Reimagined and Revamped. Fighting the spread of nonsense often feels like a Sisyphean task. However, the joy is in making the information available, not the hope of conversion.

Latest Study on High Fructose Corn Syrup

There's a couple of articles circling about (I like facebook for this, my friends post stuff they are concerned about and I get a little free pulse of the population) about high fructose corn syrup, which for the life of me, I can't figure out why people consider it to the the bane of their existence.

Of all the sweeteners to worry about, a sweetener made out of naturally occurring molecules like fructose and glucose, seems hardly a problem, it should be falling neatly in the "its natural" category since both sugars are found naturally. But apparently, if you dont serve the sugars in their natural form (much like table sugar BTW) it becomes the bane of humanity and is the cause all of our health problems.

This attitude is evidenced by the media's response to a recent study.

High Fructose Corn Syrup Proven to Cause Human Obesity! Proven! Proven I say!
Child diabetes blamed on food sweetener We have found the answer!
For the first time – Scientists Link Fructose to Obesity, Diabetes in HUMANS That right folks, for the first time ever, sugar has been linked to obesity. Who would have known?
Fructose: Cause Of Childhood Diabetes That's right folks it's THE cause
How Sweet It Isn’t: High Fructose Corn Syrup Proven to Cause Human Obesity Proven!

A little more reasoned approach came from Grist only after the author of the article got knocked in the head by one of the study's authors.

I make a little fun because its a rare instance in science when something is actually proven to be so. Usually what we get is evidence for or against a hypothesis. That very evidence is usually recorded in probabilities. As we will soon see, this is also the case here.

Every one of these headlines references a single study that recently came out. As a responsible consumer of media information, who wants ot have an informed opinion onm this topic, it is your job to go to the source rather than just imbibe the predigested conclusions thrown at you by the advertising hungry media outlets.

Here it is.
Go read.
Then lets discuss.

Stanhope et al, rounded up 16 people (this makes this study extremely small) in a first of its kind study (which means the results of this study have yet to be verified or validated by anyone) which took a crack at evaluating the effects of one kind of sweetener over another. Its basically trying to get rid of the concern that we heard so often from the smoking lobby that results based on animal testing don't necessarily apply to humans.

When you read the abstract, know that I am in the same position as you about all the sciency sounding multisyllabic words the get thrown around. I honestly have no idea what they mean, nor will I go get a medical degree to find out. More on this later.

Let's start with the basics. Skeptoid has already gone over a lot of the hullabaloo of High Fructose Corn Syrup (HFCS), so I wont repeat a lot of it here.

I found this list of sweeteners and their relative sweetness. I checked the numbers around the internet and found it to be accurate. Let me just put out some of the important ones here:

Sugar SweetnessCalories
Glucose 0.83.75
Sucrose 1 3.94
Fructose 1.754*
Aspartame (Nutrasweet) 180 N/A
Saccharine (Sweet n' Low) 300N/A
Sucralose (Splenda) 600 N/A

In this chart, sucrose, which is table sugar is given a 'sweetness' of 1. You can see that glucose is less sweet than table sugar. Fructose is 1.75 times more sweet. The artificial sweeteners are amazingly sweet, which is why they are in low calorie drink, you need very very little of them to achieve the same sweetness (never mind that I think they taste like crap).

Glucose, fructose and sucrose are naturally occurring sugars. sucrose is a molecule that is simply a glucose molecule bonded weakly to a fructose molecule. When you eat table sugar, the first bond to go is the one holding these together, leaving your stomach with fructose and glucose separately, in about equal propostions.

  • Corn syrup is pure glucose, it is not as sweet as table sugar.
  • High fructose corn syrup is called that because it actually has fructose in it
  • Glucose is a chemical you body readily converts giving you a blast of energy (or conversion to fat)
  • Fructose is an atomically identical molecule that your body does not digest readily, giving you a more sustained flow of energy (or conversion to fat)
  • Fructose, in pure form, is not a sweetener that we use in any product.
  • High fructose corn syrup comes in a variety of blends of glucose and fructose. The most common blend HFCS-55 is about 55% fructose, matching the sweetness and calories of table sugar. It will deliver about the same amount of fructose to your body as table sugar does once you have ingested it.
OK, I think we have enough background to discuss this paper now.

Lets start witht he sugar intake: from the study

To assess the relative effects of these dietary sugars during sustained consumption in humans, overweight and obese subjects consumed glucose- or fructose-sweetened beverages providing 25% of energy requirements for 10 weeks

Since the caloric intake of glucose and fructose is about the same (4 kcal/gram - note kcal is what we call "calories"), these folks drank beverages with about the same amount of sweetener, in grams. That means that one group had drinks that were over twice as sweet as the other group.

The population of the study were all similar in size, weight, and other aspect. There is no contention there. All the participants were an average age of around 54. There were some slight differences between the males and females, but these were matched pretty well in both groups. One of the groups (male, fructose) had a significantly lower starting LDL level, but that may not matter with respect to the results, lets see.

We'll just accept the procedure, although if I really doubted the veracity of the study, which I don't, this would also be something to delve deeper into. The results after the 10 week period came in as follows:

  • No differences in blood pressure between the two groups
  • Both groups gained a similar amount of weight (slightly more for glucose)
  • Both groups gained a similar amount of body fat (again, the glucose groups scored higher)
  • Both groups gained a similar amount in waist circumference (Fructose winning here but by very little)

These facts are extremely important when trying to assess the veracity of a hypothesis like "fructose causes obesity).

The main differences, and they are significant, is in where the fat appeared. The fructose group showed significantly more abdominal fat. Plus the fructose group showed far higher amounts of LDL cholesterol (the bad one), and a variety of other things that are bad for you. Again most of this list is beyond my knowledge, but I accept the conclusion that most of the bad actors here are higher in the fructose group.

So lets be clear here: there is no doubt that pure fructose is not a good or healthy sweetener. It is well known that glucose and fructose are different molecule that are metabolized differently, by different mechanisms, with excess energy stored differently. This study neither contradicts this data, nor does it provide any evidence that sweeteners the combine both glucose and sucrose are any different from one another. This study is not the one that came to any of these conclusions first. There is a large body of evidence supporting this. This study weaned out some specific responses that the body has when overfed these sweeteners and proposed a metabolism model for them.

The authors themselves explain that they did not study sweeteners as they are used in our food:

Foods and beverages in the US are typically sweetened with sucrose (50% glucose and 50% fructose) or high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS), which is usually 45%–58% glucose and 42%–55% fructose, rather than pure glucose or fructose.

The authors have also previously reported that they have not found a difference in the response to the sweeteners that are actually consumed by the public.

We have reported in a short-term study that the 23-hour postprandial TG profiles in male subjects consuming 25% energy as HFCS (55% fructose) or sucrose were elevated to a degree similar to that observed when pure fructose–sweetened beverages were consumed.

So where is the evidence, as the media articles claimed, that this study has something to do with HFCS and childhood obesity?

This study says nothing about childhood obesity since all participants were an average of 54 years old.
This study says nothing about the use of HFCS since it only studied intake of pure glucose and pure fructose
This study says nothing about the superiority of table sugar or honey to high fructose corn syrup since none of these sweeteners were tested, alone or against each other.

Lets look at the TimesOnline article since that was the first one out:

Scientists have proved for the first time that a cheap form of sugar used in thousands of food products and soft drinks can damage human metabolism and is fuelling the obesity crisis

No, they did nothing of the sort. They showed that pure fructose, with the exact same caloric intake as pure glucose provide similar gain in weight. They showed that there are differences in metabolic response to sweeteners in a form that on one currently consumes.

It [fructose] has increasingly been used as a substitute for more expensive types of sugar in yoghurts, cakes, salad dressing and cereals. Even some fruit drinks that sound healthy contain fructose

Couldnt be more wrong. HFCS is substituting sucrose, which has the same amount of fructose in it. "Natural" fruit drinks (whatever that means) ought to have fructose in it, since fructose occurs naturally in fruit.

researchers at the University of California who conducted the trial, said the levels of weight gain among the fructose consumers would be greater over the long term

Unless the TimesOnline interviewed them and failed to provide quotation marks and source, this is simply a baseless claim and not in the study at all.

Fructose bypasses the digestive process that breaks down other forms of sugar. It arrives intact in the liver where it causes a variety of abnormal reactions, including the disruption of mechanisms that instruct the body whether to burn or store fat

This may be true, so what? No one eats pure fructose as a sweetener. Its completely irrelevant.

what is going on here? A huge logical fallacy called equivocation. Fructose is bad in high quantities, therefore high fructose corn syrup is bad in any quantity. They are simply not the same thing, and as I have pointed out, there is no reason to believe that HFCS would do anything different in your body than table sugar would.

Now let's check out the alternet article:

We finally have the smoking corn cob, as it were: the studyprocessed-food foes have been waiting for, indicating that highfructose corn syrup may be the cause of the huge upswing in childhood obesity and diabetes

I dont really know anything about alternet, but if this is how they put together their information, I think we can pretty much discount anything they say. This is a digestion of a predigested article. They dont link to the study, they link to the times article! the is no smoking gun here, there is no evidence to support the idea the HFCS alone, has anything more to do with obesity than sugar does.

The rise in childhood diabetes and obesity roughly corresponds to the period of time in which food processors started using high fructose corn syrup with such prevalence.

And here we have out second largest logical fallacy of the day: Correlation-causation fallacy. Know what? Obesity also corresponds to the increased used of smartphones, what is your point? It's not the HFCS, its the calories. Average caloric intake of american has increased year over year since the 70's. It doesnt matter where you get your calories from, its how many you have. It especially doesnt matter since, and I sound like a record here, HFCS has the same amounts of fructose and glucose and table sugar.

Further, this study says nothing about childhood anything.

But this new finding is the first involving humans, and its results point to a different truth: high fructose corn syrup can actually damage human metabolism.

Bzzt. Sorry, it specifically does not say that. It says nothing about high fructose corn syrup, this is what happens when you get your information predigested from someone else who is trying to make headlines.

The control group of volunteers on the same diet, but with glucose sugar replacing fructose, did not have these problems.

Fine, but both groups got equally fatter... which is what obesity is. In fact, the glucose folks scored higher there.

Here is the rub on the whole study, the part that gets me the worst with all this nonsense reporting. HFCS is sweeter than glucose. Twice as sweet. If we banned sweeteners with fructose in it, then all we would have left are artificial sweeteners, glucose, and some sweeteners that are even less sweet than glucose.

People don't care if its fructose or glucose in the cookies and soda. They crave the sweetness or the taste that the sweetness makes. If you get rid of the fructose, then you have to put in twice the calories to get the same sweetness with glucose. Even if we just used sucrose, you would still need 75% more sugar and calories to acheive the same sweetness.

Wanna see obesity? Lets try that experiment.

* I was unable to find an exact energy count for fructose, but most sources said 4 calories, virtually the same as glucose and sucrose



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Secular Giving

I find winter solstice to be an extremely uplifting day, so we celebrate it. To me, it feels like the weight of the long nights and short days and cold weather gets lifted off of me because we turn the corner towards spring. I like it a lot.

This mood gets me into the giving mood. So a couple of years ago I started listing secular charities and compiled a list. Sadly, for me, this year I was unable to refresh it. I kept putting it off and now I am pretty swamped with work (I have not been home for any decent amount of time for 3 weeks), and a skeptical project I am working on. So while I have intended to redesign the list to make it easier to read and navigate, I fear I must simply refer you to the old post, much like I did last year.

PLEASE add your favorite secular charities in the comments section! If any links are dead, please report them. I will get around to doing a real refresh before next year! I promise.

Here is the list of secular charities.



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Vaccination Recall! Children are DOOOMED!

I saw this headline today at Discovery News.

CHILDREN'S SWINE FLU VACCINE RECALLED

Uh oh. Is it an outbreak of the dreaded Guillain-Barre syndrome? Is it high levels of dreaded toxins in the vials? Is it that they killed too many fetus' to get the serum? Are children dropping off the table dead after they get the shot? Are there now masses of people who have to walk backwards to get anywhere from strong cases of dystonia?

No, this is why I like our system with all its warts. People check that stuff is working as they expect. In this case, Sinofi-Pasteur, the maker of the recalled live virus nasal sprays, recalled the vaccines because, for a reason not understood (yet), the strength of the vaccine drops after it leaves their facilities (since its a live virus, couldn't it just be that the virus is dying for some reason?). But, they actually checked. Any CAM people checking that their stuff meets their claims before and after the supplements or exotic berry juices leave the plant? Any homeopaths, checking the "strength" of their dilutions before and after the water leaves their facilities? (lol, I can see that, "Oh good, still looks like pure water!")

I have not seen anything from the fear mongerers yet over at Natural News or Age of Autism. I'll keep an eye out.



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R&D Gets it wrong too

I like R&D magazine. I get little technology blurbs from them every day. 9 times out of 10 I see some new cool nanoscale idea. Some new sensor, some new actuator. If you are a high tech junkie, beyond the latest car stereo or lego system I highly recommend the daily newsletter. Its a quick read, you mentally throw out most of it, and take in 1 or tow goodies for the day.

But alas, I found this article.

Here is an early paragraph:

In contrast to "every man for himself" interpretations of Charles Darwin's theory of evolution by natural selection, Dacher Keltner, a UC Berkeley psychologist and author of "Born to be Good: The Science of a Meaningful Life," and his fellow social scientists are building the case that humans are successful as a species precisely because of our nurturing, altruistic and compassionate traits.

When I read that, I had so many thoughts at once my brain started vibrating.

  • Most often I hear about how darwinism leads to socialism. And yet here they claim that darwinism is pure free market.
  • Darwin never, ever claimed “every man for himself”, it was always about populations.
  • Never mind the fact that this is hardly a new understanding of evolution

However the rest of the article is an interesting read. Sadly I don’t have the resources (time mostly) to follow up on all the claims in the article.  I realize tha thte first paragraph was probably just intended to light a fire for the rest of the article. But still I would have written something more like:

Contrary to the layman's interpretation of evolution, there are wide swaths of research that show that some of the success of the human race has sympathy and altruism to thank for it. But until recently, we have not understood much of the actual physiological mechanisms for it. Dacher Keltner, a UC Berkeley psychologist and author of "Born to be Good: The Science of a Meaningful Life," and his fellow social scientists have provided some new insight into these traits.

Or something like that…


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Choose Your Destiny: 125 Skeptics Circle

Do you really think this is real?

How many times have you thought about what the result would be from a different set of choices? How do you know that there isn't another you somewhere thinking about what would have happened if he or she had made the choices that you actually did?

How do you know you are real and your experiences are real?

Take the red pill and start a journey that explores your current experiences and sets out new choices for you to make and relish and relive. At each new stage, feel your new experience flow within you, let your choices at each stage be honest and inquisitive. You will be given new pills at each stage.

Or you can claim that you are fine, that you have no need or desire to explore new experiences in detail. You simply want information handed to you in bulk, with no desire to fully experience the color and exposure to things that you may or may not already know. For this, the blue pill is for you.

CHOOSE

In case you didn't get it: take the Red Pill, look for comments by me for links to other posts for this skeptic circle. When there are no comments the circle is over


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awesome woman, awesome commentor

This video has been making the rounds.


so I have two quick comments then a present.

1) Dear awesome student. You are awesome and there are many people in the blogosphere who would have loved to have been you for those few minutes.
2) Dear fucking trumpet player. Fuck you, you fucking fuck

Anyway, on the pharyngula comments about this video, one man, DorkMan, transcribed the video to text. I beleive he is a masochist. Anyway, via Dorkman, I give you the transcription:

Female Student: [Unintelligible] saying, "Origin of the Species! Go evolution!" So, when somebody --
Kirk: [Unintelligible]
FS: Yeah, you did, I heard you. And I was like, "What? Kirk Cameron's believes in evolution?" Are you being ironic or --?
Kirk: No, I didn't say "go evolution," I took a picture and I said "Everyone say 'Darwin'!" And I said "Darwin!"
FS: Oh, okay.
Kirk: I did say that.
FS: Okay. I'm sorry. But that's not important. Anyways, so when a passerby is getting that book, and they don't know about you, they haven't seen your videos, and they don't know who you are, they think, "Oh, okay, this is the book," so when they read it, they're not aware that the information is coming from a group that has a special interest in dissuading people from evolution.
Kirk: Okay. Okay, fair enough.
FS: It's like hidden propaganda. Which you, like -- atheists groups would never, like, hand out the Bible saying, like, "This is not true and this is all the scientific information" --
Male Student 1: I think you could have been more honest if [unintelligible].
Kirk: (to Female Student) Can I respond to what you're saying?
Cameraman: (to MS1) Say it louder.
MS1: I think it would have been more honest you had just distributed the introduction by itself --
Kirk: I -- I heard you earlier. (to FS) So, here's my thought. I used to be -- used to be an atheist, and studied evolution, and the Darwinian, the Neo-Darwinian [unintelligible], to the point where I'm, I'm convinced that it is not science, that Darwinism is atheism masquerading as science. That's --
FS: Darwin wasn't an atheist, actually. He was really hesitant to publish his work because he knew that it would go against the beliefs of, you know, the church.
Cameraman: And I kind of feel that's undermining the faith of people who do accept evolution and who are Christian.
Kirk: (ignoring Cameraman, to FS) Well, why do you believe that?
FS: Because he has journals and because, like, you know, he took a long time -- it wasn't 'til Wallace said, like, "Hey, check this out!" and he's like "Oh, boy," you know, "I should probably publish what I'm doing."
Kirk: Okay, have you heard... Okay. Here's, here's, here's the other important...um...(lengthy pause) I believe that Darwin was absolutely...that the end game was to make God...was to remove God from...the, the worldview of... I think that that was his end game. Um. And if you read -- I don't know if you've read the introduction in here, yet.
FS: No, I have not yet. But I will.
Kirk: You'll find things you maybe haven't read before.
FS: I probably have never read what you wrote, no.
Kirk: In my, my... I think that it is...very, uh... dishonest, and extremely --
Trumpet: "When The Saints Go Marching In"
Kirk: -- for, for...for teachers, in the name of science, to push an atheistic worldview. Which -- and they use Darwin in order to do it.
FS: I don't understand how... you're combining atheism -- because not all scientists are atheists, like, I would not say I'm an atheist.
Kirk: Yes, alright, but --
FS: But I, I, I...
Male Student 2: Francis Collins.
FS: Yeah.
Cameraman: I bet he knows about that.
FS: I don' t understand [unintelligible]. Why is science an atheistic endeavor? I don't understand that.
Kirk: Okay, let me --
FS: I don't understand the problem.
Kirk: Why is science an atheistic endeavor?
FS: Yeah, and why is -- particularly, um --
Kirk: You have to ask [unintelligible] of atheism being taught in the science classes to answer that question. I mean, look at Dawkins, for instance, look at Dawkins --
FS: I love Dawkins.
Kirk: ...okay, so --
FS: But other science --
Kirk: But if you look at those who are the loudest proponents for, uh, Darwinism, and evolution, you'll find that they are absolutely on the mission to demonstrate that God is irrelevant and doesn't exist. And they're atheists.
FS: What Dawkins argues is that God and science should not be in the same argument, because science is based on evidence, whereas religion is based on faith. And so --
Kirk: So is Darw --
FS: They don't explain...
Kirk: But Darwinism is extremely based on faith, not on evidence.
FS: Not really, it's based on a lot of evidence. He made, he made assertions that were based on faith, he didn't have evidence for yet, but he had a lot of evidence. Later on now, scientists are, you know, doing research. And in fact, current scientific thought doesn't accept, uh, plain Darwinian evolution. In fact now, there's like a lot of different, uh...
Cameraman: It expanded over the years.
Kirk: Sure.
FS: It expanded, so --
Cameraman: Especially with genetics and that sort of thing.
FS: Yeah. So Darwin was the basis, but it is not, uh, what actual evolutionary biologists, you know, uh... go with. And in science, there's no like "Okay, this is the FINAL ABSOLUTE TRUTH," it's always changing because --
Kirk: Correct.
FS: You know, all the evidence either against it, or that should show different things.
Kirk: So, what... so, what -- I understand that -- so, so I'm pro-science, I love science.
FS: Why not this specific branch of it? Because --
Kirk: Which branch are you referring to?
FS: I'm referring to biology.
Kirk: I love biology.
FS: Except the part where it says that -- do you believe in micro-evolution?
Kirk: Are we talking about, um, adaptation?
FS: Yeah, that's why you get a different vaccine every year because --
Kirk: Yes.
FS: -- you know -- okay.
Kirk: Yes, but to extrapolate that into speciation and macro-evolution by saying it takes lots of time --
FS: No, not if you accept, not if you accept that it does take -- okay, so if you believe in micro-evolution, you believe that it continues happening, it just doesn't happen in like, two minutes and then it's done, it continues happening. The Earth is not six thousand years old, and even if it were six thousand years old, in that span of time, continuous micro-evolution would have added up to something, right? Even if you believe the literal Biblical, uh, idea that the Earth is not old, it would've still added up. Not to what we have here...
Kirk: Do, do you -- I understand what you're saying, [unintelligible] I think that they do change over time, but we don't, but we don't see speciation as a result of adaptation. We don't see --
FS: Because we don't have enough time. And in fact they are --
Kirk: Okay, but you have to, but you then have to concede, though, that that's a presupposition that you're assuming that it happened, even though we don't have enough time to observe it.
FS: Well, it's not -- it's because of geological evidence. What happens in science, is you bring different branches of knowledge together, and it's not, it's not isolated. You don't just say, like, "Okay, biology proves it." Because biology doesn't prove anything. There's evidence that there's a biological process, but combining that with geology, physics, and --
MS2: Astronomy.
FS: Other sciences -- astronomy, yeah.
MS2: They all agree.
FS: Then you, you combine that knowledge, right? And that's how you think, like, "Okay, if this is happening now, and if we know that the Earth has been, you know, this old and this, like, many changes have happened" -- all of this knowledge, then you -- it, it is a safe, logical assumption to make that conclusion. For instance say, like, "Micro-evolution has been happening for this long, and it's added up." Whereas with, uh, a belief in a certain faith, particularly in this case the, the Christian persuasion, all the evidence that you have is based on the Bible, and that would be circular logic, because you think, "I believe in the Bible because the Bible says it's written by God." (draws a circle in the air) It doesn't -- there's no outside body of evidence, there, there's no conjecture --
Kirk: That's not true.
FS: What other body --
Kirk; History, geology, cosmology, biology...
FS: So, okay, so history --
Cameraman: Do you mind if I ask you a question about geology, really quick?
Kirk: Hang on a second.
Cameraman: Okay, sure.
FS: How does history disprove evolution?
Kirk: How does history disprove evolution?
FS: Yes.
Kirk: Well, I didn't say history disproves evolution, I said that history --
FS: Okay. Then give me another line of evidence other than the Bible that disproves evolution.
Kirk: Um, I would say evolution disproves -- D, Dar -- I would -- (pauses) Evolution, talking about, we're talking about speciation, I would say that, that...that Darwin's theory, nor -- and ANY theory -- does not sufficiently, uh, account for speciation, apart from the existence of God. You don't find the fossil record, you don't find --
FS: Okay, what about the difference between bonobos and chimpanzees? Which are very similarly related, they just have --
Kirk: I'm not familiar with, what?
FS: Okay, bonobos are essentially chimpanzees, except they're smaller, and they're more, uh, friendly with each other. Whereas chimpanzees are, like, very aggressive --
[END OF VIDEO]

Thanks awesome woman, Thanks Awesome Dorkman.



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I think the media is in a coma


I saw these news blurbs about a man in Belgium who allegedly was awake for 23 years although the doctors thought he was in a coma. This story brought so many thoughts ot my head I though I would try to get them down.

  • I have a living will that tells my loved ones to pull the plug if I go in a vegetative state
  • I think we are going to see more and more stories about medicine going wrong in countries with socialized health care
  • This sort of thing give more inflated, uncouched ammunition to CAM practitioners
  • I'm not convinced that this guy is actually saying anything.

Living Wills and Vegetative states
I am an engineer, not only by trade but "by life". When I see things that are cool I want to know how they work. But more importantly, I get an large amount of joy when I build something, write something, or perform something. I love life, I love my abilities and to use them (even if I bitch and moan sometimes during the process). My biggest fear in life, is to come out of a long coma, which unlike in the movies, people do not come out of the same way they went into. It is crippling. You only need to look at the video above.

It's not like losing a hand, or an eye. I could probably deal with that (both hands would be extremely debilitating to me though). Its an all over muscular loss. I simply do not want to live like that. And no, hearing about the one or two people who not only come out of a long coma but also regain mobility and speech does not provide any comfort to me when that is the extreme exception.

Socialized Medicine
We've already seen it from Fox in some respect when they did some ridiculous reporting about how The Netherlands are in a state of anarchy, reveling in a mire of smut and drugs, implying that this is what we can expect if those damn liberals get in charge. I expect we will see more and more of isolated cases where medicine went wrong (as if that has anything to do with how the medicine is paid for) on the news as we move towards, you know, a new healthcare system that is also not socialized.

Strengthening CAM
I also bet we are going to see cases like this used to strengthen the canard of "Doctors don't know everything". You see, the "logic" goes like this, if doctors screw up somewhere on the planet, then homeopathy works. Isn't that clear as day? Take a look over at NaturalNews or HuffPo in the next few days, I have little doubt that this case will be made.

Is he really writing?
Before I actually read any of the articles about this case, I saw a few tweets from Michael Shermer.

So, I thought "What is Michael yammering on about?" So I saw the video above. What the hell? Is everyone credulous? Would it have been so offensive or so unethical to actually put some headphones on the woman moving that mans hand so we could determine if this is real or not.

I'm not saying that the guy is not awake, I'm not saying he didn't suffer for 23 years. I'm not a doctor, I didn't diagnose him, I haven't seen any of the data suggesting he is not in a coma. I'm saying that it's bullshit that he is typing out these words, that fast. Isn't it just as unethical to force words down his throat in the form of typing things he may not actually be saying?

I do wish some modicum of skepticism would enter the media the first time, and not at the end of weeks of hype.



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Skeptic's Circle 124

New Skeptics Circle is up at Beyond The Short Coat

Its simple but there is a lot of good reading in there! Include one from yours truly! Have a blast!

The next Skeptics Circle is right here at Effort Sisyphus!

UPDATE (December 1): I am afraid that I will be unavailable to work on this tomorrow. So I have to close this circle for submissions now. Sorry if you were trying to pop out one last entry, but have strength! The next circle is only 2 weeks away.



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We vaccinated our daughter and have seen severe changes in her

I’m writing this post because there is a lot of hoopla about vaccinations right now and I think one more anecdote to the pile of anecdotes out there about vaccinations is important.

My daughter, Bean (yeah, that's not her real name), is going to be three really soon and I need to go into her history a bit to really be able to delineate her vaccination story effectively.

Bean was born about three years ago to two of the most loving parents on the planet, if I don’t say so myself. To this day I’m amazed at the changes your body and brain go through when you have a kid. I was always the kind of guy that thought kids were something my sister should have, I now have completely reversed that position.

Its amazing to me how you can love someone so much that just cries, needs to be fed, burps, pukes, pisses and poops. But you do, and each week that passes, I love her more and more. Bean learned to walk a little later than average, but not much later, 13 months. But she learned some basic sign language at 8 months (“more” was her first signed word).

Our household has 2 languages in it, I’m an English speaker trying to learn French. My wife is French who speaks perfect English. We decided that I would talk to Bean in English and she would talk to her in French.

With the signing and the dual languages we expected her to start speaking late and she did. But in time we started to realize that she still wasn't speaking even after allowing for some extra time. There was a word here or there, but she was way behind in speaking. The inability to communicate lead to temperament issues and the all out tantrums were both common and severe. As new parents we had trouble differentiating between normal toddler tantrums and this. But looking at the pace of other kids, we slowly realized that Bean was behind the curve.

We further noted extreme discomfort in social situations. She did a little better with adults, but when it was other kids she would be very flustered and usually end up in a tantrum. Its so hard to see someone you love that much get so upset by normal social interactions that other kids are actually having fun with.

We also noticed that she was rarely smiling or happy. She didnt giggle like other little girls not near as often.

In time we got child therapists. New York State has a great program where therapists come to your house to help your child get up to speed. We have a speech therapist, an occupational therapist (not what it sounds like, the OC helps her negotiate new and different tactile senses), and a therapist to help with her social interactions. I really appreciate these programs available in my sate and now understand where some of the exorbitant tax money goes.

We also took Bean to a developmental psychologist. The autism word was thrown around, but it became clear that bean was probably not autistic. She was very ahead in some cognitive areas and very behind in others, but he didn't think it was a case of autism.

 

I want to fast forward to the beginning of October now. Bean got her flu vaccination. It had thimerisol and everything. She had absolutely no physical reactions to it whatsoever: no fever, no swelling, no pain. However since the shot there have been some huge changes in her.

Bean was able to start school since then. She can be in a group of 7 kids in good comfort. This is totally amazing. She has been really fun to be around, really explorative, points out lots of new things here at home, at school and at our weekend house. She can talk well enough that we generally understand what she wants to say although there is still some baby talk that comes out that is hard to understand. She laughs at funny stories or when we joke around. She still has tantrums when she doesn’t get her way, but they are rarely for random or unintelligible reasons anymore. Basically it feels like ever since we got the flu shot for her, she has become a normal child for her age.

 

Everything in this post is 100% true and accurate as far as I can remember it. I am also 100% sure that if I ask my wife, she will have a different chronology and describe the severity of different aspects of Beans personality differently, but not differently enough that we couldn’t ascribe her improvement to the flu vaccination. You’ll notice that I went ahead and gave credit to the vaccination for her improvement and not the months of work the therapists did.

But I know its not the flu vaccination, of course it isn’t, because there is no reason to think that it is, just like the other way. Just because something happens hours, days or weeks after a vaccination doesn't necessarily mean that it was because of the vaccination itself. The cause and effect must specifically be studied. To date there is simply no good reason to fear vaccines unless you have allergies to eggs, or some familial history of negative reactions.

 

I understand how vaccinations work with your immune system. I learned it in high school and relearned it to be able to understand this so called controversy. I have heard the claims by antivaxxers and have read the responses of medical professions on each and every one of those claims even as goalposts move. I then went and checked the claims of the medical professionals. You know what? the people who actually do science and medicine as a living are far better at explaining why they are right, backing up their claims with references that actually confirm what they are saying and have far, far larger datasets that they draw on to show the veracity of their claims. That is part of the years of training that went into their education to be a medical professional. Folks like Kevin Trudeau, Jenny McCarthy, and JB Handley have never had to deal with that rigor and are completely unequipped to back up anything they say without misrepresentation, conspiracy theories, and ad hominem attacks. Their delusions are no more probable, no more explainable, and no more real than the idea that my daughters extreme cognitive improvement came from the flu vaccine.

I love my daughter. I love her to the point that stepping in front of a moving train for her seems like a tiny inconvenience. Part of my love for her is to show her immune system what the bad guys look like, so it can fight them without causing suffering for her.

 

Oh, and by the way, I didn't start speaking until I was near three. No, I don't think any delays she had were from her vaccinations.


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Slow Down

Looks like things are slowing down a bit here at Effort Sisyphus. There are a number of reasons for this such as:

  • I have a big skeptical project I am working on, news to come
  • I have real life things that are interfering with my blogging time
  • I am preparing the Atheist Charities post to be a little more user friendly for release in December
  • I'm suffering writer's block, but have been tweeting on little things I see here and there, feel free to follow (techskeptik)


I have three posts jogging around in my head I'd like to find a few hours to attack, unfortunately it is currently impossible to schedule time for them that they require.

Well now you know. This place is not dead, I am in a temporarly slow down that should recover again soon.

Stay Tuned!



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How Skepticism has improved my health and my life

I've thought about writing this post for a while, but I keep bailing on it because I thought no one wants to hear about my health problems. And you may not. But this is a happy story, at least to me so I thought I would write it. A recent post by Tom Foss is what made me reconsider.

For as long as I can remember I've had stomach problems. Without getting too graphic, this is an intense pain in my gut, that stays there until I make two trips to the bathroom, with each trip lasting 10-25 minutes. Its gross, its embarrassing, and its a pain in the ass (lol a pun!).

There was a time, when I was very young and my parents were away for work and me and my sister were being taken care of by my grandfather, who was Danish and spoke no english. My stomach acted up, it hurt so bad and I couldn't make him understand me. I called 911 and got myself into a hospital where, no surprise here, they found nothing wrong.

Later that same week (this was 5th or 6th grade), a girl at school (Wow I still remember her name, Alex) was mentioning to someone else that her housekeeper was having stomach aches and then her teeth started falling out. I made a phone call to a dentist out of the yellow pages as soon as I got home that day.

These exact pains continues through high school, college, grad school, even now I get them. They happen when I am home alone, they happen when I go to parties, they have happened when I am stuck in the world most disgusting bar. It's truly inconvenient and as I said, often very embarrassing. One of the first dates with my current wife was accompanied by one of these attacks. It's good thing she is awesome.

My father also suffered from the same thing. He told me on many occasions that he can not eat garlic or onion because it gave him stomach aches. In time, I thought that not only do I have the same pains, but its likely that it was due to the same thing garlic and onions. So while I absolutely love garlic on and in my food, onions too, I avoided them. My sister has it too.

When I still got stomach aches, I would think "hmm, I must have had garlic by accident", or "hmm there must be something else that also causes the pain". I noticed I would get the pain often when in social situations (yeah that was really great). I was always nervous when in a situation where I don't know anyone (I now over compensate for that by being very loquacious), and it was these very times when my stomach would erupt in a frenzy of pain and cramps, with the end result with me claiming the bathroom as my temporary home no matter where I was.

There are drugs for the pain. The oldest and previously most common for it was a drug called Donnatal. It's a combination of a barbiturate (phenobarbital) and the herb belladonna (deadly nightshade). Yeah, thats a pretty ironic thing in retrospect. I thought it worked.

In time, I got sick and tired of it. I went to the doctor who diagnosed it as IBS. There are some recent treatments for it, like a drug called Protonex. I have no idea if it works. I was on it for a while, but since the pain doesn't come regularly, it felt like I was taking a pill for no reason. I was told to move to a high fiber diet. That too may work for all I know, but I already eat pretty decently. Then my wife noticed that I would be keeled over when I ate meat.

Hey! Perhaps I can't eat meat for some reason. So I swore it off for almost a year. No meat, steak of course being one of my favorite things to prepare and eat. But the pain returned.

Only in the last couple of years did I get into this skepticism stuff. I finally decided to point my skeptical beam at my own belly. I noticed that I had pain when I didn't eat garlic. I noticed that I had no pain when I ate cloves of garlic. I noticed that I had pain sometimes when I ate meat, and sometimes I didn't.

I also noticed that when I took a Donnatal, my stomach would feel better after two trips to the bathroom. I noticed that two trips to the bathroom would relieve the pain without the drugs.

Basically I noticed I had fallen into the same traps as people who think homeopathy works. I had decided something was the cause (garlic, meat), then ignored the times when I had pain without those foods, and only noticed the times that I did have pain when I ate those things. I thought I had a treatment (Donnatal), I ignored the fact that the fix happened in the bathroom whether I took the drug or not, but I would ascribe the relief to the drug, and not to the toilet.

Here is what is clear now: It doesn't matter what I eat. The pain comes and goes and there may be no trigger at all. If I am going through a time when I get pain, I can eat rice and it will still hurt (in fact, the other night I had 'harmless' crepes and I found myself keeled over). Also, Donnatal is likely to be placebo.

It's a great feeling to gain this knowledge. It's awesome to know that I don't have to deprive myself of foods that I love. It's freeing to know that I don't have to worry about taking a drug with me wherever I need to go, or stressing out if I forget it. IBS is not well understood, but skepticism let me gain control over it.



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Healthcare Conflation

This post is sort of a response to a post a Vjacks. For some reason my long comments there weren't getting through (perhaps he hates me?), but I thought perhaps they were good enough as an actual blog post anyway. I think the very largest problem with this so-called debate about healthcare is that a huge amount of conflation keeps happening...on both sides.

Health care technology is not the same thing as a health care system.

Its that simple. Seems obvious, so how come these morons can't keep the debate focused on the right thing? The debate should only be about the latter and should not include the former.

Health Care Technology
There is little doubt and little debate (at least amongst Americans) that America has the best health care technology in the world. Better than that, we export, and make tons of money on this very technology. This technology with respect not not only life saving procedures, but also effective drugs and treatments for non-life threatening issues like chronic stomach pain, restless leg syndrome, impotence, etc.

I don't want to ignore the contribution in many areas that come from other countries, I do recognize some amazing work that comes out of France and Japan that I am familiar with. I'm sure significant contributions come from other countries, I am just only familiar with these two (sorry if I left your country out). Even my vasectomy that I had, was done with a Thai procedure (but I got it here).

But in the end, I think we can safely say that America does in fact, provide the world with more of what we call "western medicine" than any other country. We also can say that we have studied the efficacy of this work (from USA and other countries), and found that we have made great strides in cancer treatment, prevention of transmissible diseases, and other health areas.

Even if the science was attained through completely unethical means, and the efficacy of the treatment is proven, it is still healthcare technology and not part of the system under debate. That is not an endorsement of unethical behavior, its simply a fact that if a treatment is verified to work, its simply a fact that it does, which is a different issue than the means by which this fact was attained.

One more fact about our medical technology that is almost universally considered unsurpassed. The great majority of it was developed through a so-called 'socialist' mechanism. Yes folks, I'm sorry to say you have this wonderful healthcare technology due to a giant wealth redistribution system that takes money from citizen and aims billions of dollars of it towards medical research to the tunes of tens of billions of dollars annually.

30 billion from the National Institute of Health.

More than 80% of the NIH's funding is awarded through almost 50,000 competitive grants to more than 325,000 researchers at over 3,000 universities, medical schools, and other research institutions in every state and around the world.

6 billion redistributed dollars from the CDC

The CDC awards nearly 85 percent of its budget through grants and contracts to help accomplish its mission to promote health and quality of life by preventing and controlling disease, injury, and disability.

The Health and Human Services has a budget of 76 billion.

The HHS grant portfolio is the largest in the federal government with more than 300 grant programs operating under its annual grant budget that amounts to approximately 60% of the Federal government's grant dollars.

These tax dollars get doled on in a competitive peer reviewed process (as do grants for the DoD and DoE etc) in the form of phased grants. Sometimes the a Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) grants. Sometimes they are grand challenges, and sometimes they come in other forms.

Compare these values to the paltry 10 billion or so dollars that venture capitalists invest every year. Conservatives seem to think that venture capitalists can do this, but I have sad news for them. Basic research rarely pays off directly, but it forms a foundation for the items that do pay off. VC tend to invest after the preliminary work has already been done, when the product has been fleshed out, even when some early units have shipped. They have almost no tolerance for the very early work. There are exceptions: Drug companies do invest lots of money in a new drug for example, but they get their returns in getting a formula retweaked as long as possible rather than doing the basic research for something truly novel (Viagra was found by accident and will get tweaked as the patent's time limit arrives, much like you see Claritin coming in a new form).

To sum up this part... The healthcare technology in the USA is possibly the best in the world. It also got this way through largely socialist means (but not totally) while the money is being made through capitalist means.

Health care system
A health care system is the mechanism by which the technology gets distributed to the people. Most, if not all, countries with longer lifespans (we rank 50th or 35th depending on where you look) and greater healthcare satisfaction (17th) have a socialized healthcare system. The citizens are taxed, the money is pooled and healthcare is delivered to everyone in the nation.

Our healthcare system works by letting companies compete to provide better healthcare to their customers. At least that is the theory. In reality healthcare costs for customers of any of these companies average out to be far higher than in any other country, without the benefit of longer lifespans or better satisfaction.

Liberal like me can't see how we can expect a company, with an inherently smaller pool of customers than a socialized system would provide, can possibly deliver competitive costs with respect to other countries. Never mind the fact that the profit motive necessarily raises costs even if it as little as 3.3%. Never mind the anti-trust issues and unethical recision and all the other bad practices that they do, each company necessarily has a miniscule insurance pool by which to couch the payouts. Insurance works best when you have lots of healthy people paying into it. The whole country as an insurance pool is better than breaking it up into 50 smaller pools.

Anyway, regardless of my opinions of our system. The debate would go a lot easier if we stuck to discussion about a health care system rather than the state of our health care technology.

Here is a video going around. Both of these men perform the very conflation I am talking about.



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Argument from Gravity

I just joined an Atheist group. Its not something I really thought I would ever do, but I have to say I realy enjoyed meeting these folks. The good part was that it was a group of very intelligent people, each with different stories of how they dropped their religion or never had any. Its a good group of people, and to be honest I look forward to going to other gatherings. I rather happy about it.

However I did find, what I would consider a somewhat prevalent sense of spite toward religion that many of them had, almost a pettiness with regard to religion. I have to say I'm an atheism, but I'm not 'into' atheism. I didnt go to this to strengthen my lack of beleif, I went to it jsut to meet some like minded people. So there were a number of things that sort of put me off. For example, as we were paying, one of the member crossed off "in God we Trust" form each and every bill she was handing in. That just seems like a petty act that really doesnt do anything -even if it were legal. There were also few skeptics there. So we are talking about a group of people with a significant percentage of Bill Maher type atheists. But I think it as a relatively minor number of peopel.

That said, someone in the group posted on our discussion board the following Argument From Gravity. I kind of liked it an thought I would share. I modified it a bit to improve it some more. Give it a shot next time you have some Jehovah's Witnesses or mormons at your door.

Recently I was in a coffee shop web surfing on my notebook when I was approached by a godbot, who offered me a bible. I said I have one and politely declined his. He then asked if I was “saved” and I replied “No, I’m an Atheist” He then launched into a diatribe designed to convert me….which I politely interrupted and asked him what the most powerful and grand force in the universe is…..
He thought about it a few seconds and then said (predictably) that god is

I said OK, physics has defined 4 natural forces at work in the universe:
THE STRONG NUCLEAR FORCE
The strong nuclear force binds together the protons and neutrons that comprise an atomic nucleus.

THE WEAK NUCLEAR FORCE
The weak nuclear force causes the radioactive decay of certain particular atomic nuclei.

THE ELECTROMAGNETIC FORCE
The electromagnetic force determines the ways in which electrically charged particles interact with each other and also with magnetic fields.

GRAVITY
Gravitation is a force of attraction that acts between each and every particle in the Universe and is the weakest of the 4 forces.

Gravity is so weak that a baby, picking up a toy, has overcome the gravitational pull of an 8000 mile diameter ball of nickel-iron.

I said there is a theory that states: An unsupported object, at rest, in a gravitational field will fall.

At this point I took a penny from my pocket, and dropped it several times in my outstretched hand.

I then said to him, for a total instrumentation cost of one red cent, I can, any time, anywhere, conclusively demonstrate the existence of weakest force in the universe, you theists have had thousands of years and trillions of present day dollars and they still haven't come up with a lick of convincing evidence that could show me this most powerful force “god” of yours….
And until you can, I suggest you go away and stop bothering me.

Nice. To the point and I would love to hear the theists response to it.



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Coded without Intelligence

I've recently seen a lot of references to the idea that codes are impossible without a codemaker, a designer, and ultimately referring to God's existence. I never really understood that. Sure you need intelligence to understand a code, but you certainly don't need intelligence to create a code.

This recently came up at Skeptico's, and again at ERV, and I am sure it has been brought up in 100 other places.

So, may I present to you a list of codes that do not require a codemaker.

Tree rings
Tree rings can be seen when a tree is cut down. No one designed those rings but they are a very accurate method by which to encode the age of the tree.

Ratio of Carbon-12 to Carbon-14
This ratio encodes how long ago something died (good to about 50K years, after that there are other methods that work on similar principles). No one controls this ratio, it is a natural process by which carbon-14 decays into carbon 12.

Color of Hydrengea
The color of this plant encodes the Ph of the soil and the presence of aluminum.

Fraunhofer Lines
Fraunhofer lines encode the presence (or absence) of a set of elements based on the spectra of the light source. These can be used to find elemental information about stars in distant solar systems.

X-Ray fluoroscopy
When an element is hit with an x-ray and a photon is energized and released. The individual component wavelength of this emissions encodes the elements that were present.

Lightning and Thunder
The time in seconds between seeing a flash of lightning and hearing the thunder, divided by five equates roughly encodes the distance, in miles, the flash was from the observer (divide by three for kilometers).

Bloodspatter
This is probably my favorite one because it looks so random. To the trained professional bloodspatter can encode a wide variety of things, including:

  • Type of damage (arterial or not)
  • Direction of Action
  • Height of wound
  • a number of other aspects of both the victim and the attacker

(big thanks to Big Al at Skeptico's for providing a couple of those)

This is but a small list, there are lots and lots of examples of things that are encoded, not because some great codemaker encoded something one way or another, but because we as humans understand the mechanisms behind the encoding.

Feel free to enter you ideas for Coding without Intelligence...



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Apparently it's not required

So I have been following somewhat closely these two terrorism suspects in the news recently. The most popular one is about Najibullah Zazi, the 24 year old shuttle driver and coffee server,who apparently is at the center of an Al Qaeda cell that tried to launch a domestic terror attack on sept 11. In brief:

An FBI affidavit says Zazi admitted under questioning to receiving weapons and training from al-Qaeda, and a series of searches in New York City turned up evidence that Zazi may have been looking to manufacture either truck or backpack bombs.

Apparently they found videos of how to make a make on his computer and he hit up hair supply distributors in order to get chemicals to make a liquid bomb. (ignore the dumb articles saying the bomb was made out of hydrogen peroxide - thats idiotic, H2O2 is not explosive, how it IS a reagent for making triacetone triperoxide).

Meanwhile another couple of kookoos had their goals set for blowing something up. Michael Finton and Hosam Maher Husein Smad, separately, and unrelatedly also wanted to blow some shit up on sept 11.

How were these guys caught?

Well Zazi had decided to go to Pakistan (ok, guess what, if you are born in Afghanistan and are going to travel to Pakistan for "pleasure", you are getting flagged). Then while under surveillance, he started hitting up places where you can get hydrochloric acid, pure hydrogen peroxide (consumer H2O2 is only about 30% pure), and acetone. After that he rented a car and headed for NYC where he was intercepted. I'm sure between wire taps and other surveillance methods they had plenty on this guy.

Finton had a different story. He got out of jail for robbery and aggravated assault. He had told the guards that he had converted to islam, then he received money from someone in Saudi Arabia for a plane ticket. Finton spent a month there.

Finton had been monitored by this time. At this point the feds seem to have a standard procedure that they keep using. You and I would call in entrapment, probably because we are not familiar with the intricacies of the law. they do this as a practice so i doubt its illegal. Nor do I care. I think this is OK.

Basically they passed themselves off as al Qaeda operatives and got him a bomb to blow up in a federal building. Finton went ahead and did it. The bomb was fake. When Finton called the number that was supposed to blow up the bomb, he just called the FBI.

Anyway, I didn't really intend on rehashing the news.I dont even want to jump to the conclusion that these three people are actually guilty. The FBI have made plenty of mistakes with regard to terrorism. I just wanted to point something out here. They were able to catch three terrorism suspect, who may have caused a lot of damage.

And they did it without any torture.



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My weekend at NECSS

First off, I am a tardy, tardy, lame blogger. I am sorry I have not gotten around to this for so long. Real life caught up with me in such a big way. A new kid is really getting in the way of maintaining my outlet for stress relief.

Second off, sorry I couldn't Tweet. The auditorium was underground and there was no cell service. However I have very few followers on Twitter, so I doubt it was really a big deal.

So lets get started... The North East Conference on Science and Skepticism!

The night before the conference there was a skeptic's in the Pub event at a place called Dewey's Flatiron in NYC (uh, because it was near the Flatiron building). I'm originally from NYC, it was not really a problem to find it.

Well, I showed up alone which is always a weird feeling. Upon enetering, I noticed it was relatively empty. Strange for a friday night at 9:00, but whatever. After asking a waitress, it turns out the skeptics had, for the most part, parked themselves upstairs. So, even after 500 years of college, its still weird to jump into a large group of people you don't know and start mingling. I'm afraid my method is to make scene and point at people who are going to be stuck with me for the short term. It works pretty much every time because people are generally nice and everyone is basically in the same boat.

At the bar I met a few skeptics, but of course the one guy I end up talking with was brought there by his skeptic friend. This guy, who I will call Sam because I have completely forgotten his name, was a proud Catholic and obvious (after a short amount of conversation) libertarian. Nothing wrong with that, except his unbelievable pomposity was abhorrent.

We started out with some small and somehow we got on to Joe Wilson, you know the "You Lie" guy. I simply mentioned that it was such a weird thing to risk your career on when he was easily demonstrably wrong.

Sam, was like "What do you mean?"
I pointed out that part of the bill (the house version at the time), that stated simply that benefits for paying for insurance was not to be given to unauthorized residents. The rest of the plan is what we have now, anyone can buy insurance if they wish.
Sam said that there was not enough teeth, no verification.
I said, that it's irrelevant how it is enforced as far as this bill goes, its illegal to give benefits to illegal immigrants under the bill and Wilson is demonstrably wrong.
Sam entered into a litany of how its so horrible that we don't enforce our laws, democrats want ACORN around to give them votes, etc etc. I pointed out that being illegal and enforcing the laws are two different issues, Obama would have won with or without any of the folks ACORN signed up, etc etc.

But then he got to the good part. Socialism is bad. His point was that, in theory, socialism simply can not financially work. I have no idea if that is right or wrong. So I said, "OK, which country is purely socialist?" My point obviously being that it doesn't matter if something doesn't work in its pure form if that isn't what anybody is actually doing and not something anyone is proposing.

Same thing happened later. He told me he was the head of something or other that represents 28 biotech firms and that America has the best healthcare system. I pointed out that he was conflating healthcare technology and healthcare system. And even at that, its quite disputable that we have the best healthcare when so many countries have longer lifespans than we do (and at half the cost for healthcare). But he was adamant...we have the best healthcare in the world. So fine, I asked him how his 28 biotech companies are primarily funded.

Lets just say he got quiet for a moment. I knew that they exist on government funding. It was an easy win. Regardless he was a true believer, it didn't really matter what I said. Socialism is bad in any form because in theory pure socialism is financially unsound.

It's pretty much par for the course for me to get hooked up with someone like that during an event that is supposed to be fun. I didn't see anyone else getting in a heated conversation.

Anyway Sam left, I spoke with a few other skeptics in a much more calm way on more interesting topics. I even met Rebecca Watson. From her tweets, Skeptic's in the Pub seems to be her element. She was very friendly and nice. Sadly I was too drunk by this time (3:00 AM) to be anything even close to witty. Oh well. I'm long past the age where I can do this more than one night in a long while.

I have no idea how I got up for the conference (felt I had to be there by 8AM since I had misplaced my ticket), but I did and I was pretty chipper too. It was at the French Institute which has a pretty good auditorium. However, as is typical for NYC theaters the freaking rows of seats are too close to each other which sucks for the long legged members of our society like me. after an hours my knees we killing me. For the second half I changed seats to a place where there was a little more space.

One more little note: Its such a strange feeling to see these people who I have been listening to for over a year every single week. I saw the Novella Clan on the street while they were arriving to the event. I couldn't help it but I made a crack about them being early (they were) as if I knew them. They must get this all the time, but still, I had a hard time not being an ass in that way. I'm glad the skeptical community is generally made up of truly nice people.

Bios for all the speakers can be found here.

Jamy Ian Swiss
Mr. Swiss was our host for the day. He was energetic, amiable, a little dorky like the whole audience, and a good choice for this event. He said he was a magician by trade and cofounder of the New York City Skeptics. He got the ball rolling with our first presenter.

Dr. Paul Offit
I didn't know what to expect from Dr. Offit. Would he be angry at his treatment by antivaxxers? Was he this evil character the nut jobs have made him out to be. No, he was a very eloquent speaker and really hammered home many of the issues of science in the media that we are all familiar with. It was during his presentation that I realized I didnt really learn anything. I got a dull pang of worry that this whole event would be worthless if I was not going to learn anything.

During his talk I couldn't help but think, "Why the hell are you preaching to the choir?". His presentation contained a lot of information that people who are on the fence need to hear. Happily he addressed that and pointed out that he is simply not invited to speak at events that pander to the woo. Further he doesn't get to go on shows like Oprah to provide a little sanity. They specifically said no to him. Its a pretty sorry state we are in. Anyway, it was a good talk, but not one in which anyone in this audience actually needed to hear.

I did learn one thing. He mentioned CAM and in particular about how the Gonzalez protocol for treating cancer was recently belatedly reported to be utter bullshit. Orac really covered the same thing afterwards and in much greater detail. But I heard about it first during this presentation.

We then got treated with a live presentation of Skeptics Guide to the universe.
After almost all of them coming out poorly timed, we were treated to Dr. Richard Wiseman as being part of their panel for the day.

I have to say this right now: if you ever get to see something with Dr. Wiseman in it, Go! He is very funny, charming, superlatively optimistic and enthusiastic and really adds to anything he is part of. I say this in light of the fact that while I also listen to his podcast, I am not that enamored with it.

OK, by the way, I found this picture of the event from Tim Farley's (of whatstheharm.net) Facebook page. There is me with my shiny head.

When Steve Novella came out he took a picture of the audience with the camera he has mentioned a lot in the podcast. But I don't see it posted anywhere. So you are stuck with this one. Sad, I was hoping to see it somewhere.

Anyway, the SGU talked about a number of topics as the always do. I gotta say, Rebecca was on a roll that night, Bob, not so much (was he hungover?). She was very charming and funny. Some jokes went on and on too long (like the overdone joke mentioning Dr. Wiseman's new book 59 seconds). It was far more juvenile than normal (lots of penis/sex jokes), but still funny for us geeks.

Their latest podcast is the one they did at NECSS, so I wont rehash it here. I just wanted to say that it went well but Bob novella was having an off day. It really appeared that he didn't do his homework. Steve had to step in to clear up his topic.

There were questions, some were good, but only one was memorable. Someone asked about dealing with a talk that Robert Kennedy was about to give and what they thought he should ask him. Steve rightly pointed out that there was not one question tht would ruin the day for him, that Kennedy would simply weasle out some lame answer and move on. Rebecca hit it on the head with an excellent suggestion, which I think is the only way we can deal with this sort of thing.

The goal is not to change the mind of the speaker, the goal is to put information into the heads of the audience. She suggested that the best thing to do would be to get a group of skeptics to go to the meeting and barrage him with a number of questions that include data (like your body makes more formaldehyde naturally than is being injected in a vaccine and why should it matter, or that there is a difference between ethylene glycol and polyethylene glycol and so forth). That way, the audience would know that they were fed a bunch of bull.

I can't stress enough of how good I think this idea is. She was right on.

George Hrab
I finally got to see George. He just did songs, was totally cool about people leaving for lunch. I stuck around for "Skeptic" and left because my stomach was hurting from lack of sleep and hunger. Sorry George.

After lunch (which I had at some fancy schmancy place with the guy who sat next to me during the first part, but the food was very good), Mr Swiss came back out and showed us some weird optical illusions. I'm not going to describe them in detail, but apparently your brain is weird enough that if you stare at a spinning spiral for 30 seconds or so and then look at someone's head, it will puff up. If you look at the ame spiral spinning the other direction and do the same thing, the head shrinks. We are weird animals.

Panel: Rachel Dunlop, Howard Schneider, John Snyder - moderated by John Rennie.
I had never heard of Schneider or Snyder, but it was neat to see Dr. Rachie and listen to John Rennie. Mr. Rennie wrote "15 answers to creationist nonsense", one of many sources which I used to create my Creationist Bingo.

It was a good panel discussion. Dr. Rachie and John Snyder both took the side that "balance" in the media is truly hurting the advancement of science and the proliferation of knowledge. They also pointed out that the media never distinguishes between scientifically controversial and socially controversial.

Dr. Schneider took the side that presenting balance is in fact a responsibility of the media. However, I couldn't help thinking that he was presenting some No True Scotman fallacy there as he was obviously distinguishing between news, and newslike programs like Bill O'Reilly. I don't think a lot of america actually makes that distinction and that to me is a big part of the problem.

I wanted to ask about this, but here is a tip: If you are going to a conference and are the type of person who would like to ask a question, dont sit in the center of the row. The effort to get out far out weighs the desire to ask a question.

I really thought this panel was going to be a bore. I found it pretty interesting in the end.

I was really looking towards the next panel.

Panel: Why is it so difficult to be a skeptic?
Richard Wiseman, Massimo Pigliucci, Kaja Perina and moderated by Michel De Dora


First off it was nice to see such a young dude being a moderator. Mr. De Dora is currently involved with the Center for Inquiry. While there was some nervousness, he did a really good job.

Its too bad the panelists were such a bore. uh, except Dr. Wiseman. Maybe I misunderstood the title, but I really was hoping for some insight to quandries like I have written about before. But Alas it was not to be found. I think the academics don't really find being a skeptic in a normal life to be very difficult. I don't think these guys truly encounter poor critical thinking on a day to day basis. At least it didnt seem that way.

Massimo read notes off his iPhone. I could swear he wrote them on his trip down from wherever he lives. I didn't glean anything valuable from Ms. Perina.

Only Dr. Wiseman really got the topic. He mentioned some stuff that I have directly experienced, like when I told someone about the conference. Dr. Wiseman asked "What do you say, when asked what this is?". And he went on to explain that while its hard, and while its frustrating, its working. I dont know how we measure this (for another post one day - are we doing anything?), but he is really able to delineate true enthusiasm and honest optimism on what we are getting done. I really want to believe him, but I'd really like to know how we measure progress. As you can tell by the name of my blog, I am not as optimistic as he is (although I am a very optimistic person).

Finally we came to Carl Zimmer.
Dr. zimmer gave a great presentation on skepticism in general. He pointed out a lot fo the good work bloggers are doing and covered a lot of typical skepticla issues. He is a clear speaker and a great asset to the skeptical movement.

I finally asked a question. Here is what I wanted to ask:

"What things would you suggest that we, as fellow technology literate bloggers, can do to help the non technically oriented to discern the scientifically supported subject matter we present from the nonsense dressed up like science?"

What came out was something far longer, mentioned my PhD, mentioned my Techskeptic pseudonym, mentioned Skeptico and Skeptiko, mentioned my wife, mentioned a host of other things and I'm guessing, from his response, I was completely unintelligible. In my head at the time it sounded great, as I was saying it my head is going "What the fuck are you trying to ask, moron?"

He pointed out that this is not a new issue. James Randi has been dealing with it for years. Yeah, duh, thats why we are all here. Are non professional bloggers helping or not? So to Dr. Zimmer, I'm sorry I was a rambling moron.

I have left out tons of funny and interesting stuff from this event. While the anti-vax issue dominated the entire event, it was still widely varied and I enjoyed it. I will most certainly go again next year. Especially if Dr. Wiseman chooses to participate again.





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My upcoming weekend

Well I was not one of the lucky thousand who had time and opportunity to go to TAM. However, the upcoming NECSS is actually within reach for me both financially (I grew up in NYC, mom still lives there) and timing-wise (Lady Tech has agreed to watch the homefront and corral the kiddies). So I am off to the North East Conference on Science and Skepticism!

Looks like a good gamut of speakers. Here is the schedule:

09:30 AM - Doors open

10:00 AM - Welcome

10:10 AM - Speaker: Paul Offit - Communicating Science to the Public

11:00 AM - Live SGU Podcast taping (w/guest Richard Wiseman)

01:00 PM - Break for lunch

01:10 PM - 01:40 - George Hrab lunchtime musical performance

02:15 PM - Panel: Skepticism & Media - Rachael Dunlop, Howard Schneider, John Snyder, John Rennie (moderator)

03:40 PM - Panel: Why is it So Difficult to Be a Skeptic? - Richard Wiseman, Massimo Pigliucci, Kaja Perina, Michael De Dora (moderator)

05:00 PM - Speaker: Carl Zimmer

06:00 PM - Exit

Looks like fun. James Randi was supposed to be there, but looks like he is going to have to take a pass on this one until his health gets better. To add to the grooviness there is a Drinking Skeptically event at Dewey Flatiron on friday at 8, which I will also be attending. I want to see how this is done, so I can start a Skeptic's in the pub in my area (albany area in NY).

Anyway, if there any questions or things you might be interested in at this event, leave a comment and I'll be sure to follow up for you.

I'll also twitter anything useful I see from this event. You can follow me if you wish at TechSkeptik (yeah careful of that last letter, i'm pissed someone took my normal handle).



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Religion and Crime

Lets just be clear....

Garrido was religious BEFORE he kidnapped, raped and held Jaycee Durgard captive for 18 years.

I know, I know...not a REAL Christian. But can we please just get this part set down: Religion has nothing to do with morality. Its doesnt encourage moral behavior and it doesnt prevent immoral behavior.



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Skeptical Blog Anthology 2009

I love the idea of taking the best skeptical posts of the year and committing them to ink and paper. I dont have the readership of even some of the more moderate blogs, but I would enjoy knowing that you do in fact enjoy my writing and feel some of it may be up to snuff for such an endeavor.

In this vein I'd like to run my own version of a skeptic's circle right here and review some of the posts I've enjoyed writing this year. I hope you will read them and nominate them. I'll put one of the nomination badges on each of the posts to make it a little easier for you. So without further adieu...

The first one may not qualify because it was actually written in December of 2008, but it continues to be a well read post. It covers the dangers of radiation and the lack of danger associated with wireless devices, in particular DECT devices.

Another recent post of mine discussed celebrating vaccinations. Now I wrote this tongue in cheek, but I am sort of warmed by the idea of actually following through with something like this.

A post I rather like was about abortion. It questioned wether pro-lifers actually act in a way that follows from their claims of the start of life.

I spent a lot of time on a post that discusses the historical nature of government funded programs, but mostly with respect to alternative energy. I contrasted new energy research utilizing government funds with how throughout the history of man, poop was mostly dealt with in a "socialist" fashion.

I had seen some advertising and news on "electrolyzed water", and its amazing antiseptic and cleaning abilities. I didn't really believe it mostly because they didn't actually measure antiseptic and cleaning abilities of the "water".
Discussing energy is one of my specialties. This year I examined the claims of scientists (or worse, science journalists) who were talking about the possibilities of converting CO2 to fuel.

I discussed some of the hardships we have as skeptics in a non-skeptical world. As skeptics we tend to qualify our claims, this ends up appearing to most people as being noncommittal or wishy washy on a subject.

I did a quick post contrasting skepticism to denialism and where the differences really are.

I analyzed the claims of a calcium removal device. This one claimed to be ridiculously easy to install, used almost no power and no chemicals, was cheap and worked great. I showed how using their own literature, all was true but the last claim about working great.

Well I have more posts of course, but these are the ones that don't rehash the same stuff on tons of other sites (like homeopathy, acupuncture, bigfoot and so on), plus I enjoyed researching them and putting them up. I hope you liked them too. I'll put a nomination badge on each of the posts mentioned, if you like em, please nominate them.






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