From Abracadabra to Zombies
The Skeptic's Dictionary Newsletter
Volume 14 No. 11
“Quantum mechanics, the centerpiece of modern physics, is misinterpreted as implying that the human mind controls reality and that the universe is one connected whole that cannot be understood by the usual reduction to parts.” ― Victor Stenger
Updates: Robert O. Young (alkaline diet) goes on trial; natural cures: Brian Clement still at it; and Warrior Cops: keeping track of killing cops; free energy: Shaun McCarthy's perpetual energy scams; psychic surgeon Stephen Turoff claims another victim; New Age energy & scientific illiteracy.
Deepak's Quantum Erasure of the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi
In the latest Skeptical Inquirer (v. 40, 1), Sadri Hassani details Deepak Chopra's inane attempt to erase his indebtedness to Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, guru to the Beatles and other celebrities, one quantum deletion at a time. The first printing of Quantum Healing (1989), the book that put Chopra on every skeptic's list of pseudohealers, is dedicated to the Maharishi ("great seer"). By the 15th printing of the book, there is no mention of the Maharishi. The dedication is gone, as are all references to the guru whose name Deepak placed at the front of the Ayurvedic Health Center he set up when he quit science-based medicine in 1985. Gone, too, is the reference to Maharishi's two books listed in the first 14 or 15 printings. There are now only nine books listed in the bibliography, but the following statement by Chopra still remains: "I enthusiastically recommend the following eleven books...."
Hassani is a physicist who, like every physicist I've read who has been exposed to the quantum healing claims of Chopra, regards him as a crank. Chopra's "indiscriminate use of words such as quantum, energy, field, and non-locality," writes Hassani, "renders them as frivolous as a burp after a course of tandoori chicken."
Chopra may have ridden in on the saffron robes of his guru, but he's now claiming to be extending the work of Einstein, Heisenberg, and Max Planck. Hassani calls this revisionist self-history a swindle. Chopra, he says, lacks "professional integrity." No kidding.
It must be comforting to believe that mind creates reality, that sickness and aging are illusions we can control by our thoughts, and that the universe itself is conscious or came about by the will of some singular mind. Stories of cosmic consciousness or of gods with the ability to create and alter reality at will may have filled the smoky air around the first campfires of our ancestors. A hundred thousand years later, people are still attracted like moths to the flame with a promise of controlling anything you wish with only your mind and will. These ideas don't resonate here; they seem obviously, palpably false. They may have been attractive and enlivening in primeval times, but today they are fairy tales we tell our children when we want them to go to sleep.
What can I say that hasn't already been said? "Find your fullness"? "Live in the moment of infinite awareness"? "Bundle your soul to the harmony of blissful eternity"? "Turn inward to reverse the polarity of your soul and redirect the implosion of grace"? Or?
A New Year's Resolution
I'm going to try to be kinder and more considerate next year by reminding myself that when anyone publicly and gratuitously ridicules a total stranger, the hurt being done to that human being can be devastating and grossly disproportionate to whatever that person did to trigger one's cheap shot to get a bullylaugh. Obviously, I do not intend to avoid ridiculing and insulting the Deepaks and Van Praaghs of the world. They are not innocent victims of abuse, but deserving and consenting adults whose feelings need never be spared by critics of their malignant viperism.
My resolution came about after reading a news story about Caitlin Upton, the South Carolina contestant in the 2007 Miss Teen USA competition whose rambling answer to a question about Americans who can't point out the U.S. on a map resulted in a flurry of You Tube postings and filled the news media and the blogosphere with seemingly limitless ridicule of the young girl. Ms. Upton's public and incessant humiliation led her to "some very dark moments where I thought about committing suicide," she told New York magazine.
Is a cheap laugh worth driving a young person to contemplate suicide? I don't think so.
The More Things Change....
Looking back over an earlier posting on acupuncture and other alternatives to medicine, I was struck by how little has changed. Eight years ago I posted a review of R. Barker Bausell's Snake Oil Science: The Truth about Complementary and Alternative Medicine. Bausell is an expert in biostatistics and served for five years as the director of research at the University of Maryland's NIH-funded Complementary Medicine Program (now called the Center for Integrative Medicine). He knows how to tell a well designed medical study from a faulty or incompetent one, and he knows how to evaluate the statistical data that is the backbone of such studies. He was involved in designing and overseeing a number of acupuncture trials. In a newsletter posted soon after reviewing Bausell's book, I wrote:
Many people seem to think that acupuncture is effective medicine because they've experienced its wonderful effects or they read somewhere that sticking needles in people stimulates the release of endorphins and other chemicals that relieve pain. What most people don't seem to know is that it has been shown in clinical trials that the stimulation of the opioid system is at least part of the mechanism at work in the placebo effect. Classical conditioning seems clearly to be at work in this aspect of placebos that relieve pain. (For those who know that acupuncture is not a placebo because it works on their dog or cat, I recommend they recall what they probably learned in high school about Pavlov and his dogs. Pet lovers shouldn't forget that their pet can be conditioned by visits to the vet. Studies have shown that dogs that have been injected with morphine will react physiologically to a later injection of saline solution as if they'd been given morphine. Furthermore, pets are subject to many of the same things that humans are, e.g., natural history of illnesses, pains and disorders that ebb and flow, etc.)
A typical example of an incompetent acupuncture study was published in 2006 in the journal Complementary Therapies in Medicine (Volume 15, Issue 4, pp. 228-237). It's called "The management of cancer-related fatigue after chemotherapy with acupuncture and acupressure: A randomised controlled trial." I discuss this paper in detail in my entry on acupuncture. The paper compares a small group of patients given acupuncture treatment in a clinical setting for three weeks (two 20-minute sessions each week) to two other groups, whose members gave themselves acupressure treatment at home for two weeks (one minute a day). The headline in New Scientist for a report on this study reads: "Acupuncture relieves cancer chemotherapy fatigue." Maybe it does, but this study couldn't show it. Among other obvious problems, there was no control for a placebo effect. Any measurable relief from fatigue could have been temporary and due to the expectation and belief of the participants and the comfort they received by being given attention during the treatments in a setting of encouragement.
Even more interesting, from the point of view of trying to understand why people believe that acupuncture is effective when well designed clinical trials show that it's a placebo, is the fact that many people report noticeable physiological effects or relief from pain after getting acupuncture. Many of these people also report that they'd tried several other therapies before getting the acupuncture. The fact that many people report exactly the same things after a placebo treatment is often dismissed as irrelevant. Finally, you often hear the claim that acupuncture (or whatever CAM flavor-of-the day is in vogue) doesn't work for everybody to explain why other people's anecdotes don't jibe with the true believer's.
Nothing's changed. Defenders of so-called integrative medicine still think they have good scientific evidence that acupuncture relieves pain and nausea, while skeptics still shake our heads that these good folks don't see that the studies keep showing that acupuncture is placebo medicine. Why the continued impasse? Bausell's answer is that people are ignorant of the placebo effect and of a few other artifacts that accompany most CAM studies and treatments. Placebo effects "are ultimately built upon human frailty and they depend upon ignorance (or misconceptions) for their continued effectiveness."
Am I Being Punked?
I received this email today (12/17/2015):
Dear Professor Carroll:
I responded that I was too busy reading butts to be on the show, but there are about 18 million experts getting practice watching debates on CNN. Maybe one of them would fill in for me.
The FDA requests comments on use of the term 'natural' in food labeling
Skeptics know the term 'natural' leads the pack of misleading words used by promoters of natural foods, natural cures, natural health, natural antibiotics, natural laxatives, etc. The FDA aims to fix part of that. Not really. Nobody can fix this. But it is asking for suggestions on how, if at all, 'natural' should be defined for food labeling. Maybe we should just ban the use of the word 'natural' in all advertising and product labeling. Or go to a complex system by stipulating various types of natural, e.g., wild strawberries would be natural1, farmed strawberries would be natural2, strawberries in jam would be natural 3, strawberries genetically modified in the lab would be natural4, etc. Anyway, the FDA can't do this alone and it wants your help. You have until February 10, 2016, to give your input.
My main objections to the use of 'natural' in food labeling are 1) there is a false implication that the product is good or healthy or free from processing; 2) 'natural' has virtually no cognitive meaning in food labeling; it is used for emotive purposes only, like 'farm fresh' or 'healthy'. Pillsbury once sold--it may still sell, for all I know--a package of cookies labeled "Natural Chocolate Flavored Chocolate Chip Cookies" that listed artificial flavorings and BHA as ingredients. Is a cookie with artificial flavoring natural? Is any cookie natural? William Lutz (Doublespeak 1989) contacted Pillsbury and was told that 'natural' modifies 'chocolate flavored' not 'cookie.' Lutz commented: “You’d better brush up on the syntactic structure of modification if you want to be able to read food labels these days.”
In one of the FDA's regulations, it took 4,600 words to explain the difference between 'natural' and 'artificial.' In the year 2000, it took the FDA 3,000 words to define 'organic.' When the FDA is finished working on defining 'natural', it might consider explaining how milk whose fat content makes up about one-third of its calories can be labeled 2% fat?
If this topic is of interest to you, you might check out chapter two of my text on critical thinking: Language and Critical Thinking.
Pigeons to replace pathologists?
I'm sure you've wondered, as I have after my third or fourth glass of Merlot: how well would pigeons do at pathology tests? Fortunately, Prof. Edward Wasserman of the University of Iowa and Prof. Richard Levenson of the University of California, Davis, wondered the same thing. In a scientific paper published online Nov. 18 in the journal PLOS One, they found that after two weeks of training, their pigeons reached a level of 85% accuracy in identifying cancerous tissue from images they had not seen before. They also tried "flock-sourcing," pooling the decisions from a group of four birds, and the birds reached 99% accuracy in diagnosis. Unfortunately, the pigeons were not good at classifying suspicious masses, so unless they learn to recognize lumps with malignant potential, their employment may be limited to reading slides.
Seasons Greetings: There will always be light and lightness
Uncontrollable cruelty and destructiveness may surround us and lead us to the edge of despair, but even when the insanity and pointlessness of violence seems unbearable there is always light and lightness somewhere. There will still be smiles and jokes, babies burping, scholars reading and debating, scientists and explorers discovering new truths, natural wonders, and minds creating beautiful and inspiring works. Ordinary life will go on amidst the vileness and depravity. For every unspeakable act of horror that arouses our disgust, there are countless acts of decency to lift us up and remind us that despite the seeming endlessness of evil, there is much good waiting to embrace us if we let it. We need not die a thousand little deaths a day at the hands of anonymous monsters. We have every right to be enraged a thousand times a day, but we do ourselves great harm if we let rage be our guide. However hard it may be, we must smile, we must laugh, we must continue to explore and discover, to be human.