Thursday, September 5, 2013

Skeptical conversation #3

Whilst my family was on vacation, I asked Siri for "healthy restaurants near me". Siri responded, "I found 8 organic restaurants near you". I said, "I said 'healthy', not 'organic'."

My mother overheard this exchange and noted, "You seem to have a fetish against organic food."

My irritated response was, "Well, I'm against paying more money for food that's the same as the cheaper stuff but they just grew it in a more expensive way. And I hate that 'organic' is assumed to mean healthy. A cheeseburger could be organic, but that doesn't make it lower in calories or higher in protein."

Here are a few interesting articles on the topic:
And one showing that organic food does have health benefits... to flies: Organically Grown Food Provides Health Benefits to Drosophila melanogaster. Not that surprising, since the organic food was likely to have less pesticides, which are usually designed specifically to harm insects and other pests. (The article is by a high school student. Take that as you will.)

Sunday, May 5, 2013

A medical dictionary that tells the truth about quackery!

Most medical dictionaries that I've checked since getting into skepticism give credulous definitions of pseudomedical terms. For example, they'll say something like "acupuncture: ancient Chinese treatment that uses needles to unblock Qi flow in meridians", "homeopathy: system of medicine that treats ailments using small amounts of substances which produce the same symptoms", or "magnetic therapy: a type of therapy in which magnets are placed on the body to penetrate and correct the body's energy fields". (that last one is an exact quote from Medical Assisting: Administrative and Clinical Procedures with Anatomy & Physiology, 4e) For a while now I have been keeping an eye open for medical dictionaries which don't have this annoyance. But I finally found, completely serendipitously, Collins Dictionary of Medicine, 4th Edition, by Robert M. Youngson. I don't have my own copy yet (I was reading a friend's copy at school) so I can't give any quotes from it, but it's pretty awesome. Aside from the evidence-based approach, it also has entries on things like "ice-cream headache", so it's extra cool. Unfortunately I am having a hard time finding it for sale online. There's an ebay auction but it's so I'm not sure if I can even buy it with my account, and then it would probably cost extra to ship it to my side of the pond. When I search Amazon for the ISBN, it comes up with Xdict of Medicine Pb by Youngson Robert M (Dec 15, 2011) (the actual book was printed in 2012) and the cover picture says Collins Dictionary of Mathematics, so I don't even know what the heck is going on there.

Thursday, April 4, 2013

Was Charles Schulz a skeptic?

I love this snide poke at chemophobia, which I guess was around even in 1966.

And to answer the title question: I dunno. But he did describe himself as a secular humanist, which is good enough for me.

In other news*, my Quackometer rating changed slightly. It was previously zero but is now either one or exclamation mark.

* probably does not actually qualify as "news"

Sunday, March 31, 2013

Is there any rational reason for laws against incest?

I'm not into incest, but I honestly do not understand why it is illegal and considered taboo. I first starting thinking about this topic when I noticed there is an organization named "Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network". I thought to myself that it was strange for them to include incest, which is not bad unless it is rape and/or abuse, in which case it would already be covered by the other words in their name. I looked on their website but didn't find any satisfactory answer. Their incest info page basically says "it's bad because it is abuse and child abuse". But it doesn't address why they put both Abuse and Incest in their name and there is no mention of consent. The entire site has no results for a search of "consensual incest".

I have brainstormed to think of possible reasons why the incest taboo exists. None of them stand up to logic and critical analysis.

Possible reason 1. It is rape

Not all rape is incest and not all incest is rape. If a person in an incestual* relationship is coercing or forcing the other person into sexual acts, this is already covered by rape. If a person commits sexual acts with someone under the age of consent, and they happen to be related to them, this is already covered by statutory rape.

Perhaps most incest is rape but this should not be used to blanketly dismiss all incest as rape. As an analogy, perhaps most herbal medicine is not effective but this does not mean that all herbal medicine is automatically ineffective. One should investigate each medicine's effectiveness on its own merits. The same applies to adult relationships. Some may be consenting and others may not.

* The spellchecker thinks this should be "instinctual".

Possible reason 2. Genetic defects in resultant children

I looked for conclusive evidence on rates of birth defects, etc. from incestuous relationships but there are few studies. One that I found said this:
"If the data are censored to exclude physical and mental abnormalities among the male and female parents, and major disparities with respect to young and advanced maternal age, few differences remain in the overall health outcomes recorded for each group."

So this isn't even necessarily true. Even if it is true though, it doesn't explain why procreating in an incestuous relationship is seen as so much more taboo than teenagers or older adults having children. Babies born to teenage mothers and mothers over 35 seem to be more prone to health risks, but these people are not criminalized for having reproductive sex. Teen sexual activity and teen pregnancy are somewhat stigmatized, but here is a thought exercise: How bad is someone made to feel if they have a child as a teen? Rate on a scale of 1 to 5 or something. Now consider how bad society would make them feel if they have an "incest baby". Worse, right? Additionally, people with genetic disorders are not legally prevented to not have children.

And here's a newsflash! NOT EVERY SEXUAL RELATIONSHIP INCLUDES REPRODUCTIVE SEX OR PLANS FOR BIOLOGICAL CHILDREN!!! Are there any laws that say "Okay, you can marry/have sex with your sibling but only if you're both the same gender, or you can prove that you aren't fertile."? I highly doubt it.

So that's reason #2 down the toilet.

Possible reason 3. Evolution favors non-incestual relationships/It's too awkward
Fetish advocate Raven Lightholme has trotted this argument out a couple of times: We evolved to not be attracted to people we grew up around, which was usually our relatives, so that is why people are not attracted to the people they grew up around, and that is why incest is awkward and taboo.
That's an obvious logical fallacy: Argument from evolution. "Evolution favors a certain path, therefore that path is automatically good and others are automatically bad." Let's examine this logic in a few different manifestations:

  1. Evolution favors non-incestual relationships. Therefore incest is always bad and we should make it illegal and taboo.
  2. Evolution favors the organism that has the most children. Therefore everyone should have as many children as possible, and anyone who is not constantly pregnant or trying to conceive shall be made a criminal and a pariah.
  3. Evolution favors agent detection, so we should all believe in gods or conspiracies. Such belief shall be made mandatory by law.
  4. Evolution favors those who have all senses and body parts fully functional, so it's now illegal to be blind, deaf, paralyzed, missing any body parts, etc.
See how irrational and stupid this argument is?
The other half of Raven's argument is that incestuous relationships are awkward. Sure, why not! Because we've all seen the massive amounts of surveys from people in incestual relationships, revealing that they all are awkward all of the time, and no other relationship is ever awkward! Here are some more awkward things that I guess are also illegal and frowned upon in Raven's universe:
  • being called on to answer a question you don't know
  • going to a party where you don't know anyone
  • talking to extended family members
  • explaining sex to your pubescent child
  • a homeless person asking you for money
  • moving to a new town
  • job interviews
  • asking someone on a date
  • breaking up with a boyfriend/girlfriend
You get the idea.

I sent Raven a message in 2011 asking her to clarify her viewpoint. She has so far not responded.

Possible reason 4. Some people find it gross

This is the worst reason of all. I'll quote William T. Jarvis, Ph.D. from his essay "Why I am Not a Vegetarian": "Whether something is repugnant is highly individual. Hindus who will not eat animal foods readily drink their own urine for the sake of health. And what is repugnant-for example, chores such as changing a baby's diaper or caring for sick people-is not necessarily wrong."

No reasonable person supports banning homosexual relationships on the basis of some people being grossed out by the idea. Why should consensual incestual relationships be treated any different?

Possible reason 5. Against religion

"There appears to be no particular rationale for the subdivision of human populations into opposing forms of marriage preference, and even within the major religions there are quite marked differences in attitude to close kin marriage."

Plus, every religion has things that the members of that religion do which aren't enshrined in law! Jews don't lobby for non-kosher foods to be banned or for mandatory bar mitzvahs for every boy in the world/country! Such laws would never pass.

So yeah it makes absolutely no sense to me that society says all incest is always bad. It's as ridiculous as the notion that all chemicals in all amounts are bad, or that all pharmaceutical companies are evil, notions that no skeptic would support.

Friday, March 22, 2013

Quackometer rating

Oh yeah, I was also going to post what the Quackometer thinks of my blog.

"This web site is using lots of alternative medicine terms." Well, yeah, because I'm quoting the chapter on CAM, or the dumb article in Prevention, etc. I'm pleased that it recognizes my skepticism though.

I'll keep checking the results as I post more content. It'll be interesting to see if and how it changes in response to my posts.

Health Fraud presentation

I want to update the blog but I am lazy so today I will just post a link to the presentation I did in February for my class. I think it's quite good but feedback is welcome.

PowerPoint on Google Docs

Thursday, February 28, 2013

Media ridiculousness

Just a quick post highlighting some stuff that I saw today which made me laugh and also be annoyed.

Exhibit A: "Raw milk debate froths up at Capitol". Article by Tim Eaton. Austin American-Statesman, February 28th, 2013. Pages B1 and B3.

The article itself is all right, but one section was just bizarre: The second-to-last paragraph, which says "Margaret Errickson, 11, a home-school student from Houston, also testified, saying raw milk helps manage her eczema and allergies." What the hell is an eleven-year-old doing testifying in the legislature? She's probably not an expert on anything, especially the alleged medical benefits of unpasteurized milk. What's next, a six-year-old imploring BCBS to cover kisses from Mommy to treat knee boo-boos? An eight-year-old petitioning the police to start a "Monster Under The Bed Taskforce"? Ridiculous.

Exhibit B: "Natural Cures You Can Trust". Article by Jean Weiss. Prevention, August 2010. Pages 118-125.
Now this one is just terrible. You can tell it's going to be bad from the first sentence which starts off "As a forward-thinking woman who embraces safe and natural health strategies for you and your family..." Woah there. If you say "forward-thinking", doesn't that mean that you want the most up-to-date information on what works and what doesn't? I'm not implying that nothing natural can be good for you, but goddamn, I hate the appeal to nature. And it just gets worse from there.
"The proven therapies... can often replace prescription drugs. They're a safe adjunct (hence their "complementary" moniker to medication and other conventional treatment." GODDAMNIT! You cannot say they'll replace real medicine and then in the very next sentence claim that they are used with real medicine!!! The only sources the article cites are the NCCAM, various places with "Center for Integrative Medicine" in their name and the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine. No mention of an actual study. Just the journal name. In fact the article mentions "new research", "recent research", "another new study", "intriguing new research", "fascinating new research", "a number of studies", and "some studies", but never really says anything about the studies. I guess in Jean Weiss's mind, there is no need to think about who does a study, how good the methodology is, or if the results are reproduced widely enough to generate scientific consensus. It seems quite common to just be like "Hey the news says that a study says this, therefore it's true!" I won't get into scrutinizing all of the article. I'll just wrap up this post with the part that drove me crazy the most:
One reason we know that rhodolia (Rhodolia rosea) works is because it's been used worldwide for centuries, especially in Russia, Scandinavia, and Iceland (it grows in extreme northern climates), to quell anxiety and strengthen mental stamina. Another is that the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine recently gave it a big thumbs-up.
First up, a one-two punch combo! Bam! Appeal to antiquity and popularity! Then finish 'em off with the appeal to a nonspecific authority! I actually kind of like this because I rarely see these fallacious arguments stated so bluntly: "We know that X works because it's been used for a long time by a lot of people." Oh and did you spot the "Hey, people that aren't native to your culture do this! It's new and exotic, so don't you want to be cool and try it?" implication? Man, Prevention magazine is crap.