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.

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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