How Was Your Stuff-Your-Face-With-Chocolate Week?

Those of you who live in a Christian-majority country will be fully aware that last week was Easter. Despite the fact that it is a religious holiday I still enjoy celebrating it, mostly because I interpret it as a holiday that is all about cooking and eating awesome food, especially anything with chocolate in it.

So, these are the highlights of the past week, with an actual point of discussion at the end. For the tl;dr, go ahead and skip to the last part below the fold.

This year, Catholic and Orthodox Easter fell on the same day, and half of the people who came over for Easter were raised Orthodox, so I decided to incorporate some Orthodox food  and traditions into the meal. I found an excellent recipe for Cozonac, a traditional Romanian Easter sweetbread, on a food blog, and I was very proud of myself when I managed to make it with no tunnels or failures in rising. We also played what I call “the egg game”, which involves everyone picking a colored hard boiled egg. They then are supposed to say “Christ has risen” (though we left out that part) in whichever language they happen to speak, then bonk the two eggs together. One will crack and the other will not, so eventually one egg emerges victorious. We also made leg of lamb, sweet potatoes, baby potatoes, asparagus and brownies. We stuffed our faces and got drunk on red wine.

I came over all giddy as, at the tender age of 29, I bought my first ever motorized vehicle: a 50cc Honda scooter to get my butt to work. I am embarrassingly proud of myself.

For Stuff Your Face With Chocolate Week, my mother also came to visit. Regular readers of this blog will know that her visits can be… well… contentious, at times. However we were doing very well. She was only here one week, and we managed to make it all the way to the end of it without a single fight.

We almost, almost made it.

At 11pm on the night before her departure, my mother insisted that I watch a 51 minute-long “scientific” documentary which she found immensely interesting, involving a Nobel Prize winner, Luc Montagnier. I had never heard of him, but knowing her love for anything woo I tried every which way to avoid it. She fixated, insisted, and so I finally caved and brought it up on my phone.

If woo makes you upset, read no further.

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Memes Corrected

While I have defended some specific memes in the past, the criticism that they are often facile and simplistic is perfectly valid. How much information can you possibly convey in a couple of short sentences and an image?

Given their inherent simplicity, they are one of the favorite vehicles for pseudo-profundities, as they are inherently simplistic and trivial pronouncements. One perfect example of the kind of meme I’m talking about it this one, which seems to be a favorite amongst my New Age-y sort of friends.

six-nine-just-because-you-are-right-does-not-mean-6789901

What was the definition of pseudo-profundity according to Jesus and Mo again?

It’s something that sounds clever or wise, but is actually really trivial and obvious

That sounds about right.

But luckily the internet it filled with rational people, and as soon as I clicked on the meme in order to see the comments running alongside it, I saw a number of corrected versions. Including

15875362_10207989348588082_4167254006546053583_o

and

Perspective-disagreement-six-nine

 

Ahh, that’s better. They may not be as catchy as the original, but I still much prefer these corrected memes.

I will concede that it is important to remember that perspectives can be different. I have talked a lot about perspective here on this blog, and how it can relate to things like privilege. What I can’t stand, however, is when people use differences in perspective as an excuse to pretend that there is no such thing as facts.

The point is facts do not exist in a vacuum. If you come across a shape etched in a stone, which could look like a 6, a 9 or a lower case g, you don’t just declare everyone right and go home. If you actually care about the facts, you try to find other clues as to what the person’s intentions were when they made that carving. Do you have reason to believe that the person in question even uses a Latin alphabet? Is it an ancient carving, before the invention of our 0-10 numbering system?

It is important to remember that your perspective can influence your conclusions, and if you want to be a rational person you should try to take certain steps to counteract your inherent biases. However, that does not mean that everyone’s opinion is created equally. We shouldn’t all just give up on reasoned discussion because your perspective has lead you to believe that fairies are causing your belly to ache and I should just accept that as equally valid to my opinion that you should see a doctor.

Where’s the fun in life being that simplistic, anyway?

Bad Science: Now That’s a Double Whammy!

Recently, I came across a story that might have just hit the bad science motherload. It refers to an Italian pharmacy, which is authorized by the Italian government to sell products online. One of these products is called Dr. Reckeweg R20, and its product description just about blew my mind. As the article is in Italian, I’ll translate it for you here.

For starters, it is a homeopathic remedy, claiming to contain a product called “Ovaria”. According to the website, this product is made from the extract of ovaries, and is used in the treatment of:

irregolarità mestruali, disturbi del climaterio, deficit di memoria, depressione, disturbi funzionali delle ghiandole, complesso di inferiorità, criptorchidismo, enuresi notturna, impotenza, frigidità femminile, tendenze lesbiche, oligo e azzoospermia, congestioni”

Translation: irregular menstrual cycle, hot flashes, memory deficits, depression, disrupted glandular function, inferiority complex, cryptochidism [a.k.a. the absence of one or both testes from the scrotum], involuntary urination, impotence, female frigidity, lesbian tendencies, oligo- and azoo-spermia, congestion”.

Ooh where to begin.

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You’re Going To Make Me Rant About Privilege Again

Arguments from a privileged perspective are, unfortunately, an easy trap to fall into, and both sides of the political spectrum are afflicted with them. Your far right will often make ludicrous arguments from a white, cis hetero male perspective, we have all heard them and torn them apart many times. However it is not fair to deny that we have our own privileged kooks on the left as well. Anti-vaxxers, for instance, are often far to the left, and I have previously posted about how GMO-hate can also fall into this category. Now, I’ve come across another argument-from-privilege meme that is making my blood boil.

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Go fuck yourself, spiritual man.

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First The Good News, Or The Bad News?

Ah Italy. Behind the times in so many ways. While you may be in the forefront when it comes to high-end fashion, the cultural fashions that sweep the privileged world are always late in arriving to your shores. You might think that, given the tardiness you would be more inclined to look them over and sort out the good ones from the bad, but sadly they all eventually seem to make it over.

In this case, I am referring to the anti-vaccination fad that has been spreading, and killing, ever since the notorious Andrew Wakefield paper linking autism to the MMR vaccine. While there were anti-vaxxers before then, that was when the idea really got put on (organic and gluten-free, I’m sure) steroids. That was 1998, but it has only been in the past few years that the movement really started to gain traction in Italy as well.

Italian culture is a very hypochondriac one, so the issue of people not getting their kids vaccinated was never really raised until now. Some vaccines are obligatory by law, others are “highly recommended” but can be obligatory in some schools, though no one really knew the difference or made a fuss about it. When my mother moved here she was not told which were absolutely obligatory and which she could get away with not giving me, she was simply told that kids in Italy had to get all their vaccinations and that’s that.

But as I said fads, even the dangerous ones, eventually make it over here as well. So, the bad news, or the good news first?

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Vegan Parenting and an Italian Controversy

I don’t think there is any way to post about this subject, and my thoughts on it, without getting into trouble in the comments. Oh well, here goes.

Recently, an member of the very conservative Forza Italia party proposed a law that would sentence parents to 1-2 years in jail for not providing a balanced diet to children under 16. As the article I found written in English phrases it:

Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia party wants to see parents who feed children under 16 a vegan diet jailed for up to a year.

That sounds both hilarious, and a little extreme. So, I went in search of a more detailed article from Italian news outlets, and found a decent article on the subject in La Reppublica. I feel that a little clarification is needed before I comment on the topic.

First of all, the law does not specifically mention veganism. The wording of the proposal is as follows:

[la legge] rende penalmente perseguibile chi “impone o adotta nei confronti di un minore degli anni 16, sottoposto alla sua responsabilità genitoriale o a lui affidato per ragione di educazione, istruzione, cura, vigilanza o custodia, una dieta alimentare priva di elementi essenziali per la crescita sana ed equilibrata del minore stesso”

Translation: [the law would] render punishable by law those who “impose or adopt for a minor under 16, who is under their parental responsibility or to them entrusted for reasons of education, instruction, care, vigilance or custody, a diet lacking in essential nutrients for the healthy and balanced growth of that same minor”.

While the law itself does not refer to veganism in particular, but rather to any diet which would lead to malnourishment, it is clear that the politician in question has her sights set on veganism. When asked about it, she talks about “radicalized” parents who impose diets which are far too restrictive to the healthy growth and cognitive development of their children, and mentions the essential nutrients often lacking in a vegan diet as her prime example. While she has no objection to informed adults making their own decisions, she says, it is a different matter entirely when those decisions impact the health and safety of children.

This attitude also does not come out of the blue. Veganism is definitely on the rise in Italy, and with it there have been many children hospitalized for malnutrition. One pediatrician in Rome saw three babies hospitalized for severe B12 deficiency in the past year alone. A two year old in Belluno was hospitalized for severe malnutrition, including calcium and B12 deficiency. A three year old girl in Genova had to be resuscitated after she was hospitalized, once again, for a severe B12 deficiency. I personally know someone who’s child almost died from a B12 deficiency. Of course, veganism is not the only kind of diet that can lead to such a severe impact on the health of children, but it is certainly something that is causing a lot of talk in Italy, given that the vegan fad is such a new arrival to the country.

So, here’s what I think about it. I have a controversial statement to make on the topic. As hard as it may seem to accept, the fact of the matter is, veganism is not the ultimate healthy diet. I’ll say it again.

Veganism is not the healthiest diet for humans

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Quackery Is Everywhere

I’ve been going on a bit of a quack-binge in my posting recently, with a few more to come I think. Yesterday I talked about how, sometimes, you shut up rather than keep arguing for science-based medicine, particularly when faced with someone who is terminally ill.

But then I come across this article in the Guardian, and my blood starts to boil again. Quackery really does infect everyone, including the Olympics.

 

Why are so many Olympians – mostly members of Team USA – sporting big red circular marks on their bodies? The simple answer is that they are fans of “cupping” – an alternative health technique that involves pressing hot jars on to the body. This creates suction, which is claimed to increase blood flow to those areas. The swimmers and gymnasts who use it say it helps relieve soreness in their battered bodies.

It would certainly help relieve overburdened wallets, but there is no evidence it does anything else. Eating jam out of those jars would probably have a more significant physical impact, though it might not be the most nutritionally savvy strategy.

 

Oh for Heaven’s sake. This is really a testament to how pervasive woo is in our society. That these athletes, who have access to top medical professionals, would also be taken in by this alt-medicine garbage, just makes me sad. Not to mention the fact that their circular burns are lending cupping a lot of legitimacy: if the Olympians are all doing it, and they have access to such excellent health care, there must be some benefits to it amirite?

The Guardian article, eventually, takes the stand that there is really little harm done. It is an innocuous procedure, and if it helps them get over the immense stress that invariably accompanies participating in the Olympics, then who are we to judge?

Personally, I don’t love this attitude, but I also don’t want to put too much responsibility on the athletes for educating the public. They are lending legitimacy to the practice, yes, but I do not think it is their job to parent the masses in the benefits of science-based medicine. Rather, I don’t like the Guardian’s attitude for two main reasons. First of all, I disagree that there is absolutely no harm or pain to cupping. Any unnecessary burns and bruises are preferably avoidable, and on some occasions the procedure can go wrong. But mainly, I think that the bilking of money from anyone, Olympians or otherwise, for a placebo is dishonest and should be called out more strongly.

I have posted before on the harm of the placebo effect. I mentioned the point of perpetuating lies from a medical doctor’s standpoint, but I want to also address this from the practitioner of the placebo’s standpoint as well. Often I’ve been told that real homeopathic “doctors”, or real and responsible chiropractors or cupping therapists, would never tell their patients to seek their alt-medicine treatment for serious conditions, i.e. conditions that won’t improve with a placebo. Essentially, that the proper alternative-medicine types kind of sort of know that their stuff is mostly working through the placebo effect. Well, isn’t that almost worse? You are charging a fortune, often far more than the cost of the real medicine version of the treatment, for a sugar pill or a hot jam jar to the back. If I decided to make little glass bottles filled with water, and got rich selling them online as a headache remedy, wouldn’t all of you call me out and tell me I’m a dishonest fraud? Or will you write articles saying “Well, if the Olympians are taking it and it helps them be less stressed, then no harm done”. Fuck that! I am cheating these athletes out of their money, that is harm done!

Then again, that’s my opinion. According to the commenters on the article itself, the piece was too dismissive and harsh.

When Do You Just Keep Your Mouth Shut?

My mother is currently renting a small holiday apartment in a nearby town here in Germany, so that she can both escape the Italian summer heat, and do some much needed exercises in the thermal baths in the area. When I was visiting her this weekend, her landlord stopped by for a chat. He almost immediately informed us that he has metastatic cancer, with a tumor in his brain, as well as many small masses in his lungs, lymph nodes, and other places throughout his body. I was, of course, devastated to hear this. I doubt he has much longer to live, and it was really sad to find out that such a nice (albeit quite odd) man was going through something so terrible.

But then the conversation took a turn that made me very uncomfortable indeed. My mother asked him if he was doing any treatments, and he informed us that he was doing Gerson Therapy. “Oh! I’ve heard of that! It’s supposed to be really good!” my mother exclaimed. “There’s a Gerson clinic in Hungary right? And in Mexico! Maybe you should think about staying some time at the clinic!” Uh-oh. A cancer treatment my mother has heard of, is enthusiastic about, and is only done in Hungary and Mexico? Quackery alert. He then proceeded to tell us that the bulk of the therapy consisted of drinking gallons of juice made from nettles, dandelion leaves, apples and carrots. Oh dear.

Well, a quick internet search a few hours later confirmed my suspicions that this is, of course, yet another woo-based “naturalistic” cancer quackery, and my heart sank for the man. However, it got me thinking, at what point do you keep trying to dissuade people from falling into pits of alternative medicine garbage, and at what point do you keep your mouth shut?

I have posted before about the potential harm of perpetuating the placebo effect. If I were a doctor, and a patient of mine asked me about Gerson therapy, I definitely would not encourage them to do it. However, when it comes to casual conversation between acquaintances, or even between friends and family, it can get far harder to draw the line.

This man was clearly not forgoing science-based medicine completely. He had regular visits to the oncologist, and had already had at least three operations to remove some of his lymph nodes. What most likely happened was that his doctors explained that there was little more they could do, and so he decided to buy Gerson’s books and try this diet in parallel with his medical visits. He said he felt better, he has lost a lot of weight and has more energy, so the placebo effect does seem to be working on him, as he is also full of hope that this therapy will at least prolong his life. On the other hand, he told us about all the food he is not allowed to eat which he misses, but that giving up cake and alcohol and such things are a small price to pay if this treatment actually does save his life.

This is the sticky part for me. On the one hand, I don’t want to shit all over this man’s hope. Maybe living the last year or two of his life with hope and promise is the happiest way he could be spending this time. On the other hand, how much are his sacrifices costing him, when they will do nothing to save him from cancer? Would he be happier not denying himself the cakes he loves so much, or the holidays he’s not taking, rather than living his last days within a ten minute radius of a toilet for fear of wetting or soiling himself?

At what point do you just shut up and smile? At what point do you stop arguing, stop fighting for reason and science?

For me, there is a hard line when it comes to doing harm. If he were not seeking real treatment at all, I would have said something, even if he thought me interfering and arrogant in doing so. I simply can’t have a clean conscience if I don’t at least try to inform someone who is forgoing medicine for nettle juice. However, if there is nothing that person can do, if all possible medical treatment has been exhausted, and there is nothing left but to wait out the inevitable?

In this case, I did not say anything. I do not know this man at all, and it is not up to me to decide how happy he will be living a lie, or not. I think that, if he were a close friend or family member, I would try to convince them not to go for woo, but I wouldn’t insist if they had their mind set on it. When it comes right down to it, everyone has the right to decide how they want to live out their last days. Of course, in an ideal situation, they would make that decision fully informed, rather than based on lies and empty promises. However, there is a great wide world of information on the internet, and I really do think that some people are simply chasing a happy delusion. Some people really do prefer the feeling of hope to the harsh reality of truth. As I have mentioned before, I am not one of those people, but it really is not up to me to judge how other people find comfort.

What about you? Where do you stand on the fight against woo? Would you have spoken up, in this case?

What Is The Harm Of The Placebo Effect?

An article posted by Cara Santa Maria about banning homeopathy for pets got me thinking about a recent conversation I had with my father about the placebo effect, specifically when it came to homeopathy. While it is well known in the scientific and skeptic community that homeopathy is garbage, and takes full advantage of the placebo effect and anti-modern medicine marketing for its success, my father took the stance that there is an inherent benefit of “prescribing” placebos to patients under certain conditions.

His reasoning was this: if you have a patient that is suffering from insomnia, which is not due to a hormonal imbalance but rather due to an unaddressed anxiety or stress, and a sugar pill helps that patient to sleep at night, isn’t that better for their health than taking potent sleeping aids? Similarly, if a sugar pill helps someone with a generalized anxiety disorder feel more relaxed, or relieve a tension headache, or help a hypochondriac wait out a common cold they are convinced is deadly pneumonia, isn’t that better than giving that person the pharmaceutical counterpart to the homeopathic remedy? While he agrees that placebos are harmful in the context of an ulcer, or cancer, or other conditions in which a patient thinking they feel better will only make them wait for proper treatment and worsen their condition, he posited that using placebos in certain contexts could do a patient far more good than going straight for the heavy duty drugs. After all, sugar pills and drops of distilled water, while being useless cures also carry no side effects, so if plain water helps the condition, why expose the patients to the inevitable side effects, however minor, of drugs with real active ingredients?

While this reasoning has some merit on it’s face, it also ignores some serious downsides to this approach, especially when it comes to homeopathy.

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What Happens When You Combine Media Frenzy and Block Research

Stem cell research in the US has been both promising and crippled. The potential outcomes of what could one day be possible with stem cells has been the focus of a media frenzy for the past two decades, leading most lay people to believe that we have already figured it out by now, and that all you need to do is inject some stem cells at the site of an injury and voila! Magic happens!

At the same time, stem cells have been the focus of great ethical controversy, one that stems from religiosity and scientific ignorance, leading to the crippling of the progression of stem cell research in many parts of the country (and the world, for that matter), particularly during the Bush Administration, which means that the scientific research lags far behind the expectations of the public. This is a very dangerous combination.

 

Patients seeking stem cell therapies for achy joints or shoulder injuries no longer need to hop a plane to Mexico or China. More than 550 clinics around the U.S. offer unproved interventions for sports injuries and conditions including autism, multiple sclerosis and Alzheimer’s disease.

This vast stem cell market has boomed in recent years, particularly for orthopedic applications such as easing joint pain or for facelifts and other cosmetic procedures. In one frequently advertised regimen a patient might have adult stem cells harvested from his own fat tissue and injected at an injury site, purportedly to speed recovery. Professional athletes including football stars Peyton Manning and Chris Johnson have reportedly used stem cell injections to help them get back onto the field.

Yet there is a darker side to the promise of these treatments. There is little systematic data about patients’ long-term outcomes—positive or negative—and in most cases there is no scientific evidence that these costly procedures work. Many of these cellular therapies may not do much of anything but there is also the serious risk that recipients of cell injections could develop serious complications “including blood clots or dangerous immune reactions,” says Paul Knoepfler, a stem cell researcher at the University of California, Davis, School of Medicine

 

These clinics are trying to circumvent the law, by claiming that they are eligible for an FDA approval exemption. That should be a red flag right there, and another one is the fact that they advertise directly to the public, and also profess to be able to treat children with cerebral palsy and autism. Desperate parents have always been a fountain of cash for con artists (Burzynski clinic, anyone?)

Skeptics need to be wary of these kinds of places, even more so than you odd alternative medicine retreats that claim that meditation and talking to dolphins will clean out your shakras and cure your lower back pain, or whatever such nonsense. These clinics have the facade of genuine science to hide behind, and rely on ignorance of current scientific progress to dupe patients into believing that these treatments are safe, effective and have been around for ages. The stem cell media frenzy has only helped them along in this regard.

Bad scientific reporting bears a large part of the responsibility as well, of course. But we also need to not fear pointing out this quackery just because, in different contexts, we happen to fully support stem cell research. This kind of quackery is far too dangerous to ignore.