De omnibus dubitandum
14 Jun 2013
On 9 June 2013, Iain Banks died from cancer at age 59.
It’s hard to overestimate how much I love Banks’s writing. In my list of ten favourite non-fiction books, his solitary non-fiction effort is very near the top. My list of ten favourite literary fiction novels has three of his books on it. And over half my list of favourite science fiction novels of all time are Iain M. Banks books.
Even more than Hitchens, Iain Banks’ writing brought genuine joy to my life. And now he’s gone.
And I find that to be a profoundly sad thought.
Iain wasn’t done yet. He was nowhere near done. But cancer took him away, like it’s taken Hitchens, and taken family members, and taken friends.
Fuck you cancer. Fuck you very much.
2 Jun 2010
Carr argues that links embedded within a text are disruptive and interfere with a proper reading of the text. He claims putting links to other webpages referred to in a text are best put at the bottom of the text. A quote:
“Links are wonderful conveniences, as we all know (from clicking on them compulsively day in and day out). But they’re also distractions. Sometimes, they’re big distractions – we click on a link, then another, then another, and pretty soon we’ve forgotten what we’d started out to do or to read. Other times, they’re tiny distractions, little textual gnats buzzing around your head. Even if you don’t click on a link, your eyes notice it, and your frontal cortex has to fire up a bunch of neurons to decide whether to click or not. You may not notice the little extra cognitive load placed on your brain, but it’s there and it matters. People who read hypertext comprehend and learn less, studies show, than those who read the same material in printed form. The more links in a piece of writing, the bigger the hit on comprehension.”
Once more I’m inclined to agree with Carr, and once more Carr has his share of vocal critics.
The web is definitely doing something to how we think and how we consume information – be it through bite-sized chunks of media, distracting hyperlinks, or just excessive porn – and we need to understand exactly what is happening to us and how it affects us.
It may turn out to be a positive effect, or it may turn out to be harmful. But the web’s effect on our brains is very real.
20 Jan 2010
If you want to know why homeopathy doesn’t work – cannot work, ever, except as a placebo – let me try to explain the concept of homeopathy to you:
Homeopathy, you see, is based on dilution. You take an ingredient believed to be a remedy for an ailment, and then you add water until there are 99 parts water and 1 part remedy. You end up with what homeopaths call a 1C dilution – 99% water, 1% original remedy.
You then take this 1C dilution and repeat the process – you add 99 parts water. That’s a 2C dilution. It means the original active ingredient is now 99.99% water, 0.01% remedy.
You take this 2C solution and repeat the process again, and again, and again. The average homeopathic remedy has a dilution of 30C, meaning that the original active remedy has been diluted with 99% water thirty times.
Homeopaths believe that the more you dilute a substance, the more powerful it becomes. Which seems pretty weird, as a 30C dilution doesn’t contain a single molecule of the original active remedy.
To get a grasp on the mind-boggling numbers involved, read this post on the Times Online blog. A quote:
“To put homeopathy in a medicinal context, if you wanted to consume a normal 500mg paracetamol dose you would need ten million billion homeopathic pills. Where each pill is the same mass as the Milky Way galaxy. There is actually not enough matter in the entire known Universe to make the homeopathic equivalent of a single paracetamol pill.” [Emphasis added]
Homeopaths who understand their craft’s insane underlying assumption, claim that water somehow ‘remembers’ the healing properties of the original remedy.
That sounds like a nice, New Age-ey load of crap. Literally, because all that water has somehow ‘forgotten’ the properties of all the humongous loads of shit (feces, urine, chemicals, you name it) that has floated in it at one time or another, and only ‘remembers’ that infinitely tiny amount of remedy it may have come in to contact with.
If that sounds stupid to you, you’re right. It is stupid. Homeopathy is fucking ridiculous.
Think of it next time you are tempted to buy some homeopathic ‘remedy’. You’re paying good money for water. Just water. Or, more accurately, sugar that has been soaked in water, and then stamped into pills.
Homeopaths are either total imbeciles, or the worst kind of thieves – thieves that prey on the weak and helpless.
9 Dec 2009
Few things get me riled up as much as deliberate ignorance about science. Every time I hear someone promoting homeopathy, talk favorably about energy healing, or spew forth some other pseudo-scientific nonsense, I try (and often fail) to control the urge to set them right.
Ask my girlfriend. If I had to give her a penny for every time she asks me to stop yelling at the TV because of some mind-numbingly ignorant piece of ‘news’ (I’m looking at you, BBC Breakfast), she’d own substantially more than just my heart.
The reason I get so enraged at such displays of wilful ignorance is because it’s so terribly easy to check if any given scientific ‘fact’ is true. All you need is an open mind and a web browser.
But people as a whole are lazy, enjoy being ignorant, and suffer from a phenomenon known as confirmation bias that makes them focus on the few scraps of information confirming their pre-conceived notions, while ignoring the mountains of evidence that contradict their point of view.
We can’t fix this by showering people with real, verified facts coming from genuine, evidence-based science.
We can only fix this by teaching people to think rationally, clearly, and with an awareness of their own biases and limitations.
The book Bad Science by Ben Goldacre is a goldmine for sceptics. It effectively demolishes homeopathy, deconstructs nutritionists, and delivers staggering blows to the media’s horrendously flawed reporting of science news.
But it does all this almost carelessly, as an added benefit, in the course of its real goal: educating the reader in spotting the fallacies in medical science as it’s reported in the news, in advertisements, and on TV.
The real goal of the book is to teach people to think for themselves, to not allow themselves to be manipulated, and to base their decisions about medicine on valid scientific evidence.
Bad Science is a very important book. It’s so important that I think everyone should read it. Unfortunately I don’t have the resources to buy six billion copies, so I can’t send this book to everyone. But I can buy this book for the readers of this blog, as few as there are.
I’m going to give away ten copies of Bad Science. The first ten commenters on this post will get a free copy of Bad Science, paid for entirely by me.
All I ask you to do is when you receive the book to read it, and then lend it out to someone who you think will benefit from reading it. Spread the word.
30 Jul 2009
In support of Simon Singh in the libel case against him, many blogs and websites are reposting his April 2008 anti-chiropractic Guardian article “Beware the spinal trap”. This blog is one of them:
You might be surprised to know that the founder of chiropractic therapy, Daniel David Palmer, wrote that ‘99% of all diseases are caused by displaced vertebrae’. In the 1860s, Palmer began to develop his theory that the spine was involved in almost every illness because the spinal cord connects the brain to the rest of the body. Therefore any misalignment could cause a problem in distant parts of the body.
In fact, Palmer’s first chiropractic intervention supposedly cured a man who had been profoundly deaf for 17 years. His second treatment was equally strange, because he claimed that he treated a patient with heart trouble by correcting a displaced vertebra.
You might think that modern chiropractors restrict themselves to treating back problems, but in fact some still possess quite wacky ideas. The fundamentalists argue that they can cure anything, including helping treat children with colic, sleeping and feeding problems, frequent ear infections, asthma and prolonged crying – even though there is not a jot of evidence.
I can confidently label these assertions as utter nonsense because I have co-authored a book about alternative medicine with the world’s first professor of complementary medicine, Edzard Ernst. He learned chiropractic techniques himself and used them as a doctor. This is when he began to see the need for some critical evaluation. Among other projects, he examined the evidence from 70 trials exploring the benefits of chiropractic therapy in conditions unrelated to the back. He found no evidence to suggest that chiropractors could treat any such conditions.
But what about chiropractic in the context of treating back problems? Manipulating the spine can cure some problems, but results are mixed. To be fair, conventional approaches, such as physiotherapy, also struggle to treat back problems with any consistency. Nevertheless, conventional therapy is still preferable because of the serious dangers associated with chiropractic.
In 2001, a systematic review of five studies revealed that roughly half of all chiropractic patients experience temporary adverse effects, such as pain, numbness, stiffness, dizziness and headaches. These are relatively minor effects, but the frequency is very high, and this has to be weighed against the limited benefit offered by chiropractors.
More worryingly, the hallmark technique of the chiropractor, known as high-velocity, low-amplitude thrust, carries much more significant risks. This involves pushing joints beyond their natural range of motion by applying a short, sharp force. Although this is a safe procedure for most patients, others can suffer dislocations and fractures.
Worse still, manipulation of the neck can damage the vertebral arteries, which supply blood to the brain. So-called vertebral dissection can ultimately cut off the blood supply, which in turn can lead to a stroke and even death. Because there is usually a delay between the vertebral dissection and the blockage of blood to the brain, the link between chiropractic and strokes went unnoticed for many years. Recently, however, it has been possible to identify cases where spinal manipulation has certainly been the cause of vertebral dissection.
Laurie Mathiason was a 20-year-old Canadian waitress who visited a chiropractor 21 times between 1997 and 1998 to relieve her low-back pain. On her penultimate visit she complained of stiffness in her neck. That evening she began dropping plates at the restaurant, so she returned to the chiropractor. As the chiropractor manipulated her neck, Mathiason began to cry, her eyes started to roll, she foamed at the mouth and her body began to convulse. She was rushed to hospital, slipped into a coma and died three days later. At the inquest, the coroner declared: ‘Laurie died of a ruptured vertebral artery, which occurred in association with a chiropractic manipulation of the neck.’
This case is not unique. In Canada alone there have been several other women who have died after receiving chiropractic therapy, and Edzard Ernst has identified about 700 cases of serious complications among the medical literature. This should be a major concern for health officials, particularly as under-reporting will mean that the actual number of cases is much higher. If spinal manipulation were a drug with such serious adverse effects and so little demonstrable benefit, then it would almost certainly have been taken off the market.
Simon Singh is a science writer in London and the co-author, with Edzard Ernst, of Trick or Treatment? Alternative Medicine on Trial. This is an edited version of an article published in The Guardian for which Singh is being personally sued for libel by the British Chiropractic Association.