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From Abracadabra to Zombies

The Skeptic's Dictionary Newsletter

Volume 8 No. 9

September 2, 2009

"In the United States, several million people have succumbed to an extraordinary delusion.... Jesus will return to Earth...."--George Monbiot

In this issue

What's New
Bias in Medical Journals
The Wiki Project
Dinosaurs and other fossils
Science News
Pope reveals who's ruining planet Earth

Excommunication for Italians
Money for Military non-theists
Psychic Kids
Skeptical Blog Anthology
The WHO & homeopathy
Sign of the times?
Google ads
Scum of the minute

What's New?

Entries added to The Skeptic's Dictionary since the last newsletter: atheist bus campaign, Tooth Fairy science & Fairy Tale science, and electro-sensitives and electrohypersensitivity. An entry was also made for DielectroKinetic Laboratories LifeGuard. This page is an update of material posted on the Too Good to Be True page.

The astrology entry has been revised to reflect multi-cultural superstitions. The New Atheism entry has been revised to emphasize the fact that atheism is not a belief system any more than not believing in unicorns or the tooth fairy is a belief system.

Skeptimedia has one new entry, Deadly Delusions, a story of how a man's belief in reincarnation and psychic energy turned deadly.

Reader comments have been posted regarding dowsing and faith.

Several additions were made to the What's the harm? page.

Updates: integrative medicine, past life regression, anti-vaccination movement, homeopathy, young Earth creationists, Scientology, chiropractic, hollow Earth, acupuncture, organic food, Rael, EMFs, intelligent design, Belief Armor, psychics, and atheism.

Bias in Medical Journals

I occasionally get an e-mail diatribe from a woo worshipper who kneels before the altar of personal experience with science-based medicine (bad experience) and some placebo-based medicine (good experience). Because I debunk woo medicine, the writers assume I have nothing but good things to say about Big Pharma, conventional medicine, and medical journals. The writers are inevitably word-challenged, as indicated by a compulsion to spice up the diatribes with vulgar language and puerile attempts at humor referring to male genitalia. I don't bother to reply but if I did I would refer them to my articles on Statistics and Medical Studies, Fraud and Bias in Medical Research, and Big Pharma: the bad, the good, and the really ugly. Unhappily, there is more bad news on the medical journal front.

The pharmaceutical firm Wyeth paid a medical communications firm to write articles for medical journals that would promote its sale of hormone drugs. Hired ghostwriters produced 26 scientific papers backing the use of hormone replacement therapy in women. The articles were published in medical journals between 1998 and 2005. By 2001 Wyeth's sales of hormone drugs reached nearly $2 billion. The goose stopped laying golden eggs in 2002 when researchers found that menopausal women who took certain hormones increased their risk of breast cancer, heart disease, and stroke. (A later study found that hormones increased the risk of dementia in older patients.)

The New York Times writes that the disclosure suggests "that the level of hidden industry influence on medical literature is broader than previously known." Wyeth claims the papers were scientifically accurate and that it was common practice to hire writers to "assist authors in drafting manuscripts." It appears, however, that the authors whose names appear on the published pieces often did little more than proofread the paper and make suggestions or corrections. According to the NY Times:

The ghostwritten papers were typically review articles, in which an author weighs a large body of medical research and offers a bottom-line judgment about how to treat a particular ailment. The articles appeared in 18 medical journals, including The American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology and The International Journal of Cardiology.

The articles did not disclose Wyeth’s role in initiating and paying for the work. Elsevier, the publisher of some of the journals, said it was disturbed by the allegations of ghostwriting and would investigate.

Elsevier might consider having an unbiased party do the investigation. Earlier this year, it was reported that pharmaceutical giant Merck created a phony journal (Australasian Journal of Bone and Joint Medicine) to publish favorable-looking data for its products. Elsevier chief executive Michael Hansen admitted that between 2000 and 2005 the company's Australia office published a series of sponsored articles in six different publications that were made to look like journals and lacked proper disclosure. He didn't name the other publications or drug companies but he did say: "“I want to assure our authors, editors, and customers that the integrity of our peer reviewed research journals has not been compromised in any way. These guidelines will help ensure that there is no confusion between these special compilations and our core collection of primary research journals."*

update: 18 September 2009. Medical Editors Push for Ghostwriting Crackdown "....some influential medical editors are cracking down on industry-financed ghostwriting. And they are getting help from some members of Congress....In an editorial last week calling for a zero tolerance policy, the editors of the medical journal PLoS Medicine, from the Public Library of Science, called for journals to identify and retract ghostwritten articles and banish their authors"

Senator Charles E. Grassley, R-Iowa, wrote letters to eight leading medical journals asking about their ghostwriting policies and whether the journals had taken action against any author who had failed to report the involvement of a ghostwriter. No action's been taken but one editor, using some splendid doublespeak, said his journal didn't have a specific policy on ghostwriting because his journal prohibits the practice.

update: 2 Feb 2010. Med schools not responding to ghostwriting scandals The open access journal PLoS Medicine has been at the forefront of a closely related issue: full disclosure. In 2009, it was on the winning side of a suit that helped reveal the extent of ghostwriting in the biomedical literature. The practice, in which pharmaceutical companies pay for the production of a medical research article without the activity being disclosed, can distort the scientific record. Now, the journal has published a new study that indicates few of the top medical schools have any policy in place to govern ghostwriting among their faculty.

WikiProject: Rational Skepticism

I found this while following a link in Daniel Loxton's article in eSkeptic: Fix Wikipedia.

This WikiProject aims primarily to coordinate the efforts of Wikipedians who wish to promote science and reason in an effort to improve the general quality and range of Wikipedia articles on various topics, while maintaining the NPOV.

The goals of this WikiProject are as follows:

1. To create new articles relating to science and reason.

2. To create new Wikipedia articles regarding those topics not yet covered by Wikipedia, but which are covered by The Skeptic's Dictionary.

I don't know whether I should be flattered or irritated. Am I being held up as a standard to imitate or am I being told that Wikipedia needs to cover what I cover but do it better? I don't know, but the idea of fixing Wikipedia is a noble one. Can it work with articles on quackery, the paranormal, the supernatural, and pseudoscience? In theory, it could. In practice, it's been done: see the Wikipedia entry on homeopathy.

If you are interested in fixing Wikipedia, read Tim Farley's "Why skeptics should pay close attention to Wikipedia."

Dinosaur Bible Land

Kent Hovind's creationism theme park with the intentionally misleading name of "Dinosaur Adventure Land" may be sold to pay back taxes. Hovind is in federal prison serving a ten-year term for not paying the IRS. He's a minister and the founder of Creation Science Evangelism. Rather than try to bring creationism to the schools, Hovind's plan was to bring the schoolchildren to his creationist theme park. He avoided the kind of courtroom battle that went on in Dover, PA, but even ministers have to pay taxes. U.S. District Judge Casey Rodgers ruled that the nine properties that make up Dinosaur Adventure Land, as well as two bank accounts associated with the park, will be used to satisfy $430,400 owed to the federal government.*

Hovind claimed that he was employed by God and his employees were ministers and were not subject to payroll taxes. He was found guilty in November 2006 on 58 counts, including failure to pay employee taxes and making threats against investigators. The IRS spent 17 years dealing with Hovind before they sent him to prison. Hovind claims that he doesn't own the properties being seized, but according to documents filed by the U.S. Attorney's Office he made a series of quick transfers to his business partner to conceal his ownership.

Hovind is a former public school science teacher.

Science News

Scientists have photographed "upwards lightning" (aka "gigantic jets") for the first time. This rarely-seen phenomenon occurs when electricity from storms flows into the upper atmosphere. The photo was taken during last year's Tropical Storm Cristobal when the lightning reached more than 60km (40 miles) into the upper atmosphere.

Roman Catholic Pope blames materialistic atheists for ruining Earth

In an address to pilgrims hanging around the courtyard of his summer palace, Benedict XVI asked the luminaries there gathered, rhetorically of course: Is it not true that inconsiderate use of creation begins where God is marginalized or also where his existence is denied? No, Benny, it is not true. Most of the destruction of our planet has come from God-loving folks like yourself.

Even more absurd was Benny's assertion that "If the human creature's relationship with the Creator weakens, matter is reduced to egoistic possession, man becomes the ‘final authority,’ and the objective of existence is reduced to a feverish race to possess the most possible." Actually, where the relationship with the imagined Creator is strong, men's egos expand exponentially to make room for all the delusions they have about understanding "God's plan" and how this Creator wants people to think and act. These deluded characters then claim to speak as the 'final authority' on all matters. It is ridiculous to claim that secularists have a lock on the desire to possess things. It is true, however, that secularists do want to possess many goods made possible by the advancement of science and technology. So do theists. What's so wrong about wanting a comfortable life in a society that considers it essential to make sure that its citizens are offered a good secular education, the best in scientific-based medicine, and other material goods?

If I were wont to generalize about who would be more likely to be a good steward of Earth, theists or secularists, I would not put my faith in theists. Has anyone reading this gone into a religiously dominated community and been overwhelmed by the feeling that these people really care for the Earth? Too many religious people think Earth is here to be exploited or is just a temporary abode that's going to be destroyed soon anyway according to prophecy.

Terry Sanderson, President of the National Secular Society had this to say about Benedict's proclamation: "This is rich coming from the leader of an organisation that has plundered the world to enrich itself. As he sits in his golden palaces, surrounded by unimaginable luxury and material wealth, he lectures the rest of us about restraint and greed. We have nothing to learn about environmentalism from this hypocrite."

reader comments

In your September 2 newsletter you make claims such as:

"Most of the destruction of our planet has come from God-loving folks like yourself." (Referring to the pope.)

"If I were wont to generalize about who would be more likely to be a good steward of Earth, theists or secularists, I would not put my faith in theists."

"Too many religious people think Earth is here to be exploited or is just a temporary abode that's going to be destroyed soon anyway according to prophecy."

So my question to you is: What is the evidence that environmental groups are dominated by secularists? The folks I know who are members of the Sierra Club, Arbor Day Foundation, et al. are theists or not about in proportion to the general population. (I do not offer my small sample of observations as convincing evidence, of course, but it's not like I've noticed that almost all environmentalists are secularists and that there is not a single rabid Christian in the lot.)

While your above claims might be accurate, do you have hard evidence or are your claims based on personal observation?


reply: You caught me in one of those nasty deliverances where I exaggerate. This time I was packing trash into the concept of 'theist' the way many theists have done to the term 'atheist.' Most people are theists so it is most likely that most stewards of the Earth are theists. That, of course, does not imply that most destroyers of the planet are atheists. The destroyers are also most likely theists. There is, of course, no evidence that secularists are or will be good stewards of the Earth, since there are so few of us and we're not organized. I think those theists who oppose all abortions, and certainly those who oppose birth control, have no concern for overpopulation and the eventual destruction of the Earth that will follow. These theists deserve the appellation destroyers of the Earth. On the other hand, there are probably some secularists who oppose all abortions, though I don't have the data to back that up.

My claims about secularists and theists regarding taking care of the Earth are not based on observation, not true (as far as I know), are meant to piss off theists in return for how they have pissed me off with their absurd claims about atheists. For more on how I feel about the way theists have characterized atheists, see my essay "Why I am not an atheist."

Excommunication for Italians

Italy has authorized the use of the abortion drug Mifepristone, also known as RU-486. The Roman Catholic Church has threatened to excommunicate any doctor who prescribes the pill, any woman who takes it, and anyone who encourages its use.* Use of the drug and Church policy should help clear the pews in a generation or two. Maybe the Church needs the wood to carve statues for all its newly canonized saints.

Money for military non-theists

The Military Association of Atheists and Freethinkers (MAAF) is partnering with the Secular Student Alliance to award $500 to a student leader who has demonstrated excellence in both military and non-theist activities. Applications are being taken through October 13th, 2009.

Another reason not to watch television

The Biography Channel has a new program: "Psychic Investigators." You can guess at its content. Deborah Heinecker, an accountant in Reidsville, North Carolina, will be one of those featured. She discovered she was psychic in 1991 when she helped police find a "missing canine."* Psychic Investigators takes its place alongside another Biography Channel favorite: Psychic Kids: Children of the Paranormal. (Check out the video. If this isn't child abuse, give me another word for it.)

ABC considers this news! (Probably to promote 20/20 where the viewer could get "the full story" on psychic kids.)

For more debunking, see my Crazy Therapies & Psychic Kids and Child's Play: Pretending to be Psychic.

Anyone who thinks there is no harm in believing in psychics and mediums, should watch these expoitainment programs that reveal how belief in the paranormal has led to the abuse of some of our children and their families.

Skeptical Blog Anthology

The Young Australian Skeptics and the Critical Teaching Education Group (CTEG) are accepting submissions for a skeptical blog anthology that will be made available for purchase via Lulu.com in both a print and portable document format (pdf). Publication is scheduled for early in 2010.

Entry forms are available at  http://www.youngausskeptics.com/anthology/

Entries can be self-nominated or proposed by readers of skeptical blogs.

According to a press release:

The anthology is an attempt to bring a greater awareness of the skeptical content on blog sites and showcase some of the range and diversity in the blogosphere. With a combined aim to provide text-based resources to classes and general readers who may be interested or intrigued by what skepticism has to offer, entries from January 1st to December 1st 2009 are eligible for submission. 

So, what are you waiting for? Nominate something by Ben Goldacre, Phil Plait, Massimo Pigliucci, the regulars in the Skeptics' Circle, the folks at Science-Based Medicine and Skepticblog; or something from Skeptimedia, the SkepBitch or the Skepchicks; or the best from your favorite skeptical blog.

The WHO and homeopathy

This just in from Dr. Leonor Sierra, Scientific Liaison, Sense About Science:

In June, Voice of Young Science joined with other early career medics and researchers in Africa and wrote an open letter to the WHO, calling on the body to condemn the promotion of homeopathy for treating HIV, malaria, TB, infant diarrhea and influenza.

The WHO has responded and said that it DOES NOT recommend the use of homeopathy for treating HIV, TB, malaria, influenza and infant diarrhea. The office of Dr Margaret Chan, Director-General of WHO, stated on 14th August 2009 that these responses “clearly express the WHO’s position”. Today the Voice of Young Science network, has written to the health ministers of all countries to publicize the WHO’s position, asking them to combat the promotion of homeopathy for these dangerous diseases. The story can be found on the BBC website and at Sense about Science.

We think it is a fantastic step forward, creating an authoritative reference point for those of us who are battling these ludicrous claims in the field and trying to ensure good health care. It is only as a big step as we can make it and we want to ensure it doesn’t get buried. Already many people are writing to their regional healthcare practices in Africa, alerting their local professional networks and putting up comments on blogs and news websites.

For more information, see the BBC news story.

Sign of the times?

The National Shooting Sports Foundation, Inc. estimates there will be about 9.5 billion bullets produced in the US this year, a 25% increase over last year. Gun sales have increased 22%. Peter Hamm credits the NRA for the increased sales in arms. The NRA runs a website called GunbaNObama.org whose only purpose is to scare people into buying guns and ammo by claiming that Obama will be the most anti-gun President in American history.

Google ads

Several readers have noted that some of the pages on the Skeptic's Dictionary have Google ads for Scientology. Ads for psychics appear frequently as well. I have no control over what ads Google runs on my pages except, of course, to have no ads at all. If anyone is willing to pay me $1,000/mo. to stop running Google ads, I will be happy to oblige. Until then, however, offensive ads will pop up here and there; some people will click on them; Google will charge Scientology or some faux psychic for the click and pass on to me some of the money it collects. The money I receive from Google, Amazon, and the other advertisers on my web pages helps pay for running the website, buying books to keep up with the kinds of things I write about, and an occasional cup of coffee.

Most people who use the World Wide Web understand that web owners don't necessarily recommend the products or services they advertise. I don't feel a need, as some skeptical sites do, to place disclaimers near ads to remind the viewer that I have no control over the content of Google ads. Google may run ads for psychics, religions, quack remedies and therapies, and pseudoscientific devices. It won't (knowingly) run ads for pornography or illegal activities. In the meantime, I'm still waiting for an offer to run an ad for a skeptical book or magazine. Until skeptics, scientists, and science-based medical professionals start throwing money my way to advertise their services or products, I'm afraid Google ads will have to continue to annoy the occasional reader.

Speaking of ads....

Please support those who advertise on The Skeptic's Dictionary website. In addition to Google and Amazon, advertisers include those offering costumes (on the Skeptic's Halloween page) and substance abuse treatments (on the codependency, detox, and substance abuse pages). The ads on the homepage offer everything from sunglasses and furniture to places to stay in Las Vegas or Sardinia.

Scum of the minute

Although Kent Hovind and Ken Ham received the most votes, the award goes to Space Diamond for its effort to sell gift certificates for the first diamonds harvested in places like "a white dwarf star in the constellation of Centaurus."

Magniwork deserves the award, but since the claim to be able to provide free energy and "Never Have To Pay A Single Dime to the Power Company" is so unoriginal, they'll have to be satisfied with my dishonorable mention.

* AmeriCares *

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