I love this story, I really do. This is just so awesome and touching that I had to write about it. No it’s not really a science or skepticism piece but my gosh, it’s just so cool.

Everyone has heard of the Make-A-Wish foundation right? They are a charity that arranges special occasions, trips and meetings for terminally ill children. It began in Phoenix Arizona in 1980 when seven year old leukemia patient Christopher Greicius was granted his wish of being a police officer for day. The media coverage of the event prompted the founding of a national organization which soon went international and now operates in more than 30 countries. Tragically Christopher Greicius died of his illness just four days after his wish came true.

Just last month one particularly special wish came true and garnered international attention. 13 year old Seattle resident and liver cancer patient Erik Martin was granted his wish of becoming a superhero. Thus began the amazing story of Erik Martin Electron Boy and his amazing lightning rod! Erik was met by Spiderman in the morning (one of Electron Boys pals), who asked for his help in freeing the Seattle Sounders who were imprisoned in their locker room by Dr. Dark and Blackout Boy. Electron Boy quickly put on his costume and hopped in the Electron Mobile driven by Moonshine Maid went to the rescue. Oh and I musn’t forget the 20 motorcycle officer escort along the closed off main road!

Upon arrival Electron Boy met up with Lightning Lad who gave him the lightning rod which he promptly used to free the Sounders. After many heartfelt thanks from the team and a re-energizing power up secret handshake from Lightning Lad Electron Boy went onto the oval where he was awarded a signed football and personalized jersey. But the trouble wasn’t over because over the Jumbotron Dr. Dark and Blackout Boy announced that they planned to take over Seattle and make it dark! Electron Boy was off to the rescue and hopping in the Electron Mobile went and freed the head of the local electric company from atop a cherry picker. After that he needed to free some workers from a trapped elevator and then prepare for the final confrontation. In a battle of epic proportions Electron Boy faced up against the evil duo and managed to freeze them with his lightning rod.

All in all hundreds of people were involved in the occasion. The day was executed flawlessly in a light-hearted and feel good manner that left everyone smiling. Not only were the local police force and football team part of it but many local actors were given roles and hundreds of electric company employees gathered to cheer Electron Boy on. After the final battle Seattle City Councilwoman Sally Bagshaw granted Electron Boy the key to the city and announced that Thursday would be known as Electron Boy Day. Erik was clearly enjoying himself the whole time despite his ailment. He did have one thing to say though:

“This is the best day of my life.”

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Images Courtesy of Seattle Times

In Dog We Trust – The Case For Man’s Best Friend

Posted in biology, personal views with tags , , , on April 20, 2010 by cpolsonb

According to a recent survey about 36% of households in the USA have at least one dog. According to the Pet Food Institute this totals to around 57.6 million dogs, meaning there are nearly 3 times the amount of dogs in America as there are humans in Australia. Americans spend around $5.6 billion on food for their dogs and the American Veterinary Medical Association estimates around $7 billion dollars are spent annually on keeping dogs healthy. Why and how are humans so connected to an entirely separate and distantly related species like Canis familiaris? What makes dogs stand out from other domesticated animals and what can the study of human-canine co-habitation tell us about our own evolutionary history?

Let’s start with a very brief look at the ancestry of both dogs and humans. The canine group has its origins in North America and were originally small forest dwelling carnivores around the size of a fox. When open herd grazing ungulates like horse and antelope began to dominate the vast plains of North America the ancient canines radiated out from the forest onto the open ground. This created a canine ancestor that began evolving into a swift pack hunter in order to tackle the ungulate herds. It is thought that some of these ancestors migrated over the Bering straight into Asia, Europe and Africa around 10 million years ago. Over the next few million years these canids formed into the wolves, jackals, coyotes and painted dogs (not actually ‘dogs’) that we are familiar with today. The grey wolf (Canis lupus), the species from which domestic dogs arose evolved at the end of the Late Pleistocene around 300,000 years ago.

Meanwhile in Africa the ancestors of humans had been evolving steadily. The earliest member of the homo genus is currently identified as Homo habilis who lived from around 2.4-1.4 million years ago. Homo habilis was already using stone tools though it’s leg structure was more suited to tree dwelling than plains walking. After (and alongside) habilis arose Homo ergaster, who later gave rise to Homo erectus and Homo antecessor. Erectus and Antecessor were the first human ancestors to move far out of Africa and into Asia and Europe, both around 1.2 million years ago. Then from Antecessor came Rhodesiensis which finally evolved into Homo sapiens and Homo neanderthalensis. Homo sapiens have lived from around 250,000 years ago till present while poor old neanderthalensis disappeared around 30,000 years ago. So while canid ancestors beat us into Europe and Asia by a good margin the grey wolf from which dogs evolved arose at around the same time as modern humans.

The exact circumstances surrounding the first co-habitations of wolf and man are not known but evidence suggests the earliest interactions took place more than 100,000 years ago. Even before this time it is thought that humans may have been observing and learning from the wolves about how to hunt large ungulates on the tundra. What is known is that by 30,000 years ago dogs had split from wolves and were living alongside humans. The earliest clearly identified dog skeleton was found in Belgium and dates to 31,000 years ago. The March 2010 edition of the Journal Nature published a study that looked at tracing the geographic origins of the domestic dog using genetic markers. The genetic evidence shows that the domestic dog originated in the Middle-East, rather than East Asia as previously thought. It is logical to assume therefore that if the oldest dog remains we have are from Western Europe but dogs evolved in the Mid-East then the split must have taken placed many thousands of years before our oldest skeleton.

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“The Bad Man Punted Baxter”

Posted in conspiracy thinking, health, pseudoscience, skepticism with tags , , , on February 19, 2010 by cpolsonb

A couple of weeks back I received a private message on a forum I frequent that is completely unrelated to skepticism. The forum is westgamer, a discussion site for fellow West Australians who are fans of the nerdier side of life (table-top gaming especially). A friend of mine had recently started an off-topic thread on “conspiracy theories” and I’d challenged a few of the things he had to say. A couple of private messages were sent back and forth culminating in him sending a few consecutive challenges for me to investigate. First up was a real softball for debunkers:

“So been checking out more conspiracy type stuff, and came across a book called the Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion. Was wondering if you have done any research into this subject and what your thoughts are on it.”

To which I replied.

“I hadn’t heard out this book in particular before you brought it to my attention but I’m very familiar with the family of conspiracies it falls into (that being anti-jewish conspiracies).

Even a rudimentary search on non-conspiracy peddling websites quickly reveals the book to be a hoax for a whole host of reasons. It’s actually quite interesting that this book is viewed widely as the beginning of contemporary conspiracy literature. I admit that most of what I read about it is from the wiki article (and the references that lead from it). There just doesn’t seem to be enough in this one to deserve a closer look, it’s been thoroughly debunked since the 1920’s. It is summed up nicely as follows “It is also one of the best-known and most-discussed examples of literary forgery, with analysis and proof of its fraudulent origin going as far back as 1921.” It’s really just a hate-filled anti-jewish hoax for which the only arguments as to it’s validity are necessarily improbable, improvable and immature.

Awesome find though, it’s great to read about this sort of stuff. If you find anything else of stand-out interest throw them my way as well. I hope you don’t take personal offence at any criticisms I have though. I very little patience for conspiracies like the above though, ones that are bred purely from prejudice and bigotry against a people who have suffered horrific injustices.”

He followed that one up though with a much meatier, much more complex and challenging to debunk conspiracy theory. I’ll post his message followed by my reply in full. One massive regret is that I didn’t reference my reply to him (something which I endeavour to do in all similar instances). So in the meantime before I find time to go back and fully reference my reply if there are any particular points you’d like to challenge or see a reference for just leave a comment in the post notes. Bare with me there was a lot of mis-information to wade through :P

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Diet Dilemma? What’s the Catch?

Posted in conspiracy thinking, health, pseudoscience, skepticism with tags , , , , on February 17, 2010 by cpolsonb

While stopping by my former workplace just a few days ago I came face to face yet again with one of my most hated conspiracy theories/pseudosciences. A friend and ex workmate of mine Drew asked whether I still suffer from the regular headaches that plagued me while I worked there. “Why yes” I replied and briefly mentioned some medical avenues I’m exploring to treat them. His follow up was “because I was speaking to Troy the other day and he was telling me about how diet coke can lead all sorts of problems like headaches”. Drew went on to mention how the artificial sweetener aspartame has been linked to all sorts of problems and cited a study on rats as evidence. Now Drew is a nice guy, he was genuinely interested in what I had to say and seemed to take a lot on board. The Aspartame scare was nothing new to me; in fact it is one of the most common examples of scientific paranoia that I encounter in day to day life. Let’s take a look at some of the claims from aspartame critics and evaluate the scientific evidence. I could never dream of covering such a broad topic in real depth but I wish to draw attention to a few main points.

I’ll start with a very brief and non-technical overview of aspartame. Discovered in 1965 aspartame’s chemical name is aspartyl-phenylalanine-1-methyl ester. It is one of the most commonly used artificial sweeteners world wide and is only applied in relatively small amounts (it’s around 180 times sweeter than sugar). If you’re a fan of diet drinks like Diet Coke, Pepsi Max, Sprite Zero etc. then you almost certainly consume aspartame on a regular basis.

Aspartame sits in big pile along with mercury-amalgam fillings, vaccines, fluoridated water, food from the microwave, bottled water and many other byproducts of science that are criticized heavily despite having been studied intensively and proven to be safe for regular use. A literature review examining the body of peer-reviewed research surrounding aspartame published in the journal of “Regulatory Toxicology and Pharmacology” found the following:

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